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Introduction: Remembering Vilna

Introduction: Remembering Vilna

“Vilna was once home to tens of thousands of Jews—more than a quarter of the population. By the end of the war, only a few thousand Jews had survived the Nazi genocide.”

Rudnicka Street, Vilna, 1935, later part of the Jewish ghetto. Credit: Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Israel/Photo Archive.

Those Who Were There co-producers Nahanni Rous and Eric Marcus introduce a few of the voices that, over the course of 10 episodes, will bring to life the once-vibrant Jewish community of Vilna, Poland (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania) and chronicle its destruction during World War II.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

The Jews of Vilna called their city the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” and for good reason: Vilna’s renown rested on its status as a major center of Jewish culture and Jewish learning. What made Vilna special was that it was able, more than anywhere else, to combine Jewish religious tradition with modern Jewish secular culture, and a respect for the past with an openness to new forms of Jewish expression. 

In 1935, Dr. Max Weinreich described Vilna’s unique “genius of place” as having a sense of history embedded not only in the consciousness and collective memory of the Jewish community but also in the natural landscape and the built urban environment. Vilna was home to one of the greatest Jewish sages, the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797), and was also the birthplace of the Jewish Labor Bund. 

The old heart of Jewish Vilna was the venerable synagogue court (Shulhoyf), which dated back to the 1600s and echoed day and night with the sounds of prayers and Torah study. But between the wars, Vilna Jews also constructed the headquarters of YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, which made Vilna the unofficial capital of Yiddishland, an imagined worldwide nation. A superb school, the Real Gymnasium, taught chemistry and physics in Yiddish. But Zionists, not to be outdone, built the Tarbut Gymnasium, the Hebrew high school whose graduates would include Yitzhak Zuckerman and Abba Kovner, who would go on to fame as leaders of the Jewish armed resistance during World War II. No city was more hospitable to women taking an active role in public life than Jewish Vilna. It was the first Jewish community to allow women to vote in communal elections, in 1918. 

Jewish Vilna was a paradox, especially between the two world wars, when it belonged to Poland. Grinding poverty—exacerbated by escalating Polish antisemitism, boycotts, and even violence—went hand in hand with a remarkable record of communal resilience and cultural creativity. There were hundreds of cultural organizations, self-help societies, theater groups, sports clubs, and libraries where Jews came together, forgot their political rivalries, and worked for the common good. 

In 1942, Zelig Kalmanovich, one of the city’s leading Jewish intellectuals, lamented in his ghetto diary the destruction of the “capital of the Jewish Diaspora.” By that time, two-thirds of Vilna’s Jews had been murdered. The rest were living on borrowed time. But what is telling is that Kalmanovich naturally assumed that Vilna was the capital of the Diaspora. A poor provincial city with only 60,000 Jews? Why not Warsaw or New York? 

A short answer is that in the modern Jewish world Vilna punched way above its weight. It represented a vision larger than the city itself: an ideal Diaspora city where Jews were proud to be who they were. Vilna Jews developed an ethos that balanced sharp political differences with a shared sense of community. Between the wars there were hundreds of institutions that were open to everyone, based on national pride and a shared language, Yiddish. Assimilation and acculturation were much less marked in Vilna than in Warsaw or Kraków, where the Jewish middle and professional classes were more likely to speak Polish. One might also say that Vilna was just the right size: a city, not a shtetl, but much smaller than a metropolis such as Warsaw or Łódź. There were enough Jews to build a civic culture, but not so many that they were strangers to one another. 

If there was any one person who dominated the collective memory of Vilna Jewry, it was the Vilna Gaon, or the GRA, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the 18th-century religious genius who forever shaped the character of Lithuanian Jewry by opposing the spread of Hasidism. Vilna Jews stressed that when the Gaon lived in Vilna, there were already 333 Jews who knew the Talmud by heart. So if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere! 

The Yiddish literary critic Shmuel Niger recounted a popular story in Vilna about children who ran after the Vilna Gaon–Rabbi Eliyahu–and yelled, “The Vilna Gaon! The Vilna Gaon!” The GRA is said to have turned to them and replied, “Vil nor vest oykh zayn a gaon.” (“Kids, if only you want it enough, you too can be a gaon.”) The key words here are “vil nor” (“if only you want it enough”). It was a pun on the name Vilna. The tale appropriated the words of the Gaon to legitimize the image of a secular Vilna that encouraged will, determination, consistent effort—and intellectual independence.

The Jewish collective memory had room for the secular as well as the spiritual. Vilna Jews also revered the memory of Hershke Lekert, a poor shoemaker who had been hanged by the tsarist government in 1902 for revolutionary activity. They did not forget Matisyahu Strashun, who founded the famed Strashun library, where on any Saturday afternoon between the wars, rabbis and Communists shared a desk as each sought their own versions of salvation. 

Over the centuries, Vilna saw many different rulers. Between 1569 and 1795 it was part of the Rzeczpospolita, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. From 1795 to 1915 it belonged to the Russian Empire. Between 1915 and 1922, it changed hands seven times, finally ending up in Poland (much to the dismay of the Lithuanians). In 1939, following the outbreak of World War II, the Soviets seized Vilna from the Poles, handed it over briefly to the Lithuanians, and in 1940 occupied Lithuania, only to be routed in 1941 by the Germans, who occupied the city until 1944, when the Red Army returned. 

From 1944 until 1990, Vilna was the capital of the Soviet Lithuanian Republic. Now it is a proud symbol of Lithuanian independence. On the eve of World War II, Vilna had a population of 200,000, about 40 percent of whom were Jewish, 50 percent Polish, and the remainder of various nationalities including Lithuanians and Belarussians. Today Vilna is almost entirely Lithuanian. Most of the Jews were murdered by the Germans, and after 1945 the Poles moved west. 

The Jews were not alone in their special love for Vilna. Vilna was a multinational city, set in a gorgeous natural landscape of lakes, rivers, and wooded hills. It was a kaleidoscope of diverse memories and clashing pasts. But how could it be otherwise? After all, it was not only the Jewish Yerushalayim d’Lite (the Jerusalem of Lithuania) but also the Lithuanian Vilnius, the Polish Wilno, and the Belarussian Vilnya. The Lithuanians cherished Vilnius as their ancient capital, while the Poles revered Wilno as the home of their national poet Adam Mickiewicz, their great leader Józef Piłsudski, and the Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz. The great Ostra Brama shrine was in the heart of Vilna, not far from the venerable Stefan Batory University, which for many centuries was the bastion of Polish culture on the frontiers of the wild east. Even the poor Belarussians had a special place for Vilna in their hearts. After all, before Lithuania became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, its official language was not Lithuanian but… Old Belarussian!

Both history and geography help explain why Vilna became such an important Jewish cultural center. The Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) in general, and Vilna’s Jews in particular, lived in the borderlands between Polish and Russian culture, vast tracts of land where the landlords were Polish, the peasants Belarussian or Lithuanian and, in 1915, the rulers Russian. The Poles lacked political power, while in the cities there were few Russians apart from civil servants or soldiers. And because of the relative weakness of Hasidism in that region, Jewish Lithuania was a natural center of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. The modernization of Lithuanian Jewry took a “Jewish direction”: a modern Jewish politics centered on Zionism and Bundism; a keen interest in Hebrew and Yiddish literature; and a strong sense of community and mutual responsibility. 

This sense of community and mutual responsibility also left its mark on the history of the Vilna ghetto: its Jewish leadership, its remarkable cultural life, and its important resistance organization. It is hoped that the following podcast episodes will give listeners a better sense of that special place that Jews called Yerushalayim d’Lite.


Additional readings and information

In the early 1930s, a song about Vilna (lyrics by A.L. Wolfson and music by Alexander Olshanetsky) became an instant hit:

Vilne shtot fun gayst un tmimes, (Vilna, city of spirit and innocence)

 Vilne yidishlekh fartrakht, (Vilna, conceived in Jewish ways)

Vu es murmlen shtile tfiles, (where soft prayers are murmured) 

Shtile soydes fun der nakht. (soft nocturnal secrets)

Click here for the full lyrics in Yiddish and English.  And click here to listen to a version by Adrienne Cooper, Zalman Mlotek, and the New Yiddish Chorale.