Field school (expedition) in Jewish studies held in Lithuania (Birzhai)
On August 5-12, 2013 a field school-expedition in Jewish Ethnography and Epigraphics was held Biržai (Lithuania). The school was organized by Sefer Center in cooperationr with the Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews (Vilnius) and Biržai school «Aušros». The financial support was provided by Genesis Philanthropy Group (CAF « Jewish communities»), UJA Federation of NY, JAFI, The virtual Litvak cemetery catalogue "Maceva", The Department of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture of Lithuania. The school received may-sided support from Biržai town council and from the mayor Ms. Irute Varziene personally.
Besides, the huge preparatory work was carried out by the volunteers from the German Christian- Jewish society and the Protestant Church in Lippe, Marianne-Weber-Gymnasium of the city of Lemgo (North Rhine-Westphalia ) and the Lithuanian schoolchildren who had been cleaning the Jewish cemetery in Biržai for three consecutive years with the aim to give memory to the Biržai Jewish ghetto residents who were all shot dead on August 8, 1941.
In general 27 students and young researchers from Belarus (Minsk), Lithuania (Vilnius, Klaipeda) , Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Nizhnekamsk) participated in the field school.
The school work was carried out in two groups: a group of ethnographers (10 students) led by Olga Belova ( Ph.D., Institute of Slavic Studies, Moscow), and a group of epigraphists (13 students) led by Motl Gordon (Yiddish lecturer at the Jewish Institute for International Economics, Finance and Law , St. Petersburg) and Tamara Solomatina ( Hebrew teacher in Ulpan "Jewish Agency", St. Petersburg) .
During the school ethnographers succeeded to record interviews with 53 informants ammounting about 50 hours of audio and video recordings. Interviewing of the Lithuanian and Russian population of Biržai and the district was based on the questionnaire "Ethnic and cultural stereotypes in popular tradition" (in Russian and Lithuanian), prepared by members of the ethnographic group. Much of the interview was taken in Lithuanian (the group of ethnographers was specially formed to include Lithuanian students, professionals in the field of Folklore and Ethnography, and Russian participants who know the Lithuanian language or study the areas of cultural borderlands).
Today there is only one Jew living in Biržai. Sheftel Melamed (born in 1926 ) was also interviewed, thus inter alia ethnographers and linguists managed to record the local dialect of Yiddish.
The group of epigraphists described about 450 matsevas .
The Jewish cemetery in Biržai is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania (about 1000 matsevas) with the first burials supposedly dating back to the beginning of the XVII century.
The oldest part of the cemetery seem to be buried under ground of under the waters of Lake Shirwa. Cemetery requires further study. Biržai District Municipality and German volunteers are ready to support the work on Biržai Jewish cemetery in the coming year.In addition to the field work school participants listened to lectures on the history and culture of Lithuanian Jews and Karaites given by Verbitskene Y, Petrukhin V.Y., on the folk tradition of cultural borderlands by Belova O.V., got to know about the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Warsaw) and the project "Virtual Shtetl" from our Polish colleague Bielawski K., took part in the excurion tours around Jewish Vilnius ( I. Lempert ) , Karaim Trakai (Petrukhin V.Y., Verbitskene Y.), Birzhai ( Yukonis M. and Yukonis B.).
On August 8 there was held a ceremony on the anniversary of the massacre of the Jewish ghetto of Biržai.
The members of Sefer expedition, Lithuanian school students, German volunteers,
the administration of the district and the public took part in the ceremony. The opening words were said by the head of the Lutheran Church of Birzhai, the Chief Rabbi of Vilnius, representatives of the Biržai public, the German Ambassador to Lithuania.
After the ceremony in the castle Radziwill the ceremony participants were invited to listen to the discussion conversation of the Lithuanian public representatives , the German volunteers of the Center Sefer (Petruhin ) on the problems of tolerance and historical memory.
The memorial evening ended with a concert of klezmer Vilnius and Minsk.
At the school closing ceremony on August 12 the mayor of the Birzhai district Ms. Irute Varziene gave a speech, noting that Biržai was very happy to welcome our research group and appreciated the work.
Photo by: Irina Kopchenova