Jewish Vilnius: A city concealed, a city revealed

This storied city known as Vilna, Wilno, Vilne – however you spell it and say it – was a place of spirituality and learning for Jews.

Vilnus 311 (photo credit: Lynn O’Rourke Hayes)
Vilnus 311
(photo credit: Lynn O’Rourke Hayes)
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 clouds.
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 Lithuanians.
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 need.”
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 atrocities.
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.