Walking in David Labkovski’s Footsteps

Using art to recall a world that was

By Alexa Price

A few months ago, I was not very conscious of my family’s roots. I knew of a foreign country called Lithuania and was interested to discover my heritage. From the end of March until the beginning of April 2019, I was invited to Lithuania as an ambassador of the David Labkovski Project. I also represented my school, Yeshiva College, and South Africa on the tour – Walking in Labkovski’s Footsteps.

David Labkovski was an artist from Vilna who bore witness to the horrors of the Gulag. He painted life in Lithuania and Vilna pre-, during, and post-World War 2. As each successive generation moves further away from this time in history, the challenges of Holocaust education increase. The David Labkovski programme aims to address these challenges by teaching the history of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe before WW2, during the Holocaust in Lithuania, and afterwards, thereby illustrating the resilience of the human spirit.

In view of the anti-Semitism that is resurfacing throughout the world today, the lesson I learned was that David Labkovski’s art provides an opportunity to be used in addressing this. His art transcends the barrier of language and can teach people of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. He witnessed history in the making – he captured a people who lived life fully in Lithuania in the early 20th Century, then endured unspeakable horrors during the war, as well as the post-war devastation that the handful of survivors returned to. His art skilfully reflects raw emotions – joy, suffering, and devastation.

I represented Yeshiva College and partnered with students from the Viewpoint School in Los Angeles and the Lyceum School in Vilna, to curate an exhibition of Labkovski’s art. This was the first time that his art had returned to his homeland and hometown Vilna. The exhibit was hosted in the National Library in Vilna and was attended by the Lithuanian Consul General to Los Angeles, Darius Gaidys, the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania, Amir Maimon, the US Deputy Ambassador to Lithuania, Marcus Micheli, a representative from the Lithuanian Prime Minister’s office, Lina Saulenaite, the Lithuanian Ambassador at large for relations with the Jewish Diaspora, Dainuis Junevicius, the Honorary Consul of Lithuania to Brazil, Carlos Levenstein, and a Los Angeles City Council member, Bob Blumenfield, as well as many other people.

The exhibition included virtual reality glasses that enable one to step into Labkovski’s home in the shtetl, experience snowflakes falling around the old wooden house, the Shabbos candles aflame, and the Friday night table set with challah. The next scene shows the Vilna market square where the participant engages with diverse Jews buying and selling their wares. This virtual reality experience is unique to the David Labkovski Project. The organisers are hoping to bring the virtual reality glasses to South Africa later on in the year, provided they can obtain the necessary funding.

Vilna is a city of contrasts. The impact of the Nazis and the Russians on its past influences Vilna’s present. As a fellow South African told us before we departed, the Nazis destroyed the people and the Russians destroyed the buildings. Some of the buildings in Lithuania resemble a two-tiered wedding cake. The bottom layer is a reminder of the grand architecture of the beginning of the last century. These buildings were bombed during the war. The Russians simply built atop of the building remaining from the bombing. The Russian tier is symmetrical and standardised. Going to the Great Shul in Vilna I expected to find a beautiful building, yet a playschool was built over it by the Soviets. When excavations were done it was discovered that the first floor of the Great Shul with its Bima was underneath the playschool! A similar fate has befallen many Jewish cemeteries and shuls all over Lithuania.

David Labkovski’s art teaches that the face of Vilna has changed. Before World War 2, Vilna had a large Jewish influence and was known as the Jerusalem of the North. With over 150 shuls, Lithuania was immersed in Jewish culture and learning, but unfortunately that has changed completely. From a substantial Jewish population, which contributed to Lithuania on all levels, there is now a handful of Jews – 2 500 at the last official census. Labkovski’s art reflects a people who studied, traded in the market place, and celebrated with zest.

An unforgettable experience was the visit to the Ponar forest where 100 000 people were sent on the death marches, 70 000 of which were Jews. This was a very emotional place. We lit candles in memory of the innocent children whose lives were extinguished. We also remembered those religious Sages who dedicated their lives to the teaching of Torah, and the men, women, and children who have no one else to remember them (nor to say Kaddish for them) and the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to save their Jewish brothers and sisters. I was asked to say a few words at the Ponar Forest in memory of the murdered Jews. It was perhaps the most difficult speech that I have ever written. I said a few words and played a recording of the Kaddish, then concluded by saying ‘May the souls of the deceased have an Aliyah’.

I also visited the shtetls that my great grandparents lived in. It was a privilege to have visited Plungyan, Kursenai, Papila, Telz, and Vilna, and to temporarily walk in the footsteps of my own family.

Accompanying us on our memorable journey were Jewish Life magazines. Martyn Samuels gave us 25 copies of the Purim edition to take with us. (The Pesach edition was only going to be ready once we had already left.) Purim is the story of anti-Semitism and survival, and so too the David Labkovski story is also about anti-Semitism and survival. One evening we went to the Lokys cellar to learn Lithuanian Folk dancing, and we handed out the copies of Jewish Life magazine to the Americans on the tour with us, including the Lithuanian Consul General to Los Angeles, Darius Gaidys, and Los Angeles City Council member, Bob Blumenfield. We gave the remaining magazines to the Choral Synagogue in Vilna.

The most substantial lesson that I learned on this journey is from a quote in the Choral Synagogue in Vilna, the last shul remaining in Vilna. They quote Jakovas (Yossi) Bunka who was the last Jew that remained in Plungyan: “It is not only important to remember how these people died, but also how they lived.” And they lived as we all should: as proud, faithful Jews devoted to their G-d and His Torah. David Labkovski captured the essence of this in his art.

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