The 19th century marked a period of grandeur for Lithuanian Jewry. Jewish culture blossomed and Torah study reached new heights.
The illustrious and influential Jewish communities of Lithuania have become legendary. Lithuania was a world center of Jewish learning, home of renowned yeshivas such as Panevezh, Slobodka,Telz and Kelm, . The Jewish communities of Lithuania produced countless Rabbinic leaders and Torah scholars – the foremost among them Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna – popularly known as the “Vilna Gaon”.
The Jews were the largest ethnic minority in the country and at times held a majority of seats in the local town councils. But despite their significant influence (or perhaps as a consequence of it), the Jews suffered greatly from harassments and pogroms. The end of the 19th century saw a large wave of emigration with tens of thousands of Jews leaving Lithuania for the United States and South Africa. Little did those Jews realize just how fortunate they were to leave when they were still able to.
In 1923, according to the official census, 153,743 Jews lived in Lithuania, making up 7.5% of the general population. With the outbreak of the war, Jewish refugees poured into Lithuania from Poland raising the Jewish population to about 250,000 (10% of the population). The annihilation of the Lithuania’s Jews by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators began in June 1941. Over 90% of them were murdered – the highest rate of Jews killed during the war in all of Europe.
May their memory be a blessing.