Bella Shirin was born in Kaunas, after World War II, when her parents came back to the the city having somehow survived the concentration camps. When she was seventeen years old, her parents decided to go to Israel. But Bella says she always missed Lithuania, especially Kaunas.
And so a couple of years ago, she returned to live in her native city, where she is now the light of the whole community.
Bella’s mission, to show to the world and Israel what a great country Lithuania is and how wonderful Lithuanians are. She is a true ambassador, who loves both countries, seeking to bring them closer in every possible way.
Jurgis Didžiulis and ToBeLT project team came to Kaunas to celebrate the Hanukkah – Jewish Light Festival – together with Bella Shirin and the Kaunas Artist Community.
My father ran away from the Soviets. He did not run away from Lithuania. He loved Lithuania. Father knew that after the war everyone had already been dead – his mother, some brothers and sisters – but he returned to Lithuania regardless, even though he could have gone to America.
Relatives from America had found my father after the Americans had liberated him (from the concentration camp). They turned to the Red Cross, found him and urged him to come. But he chose Lithuania. My father was a Lithuanian patriot. He served as a volunteer in the Lithuanian Army in 1937, and throughout my childhood I was instilled with a great love for my homeland. It was self-evident that I would attend a Lithuanian school, not Russian.
Then, due to the fear of being taken to Siberia, my dad made every effort to go to Israel. In 1963, when we left, we were one of the first. It was very difficult for me, I had a very strong longing for Lithuania. A lot of time had passed before I get used to it … but still, I think that if I had stayed in Lithuania I would have achieved much more. When I left, being a sensitive child, who was very attached to Lithuania and especially Kaunas, I became very self-conscious. It was as if didn’t really feel the ground beneath my feet. And only after many years had passed and I returned to Kaunas, to Lithuania, I could walk firmy once again. My confidence RETURNED after so many years.
Therefore, I think that parents who choose to move abroad with very sensitive children should think about it very carefully. They can harm their child irreparably.
JURGIS: You are both Jewish and Lithuanian, how do these two identities coexist?
BELLA: They coexist perfectly. In Israel I am an Israeli, in Lithuania I am Lithuanian. Besides, this dual citizenship helps me tremendousy, giving me all the tools I need to bring the two nations closer together.
JURGIS: We have a very long history of co-existence with the Jewish people in Lithuania. If we look closer at the mutual history over a number of centuries in Lithuania- we can say that this was an exemplary relationship in the whole of Europe. Why is there a notion, a belief, that this country is anti-Semitic? And what is being done to change this attitude?
BELLA: Yes, we were a great example. Before the war there was a great relationship between the Jews and Lithuanians, they were the best friends and fellows.
My father’s friends were landlords Sirutavičiai. Dad was with their childrenday and night – playing soccer, riding motorcycles together. My aunt studied with Lithuanian friends, that’s why the Jews were surprised that some Lithuanians joined the Germans. And obviously that was really painful. They said that the Germans were strangers – Nazis. But Lithuanians were always their own, their kin, to them it was a betrayal, and thats why the pain was so severe. And it was passed down to their children and grandchildren – this anger. Of course, now most of them are gone. But those who survived the Holocaust, through their stories, have passed on the anger onto children and their grandchildren.
JURGIS: You are making a very significant effort to change this image of Lithuania abroad. Could you tell us more about how that is going?
BELLA: I am trying because in my family there had been many Lithuanian saviours. My cousin was saved by the Lithuanians. My father was helped by a ‘white-ribboned’ resistance fighter who saved his life. There are many similar cases. So, in our home there was never a bad word against the Lithuanians.
But elsewhere, the truth was told, as it was. That’s why it was painful for me to hear all this, so I decided to share all those good memories of my parents, my aunt, with the rest of the world. It’s impossible – after all, here were more than two and a half million Lithuanians before the war. Was the whole nation Jew- killers? It wasn’t even half a million.. Not even two hundred thousand. But how many saviours were there!
You see, when I ask myself – if I would rescue a Lithuanian, would I risk my life? Yes, I would risk it. But would I risk the life of my children – I would never risk it. I’m telling the truth. And back then, they risked their children. Because if the Nazis captured such ‘traitors’, they killed the whole family. And most rescuers had children.
JURGIS: What else could be done to extend those bridges of understanding, for people to return, to understand?
BELLA: First of all you need to get to know each other, go visit each other more often, meetings together. For example, it would be nice if the Israelis arrived in Lithuania, and Lithuanian families would host their stay. Share traditions while celebrating holidays. In the past, this was the case – in Soviet times we celebrated together with our neighbors Lithuanians.
JURGIS: Last question. Why are there still people, who don’t immediately admit they are Jewish?
BELLA: There is that fear. Being the minority, there is still some lingering fear from the times of Holocaust. Perhaps they still think that Jewish poeple are hated. Yra dar ta baimė. Kadangi jie yra tautinė mažuma, yra dar išlikusi ta baimė nuo holokausto laikų. Matyt jie dar galvoja, jog žydai yra nekenčiami.
JURGIS: Thank you!