Litvaks.  The term “Litvaks” refers to the Jews who lived in “Litva,” the core territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  Today, that area comprises central and eastern Lithuania and Belarus.  The Jews who lived in this region developed a culture built upon individual scholarship, an interest in mathematics and science, and moral discipline.  Much of these attributes reflect the personal example of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (1720-1797), who was regarded as the foremost authority on Jewish religious law in the 18th Century.  His example was followed by generations of everyday Jews.  By the middle of the 19th Century, there were many Talmudical scholars among the city’s artisans.  Even those who pursued secular interests drew inspiration from the Gaon’s insistence that one must be knowledgeable in science and nature in order to properly understand the Jewish religion.

In the words of Dr. David E. Fishman, a professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, by the middle of the 19th Century the “composite image” of the Litvak was as follows:  “He was smart, analytical, learned, worldly, skeptical, proud, stubborn, dynamic, and energetic.” (Introduction, Profiles of a Lost World:  Memoirs of East European Jewish Life Before World War II, by Hirsz Abramowicz, translated by Eva Zeitlin Dobkin (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York 1999), pp. 13. 

These were the characteristics of the Jews who lived throughout the territory of “Litva,” which today is primarily in Lithuania and Belarus.  In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, these Jews typically constituted between 50% and 75% of the population of the towns and villages in that area, and contributed significantly to their growth.

Our Organization.  Remembering Litvaks, Inc., (“RLI”) is an American non-stock  501(c)(3) entity that undertakes projects dedicated to remembering Litvak civilization.  The projects include programs to teach and research the history of Jewish life in Lithuania and Belarus and to identify, preserve, and improve locations of historical significance to Litvaks.

RLI began in 2008 as an informal group of Jews whose ancestors had lived in the Rakisik / Rokiškis and Kupisik / Kupiškis regions of Lithuania who who wanted to improve the condition of the old Jewish cemetery that is situated on the border of Rokiškis and Serapiniškis.  Funds raised by RLI’s subsidiary, Remembering Rakisik Area Jewry, LLC, (“RRAJ”), were used to get legal protection for the cemetery’s boundaries; design, manufacture, and install a distinctive gate and fence along the cemetery’s eastern boundary; plant appropriate shrubbery along the remainder of the cemetery’s boundary; to design and commission the creation of a memorial stone that was placed outside of the gate; and take other actions to improve the condition of the cemetery.

As it became more apparent that the people in the Rokiškis area had little knowledge of the Jewish communities that once flourished there, it was decided that the group should consider other activities to preserve the memory of those communities and their role in local life.  To help finance such projects, a Virginia non-stock corporation was established for the purpose of receiving contributions that would be tax-deductible for U.S. taxpayers.  That entity, RLI, was created in 2012, and RRAJ became a subsidiary of RLI.  In 2014, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service determined that, effective 2012, RLI qualified as a tax-exempt entity (as did RRAJ in the process).  For administrative efficiency, in 2019 RRAJ was merged into RLI.

RLI is governed by a board of five directors who are descendants of Jews whose ancestors lived in towns and villages that today are in Lithuania.  The directors serve staggered five-year terms.  The directors receive no compensation for their service.

RLI has worked closely with the Rokiškis Regional Museum on many projects.  In 2014, the museum published a short booklet about two remarkable local Jewish women, Sana Meler, whose family was arrested by the Soviets on June 14, 1941, and deported to Siberia, and the poet Matilda Olkinaitė, whose family was murdered on the road between Panemunėlis and Rokiškis.  We also joined with the museum and others in the creation and installation of an informational sign on Rokiškis’s Synagogue Street (Sinagogų gatvė) which describes in Lithuanian, English, and Yiddish the architecture and uses of the three Jewish houses of worship and study that once stood on that street.  That sign was dedicated in September 2015.  A sign to remember the Jewish community of Pandėlys / Ponedel was dedicated in September 2022.  It is anticipated that sign to remember the Jewish community of Kupiškis / Kupisik will be dedicated in the summer of 2023 near the entrance to the renovated library-synagogue complex, which for centuries was the site of the town’s shul-hof.  We hope work on the design of other signs to be installed in the market squares of Rokiškis, Kamajai, and Suvainiškis and at the two Holocaust killing sites in the Rokiškis region that were finally acknowledged by the Lithuanian government in the Fall of 2021. 

In May 2016, we entered into an agreement with the museum under which a committee created by the museum grants an annual prize in recognition of an individual or group who substantially increases the awareness in Lithuania of the contribution of its Jewish citizens to the country’s establishment and growth.  The prize is named of Private Ruvin Bun, a Jew from the Rokiškis region who volunteered to fight in Lithuania’s wars of independence (1919-1920) and died in the battle of Giedraičiai on the last day of fighting. 

The first award recipient was Viktorija Kazlienė, the director of the Molėtai Regional Museum, who played a leading role in the August 29, 2016, “Malat March” to remember the Jews of the region who perished there in August 1941.  She subsequently wrote a book about the memorial march and has worked with local officials to place bi-lingual Lithuanian-Yiddish signs at in Molėtai at places of significance to the town’s Jewish history.  The second award recipient, Neringa Danienė, wrote an award-winning play about the Lithuanian Jewish poet, Matilda Olkinaitė, which in turn led to Lithuanians creating of memorials to her and her family, an international scientific examination of two previously unmarked Holocaust killing sites, and the publication in Lithuanian and English of the poet’s literary work and diary entries.  The third award recipient was Hon. Skirmantas Mockevičius, the mayor of the Jurbarkas regional government, who led an effort to create an original memorial to Jurbarkas’ Jewish community.  The fourth award recipient was Indrė Zelbaitė-Ciesiūnienė, who produced a series of 15 one-hour documentary programs about individual Jewish communities in provincial Lithuania.  The fifth recipient was Kęstas Pikūnas, the founder and editor of Passport Journal, for his “Litvakai” (“The Litvaks”) edition, which was the result of deep study of the Litvak culture that developed in Lithuania.  The sixth recipient was the Žemaičių muziejus “Alka” (The Samogitian Museum “Alka”) in Telšiai, which undertook and completed the translation into Lithuanian of the 505-page yizkor (memorial) book for the Jewish community of that town.

RLI files annual reports of its finances and operations with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and with the Virginia Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs.  These filings are public.

Contributions to support the projects of Remembering Litvaks, Inc., may be made on-line or by check mailed in care of James M. Nachman, Attorney-at-Law P.C., 808 North Hamilton Street, Richmond, VA  23221  USA.  Since RLI has been recognized by GuideStar, www.guidestar.org, as a qualified 501(c)(3) organization, contributions may also be made through payroll deductions.  RLI also accepts contributions to benefit of the Vilnius Jewish Public Library (“VJPL”).  For more information about RLI’s projects or about making contributions to RLI or the VJPL, please contact RLI’s president, Phil Shapiro, at philshapiro608@gmail.com.