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The Jewish Community of Lithuania


Lietuva / Lietuvos Respublika - Republic of Lithuania

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 2,500 out of 2,800,000 (0.08%). Main Jewish organization:

The Jewish Community of Lithuania
Phone: +370 52 613 003
Fax: +370 52 127 195


The Jews of Lithuania

Even before the unification of Poland and Lithuania (in 1569) the condition of the Jews of Lithuania, who had settled in the first half of the 14th century, was more or less identical to that of their brethren in Poland, moving pendulum-like from receiving charters of rights from the local princes to expulsions and local anti-Semitic outbursts – a result of Christian religious incitement and jealousy at their financial success (although most Jews were poor, living hand to mouth).
The prolific cooperation between the Jewish communities, their near-universal literacy rates and their financial skills gave them a relative edge over the locals and led many nobles to invite them to manage their estates. Thus it was that alongside the traditional “Jewish” occupations such as being a tailor, butcher, a religious scribe and others, a new “Jewish” occupation developed: leasing the lands and managing the estates of the nobles.
Upon the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795) and the rise in the power of the noble class in Lithuania, the position of the Jews leasing the nobles' land improved, expanding their business to saloons and taverns as well, especially in the countryside. In those years, the body that negotiated with the authorities on behalf of the Jews was the Council of Four Lands (Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Lithuania and Russia-Volhynia) which gathered hundreds of Jewish communities under its jurisdiction and mediated between them and the powers that be.
The Jews lived with themselves, amongst themselves. They spoke their own unique language – Yiddish – established educational institutions and internal tribunals and managed the community's affairs in all aspects of life, down to the last detail. Proof of the solidarity between Jews can be found in the response of the Jews of Lithuania to the Khmelnitsky pogroms (1648) which devastated their brethren in Poland. Immediately following the massacres the “Lithuania State Council” collected large amounts of money from its member communities to ransom Jews held captive by the Tartars, and announced a period of mourning throughout the country. As a symbol of solidarity, the Jews of Lithuania were forbidden to wear opulent clothing or jewelry for three years.

The annexation of Lithuania to Russia marked the beginning of the attempts to integrate the Jews into the Czarist Empire. The Russians couldn't abide the state of affairs in which the Jews were secluded amongst themselves from the rest of the Russian subjects, and imposed obligatory general education upon them (“Laws Concerning the Jews”, 1804) as well as conscription to the Czar's army (“The Cantonists' Edict”, 1825). The Jews also suffered economic hardship, upon the decline in the power of the nobles and the commensurate reduction in income from leasing.
The ideas of the Enlightenment that seeped into the Jewish sphere, which until then ended at the edge of the shtetl, caused a cultural earthquake. Young boys read foreign literature in secret, girls began to study at the traditional “cheder” and the traditional beard was replaced by clean-shaven faces and fashionable pince-nez spectacles. These changes led to a crisis in the institution of the family. Sons left the home in search of an education and the divorce rate grew. A common witticism of the time among the Jews of Poland and Lithuania held that if you visit a house with two grown daughters living in it, you don't ask if one of them has divorced, but when the second one did. Furthermore, in the second half of the 19th century a mass migration of Jews took place from the small towns of the countryside into the large cities of Vilnius, Kaunas and Siauliai. Jewish society became a “traveling society” and old occupations such as cobbling and carpentry were pushed aside in favor of free professions such as banking and clerking.
The Jews of Lithuania also have a special connection to the Land of Israel which dates to 1809, when a large number of the disciples of The Gaon of Vilna, (aka the Gr”a), made aliyah and settled in Safed and in Jerusalem. These immigrants founded the “Bikur Cholim” hospital in Jerusalem and also took part in the establishment of the colonies of Gey Onni (now known as Rosh Pina), Petah Tikva and Motza.

1850 | Jerusalem of Lithuania

In the mid-19th century a large Jewish community began to form in the city of Vilnius. By 1850, for example, there were 40,000 Jews living in the city. Vilnius, known to Jews as Vilna, received the honorary title of “Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its status as a leading Jewish spiritual center. It was in this city that the prototypical figure of the “Litvak scholar” took shape, with its founding role model being Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman (aka The Gaon of Vilna, or the Gr”a, 1720-1797).
The Gaon of Vilna was considered a prodigy from a very early age, and it was said of him that “all the words of the Torah were laid out in his memory as though in a box”, and legend has it that he began delivering sermons at the synagogue at the age of ten. The Gaon of Vilna was perhaps most famous for the relentless campaign he waged against the Hasidic movement. He himself lived frugally, if not ascetically, in a small house. He never held an official public position and subsisted on a meager stipend from the Jewish community. Not content with encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and exegesis, the Gaon of Vilna was also well-versed in mathematics, astronomy, Hebrew grammar and more.
Many scholars believe that one of the reasons that the Haskala movement (the Jewish version of the Enlightenment) flourished among Lithuanian Jews was the fact that many of the Jewish intellectuals began their studies at various yeshivas, where their intellectual skills were honed and refined due to the ethos of the “studious one”, crafted in the image of the Gaon of Vilna.
The printing press also played a significant part in spreading the Haskala throughout the Jewish world of Lithuania. In 1796 a Hebrew printing press was founded in Vilnius, and in 1799 Rabbi Baruch Romm moved his own printing press from a small town near Grodno to Vilnius. This press was where the Babylonian Talmud was later printed. In 1892 the Strashun library was opened, and soon became one of the largest Jewish libraries in Europe.
In the second half of the 19th century Hebrew literature began to flourish in Vilnius. “Jerusalem of Lithuania” was the crucible that gave birth to some of the founding fathers of Hebrew prose and poetry, including Abraham Dob Lebensohn (aka Ada”m HaCohen), Micah Yosef (aka Miche”l), Rabbi Mordechai Aharon Ginzburg and Judah Leib Gordon (aka Yele”g) who combined the old world and the new in their works and opened windows onto knowledge and enlightenment for their readers.

1880 | Exile Yourself to a Place of Torah

The image of the Lithuanian scholar was a reflection of the general Jewish-Lithuanian profile, who was “by nature a man of the mind, of reason, modest and humble, who worships God out of an understanding that this is the way. He does not believe that the Rabbi can perform wonders outside of nature” (from “In the Paths of Jewish Lithuania” by Akiva Sela, 2007, p. 11)
The founder of the world of Lithuanian yeshivas was Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a pupil of the Gaon of Vilna. Rabbi Chaim gathered all the small yeshivas that were scattered throughout the length and breadth of Lithuania and united them under one roof in the city of Volozhin. The Volozhin Yeshiva operated until 1892, and on a smaller scale until 1939, becoming a success story. Rabbi Chaim branded it from the start as an elitist institution, leading thousands of young men from all over Eastern Europe to compete for enrollment, thus upholding the Mishnaic injunction to “Exile yourself to a place of Torah”.
Rabbi Chaim adopted the pedagogic approach of the Gaon of Vilna, who disapproved of “pilpul” (hair-splitting) for its own sake, and instead instituted a systematic study of the Talmud. This was at odds with the method of the great yeshivas of Poland, which practiced the “hair-splitting” dialogue approach to study.
In 1850 a new religious school of thought began to appear in Lithuania, the Musar ("moralist”) school, which many scholars see as a reaction to the rationalist, cerebral atmosphere of Volozhin. The founder of this school was Rabbi Israel Salanter, who came from a town in northwestern Lithuania. According to the Musar movement, which was somewhat similar to Catholic Christian precepts, man is born a sinner and must constantly examine and correct himself through study. The space in which this correction took place was the yeshiva, which dedicated several hours a day to the reading of morals books, chief among which was “Mesilat Yesharim” by the Ramcha”l (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto).
In 1881 the Slobodka Yeshiva was founded in a suburb of Kaunas, becoming the first and most typical yeshiva of the morals school. Later on additional moralist yeshivas were founded in Lithuania, among them those in the towns of Novardok (Nowogrodek) and Kelme.

1903 | Bund-ing

Following the pogroms against the Jews of the southwestern Russian Empire in the years 1881-1882 (the “Storms in the South” massacres) tens of thousands of Jews fled Lithuania to the west, mostly to the United States, to South Africa and to Palestine, where they kick-started the First Aliyah. In those days there were many fervent adherents of Zionism among the Jews of Lithuania. Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl foresaw that the Zionist movement would spread far wider among the Jews of Eastern Europe than among their brethren to the west, many of whom had lost much connection to their identity. And indeed, when Herzl visited Lithuania in 1903, he was received like royalty by the masses.
Later on in the early 20th century, the youth movements of Hashomer Hatzair, HeHalutz, Beitar and the Mizrachi Youth played a part in fueling the growing sympathy among the Jews of Lithuania towards the Zionist endeavor. The Hebrew language also flourished during this time, due to the operation of school networks such as Tarbut, the Hebrew Realgymnasium, theaters, and Hebrew newspapers, the most popular of which was “HaCarmel”, published in Vilnius.
But Lithuania was not just a hotbed for eager Zionists, but also the home of the Zionist movement's nemesis, the Bund movement, which stood for socialist universalism and the Yiddish language. The Bund, established in an attic in Vilnius in 1897 (the same year as the First Zionist Congress) is almost forgotten from the collective Jewish memory; but in those days of the early 20th century, when socialism was winning hearts throughout Europe and among Jews in particular, the movement was highly popular. One sign of its power was its May Day demonstration in 1900, attended by no less than 50,000 people.

1914 | Expulsion and Assimilation

Shortly after WW1 broke out a libel spread in Lithuania claiming that a handful of Jews from a small village near the city of Siauliai were aiding the German enemy by signaling information regarding the Czar's army. The libel gave the Russian authorities an excuse to deport tens of thousands of Jews from their homes. The expelled spread throughout southern Russia. Form many of them, especially the young, it was their first time outside the Lithuanian part of the Pale of Settlement. Many of them, particularly young yeshiva lads, quickly took to the boisterous, dazzling life of the cosmopolitan cities of southern Russia and drifted away from their family traditions. The Jews who remained in Lithuania were forced to live under the rule of Imperial Germany, which enforced a severe military regime and forced them to hard labor, even on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays. On the other hand, the German authorities allowed the Jews to compete for jobs in the public services, the municipalities, the post and the railroad – fields hitherto closed to them. The Germans even allowed the Jews to establish schools, libraries, clubs and theaters in Yiddish. In so doing the German occupation provided much needed oxygen to Jewish culture in Lithuania, which had been hard-hit early in the war.
At the end of the war, as the eastern front fell and peace was signed between Soviet Russia and Germany, the independent state of Lithuania rose once again. Some 100,000 Jews returned in organized groups from Russia to Lithuania and joined the 60,000 who had returned earlier or managed to avoid the expulsion.

1921 | The Golden Age

The period immediately following WW1 is considered the golden age for Jews in Lithuania. Upon the establishment of free Lithuania the Jews, who fought valiantly in the Lithuanian war of independence, helping hold Vilnius against the Polish invaders, were granted autonomy and fully equal rights, as well as representation in the first Lithuanian legislative council (the “Tariba”) - even though a large number of the significant Jewish-Lithuanian communities, including that of Vilnius, remained outside the borders of independent Lithuania.
The Jewish population of Lithuania consisted of over 80 organized communities, whose leaders were freely elected. The world of the great yeshivas – Panevezys, Slobodka, Telsiai – returned to its glory days. The press and literature flourished, and Yiddish and Hebrew reigned supreme.
Like everywhere else in the Jewish world, Lithuania too boasted vibrant national activity. Youth movements and training camps of all sorts raised a generation of pioneering Jewish youth. Alongside them worked the national parties, including the socialist Bund, the national-religious Mizrachi movement, whose representatives were active in the highest levels of Zionist politics, the Revisionists and Hashomer Hatzair. Hundreds of kindergartens operated in Lithuania alongside the Tarbut Hebrew school network and the Hebrew Gymnasium organization, which operated 13 schools throughout the country.
However, the rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and that of fascist movements, made its mark on Lithuania as well. In 1926 Lithuania's nationalists staged a fascist coup. The democratic parties were dissolved and most went underground. Two years later, in 1928, the last remnants of Jewish autonomy were abolished and the government handed the local cooperatives many of the trade and industry fields, such as the export of grain and flax, which had hitherto been the main sources of livelihood for many Jews. Throughout the 1930's anti-Semitic expressions and violent outbursts became more and more common.

1941 | In the Name of the Father

In August 1939, following the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Lithuania lost its independence. The pie of Eastern Europe was cut into thin slices, and Lithuania, with all its various populations, was swallowed by the Soviet behemoth.
Although Jews were among the hard core of the Communist Party, they received no significant positions in the new administration in Lithuania. Despite this, they were identified by the local Lithuanians with the Soviet occupation, which further increased their hostility. Concurrently, the Zionist movement was outlawed, and all the Hebrew-language schools were forced to teach in Yiddish.
In 1941, as the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty was violated by Germany and Lithuania conquered by the Nazis, the Einsatzgruppen units were tasked with the extermination of the Jews. Starting on July 3rd, 1941, these units executed a methodical plan of annihilation, which was carried out on a precise schedule. Many of the stages of extermination – locating the victims, guarding them, leading them to the killing plots and sometimes the killing itself – was done by Lithuanian auxiliaries, including military and police personnel. The mass slaughter was mostly conducted in the forests surrounding the cities and towns, on the edge of large pits dug by conscripted farmers, Soviet prisoners of war and sometimes the Jews themselves. Later on, the Jews remaining in small towns were transferred to ghettos created in nearby large cities.
A glorious chapter in the annals of the Jews of Lithuania during the Holocaust is reserved for the partisan resistance movement. The banner of rebellion was raised by partisan Abba Kovner, whose name literally means “father” and who coined the phrase “let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!” and who, along with his friends Josef Glazman and Yitzchak Wittenberg, established the Unified Partisan Organization (FPO), which operated in the woods.
The organization succeeded in obtaining ammunition, published an underground newspaper and carried out many acts of sabotage, but its main achievement was to instill a spirit of pride and self-respect among the Jews of Lithuania.
By the end of WW2 some 206,800 people – 94% of Lithuania's Jews – were annihilated.

2000 | A Homeland No Longer

After the end of WW2 Lithuania once again became a Soviet republic. Most of the Jewish community were not allowed to immigrate to Israel, and in accordance with the Communist ideology were also banned from any national or religious activity. Despite this, under international pressure, the authorities permitted the establishment of a Yiddish theater.
A census from 1959 shows that 24,672 Jews lived in Lithuania at the time, most of them in Vilnius and some in Kaunas. In the early 1970's a massive migration of Jews began from Lithuania to Israel, increasing further after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
In the year 2000 the Jewish community of Lithuania numbered only about 3.600 Jews, about 0.1% of the population.
In 1995 the President of the newly independent Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, visited Israel and asked the Jewish people for forgiveness from the Knesset dais. The level of anti-Semitism in Lithuania in the past two decades (as of 2016) is considered one of the lowest in Europe.

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Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
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