Life & Culture

The Jewish Da Vinci Code

Lithuanian novelist Rytis Sabas explains why he pitched a rabbi into the page-turning plot of his bestselling book, The Goan Code


Shining a light: Rytis Sabas says interest in Jewish culture has soared in Lithuania since the success of his book

Russian mobsters and Mossad agents perhaps, but a centuries-old Lithuanian rabbi isn’t your typical ingredient for a thriller. But when a bestselling Lithuanian novel hits the shelves this week, readers will see how these seemingly incongruous components make up a pacy page-turner that delves into the fascinating history of Lithuanian Jewry.

The Gaon Code, by Rytis Sabas, centres around a real-life 18th-century Lithuanian rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, and his spiritual code to predict future events. The book takes the reader on a nail-biting race against time through Europe, the US and the Middle East.

The main character, Paul, is a Lithuanian-American immigrant living in Chicago, and together with a Latvian-Israeli history student, Galya, he undertakes a dangerous search for a priceless and mystical artefact last seen in Lithuania in the hands of Paul’s grandfather.

Sabas, 52, has already enjoyed much success with his The Da Vinci Code-style novel, with both The Gaon Code and its sequel, The Tail of the Dragon, topping bestselling lists in Lithuania, and he is in talks with Disney+ to turn the tale into a TV series.

But what inspired Sabas, who is not Jewish, to write this story in the first place?

“I wanted to write a book about Lithuania to show the world how beautiful our country is and how wonderful our people are,” Sabas told me. “I decided to write about the Jewish people, the people who formed our nation, our state, our statehood. We have many stories about Jewish people who had a great impact on world events on a global scale.”

Sabas started his career as a journalist, working as an international correspondent in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo, and some of the unsavoury characters encountered in the book are inspired by real-life people he has met through his work.

“I knew the real people behind those characters,” Sabas reveals. “I’ve lived in harsh and difficult times when we had mafia gangsters and secret agents roaming around Lithuania. I still work as a journalist so I know many people.

Almost all the characters are based on real people that I know, or used to know.”

There is also a romance at the heart of the story, which Sabas felt was a crucial element to include. “Love stories should be everywhere, I think that’s the basis of human relations,” he adds. “And the more human a book is, the more interesting it is, so I thought I should seize the opportunity for a romantic element.”

Initially, when Sabas was researching the bones of what would become the book, he went to the director of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History in Vilnius, and was initially discouraged from writing the tale as he was not Jewish.

“Maybe he thought that I would paint a different picture that would not represent the Jewish culture itself. But I realised that I should tell our Lithuanian nation this story, because we don’t know anything about the Jews and they used to form the majority of the population of Vilnius,” he explains. “I wrote the book in two months, and it instantly became a bestseller.”

The book’s instant success led to Sabas co-hosting a podcast in which, alongside Lithuanian journalist Ernestas Alesinas, he interviews various personalities about Lithuania’s small Jewish community and discusses varied aspects of Jewish culture, from food and music to Krav Maga.

Sabas believes his book has sparked nationwide interest in the history of Lithuanian Jewry, with other cultural Jewish-themed events, such as theatre productions and museum exhibitions, taking place in the country since it was was published.

Sabas also hosted walking tours called In The Trail of the Vilna Gaon Code. “Every time there’s a walking tour it’s full of people,” he adds. “The interest in Jewish culture in Lithuania is huge. We now have Jewish restaurants again.”

Jewish people have also responded overwhelmingly positively to the book, and Sabas describes how “Jews from all over the world started to help me with new research and to invite me to their discussions”.

Happily, the museum director who initially told him not to write the book decisively changed his mind and even gave him part of the idea for his sequel.

“There’s kind of a magic, because the same person who initially told me not to write the book said, ‘You know Rytis, maybe you were right,’” Sabas reveals. “I said, ‘Why? ’and he said, ‘You know maybe the Gaon Code exists.’

“I was shocked, and he showed me a picture by Marc Chagall, the famous painter. He showed me some things that should not have been in the picture because it was painted before those particular events, and he even gave me an idea for the sequel.”

The sequel features the same main characters, Paul and Galya, but focuses on the treasure of Napoleon, which is rumoured to have been buried in Lithuania.

There have been Jews in Lithuania for nearly a thousand years, and Vilnius became such a centre for Jewish religious learning that it was once known as the “Jerusalem of the North”.

In addition to its importance as a religious hub, it was also an important centre for intellectual, cultural, scientific and economic Jewish prosperity.

However, Jewish life in Lithuania has had a turbulent history. Ninety per cent of the Jewish community was exterminated during the Holocaust, both by the Germans and by  Lithuanians collaborating with the Nazis.

The role of Lithuania in the Shoah, and the country’s collaboration with the Germans, is a sensitive topic in the country. According to Yad Vashem, “Lithuanian nationals welcomed the German occupiers, seeing them as liberators from Soviet occupation” – and a “significant” number of the murders were “carried out by Lithuanian auxiliary forces”.

Modern-day campaigners have attempted to contradict the Lithuanian narrative that the slaughtering of the Jews was only done by German Nazis. These campaigners include the granddaughter of Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika, Silvia Foti, who took part in the 2022 film J’Accuse. The award-winning documentary deals with Lithuania’s complicated relationship with its own history, and its denial of its role in the Holocaust.

During the Shoah, the Jewish population in Lithuania of 250,000 was decimated to leave just 25,000, one of the highest victim rates in Europe. Alongside these hundreds of thousands of lives, most of the physical records of the Jewish population, such as art, books and artefacts, were destroyed too. Now, according to 2023 estimates, there are fewer than 2,500 Jews in Lithuania.

“We had Nazi collaborators, and we have to admit that fact,” Sabas reflects. “It’s a fact: we shot the Jewish people.”

Sabas, however, says he wants to focus on life and not on death through his efforts to educate his fellow Lithuanians about Jewish life and the Jews’ contribution to Lithuania.

“We should remember ‘never again’, but also focus on living things,” he adds. “Everyone should remember the Holocaust, but I want to focus on good things: how we lived together, how we created our state together, but not how we hated.”

Sabas believes that learning about the contribution that Jews made to Lithuanian culture is vital for the country’s future.

“The Lithuanian national tree is an oak, just like the symbol in Kabbalah,” he reflects.

“The tree has the symmetry of its roots and leaves and branches. If you cut a root you lose a branch, so everyone should know their history if they want to have a future.

“One of the main ideas of this book is about our roots. We should know the people that we used to live with for centuries and now they are gone. But they are also not gone: they left their trail and impact on the whole world and we should learn about that.”

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