a lost world
Vilna - "Jerusalem of Lithuania"
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Vilna was the spiritual and cultural center of Eastern European Jewry, abounding in religious, cultural, political and philanthropic institutions. Home of great rabbis and scholars, writers and thinkers, artists, craftsmen, and educators, Vilna was appropriately dubbed “The Jerusalem of Lita”.
“Jewish Vilna was an environment whose walls, corners and cellars breathed memories of gigantic intellects, reminiscences of self-sacrifice for Jewishness, of reverence of God and man, of charity and the thirst for knowledge.”
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Vilna legacy of learning, culture and creativity followed the Jews into the Nazi ghettos where they tried to continue a dignified life in the face of hardship and imminent death.
By the end of the war, the Lithuanian Jerusalem was no more.
Vilna's Jewish Cemeteries
The Užupis Cemetery
Pre-War Jewish population of Vilna
According to the Russian census of 1897, the Jewish residents of Vilna numbered 63,831 – more than 40% of the general population.
During the following years, anti-Semitic harassments, pogroms, and poverty triggered a large wave of Jewish emigration from Lithuania and as a result, the Jewish population of Vilna steadily declined. This trend, however, reversed after WWI. The 1921 census reports 46,559 Jews in Vilna (36.1% of the population). In 1931, the number rose to 55,000 (28.2%) and to 60,000 by 1939. Four years later, over 90% of these Jews were no longer among the living.
The New (Suderves) Jewish Cemetery
Before WWII, the Soviets opened a new Jewish cemetery located on Sudervės kl. A few years later the old cemeteries were totally demolished. The Jewish community was allowed to transfer only a small number of graves from the old cemeteries to the new one.
Just past the entrance to the cemetery stands a large marble slab, salvaged from the Uzupis cemetery. Etched into the stone is a prayer recited when entering a cemetery.
Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna - "The Vilna Gaon"
Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman was born in 1720 in the Grodno province of what is today Belarus. Already at age three and a half, young Eliyahu displayed a remarkable proficiency in Hebrew Scriptures and at age 6 was recognized as a child prodigy. At the age of seven, his knowledge of the Jewish texts surpassed that of his local teachers and he was taken to Keidan to study under the guidance of Rabbi Moses Margalit. Studying mostly on his own, he mastered not only Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah and rabbinic literature, but also astronomy, mathematics, and geography. Eventually, the gaon settled in Vilna where he became the uncontested rabbi and intellectual leader of the Jewish community.
Widely known in Yiddish as the Vilner Gaon (the ‘Genius’ from Vilna), Rabbi Eliyahu’s fame spread throughout the Jewish world. The Gaon was known for his humility and unwavering commitment to Torah study, refusing to take on any formal Rabbinic posts. A vehement opponent of the Hasidic movement, his influence prevented Hasidism from gaining a strong foothold in Lithuania.
The Vilna Gaon’s legacy of rigid Torah learning and intellectual analysis lives on through the many ‘Litvishe’ yeshivas (Torah academies) which sprouted in Lithuania and continued to thrive in Israel and the US.
Avraham ben Avraham, the Ger Tzedek
Alongside the grave of the Vilna Gaon, lies the ashes of the “Ger Tzedek” (righteous proselyte). Who was this Ger Tzedek?
The Ger Tzedek was born in the early 18th century as Valentin Potocki, the son of a wealthy Polish nobleman. His story was transmitted orally from generation to generation to avoid the wrath of the censors.
Valentin Potocki and his friend Zaremba, traveled to Paris to study for the Catholic priesthood. There they encountered an old Jew studying Torah and implored him to teach them the Hebrew Bible. They continued studying Torah secretly and eventually decided to convert to Judaism – a capital offense at the time.
Valentin converted in Amsterdam, taking on the name Avraham Ben Avraham, and then, fleeing the authorities, he moved on to Vilna. His friend Zaremba converted a few years later and moved to Eretz Israel.
Avraham Ben Avraham lived secretly in a village near Vilna. Few knew his real identity. One day Avraham rebuked a young boy for creating a disturbance in the synagogue. The boy’s spiteful father, suspecting that this newcomer was the missing Potocki, reported him to the authorities. Valentin was arrested and charged with heresy. His parents begged him to spare his life by renouncing Judaism, but he totally rejected the idea saying that his love of truth exceeds all.
On the second day of the Shavuot holiday 1749, Avraham Ben Avraham was burned alive at the stake. Despite a decree that the ashes were not to be collected, the Gra (Vilna Gaon) sent Reb Leizer Shiskes, a beardless Jew, to gather the ashes. Bribing a guard, Shiskes obtained the ashes and two fingers which had not been consumed. These were placed in an earthenware jar and buried in the Jewish cemetery.
For over a century and a half, the Vilna Jewish community commemorated the yahrzeit of Avraham Ben Avraham Z”L, who became known as “The Ger Tzedek”. Every year, on the second day of Shavuot, they would relate the story of the Ger Tzedek and recite Kaddish.
In the 18th century, most of Vilna’s Jews lived in the “Old Town” which was then surrounded by a defensive wall. Most were not wealthy and their homes were usually basement apartments with small windows on top for air and light. They would make a living by opening a stand outside their home, selling fruits, vegetables and all sorts of odds and ends.
The19th century saw an increase in the Jewish population. The community expanded outside the old walled city, establishing outstanding Jewish cultural, educational and philanthropic institutions.
During the Nazi period, the Old Town became the Jewish ghetto. By the end of the war, almost all of Vilna’s Jews were dead and their synagogues and institutions destroyed. Lithuania came under Soviet domination. The Soviets made sure to eradicate any vestiges of Judaism that survived the Nazis. After Lithuania achieved independence in 1990, the Jewish community begin to restore and preserve the little that could still be salvaged. Dispersed throughout the streets and neighborhoods of Vilna, one finds numerous memorials, plaques and signs in Lithuanian and Yiddish (and sometimes Hebrew) reminding us of the glorious Jewish past in Vilna – “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”.
Before WWII, on this plot just opposite the Gaon’s home, there were 16 synagogues including the Great Synagogue of Vilna, built in 1630, one of the largest synagogues in the world.
When Vilna was bombed by the Germans, the synagogue was only partially damaged. It could have been easily restored, but the Soviets used the opportunity to entirely demolish the building and build a school in its stead.
Dr. Zemach Shabad
This monument, erected in 2007, is in honor of Dr. Zemach Shabad, a Jewish doctor and political activist. He served on the Vilna city council and in 1928 was elected to the Polish senate.
The story behind the monument
The monument depicts Dr. Shabad standing beside a small girl holding a cat.
It is told that one day as the doctor was sitting at home, someone came knocking at his door. He opened the door and there was this girl standing there holding a cat. She said that her mother sent her to see the doctor because her throat hurt. Dr. Shabad examined her and prescribed a glass of milk.
“But we don’t have any milk at home”, replied the girl. So the doctor went and brought her a glass of milk. After drinking the milk the girl remarked, “My cat also needs milk”. So the good doctor went back to the kitchen and brought some milk for the cat as well.
Along the streets of Vilna there are still visible signs in Yiddish of the previous Jewish owners. This store called “Prima” sold salt.
The Yiddish writing is faded but still visible
This building served as a library for the ghetto residents. On the top floor, there was a hidden room in which Abba Kovner and other resistance fighters met secretly to plan their activities. Here Abba Kovner delivered his famous call for resistance after he learned that the “labor camp” Ponar, was in reality a death camp in which the Jews were being shot to death by the thousands.
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The Vilna Ghetto Theater
In this building, the performances of the heroic ‘Jerusalem of Lita’ artists
were held in 1942 – 1943.
The Vilna Ghetto Theater
Artists and writers in the ghetto attempted to lift the spirits of the Jewish population by establishing a cultural organization offering lectures, artistic performances and concerts.
At first there was strong opposition to these performances claiming that “In a graveyard you do not do theatre”. Eventually, the Jewish theater became an accepted fact. Hermann Kruk who was initially a strong opponent of the theater, later wrote the folllowing in his diary of the Vilna ghetto:
And even so, life is stronger than everything. Life is once again pulsating in the Vilna Ghetto. In the shadow of Ponary, life is happening and there is hope for a better morning. The concerts that were initially boycotted are accepted by the public. The halls are full. Literary evenings are full and the great hall cannot hold everyone who comes.
The Jewish Culture and Information Center
At the Jewish Culture and Information Center located at Mėsinių 3A/5 you can purchase books of Jewish interest and see various exhibits.
In the basement, there is an authentic entrance to one of the old sewer systems which were used by the Jewish resistance for smuggling food and arms into the ghetto. Later they served as an escape route for hundreds of resistance fighters before the final liquidation of the ghetto.
The H.K.P. Forced Labor Camp
These two buildings were established by Baron Hirsh in 1898 as a dormitory for the needy Jews of Vilna. In 1941, these tenants were evacuated by the German Nazis. Some were sent to the ghetto but most were slaughtered in Ponar.
The Nazis turned the two buildings into a forced labor camp named H.K.P. About 2500 men and women worked here. Most of them were eventually taken to Ponar and killed.
The last 400 men and women remaining in the camp were murdered in this very place by the German Nazis and their local assistants. They were buried in the yard and in pits surrounding the houses.
“In the yard of the forced labor camp H.K.P, about 400 men, women and children were killed by the German murderers and their local assistants and were buried here in pits, on the 13th of Tammuz, 5704, 4.7.1944
May G-d avenge their blood”
The Choral Synagogue - "Taharot HaKodesh"
The Choral Synagogue, Taharat HaKodesh, was built in 1903 by the “maskilim” of Vilna. Although the Haskalah movement is sometimes regarded as a precursor to the Reform and Liberal movements, the maskilim in Vilna were much more conservative and even considered themselves in some ways disciples of the Vilna Gaon. This synagogue strictly followed the Gaon’s liturgy and there was a separation between men and women.
Before the war, there were some 100 synagogues in Vilna. This is the only one that survived the Nazis and Soviets, and remains functional to this day. The reason that it was not destroyed by the Nazis is because it is located outside the ghetto area and it was needed as a warehouse.
This building housed the Rabbinical Council (Vaad HaRabanim) of Vilna. In 1903, “the great activist of the Jewish national revival”, Theodor Herzl, visited the Rabbinical Council to discuss his ideas.
The Righteous Among the Nations
The Nazis could not have exterminated the Jews of Lithuania with such ease and efficiency had they not enjoyed the support of the local population. The Lithuanians, steeped in Christian anti-Semitism, enthusiastically welcomed the German policy for handling the Jews.
But there were many exceptions.
We pay tribute to those who risked their lives, defying the Nazi laws, to do what is right.
This building, a former Benedictine monastery, housed the government archives during the war. In a secret room behind a wall of bookshelves, a group of Jews were concealed and cared for by Dr. Juozas Stakauskas, director of the archives, and two assistants, Vladas Žemaitis and Maria Mikulska. The floor above the secret room, served as offices of the German SS and was bustling with activity. They never suspected that Jews were being sheltered right below them. One of the Jews died of natural causes, but because his body could not be safely removed from the hiding place, he was buried there in the same room until after the war. These three were honored by Yad VaShem as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Read Yad VaShem’s account here.