A tale of two cities

Anthea Gerrie discovers an alternative city break in Kaunas — as well as Jewish life past and present in Lithuania


Statue by the castle at Kaunas (Photo: Unsplash)

Schmaltz herring on the breakfast buffet, vorschmack for lunch and Yiddish melodrama for tea – it could only be Lithuania. As elements of east European culture rapidly disappear from the modern world, a visit here always gladdens the Ashkenazi heart, with more reasons than ever to visit both the capital Vilnius and explore more widely.

The herring you can get across the country, but only in Vilnius does Yiddish cinema play daily in a stunning new museum aiming to show visitors everything Litvaks have given the world.

“Visitors know about the Jewish life that was destroyed, but they increasingly want to know who the residents were, and we aim to present their contributions in every field,” says museum director Aivaras Poska.

The four floors of the former Jewish Gymnasium have been transformed into an immersive experience, complete with music booths, art gallery and the cinema, where I was stopped in my tracks by excerpts from 1937 smash hit The Dybbuk.

Of course, you don’t have to be Ashkenazi to find the stories of Lithuania’s many shtetls past and present moving; in an oral history presented by the Museum of Culture and Identity of Lithuanian Jews, pre-war residents recall childhood pleasures such as gathering berries in the forest before their world was destroyed by the Nazi invasion.

It’s a tragedy that the city has marked with multiple memorials in a pair of wartime ghettos that first-time visitors will want to explore before leaving town.

The bust of the Vilna Gaon near the site of the destroyed 17th- century Great Synagogue – fragments of which are displayed in the museum – is a place of pilgrimage in the city dubbed Jerusalem of the North.

The ghettos sit in the heart of the beautiful Old Town, a 12-minute stroll from the museum, which is one of four places of Jewish interest on busy Pylimo Street, marking the boundary between old and modern Vilnius.

Heading towards the market, you’ll pass first the road leading to the Samuel Bak Centre, whose own collection of art and Judaica complements the exhibits at the new museum; the thriving Choraline Synagogue, with its beautiful baroque interior that hosts occasional concerts; and eventually the market hall.

Here, at new Jewish-owned restaurant Baleboste, you’ll find every baked delight from bagels to teiglach, as well as shakshuka and that traditional Litvak chopped herring, vorschmack.

Pictures in the new museum of Lithuania’s remaining rural wooden synagogues are a reminder that Jewish life still exists beyond Vilnius, today mostly confined to the second city, Kaunas (pronounced to rhyme with bonus).

This vibrant city, which became the capital for the 20 interwar years after Vilnius was annexed by Poland, has its own completely different vibe, plus many sites of Jewish and general interest that have earned the city a Unesco World Heritage Site label.

Here, the centre of life is not a warren of medieval streets with that often chocolate-box feel but a broad, thoroughly 20th-century boulevard. Built in 1932, Laisves Aleja, as the mile-long pedestrianised thoroughfare is known, is peppered with art deco buildings.

Artists and architects flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, along with klezmer bands and Yiddish theatre troupes, when the ersatz new capital became the hub of intellectual and creative life in Lithuania.

Start your exploring where Laisves begins at the end of Kaunas Old Town – pretty, but not the city’s main attraction – to spot some of the most significant buildings.

Those that have earned a European Heritage logo include the old central post office, whose slightly decrepit cladding belies the wood carvings and mosaic floor of its delightful interior, as well as a wonderful art deco department store, and the church of St Michael the Archangel at the far end.

This handsome basilica serves as an impressive backdrop for the many free outdoor concerts held throughout the summer, when the equally numerous bars, cafes and restaurants along Laisves – also the city’s main shopping street – buzz with nightlife.

Some buildings bear brightly coloured modern mezuzahs, denoting the fact that they once housed Jewish-owned businesses – a reminder that it’s only in the past few years that the loss of the city’s 40,000 Jews has been acknowledged.

Now, however, there are web pages devoted to the Litvak heritage of Kaunas laying out significant landmarks, including the people and places associated with Slobodka, the old name for the city’s ghetto.

Jews arriving from 1663 on were originally forced to live here, and were herded back during 1941, long after most had taken advantage of their prosperity and freedom to move into the city centre.

The ironically named Democrats Square sits in the heart of the ghetto, from which 9,200 men, women and children were forced to march to their death at the Ninth Fort in a single day. While the square is too far-flung and desolate to recommend seeking out, it is possible to visit the city’s Choral Synagogue by appointment.

There’s evidence of thriving Jewish life in the interwar years in two of the city’s best new attractions. The Art Deco Museum and Amsterdam School Museum are the work of private entrepreneurs who have brought this pair of handsome buildings back to life, telling stories of residents past who made such major contributions to the intellectual and creative life of Kaunas.

You’ll also find stories of Jewish lives saved in Sugihara House, named after the Japanese consul who signed thousands of transit visas that got the fortunate recipients out.

You don’t have to go into a single museum, however, to learn about the Jews of Kaunas, who represented 25 per cent of the city’s population before the Second World War. On the side streets leading off Laisves, huge murals celebrate a nameless Jewish mother and child, as well as Leja Goldberg, now a household name in Israel for her children’s books.

Head uphill to discover the delightful Courtyard Gallery, across the road from the Philharmonic Hall, set in an old Jewish neighbourhood not far from the Choral Synagogue. Not quite a gallery, more a touching art installation created by private citizens, it memorialises the evicted residents of a former Jewish apartment complex within a colourful, creative, outdoor space.

It’s far from the only street art in Kaunas, equally famous are its huge snaking pink elephant and wise man murals, and the city has acclaimed art institutions too.

The National MK Ciurlionis Museum of , named for the country’s most famous painter, is worth a visit for its white wedding-cake architecture alone; the museum’s pretty gardens also lead to an attractive modern plaza stretching downhill towards the war museum and Laisves beyond.

Those who want to explore beyond the urban heart of Kaunas can venture to the city’s attractive castle, its fearsome-looking forts and beautiful Pazaislis Monastery, on the shore of Kaunas Lagoon – follow the coastal nature trail while you’re there.

The city even has its own resort, Panemune, in which it’s possible to rent a room within Vila Grabyte, one of many handsome art deco mansions converted into guesthouses.

For hotels in the heart of town, location is everything and there are some enticing alternatives to the central chains.

New four-star hotel The Victoria retains its original early 20th-century bones and features a spa, the art deco apartments of Boheme House are in the Old Town, another hotspot for nightlife, or near the river there’s boutique hotel Berman House. None are quite as convenient for the centre as the Radisson or stylish boutique rival Moxy, also close to Laisves.

And if traditional Ashkenazi dishes are as rare in Kaunas as they are common in Vilnius, a warm Friday night welcome is still on offer on Laisves every Shabbat, thanks to Chabad, serving a significant student population that’s keeping Jewish life alive in a city, which 80 years ago plotted to be rid of it for ever.

Getting There

There are direct flights to both Vilnius and Kaunas from London from around £25 return with Ryanair and Wizz Air. Trains connect Vilnius and Kaunas, taking less than 90 minutes, with fares from around £7 one-way.

For more information on Jewish heritage in Lithuania, go to and, or find more information on Vilnius at and on Kaunas at

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