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Recollections of life before 1939 evoke the rich diversity of Vilna’s thriving Jewish community, including its multiple synagogues and political and social organizations. The impact on daily life of rising antisemitism foreshadows far darker times to come.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
The Vilna survivors who testify in this first episode came from different backgrounds but from the same generation: the first cohort of Jewish youth to grow up in independent Poland. The Polish constitution guaranteed all citizens equal rights. But in practice Jews were second-class citizens in a state that privileged the interests of ethnic Poles (although non-Poles were 40 percent of the population). Devastated by the destruction of World War I and plagued by a sluggish economy that never recovered from the loss of traditional Russian markets, the new state increasingly saw Jews as unwanted outsiders whose prominent role in Polish commerce and industry constituted a dangerous threat to Polish national interests.
In Vilna, Polish-Jewish relations were even more fraught, symbolized by one date: April 19, 1919. For Poles, this was a revered holiday that marked the day when Polish troops first liberated Vilna from the Bolsheviks and reestablished Polish rule for the first time since 1795. Jews had different memories: of a vicious pogrom fomented by Polish troops that claimed 55 Jewish lives, left hundreds of Jews wounded, and saw massive looting of Jewish property and widespread humiliation of Jews in the streets, including the pulling of beards and casual assaults.
Although violence subsided once the Polish-Bolshevik War ended, subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination continued, fueled by the anti-Jewish propaganda of the nationalist and Catholic press. With the death of the strongman Józef Piłsudski in 1935, growing anti-Jewish violence and economic boycotts sent an unmistakable message to Poland’s 3.5 million Jews that they had to defend themselves—not only politically and economically, but psychologically. As the late Israeli scholar Ezra Mendelsohn reminded us, and as we learn from these witnesses, it was “both the best of times and the worst of times” for the Jews of Poland (and for the Jews of Vilna, in particular): the worst of times because of rising antisemitism, the best of times because Polish Jewry emerged as the most culturally and nationally conscious community in the Ashkenazi Jewish world.
As these testimonies show, Vilna’s Jews felt compelled to “circle the wagons.” The aura of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” its history, collective memory, and special status among eastern European Jewry all served to spark an intense upsurge of collective energy. Vilna Jews built a modern Jewish life that rested on new institutions—schools, self-help societies, newspapers, clubs, synagogues, youth groups. But the new blended with the old. It was anchored in the solid foundations of centuries of Jewish creativity and learning and on the firm bedrock of Jewish tradition: YIVO and the Bund coexisted with traditional neighborhood prayer houses that also doubled as credit societies and social clubs.
In 1926, the Yiddish poet Moshe Kulbak, who was also a beloved teacher at the Real Gymnasium, the crown jewel of Yiddish education in Poland, wrote in his poem “Vilna”:
You are a psalm spelled in clay and iron
a prayer is every stone, a chant, a melody is every wall,
you are an amulet darkly mounted in Lithuania
A book is every stone, a scroll, a parchment is every wall
and Yiddish is the ordinary oak garland,
suspended over the approaches
at once sacred and commonplace
to the city.
Here Kulbak evokes the special aura of interwar Vilna, a place that sanctified the mundane, where the stones and streets of the city were likened to a prayerbook and a psalm—and where Yiddish enjoyed a respect it had nowhere else. Vilna indeed became a center of secular Yiddish culture, with institutions such as YIVO, the Real Gymnasium, and the Technikum. But alongside Yiddish secularism, there was also a religious Vilna, led by the revered rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, and a Zionist Vilna, which boasted the famed Tarbut Hebrew High School.
Despite serious differences that divided Zionists, Orthodox Jews, and Bundists, they were all united by a common language: Yiddish. As Meir Vilnai-Shapiro relates in this episode, “To me the language was Yiddish—signs, stores, conversations, friends.” Some Jewish families, especially very wealthy ones, like William Begell’s, spoke Polish or Russian at home. But one might say that they were the exception that proved the rule. (And, furthermore, as Begell relates, his excellent Polish education did not spare him from antisemitic taunts and insults. Samuel Bak’s parents, also Polish speaking and well-to-do, removed him from his Polish school and put him in a Yiddish-speaking one after a Polish boy spit in his face.)
Thus, interwar Jewish Vilna created a new communal spirit imbued with Jewish pride and a determination to hang on. The late professor Arcadius Kahan wrote that Vilna Jews were “hyper-organized,” and it was hard to find a Jew in Vilna who was not an active member of some kind of society or organization. Sheila Zwany recalled that “they had a synagogue from shoemakers. They had the synagogues from carpenters. They had the synagogues from all kinds of professions.” Sylvia Malcmacher remembered that “the whole town was geared to Jewishness. Academies, Hebrew schools, universities, theaters, libraries. They had synagogues. Every second street were synagogues.” During a time when Polish Jewry was under attack, Vilna stood out for its strong feelings of social solidarity and communal obligation, nurtured both by traditional Jewish values and by the important presence of Vilna professional Jewish elites: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and writers. This critical mass of Jewish professionals, especially doctors, continued the traditions of public service and communal involvement they first acquired as members of the old Russian intelligentsia. And as Abram Zeleznikov recalled, many Vilna Jews still had vivid memories of the heroic struggle that Jewish revolutionaries waged against the tsarist autocracy. Zeleznikov’s father was a leader of the Jewish Labor Bund, the democratic socialist Jewish party that was born in Vilna and that fought for social justice and for Yiddish culture. By the eve of the war, the Bund was the strongest party in Jewish Vilna.
In the 1930s, Vilna’s Jews found themselves threatened as antisemitism increased. State tax policy made it even harder for Jewish businessmen to compete. The late Lucy Dawidowicz, who spent a year at YIVO from 1938 to 1939, recalled aggressive Polish pickets who stood in front of Jewish shops and tried to keep customers out. Stefan Batory University became a hotbed of antisemitic violence and brawls between Jewish and Polish students. During one nasty demonstration, Max Weinreich, the director of YIVO, was struck by a rock that cost him the sight in his right eye. Haim Bassok remembered the ghetto benches that were intended to segregate Jewish students in the lecture halls. Rather than accept them, Jewish students stood during the entire lecture. Hitherto prosperous Jewish merchants also discovered that they could not escape the growing anti-Jewish campaign. Mira Verbin recalled how in 1938 her father was forced to hire a fictitious Polish “front man” to save his business.
As young people came of age, they gradually became more aware of the difficulties they would face in Poland. They were also facing growing generational tensions. Henny Durmashkin Gurko’s testimony is just one example of a widespread phenomenon: the refusal of many young people to accept the religious norms of their parents. Unsure of their future, often uneasy at home, often rejected by their non-Jewish peers, young Jews in Poland turned to their own friends for support and companionship.
The youth movements became a truly novel feature of life in Poland. While some existed before World War I, it was during the interwar period that they acquired mass appeal. Whether Zionist, Bundist, or Communist, youth movements gave their members a home away from home, an alternate family, a nurturing counterculture. Ideology played a major role, but so did literature and theater. Mira Verbin remembered joining the Shomer Hatzair (Zionist Youth) movement at age 11: “I had great company, friends, I was happy there. My sister joined the Communist Youth. My parents were a bit worried about it, but we had a liberal home and they tried not to oppose our desires.” She would leave her parents’ home to join a Zionist farm in central Poland that prepared young people for emigration to Palestine.
Despite differences in ideology, there were striking similarities between the youth movements. Most had a club room (lokal) and a library. No generation in the history of the Jewish people read as intensely and voraciously as the young people of interwar Poland. They looked to Remarque and Gorky, Romain Rolland and Upton Sinclair, Peretz and Bergelson to help them define and solve moral and personal dilemmas. Literature raised questions that were often debated in a kestl ovnt, during which young people would reach into a box and pull out a topic to be discussed. The youth movements sponsored amateur plays and long hikes. Young men and women socialized together, often to the dismay of their parents. YIVO autobiographies, not surprisingly, showed that many young people agonized over relationships and sexual conduct.
The youth movements offered dignity and psychological compensation to young people. They helped break down long-held prejudices in Jewish society against artisans and manual workers. Zionist youth movements held out the hope, however slim, of emigration to a kibbutz in Palestine. Bundist and Communist young people learned about the dignity of work and about a socialist future that would give them the opportunities they so sorely lacked in the present. And they inculcated idealism and mutual trust. Young people badly needed these qualities as they faced an uncertain future. It was from these youth movements that the leaders of the ghetto uprisings in Vilna, Bialystok, Krakow, and Warsaw would emerge. They will all play a prominent role in the episodes to come.