Back from Vilnius, reeling a bit. Four incredibly intense days of walking, looking, listening, talking, tasting, paying tribute... I'll be writing about it 'properly', but here are some initial impressions.
I went on the invitation of the Vilnius Festival, thanks (of course) to Philippe Graffin who, with Nobuko Imai, was playing the new Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas. There is a great deal of interest in the place at the moment thanks to Lithuania's accession to the EU, so it seemed a marvellous 'diem' to 'carpe'.
Vilnius is a city divided both physically and mentally. The old town, paradoxically, seems newest. It has been lovingly renovated with WHF grants and is now full of souvenir shops, little restaurants and such like, including my hotel, the Stikliai, which was utterly gorgeous (though we had a day of heavy rain and my ceiling developed 3 leaks!). In a few years' time - not many - there is going to be a tourist boom here. Beyond the old city, however, the town still seems partly immured in 1980s Russia.
The most moving event, among many, was the celebration after the Duo Concertante concert on Sunday evening. 'Vytas' Barkauskas and his wife, Svetlana, invited a number of us back to their flat, where they took enormous pride in gathering and entertaining their friends, far more than most British people generally do. Svetlana prepared masses of food, with sushi in Nobuko's honour and Baron Philippe de Rothschild wine in Philippe's, not to mention an incredible home-made poppyseed cake with DUO written on it in large letters - a recipe, apparently, of 'Vytas's grandmother's. There were toasts, celebrations and conversations in an extraordinary mix of languages (Lithuanian, English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, you name it) until almost 2am. I experienced this kind of warmth and hospitality in Kiev ten years ago. It's a special approach to life: soulful, heartfelt and deeply touching. Barkauskas and I managed to communicate in French, more or less; but when we said goodbye on the last day and I apologised for my lousy vocabulary, he declared that he understands everything with his eyes, head and heart.
On Monday, however, I went to the Jewish Museum. Emerged deeply upset. We've all seen pictures and documents of the Holocaust, but being in a place where it happened - a place very different from Berlin, where memorials and rebuilding have transformed the city - made it feel desperately close. The hotel's immediate vicinity used to be the ghetto. I found the statue of my ancestor the Gaon 20 yards up the road - apparently in the middle of nowhere, but a map in the museum revealed that this open area of ill-kempt grass and Soviet-era offices was where the Great Synagogue once stood. It seated more than 3000 people and was the heart of Jewish life in the town that for so long was a renowned centre of culture, learning and art. The Jerusalem of the North. It was burned down by the Nazis and its ruins were then flattened by the Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot in the woods at nearby Ponar.
The museum evidently runs on a shoestring. You can visit Ponar, but I didn't want to. The Gaon, topical though his memorial may be, is tricky to find. My impression of modern-day Lithuanians is that they don't know much about any of this, aren't interested and don't really see why they should be. After all, goes the argument, they were victims too (they were, of course). Even the Mr Big of the music world there - someone who has initiated a couple of festivals of Jewish music and art - said that to them, that world is something historical. Which, I guess, means something that isn't alive any longer. I met and interviewed Vilnius's one Jewish composer, Anatolijus Senderovas, who is writing a ballet score for next year's festival and is a most delightful man. By that time I felt very glad to see him.
They're missing a trick - for one thing, they could make more of their most famous musical son, one Jascha Heifetz. The stage of the Filharmonja, where Philippe and Nobuko played their new piece, was where little Jascha aged about seven made his debut. The morning before we left, several of us went to find Heifetz's birthplace, which Philippe had tracked down. No marking; no celebration. Behind the house, some ancient stables. Heifetz was not perceived as Lithuanian. Therefore, little credit is given to him - other than by crazy journalists, violinists and record producers on bizarre pilgrimmages to his back yard.
Vilnius is full of churches, packed to the rafters on Sunday morning. There is one synagogue - currently closed, apparently because of infighting in the Jewish community.
Food...Dumplings R Us. Potato pancakes R Us too...effectively latkes. Delicious, but a little goes a long way and sits heavy on the stomach. My favourite local food: cold borscht with hot potatoes. My favourite meal experienced in Vilnius: of all things, a Japanese feast on Saturday night with the Barkauskases, Philippe, Nobuko & Simon Foster. A totally international group of six people, only two of whom shared a first language (Svetlana's is Ukranian), eating Japanese food in Lithuania!
The whole trip was an experience that I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. It was part fairy tale, part nightmare, part glorious, part just all too much... More about it will emerge in due course as I start writing my articles.