The Story of a Polish Prayer Book Found at the Vilnius Flea Market

EHRI Newsletter 10 April 2019
Photos and article by Neringa LatvytÄ—

Neringa LatvytÄ— from EHRI partner the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum (VGSJM) in Lithuania presents a unique artefact from the flea market in Vilnius: A small prayer book in Polish, which tells us the unusual story about perceptions of a traumatic past.

Very often students at the Vilnius University where I read lectures complain that nowadays there is too much noise about the Holocaust. Different activities, conferences, discussions, workshops, books and articles, posts on Facebook or Twitter about ghettos, victims, perpetrators, mass extermination places and camps, blood and cries, guilt and responsibility... However, all that still remains about “them” but not about us. Why is it like that? What about us?

Flea Market

This early spring while walking in the flea market in Vilnius, I noticed an old small book among other old books lying on the cold ground. I am not a collector of old books; I am just a curious historian. The cover of the little book caught my eyes. Although the cover was physically damaged, this couldn‘t destroy the Hebrew letters on it. By taking the book into my hands, I realized that the cover was made out of a thin leather scroll of Torah. The 432 pages book was a Polish prayer book which was printed by the printing house of Jósef Zawadzki in Wilno in 1906. It seems that the original cover of the book had once been made out of paper and only much later (supposedly after World War II) was changed into the sturdier and better quality one of Torah leather.

Jewish communities

Holding the book into my hands, I realized that this book also tells us something about us and about our traumatic past and the attitude of society towards the exterminated Jewish community, plundered Jewish property, and suppressed memory. This is the best example to understand the complicated perception of the Holocaust. The book reminded me of a quotation from a document compiled in 1945 by the Council of Religious Cults under the USSR People's Commissars Council in the Lithuanian SSR – there are no Jewish communities in most of the towns in Lithuania, so nobody is taking care of Jewish cultural heritage. That is why old Torah scrolls were used for everyday needs: for making covers of books, insoles for shoes or for drumheads. Local society often remained silent in the face of the mass exterminations of their Jewish neighbours, colleagues, and friends during the Nazi occupation. It remained silent during the anti-Semitic Soviet attitude towards Jewish heritage as well.

Jewish, Polish and Lithuanian

I paid five euros for the book. The bookseller was happy earning his money; the woman who was standing next to me said if I was careful, I would be able to use this book during my prayers at the church for many years to come. Meanwhile I was deeply moved to discover such a tiny piece of lost Litvaks culture and making a bridge between past and today. This little Polish prayer book with the holy cards in Lithuanian inside and with the cover made out of the Torah shows an interaction of three local communities: Jewish, Polish and Lithuanian that have been trying to live together for more than 600 years.
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