Jewish Vilnius

more than a year ago
Lithuanian Jews can be traced back seven centuries. The classic Lithuanian Jew (Litvak) is known in folklore for a love of education, no-nonsense straight-talk and a sharp wit. Jews were settled from an early date in Vilna as the capital is known in Jewish culture (more precisely Vilne in Yiddish).
The first historical sources that mention the Jews go back 3,300 years to ancient Egypt. Ever since then they have been the victims of – and have fought against – countless persecutions. They were even blamed for the spread of the plague and leprosy in Europe, prompting thousands to be murdered. In 1492, they were expelled from Spain.
Some Jewish families were attracted to starting a new life in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1323, Grand Duke Gediminas issued an invitation for craftsmen and merchants to settle there, stressing the tolerance of local people, and in 1388 under Vytautas the Great, the Duchy’s Jews gained their first charter.
The charter was confirmed in 1507, by which time more than 6,000 Jews were residing in the Grand Duchy. Jews were also involved in changing and lending money and the local nobility often asked them to maintain their financial affairs. By the mid-16th century, around 30,000 Jews called the Grand Duchy their home. Many more sought sanctuary in Lithuania during the bloody Northern Wars and Great Plague of 1708-11.
Jewish communities tended to exist fairly independently, with each local community (kahal), made up of rabbis and elders responsible for collecting taxes and maintaining public buildings. A council, or Va’ad, kept close relations with the monarch and made sure the correct taxes were given to the state, while steadfastly opposing any anti-Jewish legislation. Jews in other countries could not boast of such autonomy.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had become home to the world’s biggest Jewish population. In 1800, at least a quarter of a million Jews lived in Lithuania, but by then the country had been absorbed into the Russian tsarist empire.
Hassidism, which strengthened traditional principals of faith while urging people to enjoy life, was spread in Lithuania by learned rabbis. But Vilna was also the world capital for traditional Talmudic learning, eventually becoming known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, or Jerusalem of the North. Towering over the many great Jewish figures the city has produced is unquestionably the Vilna Gaon (‘Wiseman’) Elijah son of Shlomo Zalman (1720-97), who criticised Hassidism.
Towns large and small would be connected by wholesale and retail trade networks, while Jews established themselves as successful tailors, grocers, furriers, clothiers, innkeepers, doctors and herbalists. Academies for young Jewish men, yeshivot, in Kaunas, Vilnius, Telšiai and Panevėžys were internationally renowned.
Life for Jews in the tsarist empire was restrictive, however. Throughout the 19th century, a Pale of Settlement was put in place in the western borderlands where Jews were allowed to settle. Jews were not permitted to move from there into the inner regions of Russia. Jewish boys were forced to conscript into the Tsar’s army for a term of 25 years, many of them forced to be baptised. By the outbreak of World War I most Jews were impoverished, with irregular incomes.
Jews were instructed to move out of villages, as they were blamed for alcoholism and dishonesty among local people. Although Jews made up little over 14% of the population of Lithuania, towns like Ukmergė became more than 50% Jewish. Small towns known as shtetl thrived with dozens of wooden houses, a wooden synagogue and countless artisans.
At the same time, however, Litvaks were known for their dedication to science as well as religion, their high intellect and individualism. Though the Haskalah tradition which promoted Jewish assimilation with other cultures was slow to take hold in Lithuania, communities gradually opened up more. Zionism, which looked to the creation of a new state in Palestine, also gained in popularity. In Vilnius, Kaunas and other cities and towns, traditional rabbis clashed with progressive cultural activists. At the same time, anti-Semitism increased among Christians, spurred on by rumour and propaganda.
As the 20th century approached, Jews become renowned activists, writers, journalists and businessmen. Famous Litvaks included the brilliant violinist Yasha Heifetz, the influential artists Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz and such expressive native-Yiddish writers as Abraham Sutzkever, Chaim Grade and Moshe Kulbak.
Between the wars, Vilna – at that time under Polish rule and known as Wilno – was a bustling international centre of modern Yiddish culture and scholarship. Jews made up more than 36% of the city’s population. Yiddish schools, newspapers and many other institutions flourished. Vilna had more than a hundred synagogues and prayer houses. Famous libraries such as the Strashun Library had more than 35,000 rare volumes of literature by the mid-1930s.
Scholars gathered in Berlin in 1925 founded YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, to be located not in Prague or Warsaw but in Vilna, with branches in Warsaw and New York. Honorary members included Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. It was between the wars that Vilna truly became known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania – the capital of Yiddish culture and learning.
But this thriving life was cut short. During the Holocaust around 95% of Lithuania’s Jews – 200,000 women, children and men – were murdered, the highest percentage in Europe, destroying centuries of Jewish existence in Lithuania. Many were killed by local collaborators, including the vast majority of the 80,000 Jewish residents who lived in Vilna before the Nazi invasion of June 1941. Sites of mass murder can be found throughout the country. Today, Lithuania’s small Jewish community of three to four thousand makes bold efforts to maintain its extraordinary and valuable heritage.
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