An exhibition showing the contribution of ORT to Lithuanian Jewish life opened at the Parliament building in Vilnius a day before the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the city’s ghetto. The photographs and text in English and Lithuanian evoked an enthusiastic and poignant response from people at the opening, which was on the schedule of the World Litvak Congress; many of them revealed personal and family connections to ORT from before the war.
“It’s a lesser known part of our history even though Litvaks have been prominent in ORT’s leadership, but the exhibition not only pays respect to the past, it draws attention to our current operations in Lithuania, in particular the Sholom Aleichem ORT Secondary School, which is highly ranked educationally and well supported by the Government and the community,”? said World ORT Chief Program Officer Vladimir Dribinskiy.
Among those attending the opening of the exhibition were several members of parliament and the Chancellor of the country’s Education and Science Ministry, Dainius Numgaudis, who noted that ORT’s influence extended beyond the Jewish community.
“The cooperation with ORT and the organisation’s expertise, including the Sholom Aleichem ORT School, is undoubtedly beneficial to Lithuania. The school culture and achievements of Sholom Aleichem ORT School could inspire our educational institutions,”? Mr Numgaudis said.
The exhibition is the result of a fruitful collaboration between World ORT archivist Rachel Bracha, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, which plans to tour it around the country, and the Lithuanian Central State Archive. A digital version of the exhibition is under consideration.
“Archival work is all about providing context and this project has been rewarding in unearthing information which provides additional perspectives to our organisation’s development and contribution,”? Ms Bracha said.
Painstaking research at the Lithuanian Central State Archive, for example, has revealed that the establishment of ORT was first mooted in Kaunas in 1869, 11 years before the organisation was actually founded in St Petersburg.
One of ORT’s prominent Litvaks referred to by Mr Dribinskiy was Leon Bramson, who was a leading light in ORT from 1911 until his death in 1941, internationalising the organisation and co-founding the American ORT Federation in 1922. His niece, Esfir Bramson, has provided material for the exhibition from her personal archive, as has Judith Rozina, whose mother, Riva Altfeldiene, was a teacher at the ORT vocational school in Kaunas.
“The personal stories and related material from people who were involved with ORT at that time has enriched our sense of the day to day life of the schools, their staff and students,”? said Ms Bracha.
ORT’s activities in Lithuania began in 1920 with the opening of the ORT Kaunas [Kovno] vocational school and provided Jews with modern skills and qualifications which helped them to make a living in an increasingly anti-Semitic environment. ORT also promoted gardening as an important source of additional income for urban Jewish families. As early as 1921, it set up 17 gardening projects in 11 cities, alongside Jewish primary schools. More than 1,200 youngsters were trained, and the program eventually reached 5,100 children annually.
Also in 1921, ORT opened a technical school in Polish-ruled Vilnius, the ORT Vilna Technicum, which was used by many young Jews who were unable to continue their education in the state system because of the anti-Semitic quota system then in force. In the years that followed, ORT’s ideas spread across Lithuania and by 1940 there were branches of the organization in 25 towns.
In the 1930s, ORT responded to the increased demand for vocational and technical education by building a large “House of Jewish Labour”?, which boasted spacious classrooms and workshops and was deemed one of the best training institutes in Lithuania.
“The goal of the exhibition,”? said Markas Zingeris, Director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, “is to reveal how important skilled trades were to the lives of Lithuanian Jews and how young Jewish people were taught with great responsibility and ingenuity. Life was not a bed of roses even for those who had learned a trade. I remember the Yiddish song sung by my mother in my childhood about a tailor: neit und neit a gancn tog, hot kadoches mit a loch (keep sewing all day long and all that the poor man earns is naught).”?
His brother, the parliamentarian Emanuelis Zingeris, translated an address given at the opening by Fania Yocheles Brantovsky, librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and a veteran of a wartime partisan unit. Her father was an ORT teacher and her presence testified to the tragedy which befell the Lithuanian community, including ORT.
Soviet occupation forces closed ORT down and confiscated its property but allowed Jacob Oleiski, Director of ORT Lithuania since 1927, to remain as Director of the school until shortly before the German invasion. Under Nazi occupation, Mr Oleiski led a group of ORT teachers in setting up a vocational school in the Kaunas Ghetto and a similar, but smaller, school was set up in the Vilnius Ghetto.
Enrolling at the ORT school was a lifeline for hundreds of Jews, some as young as 10, whose attendance qualified them to receive work cards. But that lifeline extended only until September 1943 in Vilnius and until June 1944 in Kaunas with the liquidation of their respective ghettos.
Mr Oleiski was among the 500 survivors of the 37,000-strong Kaunas community and he recalled in his memoirs the scene as he was transported out of the area.
“I saw the burning Ghetto. The souls of our children rose heavenward with the flames and the souls of their parents and teachers who had sacrificed their lives in hopes of saving their young”ﾦ All that was left of the now destroyed ORT school would be its memories a heroic and tragic chapter of the book of Lithuanian Jews: an example of Jewish vitality, when despite slavery and utter degradation, we tried to save our young and assure our people’s national existence,”? he wrote.
The President of World ORT, Dr Jean de Gunzburg said the heroism, passion and commitment of people like Mr Oleiski and Vilna Ghetto survivor Joseph Harmatz, who survived and went on to become Director General of World ORT, was humbling.
“We bow our heads before the sacrifices of so many others whose names we may never know,”? Dr de Gunzburg said. “Looking back deepens our appreciation for the present: ORT’s return to Lithuania in 2002, our support for the Sholom Aleichem ORT School and, through that, our assistance to education in the wider community. This work, and our warm and productive partnerships with the government and with the Jewish community, together symbolise that quintessential Jewish characteristic of overcoming adversity to create a better future “ﾓ to choose life, which ORT expresses through its motto, Educating for Life.”?