The Absence of Presence

We landed in Vilnius after midnight in the pouring rain, further bolstering the picture of Eastern Europe as a dark, cold, rainy place that is not-so hospitable to the Jews. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that this is a mostly unfair image of what is actually a pretty vibrant place these days.

A short bus ride, and we arrived at our apartments for the week. Or rather, we arrived near our apartments for the week. The bus could not fit down the street, so we had to disembark (after midnight, in the pouring rain), and carry our luggage down a dark, winding alley (the streetlights were out). It looked exactly like what you might picture a winding, Lithuanian street to look like after midnight, in the pouring rain, with no illumination.

After searching for the address “Skäpo Street, between 8 and 10,” we were greeted by the proprietor, who promptly apologized that the street lights were out. “The city is trying to conserve energy,” he informed us.

And with that, our group was ushered into the courtyard, where we waited for our room keys (in the dark, in the pouring rain). Luckily, Lithuania is in the same time zone as Israel, so there was no jetlag to combat. I quickly fell asleep, only briefly admiring the Soviet-style decor of our room.

Awake the next morning (yesterday), I went out in search of coffee. I met the Lithuania that isn’t cold, dark, and wet, wandering the streets looking for the address that Foursquare had pointed me to for the recommended coffee shop. Turns out that Lithuania – or Vilnius at least – is fairly serious about their coffee, and I was pleased when the barista responded to my awkward pointing to the word on the menu that looked like coffee, asking in near-perfect English “which roast of freshly ground coffee would you like?”

Coffee in tow, I made my way back to our residence, noting the architecture that our guide has described as “Soviet-Style, also known as no-architecture.” It’s an intriguing mix of interwar generic Eastern European buildings with soaring pagan-influenced meeting places, but is mostly brutalist – typical of places which Communism has reached out and touched. I felt like I was in a pre-Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie.

The day was spent visiting places where the once-vibrant Jewish community of Vilna thrived. With virtually nothing left after the Nazis stormed through the city, the experience was more about seeing non-places. It was an encounter with the absence of presence – and the presence of absence.

An interesting question was posed to us – “given the opportunity, would you rebuild any of the great synagogues that were here?”

Perhaps an answer will come later after I have more time to reflect on the wider experiences. For now, I will only share that part of my own reflection on that question took place as I drove through the streets of Vilnius in a taxi cab, after getting lost from my group.

More on that later, as well.

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