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Lithuanian Embassy

By Gary Tischler

With all the great music and musicians, the social schmoozing opportunities, and the convivial receptions, the Embassy Series exists primarily as an effective tool to conduct cultural diplomacy.  Sometimes, an event can transcend mission and goals, and even the pure enjoyment of great music.  At the Lithuanian Embassy last week, the power of music to transform its listeners, attach itself to memory, resurrect the past and make the moment a personal experience was on full display when Embassy Series founder Jerome Barry presented the program “Songs from the Vilnius Ghetto.”

Barry, a noted baritone, accompanied by Michael Adcock on piano, resurrected the ghosts of a long ago tragedy that struck the Jewish residents of Vilnius in Lithuania with the coming of the Germany army.  Two ghettos, one a veritable killing ground, were created in which Jews lived in the same horrible conditions that existed in Jewish ghettos throughout occupied Europe, characterized by roundups, selections, random murders and shootings, starvation, daily systematic terror and the destruction of families. Nearly 200,000 Lithuanian Jews died in the Holocaust.

On the day that is memorialized in Lithuania as Holocaust Remembrance Day and during the holy days of Yom Kippur, Barry sang songs and music written not by Mozart or Beethoven, but often nameless and anonymous residents of the Vilnius Ghetto, sometimes in Yiddish, sometimes in Hebrew. Many of the songs were almost unbearably sad, still others were remarkably buoyant  and even celebratory, looking to a future that for most of them didn’t exist.  All of the songs,  always tinged with a feeling of loss and a trickle of hope, were sung with tremendous power . The music and songs resurrected the daily life of the ghettos, where the sight of birds, the sound of wind at night, the darkness descending, the memories of children and parents gone into the night, the voices of partisans and street peddlers, all achieved a vivid reality to the point that a kind of resurrection was achieved.

For a time, you forgot where you were–in a hall in a small embassy, sitting in the company of the ambassador, his wife, retired diplomat, listening to music not heard anywhere else in this city, not in Adams Morgan, once sung by people the majority of whom did not survive the life they led in the ghetto.

For those in attendance, it appeared to be an extraordinarily powerful, moving evening impossible to duplicate or to forget.