Vilna in the 1930s.

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(Pol., Wilno; Rus., Vilna; Yid., Vilne), capital of the republic of Lithuania. In 1323, Gediminas made Vilnius the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The city became part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. It fell under the domination of the Russian Empire after the Polish Partition of 1795; in the interwar period (1920–1939) it was under Polish control. At the end of World War II it was the capital of the Lithuanian SSR until independence in 1991. The city’s large Jewish population and atmosphere earned it the nickname “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

Fifteenth–Eighteenth Centuries

Vilna had a Jewish population as early as the middle of the fifteenth century, although Jews moved there from German-speaking areas only in small numbers in the face of opposition by local merchants as well as a privilegium (charter) banning Jews granted by Grand Duke Sigismund I to the residents of the city in 1527. Not until 1593 did the Jewish settlement receive legal approval on the basis of its own privilegium granted by King Sigismund III.

The shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) of the Great Synagogue, Vilna, 1930s. (Center) Clocks show the times for prayers on weekdays and Sabbaths. (YIVO)

Tensions between Jews and non-Jews persisted throughout the seventeenth century, prompting the Jews to seek the renewal of their privilege several times. By the middle of the 1600s, about 3,000 Jews lived in Vilna, comprising approximately a quarter of the population, making the city one of the major Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. As such, it was entitled to representation in the Lithuanian Jewish Council, where it was given a seat in 1652. In the aftermath of the occupation of the city by the Muscovite army in 1655, the Jewish community numbered only about 400 persons, representing roughly 10 percent of the total population. At the same time, anti-Jewish activity recurred, instigated chiefly by the Jesuit order and local artisan guilds, and accompanied by physical violence. In 1690, a blood libel case resulted in the execution of two Jews.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Vilna was captured by Swedish and Russian armies. The devastation brought by the wars, coupled with frequent plagues, repeated fires, and the continuing hostility from the local gentile population, led to a decline in the city’s economic status. Both individual Jews and the community as a whole were unable to pay their debts to private lenders and to ecclesiastical officials. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Jewish population numbered approximately 3,500. Jews were accorded at least partial protection by such monarchs as Augustus II (in 1713), and Stanisław August Poniatowski (in 1776), as well as Michał Radziwiłł, the wojewoda (voivod; provincial governor) of Vilna, and bishops Konstanty Brzostowski and Ignacy Massalski. The last quarter of the eighteenth century signaled the transfer of rule from Poland to the Russian Empire. At the same time, Vilna’s Jewish community witnessed significant growth, its numbers growing to about 5,700 in 1800.

Street scenes in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lith.), 1929, in and near the old Jewish quarter, including a fragment showing the shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard). (Amateur film shot by American Jewish travel agent Gustave Eisner.) (YIVO)

After receiving its privilegium in 1593, the Jewish community in Vilna began functioning in an organized manner. Led by the annually elected kahal (community board), it subsequently assumed responsibility for several neighboring smaller communities. In addition to the kahal, a number of other communal bodies operated, chief among them the Raḥash (an acronym for rabbi, cantor, and syndic) assembly. In the nineteenth century, this body, composed of the economic and political elite, was replaced by the Sheloshah u-Shenayim Pene ha-‘Ir (Thirty-Two Dignitaries), a legislative authority that met several times a year to elect members to the kahal and to establish policy on issues affecting the community as a whole.

The second most important communal body after Raḥash was the Tsedakah Gedolah (Great Charity Fund/Association). Its leaders were responsible for coordinating all welfare activities, including overseeing the allotment of weekly stipends to the needy, paying wet nurses to care for orphaned babies, paying burial costs for indigent families, and distributing Passover food. Special sources of income were designated to finance these activities and kept separate from general communal funds, enabling the welfare system to function even when the communal treasury was depleted.

Vilna’s synagogues—especially the Great Synagogue—served as the center of religious life. The religious worldview of Vilna’s Jews tended toward the rationalistic, a factor reflected in the Torah study methods of local scholars. The best-known representative of this school was Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna (1720–1797; known as Gra, from Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu), whose influence on the Lithuanian method of Torah study was crucial. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Jewish community of Vilna was one of the first and most important centers of resistance to the Hasidic movement. Vilna’s religious leadership included chief rabbis of the community, chief halakhic decisors (more tsedek), preachers (magidim), judges, and heads of yeshivas. The position of chief rabbi was especially prestigious and was filled by such well-known figures as Menaḥem Chajes (1617–1636), Mosheh ben Yitsḥak Yehudah Lima (1650–1652) and Yehoshu‘a Heshel (1749–?). The position was eliminated in 1785 due to differences of opinion on the nature of the position and the character traits desired in an ideal candidate.

Under Russian Rule (1795–1914)

During the nineteenth century, Vilna experienced a renaissance, with the city again becoming an important political and economic center. Its status was reflected in the construction of new neighborhoods and in such modernization efforts as telegraph and telephone networks (1838; 1886); railway connections (1860); the creation of a municipal sewage system (1899); and the establishment of an electric power-generating station (1901).

Three generations of the Szabad family: Yosef Szabad, a merchant (seated, center) and his wife, Pesa, a shopkeeper and daughter of a rabbi, Vilna, 1897. One of their sons, Tsemaḥ Szabad (back row, sixth from left) became a prominent doctor, communal leader, and politician. Photograph by N. Serebrin. (YIVO)

After recovering from the Napoleonic conquest of the region, Vilna experienced accelerated demographic growth. Continuing deterioration of the economic situation in the countryside brought about an influx of Jews from nearby towns and villages, with the city’s population increasing to 53,000, of whom 20,000 were Jews. Many young Jews envisioned a future in Vilna, as the city had already become one of the most important educational, cultural, and political centers in Eastern Europe. Its Jewish population continued to rise, reaching roughly 40,000 by the early 1880s (45% of the total population). This demographic change was also expressed in an intracommunal balance of power; families representing the former political and economic elite gradually ceded power to newcomers such as the Opatów, Natanson, Strashun, and Fuenn families.

The stature of the community was confirmed in 1847 when Sergei Uvarov, the Russian minister of education, gave his approval for the government-sponsored rabbinical and teachers’ seminary to be located in Vilna. The relatively lengthy sojourn of Moses Montefiore while on a visit to Russia in 1846 was also a sign of Vilna’s prestige. At the same time, the Jewish population suffered under repeated cholera epidemics, physical violence during the Polish rebellions of 1831 and 1863, a heavy tax burden, and hostility on the part of some segments of the non-Jewish population.

In 1844, the Russian government abolished the institution of kahal throughout the empire, including Vilna. Nevertheless, the authorities left the community responsible for overseeing such functions as distribution of charitable funds, burials, maintenance of the Great Synagogue, education of orphans and children of poor families, payment of taxes, and selection of conscripts for the Russian army. These tasks now became the responsibility of the Tsedakah Gedolah, which functioned as an autonomous body until 1931, at which time Polish authorities ordered that it be merged with the new Jewish community board.

Gathering at the Tif’eret Baḥurim yeshiva, located in the shulhoyf in Vilna’s old Jewish quarter, in honor of the departure of Rabbi Yeḥi’el Sreluv for Palestine (Hebrew banner, top), Vilna, 1930s. The Hebrew banner at front, center, reads: “The Glory of Young Men Is Their Strength” (Prv. 20:29). Tif’eret Baḥurim (The Glory of Young Men) was a common name for yeshivas and other Jewish institutions in Eastern Europe. Photograph by Sz. Wajsbord. (© Vilna Archive, Ghetto Fighters’ Museum, Israel)

As a result of the religious dispute that had split the community during the second half of the eighteenth century, the heads of the rabbinic court served as acting communal rabbis. Among those who held this position were Abele Posvoler (1804–1836) and Yeḥezkel Landau (1836–1870). The more tsedek, a rabbinic authority on halakhic questions, played a central role in the spiritual life of many members of the Jewish community. In the absence of a chief rabbi, the status of the more tsedek increased. The most outstanding local scholars were chosen for this position, among them Aryeh Gintsburg, Yitsḥak Schirwinter, Shelomoh and Betsal’el ha-Kohen, and Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski. Beginning in the 1830s, a government-appointed crown rabbi served alongside these “spiritual rabbis.” Among them were Sheftel Klatzko, Avraham Gordon, Mordekhai Nemzer, Yehudah Leib Kantor, and Yitsḥak Rubinstein. The city magid, or chief preacher of the community, played a unique role in Vilna. His status was close to that of the head of the rabbinical court and many considered him as the most important religious figure in the city. The best-known senior preachers included Shelomoh Zalman Volf, Yitsḥak Eliyahu Landau, Ya‘akov Yosef Ḥarif, and Bentsiyon Ilfas, known for his Zionist orientation.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the heder and the Talmud Torah were the predominant educational institutions in Vilna. Despite the importance and centrality of the Vilna community, no outstanding yeshiva functioned until the first quarter of 1800s. Torah study was carried out within small circles of scholars who studied independently or under the direction of well-known scholars. This learning environment produced some of Vilna’s renowned scholars in the field, including Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman and Shemu’el Strashun. The city also attracted scholars from other places, such as Avraham Danzig, Ḥayim Naḥman Parnas, and Yisra’el ben Ze’ev Volf Lipkin (Salanter), the founder of the Musar movement. Ramayles, the first well-known yeshiva in Vilna, was founded in the mid-1820s and continued to operate until World War II. In 1827, the Yeshiva of the Forty was founded, with a third yeshiva established a little more than a decade later. Alongside these well-known yeshivas, smaller centers of learning operated in various houses of study throughout the city.

Reading room of Strashun Library, Vilna, 1939. (YIVO)

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, Vilna was one of the most important centers of the Haskalah movement in Eastern Europe. In its earliest stages, the Vilna Haskalah arose spontaneously, supported by local merchant families such as the Rosenthals, the Klatzkos, the Blochs, and the Katzenellenbogens. The impressive response in 1808 to the establishment of a modern school (with more than 100 students enrolling in just three months) attests to the internalization of the maskilic worldview among various circles in the city. By the 1820s, the home of the Katzenellenbogens was already a center of educational and social maskilic activity, attracting students who would later fill key roles in the East European Haskalah. At the same time, Vilna fostered diverse literary, journalistic, and historiographic activities, with participation by such figures as Avraham Dov Lebensohn, Mordekhai Aharon Gintsburg, Ayzik Meyer Dik, Kalman Schulman, Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn, Mordekhai Plungian, and Matityahu Strashun. In 1908, the Society of Hebrew Writers was founded.

In the 1830s and 1840s, several private coeducational maskilic schools were founded. In the late 1840s, government-sponsored schools for Jewish children were established, as well as the seminary mentioned above (est. 1847). During the last quarter of the century, the number of Jewish students at gymnasia and other non-Jewish schools increased, as did that of students in private Jewish gymnasia, such as the Kagan School (for boys) and the Sofia Gurevich School (for girls). In 1893, there were 11 government-sponsored schools for Jews. At the same time, there were many traditional heders as well as modernized ones for both boys and girls. Seven schools for girls existed by 1901, attended by more than 850 students.

Nurses and children at a TOZ (Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population) nursery, Vilna, 1934. (YIVO)

Vilna was also an important center for Jewish journalism, beginning with the appearance of the journals Pirḥe tsafon (1841, 1844) and Ha-Karmel (1860–1880). In the nineteenth century, the city became known as a center of printing and publishing, and the collecting of Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Members of the Romm family were pioneers in the area of Jewish publishing. Their printing house, run for many years by Devorah Romm, was the largest and most important Jewish publishing establishment of its kind at the time, gaining fame for its edition of the Talmud. Other presses included those of Fuenn, Rosenkranz and Shriftsetzer, and Matz.

As a result of reforms instituted by Tsar Alexander II, from the 1860s on, the area open to Jewish settlement was expanded, military conscription was eased, and Jews were permitted to sit on governing boards of such local public institutions as hospitals, banks, and city councils. The Jewish population of Vilna swelled to roughly 63,000 (41% of the total population) in 1897, to 76,000 in 1901 (46%), to 85,000 in 1903 (52%), and to perhaps as many as 100,000 in 1905 (51%). This rapid growth led to the formation of a large proletarian class with a consequent decline in wages and increased poverty. Thousands of workers lived in damp, stifling dwellings, a situation that was slightly eased thanks to the generous support of such Jewish philanthropists as Baron Maurice de Hirsch. This growth was stemmed somewhat by the emigration of many young Jews, mainly to South Africa. Pogroms in Ukraine in 1881 and hostility toward Jews on the part of Alexander III, Nicholas II, and the local governors-general contributed to an increase in tensions among the various segments of the city’s population, culminating in a notorious blood libel case in 1900.

Yankev Pat (center, second from right), general secretary of the Bund’s Central Association of Yiddish Schools, during his visit to the Sholem Aleichem Folk School, Vilna, 1938. (YIVO)

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community of Vilna reflected an array of ideological and political movements. Socialism enjoyed considerable support, with small cells active during the last quarter of the century. Prominent members included Arkadii Kremer, L. (Iulii) Martov, and Shmul Gozhansky. In 1897, the General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Russia, and Poland (the Bund) was founded in Vilna. Agitation on the part of workers’ organizations and Jewish socialist groups led to repeated confrontations with authorities. Extreme force was used to break up demonstrations, with many participants arrested and exiled. When Governor Victor Von Wahl suppressed a May Day demonstration in 1902, a Jewish youth named Hirsh Lekert made an attempt on his life, for which he was tried and hanged. In 1905, members of the Vilna Bund organized demonstrations and strikes throughout the city, as well as all over Russia. Prominent members of the local branch included A. Litvak (Ḥayim Ya‘akov Helfand), B. Cohen-Virgili (Barukh Mordekhai Cohen), and Moyshe Rafes.

The Zionist movement found active supporters in various local associations as well as within such Zionist associations as WIZO, the Jewish National Fund, and Keren Hayesod. The full ideological spectrum of Zionism was represented, with a multitude of youth groups linked to the various organizations. Intense Zionist activity also found expression in many publications, including the newspaper Ha-‘Olam, which was published in Vilna between 1909 and 1912. From 1906 to1915, the headquarters of the Russian Zionist Federation was located there.

World War I and Its Aftermath

The body of A. Vayter, executed by Polish Legionnaires during the pogroms that accompanied the entry of the Polish Army into Vilna in April 1919. His death became emblematic for Jews, representing antisemitism and other challenges they faced in the period immediately after the establishment of the Polish Republic. (YIVO)

With the outbreak of World War I, thousands of Jewish refugees from nearby regions gathered in Vilna. The Jewish population of the city, however, decreased significantly as a result of forced labor for the German army, a high mortality rate caused by the spread of various diseases, and a wave of emigration, with most going to America. During this period, the community was governed by an aid council that, together with the Tsedakah Gedolah and other organizations, helped local Jews cope with the severe problems that arose during the war years.

The period immediately following the war was characterized by political, economic, and social instability. Despite the establishment of Vilnius as the capital of the new independent Lithuanian state that was declared on 16 February 1918, the city was captured first by the Russian and subsequently by the Polish army. Beginning in April 1919, Polish rule ushered in a period of abuse, arrests, and severe attacks against Jews by various segments of the Polish population. A shortage of food, combined with an influx of Jewish refugees, placed a heavy burden on the community. The brief period of Lithuanian rule (27 August–9 September 1920) was characterized by plans for improvement in the quality of life of the Jewish residents, including the appointment of Rabbi Yitsḥak Rubinstein as a local acting minister of Jewish affairs, the allotment of municipal funds to the Jewish welfare system, and the plan to establish a chair for Jewish studies at the local university.

Itinerant carpenter with tools of his trade, Vilna (now Vilnius, Lith.), 1920s. (YIVO)

From February 1922 until September 1939, Vilna (Wilno) remained part of Poland. This period was marked by incessant tension between Poles and Jews, including the boycotting of Jewish stores, prohibitions on kosher slaughter, deliberate discrimination against Jewish students at the local university (from 1931 on), and physical attacks that frequently escalated into pogroms. The economic status of the city’s Jews also deteriorated. Overcrowding, increasing unemployment, and stiff competition resulting in the closing of workshops and factories all contributed to a rise in the number of those requiring assistance from welfare institutions.

During this period, the communal administration operated under extremely difficult conditions resulting from the hostile attitude of Polish authorities, the precarious economic situation, and internal tensions within the Jewish community. Given this situation, in 1935 the representative bodies of the community were disbanded and replaced by a special executive that was appointed for a period of two years. In a parallel development, Jewish representatives were elected to the Vilna city council. Following the annexation of Vilna by Poland, a number of the city’s Jews were elected to the Polish Sejm and senate, including Jakub Wygodzki and Yitsḥak Rubinstein. Nonetheless, as a result of widespread antisemitism in many segments of Polish society, the 1930s witnessed a gradual decline in the involvement as well as the degree of influence of Vilna’s Jews in these bodies.

Though still under Polish rule, Vilna remained the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” the undisputed capital of Lithuanian Jewry. Indeed, the city’s cultural importance far exceeded its size. In 1915, a Hebrew gymnasium was established, and after the war a variety of educational institutions (kindergartens, schools, gymnasia) affiliated with various movements were also founded, including Tarbut (Hebrew); Tsentraler Bildungs Komitet (Yiddish), Shul Kult (Yiddish), Taḥkemoni (National Religious), and Yavneh (Ḥaredi).

The YIVO Institute was founded in Vilna in 1925 to further the study of the Yiddish language as well as Jewish culture and society. Members included Zalmen Reyzen, Maks Erik, and Max Weinreich. Among the most prominent local Yiddish writers were Shmuel Leib Citron and Moyshe Kulbak. Beginning in 1927, a group of young Yiddish writers and poets calling themselves Yung-Vilne was formed. It included Shlomo Beilis, Avrom Sutzkever, Leyzer Volf, Chaim Grade, and Shmerl Kaczerginski.

A man diving into the new swimming pool at the Maccabi Sports Club, Vilna, 1930s. (YIVO)

Diverse political opinions found expression in a variety of newspapers and magazines, among them Di tsayt, Der veker, Dos yidishe folk, Der tog, Yidishe tsaytung, Tog, and Unzer fraynd. The lively cultural scene included painting (Mosheh Leibovski, Ber Zalkind), theater (Vilner Trupe, Yidisher Populerer Teater, Ha-Studyah ha-Dramatit, Habimah ha-‘Ivrit), opera and music groups (Makhon le-Musikah, Agudah Filharmonit), and sports clubs (Maccabi). Historical and ethnographic research could be conducted in several libraries (the Strashun Library, the library of the Society for the Dissemination of the Haskalah, YIVO).

Zionist activity led to an increase in immigration to Palestine. For example, 1933 saw 2,800 Jewish immigrants from Vilna, representing roughly 35 percent of the total number of immigrants from all of Poland. The organizational and political frameworks of Orthodox circles were provided by the local branch of Agudas Yisroel, founded by Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski in late 1919. This group was active in both local community and municipal affairs. A significant part of its activity was educational, leading to the establishment of a council of yeshivas in 1924. Its official organ was the newspaper Dos vort.

Holocaust (1939–1945)

Jews sorting books and other documents in the YIVO building, where the Nazis established a sorting center for Jewish cultural treasures looted from YIVO and other Jewish institutions, Vilna, ca. 1942. Members of this sorting team risked their lives to smuggle out and hide materials, some of which were recovered after the war. (YIVO)

At the outbreak of World War II, Vilna was captured by the Soviet Union and transferred to Lithuanian rule. In July 1940, the city was annexed, with the rest of Lithuania, to the Soviet Union, and on 24 June 1941 Vilna was captured by the German army. Shortly thereafter, the Germans, with the assistance of local collaborators, began to murder thousands of Jews in the nearby Ponary Forest, and at the beginning of September all remaining Jews were herded into two ghettos. In early July 1941, the first Judenrat was established, most of whose members soon meet their deaths in the Ponary Forest massacre. Following the liquidation of the “small” ghetto, life in the “large” ghetto was administered by the Judenrat, headed by Jakub Gens.

Throughout 1942–1943, the Germans continued the systematic extermination of Vilna’s Jews, including the expulsion of many to camps in Latvia and Estonia. Despite this, cultural and social welfare activities in the ghetto continued apace. The United Partisan Organization, made up of various underground political organizations, operated in the ghetto. Among its leaders were Yosef Glazman, Abba Kovner, and Yitsḥak Wittenberg. The Vilna ghetto was liquidated by the Germans in September 1943, with most of the surviving Jews in the work camps murdered at the beginning of July 1944, shortly before the liberation of the city.

The Postwar Period

With the annexation of Vilna to the Soviet Union in July 1940, formal activity on the part of communal institutions and related organizations was all but terminated. Following the war, some 6,000 Jews returned to the city, with their numbers increasing to 20,000 by the early 1970s, mainly as a result of migrations from Russia and Ukraine. During the last quarter of the twentieth century—mainly since the establishment of an independent Lithuanian republic in 1991—many of Vilna’s Jews immigrated to the United States and to Israel. In 2005, roughly 3,000 Jews lived in the city, enjoying full religious, cultural, and political freedom. Under an independent Lithuania, the Jewish community was reinstated as a voluntary organization. Its administrative staff, which is chosen by members of the community, is active in the areas of religion, social welfare, and culture.

Suggested Reading

Yitzhak Arad, Vilnah ha-yehudit ba-ma’avak uva-khilayon (Jerusalem, 1976); Israel Cohen, Vilna (Philadelphia, 1943); Lucy Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938–1947 (New York, 1989); Marina Dmitrieva and Heidemarie Peterson, eds., Jüdische Kultur(en) im neuen Europa: Wilna, 1918–1939 (Wiesbaden, Ger., 2004); Marek Dworzecki, Yerusholaim de-Lita in kamf un umkum (Paris, 1948); Aaron Isaac Grodzenski, ed., Vilner almanakh (Vilna, 1939); Szmerke Kaczerginski, Khurbn Vilne (New York, 1947); Israel Klausner, Toldot ha-kehilah ha-‘ivrit be-Vilnah (Vilnah, 1938); Israel Klausner, Vilna bi-tekufat ha-Ga’on (Jerusalem, 1942); Israel Klausner, Vilnah, Yerushalayim de-Lita: Dorot aḥaronim, 1881–1939 (Loḥame ha-Geta’ot, Isr., 1983); Israel Klausner, Vilnah, Yerushalayim de-Lita: Dorot rishonim, 1495–1881 (Loḥame ha-Geta’ot, Isr., 1988); Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944 (New Haven, 2002); Leyzer Ran, ed., Yerusholaim de-Lita (New York, 1974); Yisra’el Rudnitski, ed., Vilner zamlbukh / Me’asef Vilnah (Tel Aviv, 1974); Yehuda Slutsky, “Bet ha-midrash le-rabanim be-Vilnah,” He-‘Avar 7 (1959/60): 29–48; Zalman Szyk, Toyznt yor Vilne (Vilna, 1939); Jacob Wygodski, In shturm: Zikhroynes fun di okupatsye-tsaytn (Vilna, 1926); Mordechai Zalkin, “Me’afyenim u-megamot bi-fe‘ilut ma‘arekhet ha-revaḥah bi-kehilat Vilnah be-reshit ha-me’ah ha-tesha‘-‘esreh,” in Mi-Vilnah li-Yerushalayim, ed. David Assaf et al., pp. 25–42 (Jerusalem, 2002).



Translated from Hebrew by Barry Walfish