Amost intriguing aspect of Vilnius, Lithuania, is that it’s “first you don’t see it, then you do.” You can walk along the winding streets and past small inviting houses in its Old Town, without realizing you are in what was the Jewish ghetto. Yes, it is memorialized by a sign here and there, but unless you know what to look for, you will see nothing. And if you know what to look for, a world awaits.
Vilnius is not what it seems – even its name. This storied city known as Vilna, Wilno, Vilne – however you spell it and say it – was a place of spirituality and learning for Jews. Scholars and religious leaders were so profoundly important to Jewish life here that Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of the North.” Taken with the city’s charm and vibrant religious life, Napoleon supposedly was the first to pay it that tribute.
Visiting Vilnius can be delightful.
Compact and stylish, it has a medieval castle, intriguing Old World
architecture, high-quality concerts and ballet, a variety of restaurants
and accommodations in every price range.
It earned its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and 2009 European
Capital of Culture. But, as on TV’s Betipul, Vilnius has secrets. Peel
back the layers, peer into the past and become inspired.
There are fascinating traces beyond the faint Yiddish letters on ghetto
buildings. Starting with the Middle Ages, Jews arrived here. By the
1700s, their numbers and influence became significant. Before World War
II, Jews made up more than a third of the city.
Then the whole country seemed to disappear for 50 years behind the Iron
Curtain; it was the first to break away from the USSR, in 1990. By that
time most of its Jews were already gone.
Some had made Aliya, like the Litvak families of Binyamin Netanyahu and
Ehud Barak. Shimon Peres lived 100 kilometers from Vilnius.
Before the war, there were a hundred synagogues and study houses.
Fifteen years ago Chabad opened its doors in an apartment house. The
city has but one synagogue building: the Choral Synagogue in the heart
of the ghetto. This Moorish-style edifice, with its blue letters in
Hebrew, had a congregation with a progressive outlook when it was built
in 1894. It allowed music, thus the name “choral.”
WHEN I WENT there to Shabbat services, there were initially so few
people that services were to be held in a small side chapel. It seemed
difficult to get a minyan. But Rabbi Chaim Burnshtein, who commutes
between Vilna and Israel, told me they always have a minyan and hold
services three times a day. “Vilna’s Jews don’t have strong roots,” he
said, “but they have a strong sense of Jewish identity.”
Just minutes before we were to begin, the situation changed. Local tour
guide Yulik Gurewich brought in a raft of young Russians to tell them
about this beautiful synagogue with its domed ceiling painted with
The visitors wanted to stay for services, so the congregants switched to the main sanctuary.
As a woman, I was seated behind a lace curtain on the first floor off to
the side. The young Russian women sat upstairs in the ornate balcony,
also reserved for females. The Russian men prayed along with the locals
on the first floor facing the ark and then turning around to face
Jerusalem. Again things are not what they seem. The synagogue was used
as a warehouse during the war, its contents stolen by both Germans and
Today it is sparingly furnished.
Finances are a constant problem for this synagogue, as they are for the
whole fragile Jewish community, which is subsidized by the Joint
Distribution Committee and several other Jewish organizations. As
Simonas Gurevicius, executive director of the Jewish Community of
Lithuania, explained, “From more than 50 families before the [economic]
crisis, now we have got more than 150 young Jewish families who are in
After services, I made my way through the ghetto area. It is charm
central! Cobblestone streets, smallscale buildings with folkloric motifs
painted on window shutters. Store windows are full of tempting designer
pastries, amber and luxury linens, mostly for visitors. Antiques and
art galleries make up the rest of the shops.
Vilna’s one kosher restaurant, the Kinneret, sports white tablecloths.
Vilna’s past glories overshadow today’s luxuries. Old Town once was
truly Jewish. In fact, one street is named Jew Street (Zydu Street).
Another is named for the revered Vilna Gaon who lived here from
1720-1797. The Gaon’s house on Zydu Street was destroyed, along with
others. Close by was the Strashun Library, renowned for Jewish
scholarship. The Great Synagogue, built in 1572, was nearby. All gone,
except for a few plaques! But it is what the plaques don’t say that is
most important. During World War II, Jews not from this part of the
city, were forced into the ghetto. People lived too many to a room,
struggling to get by. The Jewish community was basically in prison, one
in which contagion spread easily. These people were cut off from the
rest of the city – its schools and culture. What did they do? The Jewish
community started its own schools, set up medical clinics, created its
own orchestra – even an active lending library. Songs of defiance, songs
of hope were composed. (You can hear them once again at the city’s
Holocaust museum.) The community held strong.
It kept its humanity and its desire to live. This besieged Jewish
community created, lived, studied, taught, and survived– up to a point.
Statues of significant Jewish citizens erected in the last few years can
be found throughout the area. One statue is of Dr. Tzemah Shabad, the
community leader who, among other contributions, created TOZ, providing
much-needed medical services for the poor. Another sculpture honors
novelist Romain Gary, who lived here before moving to France. (Strangely
enough, there is a statue of rock star Frank Zappa, who has no
connection to the city. Citizens liked him so much they honored him.) At
the Little Green House in town, more comes into perspective. This
unassuming place is a Holocaust museum with a profound impact. Photos on
the wall remind us of the talented and famous of Vilna: violinist
Jascha Heifetz, painter Chaim Soutine and sculptor Jacques Lifschitz.
Prominent artist Samuel Bak was just a boy in the ghetto.
This is where YIVO, the repository of East European Jewish culture and history, now based in New York, started.
Documents present straightforward facts. They are staggering. A German
report lists the number of Jews killed in each country: 220,000 Jews
were in Lithuania before the war, 3,500 after.
Today, according to the Jewish Community, there are 5,000 in the whole country – 3,500 in Vilnius.
Equally meaningful in the ghetto area is the Tolerance Museum, also
known as the Museum of the Vilna Gaon. This building survived from the
1800s. Its incarnations reflect some history of Jewish life here. Early
on, it was a soup kitchen for the poor – as the Jewish community always
looked after its own. Then it became a small exquisite concert hall –
concerts can still be held here. It has been beautifully restored in the
last 20 years.
Today its glass and its gleaming floors help create an aesthetic setting
for a museum of Jewish culture. You can’t help feeling proud to see
what Jews created for their spiritual and daily life.
Strikingly crafted are sterling Torah pointers, colorful painted wooden
plaques, memorabilia of the great Romm publishing family – numerous
reminders of the rich center of Jewish learning and spirituality that
typified Vilna for 600 years. Not just artifacts, but people and ideas,
of course, made Vilna great.
SADLY, THE many deaths in this ghetto area was only phase one. One of Vilnius’s beautiful aspects became its ugliest.
Pine forests surround much of the city, peaceful, quiet, lush – so
attractive that feature film producers use them for location shoots. But
it was to one of these forests, Panaerai, also called Ponar, that the
Jews were transported by the Nazis. Some were killed immediately and
thrown into death pits. Others were forced to clear the bodies. More
than 70,000 Jews were murdered. Large marble monuments attest to those
Right by the monuments is a small museum. The exhibits are both edifying
and horrific; victims’ shoes, photos, clothing, tefillin, remnants of
papers and identification are on display. One story about forced
laborers tells how they dug a tunnel to escape from their German
captors. Chilling, remarkable accounts, like this one, known as the
escape of the burner’s brigade, are still being researched and revealed.
The history of Vilna is sobering, heartbreaking and heartening all at
the same time. Although much has been lost, if you go to the “Jerusalem
of the North,” there is still much to be found.