Fotografas R. Ščerbauskas
© R. Ščerbauskas

Bella Shirin was born in Kaunas after her parents returned to the city from a concentration camp. During the Soviet era, Bella’s family was one of the first that was allowed to leave to Israel. However, even after she had adapted to life abroad, she has always kept the love for her hometown alive. A conversation with a charismatic Kaunas resident about nostalgia for native Kaunas and the decades-long journey home.

You were born and spent your childhood in Kaunas. However, you have left the city while you were still very young and went to Israel. Why did you want to return to Kaunas?
I missed Kaunas for many years. After we have left, I used to cry every night for a couple of years, but later I learned the language and got used to life in Israel. However, I have always kept hope that one day we would return to Lithuania. I constantly talked about this with my parents. We couldn’t even dream that Lithuania would become independent. When it happened, I started making plans about coming back to Lithuania with my Mum and Dad. However, my father fell ill with cancer at the time, and I had to look after him. Later, my son got married, I had two grand-daughters. For me, family commitments have always been one of the most important values in life. That’s why I have postponed my return to Lithuania and helped to raise and educate my grand-daughters, the way it seemed right to me. After they grew up and my Dad died, in 2004, I started my journey back to Lithuania. I didn’t hold a citizenship of Lithuania, and it took a long time to process the documents. I wasn’t angry about this – I understood that these are the state regulations and I need to learn and know a lot about Lithuania myself.
During your childhood, Kaunas was going through the Stalinist regime, but several years ago you returned to an independent city that is restoring and reshaping itself. How do you feel about this? Is this the same home that you missed while you were in Israel?
In 2004, when I came back to Kaunas for the first time, I went outside and saw that nothing has changed. Kaunas was the same as it was when I left: green, lively, those same houses and streets. I loved it. The next morning, I went shopping to Merkurijus at that time. I couldn’t believe that I could find everything that I have ordered to deliver in a container which was on its way to Lithuania already.
It is a pity that so many young and talented people are leaving Lithuania. It was one of the reasons for me to return to Lithuania. I feel indebted to Lithuania. The years that I have spent in Israel were very hard for Lithuania, and I wasn’t there and couldn’t help the local people. I am here, now, and I want to help.
How did Kaunas change over the last decades?
I don’t want Kaunas to change. I want all the buildings that city residents appreciate remaining here. On the other hand, the progress of art and culture is amazing. Catching up with Kaunas in these fields will be difficult for other Lithuanian cities. I am extremely proud of young Kaunas creators. They are talented and professional but very humble (laughs).
You had creative ambitions of your own too, hadn’t you?
The biggest dream of my life was to become an actress. When I was still a child, my teachers told me that I was very gifted. I had only one flaw: I was chubby. I remember I once got a role of a tomato. I stood on stage and cried because I was a big tomato. After arriving in Israel, I understood that my fullness was standing in my way, and, over several years, I lost the weight. One of the most famous Israeli directors noticed me. Though at the time, following my father’s will, I studied music, even he admitted that I was born for the theatre. So, I went to England for theatre studies. I met my former husband there. When our son was two years old, we separated, and I had to raise my son alone. I couldn’t make a living from art, so, I started working at the bank. I was a currency specialist and later an investment specialist, although I didn’t understand numbers nor I loved math. I would sleep or dream when they sent me to investment courses (laughs). Paradoxically, I was very successful in the field I hated. I was one of the best employees.
What would you choose now: business or art?
Art. You don’t need to know a language in art. Music, fine arts, dance, photography, and other arts have a language of their own. And despite their origin, everyone understands it. I believe that namely this property allows culture and art to start an evolutionary process of Kaunas transformation, which is the city’s aspiration in seeking to become the European Capital of Culture. And the theatre still hasn’t let me go. I and director Ina Pukelytė are working on my future mono performance Shalom Belissima based on my life story. Shalom means „peace“ or „see you later“, and belissima – Italian for beautiful/beauty – it’s me. I am from the second generation of Holocaust survivors. So, I have seen hard times. I believe that the performance will be excellent. If it is successful in Lithuania, I plan to translate my part (two students will play along with me) to Hebrew and show it in Israel.
Do you think Kaunas residents know enough about Litvaks and their culture, and the fact that certain stages of city history are inseparable from it?
People today want to understand, explore, and learn about Litvak culture. I am very glad about this. The young generation must learn about Litvak history too, but it is important to present it with moderation and show not only the heavy side of the history but the good side too.
You are an ambassador of „Kaunas: European Capital of Culture 2022“. You plan to translate the reports and news of the project into Hebrew and share with Litvaks. What are your ambitions in this city and what would you wish for Kaunas in the future?
Not only Litvaks but Israelis too can be involved in the activities of the upcoming “Kaunas: European Capital of Culture 2022“ project. We can organise creative, artistic camps for both parents and children. Kaunas must present itself in the best and most interesting light. We have everything – spaces that can be used and people who create and are active in the cultural field.
I don’t like when for the Litvaks who come to Lithuania they organise tours that are usually focused on Jewish cemeteries and the dark part of Litvak history. We must show the beautiful Lithuania and – what is more important – organise meetings with Kaunas residents. I chose to live in Lithuania because I believe that Lithuanians are our friends. Litvaks need to interact with the Lithuanians and visit Lithuania more often. The third generation Jews who were born in Israel and heard about what has happened in Lithuania during the war are afraid to visit. I want to change that. A few years ago, my cousin, who left to Israel when she was seven years old, came to Lithuania for the first time. She was frightened of Lithuania from her childhood. I and my childhood friend Reda have shown her various Kaunas places that are left out during usual sightseeing tours. My cousin and my friend became close friends following this meeting. Now, they visit each other in Lithuania and Israel.
I want – and wish this for Kaunas – that Kaunas gave a start for one of the biggest European projects. Culture, tolerance, and peace are the three keywords that I follow in my life. Anything is possible: you only need to wish and act. The sky is the limit.

Video: Marius Paplauskas