Our First Day in Vilnius

We arrived safely after a harrowing journey by sea from Kiel beset by singing German Jesus Army, Lithuanian lorry drivers spoiling for a fight, and grumpy waiters. What a relief then to met by the genteel Saulius, who took us to his charming apartment in Shnipishkes. Try saying that after a mouthful of vodka and herrings. Having settled in and had a good nights sleep, we awoke the next morning to begin our search for any clues as to our family’s sojourn in Vilnius.

Looking online, we found out that as well as the Beinart family in Rokiskis, on our paternal grandmothers side the Apter family had prior to being in Dvinsk (Latvia) descended from the Meisels of Vilnius. About 6 generations back, Moshe Meisels had been a Rabbi and spy and his father Moshe had been the Shamash of Vilnius (we’re not sure what this is and although it sounds like a disco track, its more likely it is something religious). There was some information about where they had lived so we set off into town via the Jewish Museum.

Thence we got entrapped by a fascinating display on rescuers and rescued during the Nazi period, how Jewish kids were able to be smuggled out of the Vilnius ghetto by pretending to be Lithuanian and were adopted by Lithuanian families. The photos and testimonies were haunting, and it felt unreal when we stepped back out into the bright sunshine and tourist bars on the streets. We then spent a couple of hours walking the ghetto as was, now full of swanky cafes, bijou boutiques and discreet but no doubt expensive hotels. A few plaques and monuments told the story of its former life as a ghetto and prior to that as the Jewish quarter of town, going back centuries. At the Museum we had picked up some postcards including one of Jatowka street where the Meisels lived, but the streets we walked down were unrecognisable, brightly spick and span plaster and none of the stalls spilling out from buildings onto the streets selling all manner of goods.

Walking back to Saulius’s along a bustling street with shops selling typical tourist tack, we joked about setting up a stall to sell ‘Ghetto souvenirs’. It might sound tasteless, but perhaps it would create a more living reminder of the silent ghosts of Vilnius than marble stones and bronzes. It seemed the history we were looking for felt only possible to access through imagination, and that only those who were looking for it would see it.

Katy Beinart



We spent Saturday roaming the streets of Hamburg, following the very faint trail of our Great-great-grandmother Ann Filaratoff, and her father Nicolas. We believe they came to Hamburg from St Petersburg in the 1870s and stayed for up to a decade before leaving for Hull (and eventually South Africa). Katy had scanned two portrait photographs of Ann, with the address of 19th century photography studios on the back. So we began our day searching for these addresses, negotiating a large triathlon that blocked many of the city centre streets. Opposite the Rathaus, we found the first address, which had a serendipitous advert for a photo service in the window. The second address was now a shiny clothes shop, and we took photographs at each location posed as Ann had, 120 years ago.

We walked on to the Hamburg city museum, which had a small section on Jewish history in the city, but didn’t find very much there to tell us about the experience of Jewish migrants. So we left the grand buildings of central Hamburg, heading past the river port where crowds of tourists waited for expensive boat rides, and got the S-Bahn down to an area called Veddel, cut off from the city by two expanses of water. This is the area that Jewish migrants from Russia and Eastern Europe would have been sent to await their passages onwards – to England, and on to America or South Africa.

Emerging from the station we see that it is still a migrant area, with more cultural diversity than in the rest of the city. Its unglamorous, with crowded blocks of flats looking out onto the railway lines and busy roads. We head to the migration museum (wonderfully named ‘Auswandererwelt’ in German), sited in the old accommodation blocks built by Alfred Ballin’s shipping company in the early 1900s. Sponsored by a US company, the museum tells a somewhat disneyfied story of the thousands of Germans and Jews who emigrated to America, via lots of old suitcases, wooden models fixed in longing poses, and a very scary full-scale horse that suddenly starts nodding at me. We didn’t learn anything new relating to the Filaratoff’s story, but it was interesting to see the point of departure for many of the migrants who would have travelled via Hull. It feels like we are very slowly piecing together a jigsaw of physical places, that give some sense of solidity to lives we can only imagine.

We decided to walk back, past the container docks and industrial sprawl between Veddel and the centre of town. First we looked for the ‘harbour museum’ which we found on an unlikely looking unpopulated road, in a huge old warehouse. It was about to close, but the woman at the ticket desk let us have a quick look – a complete contrast to the previous museum, this was a totally unpolished jumble of dusty artefacts piled high on rickety shelves.

Walking, we reflected on the way that certain histories continue to echo in the same sites in cities. And then we begin to talk about our practice as artists, and the words we use to describe ourselves, and how inadequate they can be – but how they can offer us a way into something, or a way to frame something. Perhaps in searching backwards for the evasive stories of our ancestors, we are also searching sideways and finding new ways to see ourselves, and one another.

Rebecca Beinart