Last winter, Thia Steinhardt went on a journey through her family history.
Steinhardt, 26, traveled with friends on a week-long visit to Lithuania and Israel. She had wanted to go to the town her family was from in Lithuania, but as the town wasn’t located on any train line, that wasn’t possible.
Instead, she visited the Holocaust museum in Vilnius. There, she was particularly moved by a temporary photography exhibit called “Non(Existence),” which attempted to capture a sense of Lithuania’s endangered Jewish culture.
Steinhardt grew up Conservative in Princeton, N.J., where she attended Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. She now is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University studying biomedical engineering. Specifically, her work focuses on how electricity can be used to interact with the nervous system.
Did you have an interest in family history before going to Lithuania?
My family did have a bit of an interest in their own personal history, maybe compared to other families. I have three brothers — I’m the youngest of four — and every bar mitzvah and my bat mitzvah, we would do the family history slideshow. My parents would go through, and we would talk, as far as we could go back, [about] our family tree, about my mom’s side and my dad’s side.
I knew we had this history throughout my family that we were trying to trace back. I knew about as far as we could trace back, it was a little bit Ukraine and basically Lithuania.
I always found it very interesting; in particular, thinking about Lithuania being a very small country. I knew a few things about Lithuania. I knew that they have a really great basketball team. I knew there was a passion for chess there. I knew that it was a start-up culture.
There were a lot of things there that resonated with me, where I thought that, going there, there might be, not only this history, but also this similarity where I would feel really at home. I was very excited about this idea of finding a connection to my past in the present.
What did you learn from your experience there?
I felt like I got a better idea of the Jewish Diaspora experience. There is a Holocaust musuem in Lithuania, in Vilnius, and if people do visit, I suggest that they go and support it because it’s one of the few Jewish organizations that’s really present in Lithuania. They had a really great and detailed history of how the Jews lived in Lithuania.
One of the things I learned is that Lithuania was considered basically a safe haven for Jews, because as they got pushed to the east, places that were basically the serfdom of these richer countries or richer empires, where … people literally couldn’t read. They didn’t have enough people to work in the government, to do all the reading, to do the legislature, to do the math.
So eventually Jews found a safe haven because they had skills that were necessary. … This lack of education provided an opportunity for safety for Jews but also not so much safety. There was this constant state of being misunderstood.
What does your Jewish identity mean to you?
My Jewish identity is a part of me that can’t be erased. To me, I will always be Jewish, and it’s something I am going to pass on to my children. My Judaism is a part of who I am, and it is quite literally in my blood. It’s something that I’m proud of.