The Jews of Lithuania

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




Before the Second World War, the city of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, had slightly more than 200,000 inhabitants. Of these, 100,000 were Jewish. In addition, there were over 200 Jewish communities living in Lithuania, constituting over 240,000 people. Vilnius had 105 synagogues and there were six daily Jewish newspapers. Yiddish was the language of the Jewish inhabitants (Yiddish is in no sense ‘corrupt German.’ It was the language of the German Jews who fled to Poland during the crusades when the cowardly crusaders murdered Jews living along the Rhine River).  Because of its great Jewish population, Vilnius was labeled the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

After the Second World War, only 24,000 Jews survived the mass murders conducted by the German invaders and the Lithuanian Christians. 90% of the Lithuanian Jews had been murdered by the time the Germans lost the war. Today, Vilnius has a Jewish population of only 5000, a mere 5% of what it once was. The entire country is home to only 6500 Jews, of whom 200 are Holocaust survivors. During the occupation of Lithuania by the German army, Jewish communities were wiped off the map entirely. Today there is only one synagogue (Greek for assembly) in Vilnius.

The Crusades began in 1095 and continued for 200 years, during which many of the German Jews who fled to Poland settled in Lithuania. They came there at the invitation of grand Duke Augustus the Second and his son Augustus the Third. The Jewish communities did very well in Lithuania, as they not only developed important Jewish scholarship but also founded a scientific institute which published numerous scientific works. 

Most important were the Lithuanian yeshivot, or Jewish schools, which produced so many major scholars that it was said among Jews that the Lithuanians were the brains of the Jewish community. Outstanding among these great intellectuals was Rabbi Elijah Ben Shlomo Zalman, who was also called the great gaon, or genius, of Vilnius. He was the world’s greatest thinker and authority on Torah and Talmud, having revealed his genius at a very young age.

In the 19th century, Vilnius was also the center of the Jewish labor movement. In addition, it became a city full of libraries, schools, theaters, museums, medical facilities, and scientific institutions and publishing houses. This means that in addition to its religious significance, the Jewish community there was also in the forefront of intellectual secular development.

Today there is no ordained Rabbi in Lithuania. Instead, Rabbi Shmuel Kahn comes from London, England, and visits Vilnius once a month. Members of Chabad, a Jewish organization founded by the late, great Rebbe Schneerson, also visit Vilnius and keep alive its Jewish heritage. There is in Vilnius today a street called the Yiddish Gas. Gasse is the German word for alley.

In 1941, during the Holocaust, ghettos were established. The inhabitants were slaughtered either in Lithuania or sent to Polish concentration camps.

In 1987, a Jewish state Museum was established in Vilnius, and the University of Vilnius today teaches Jewish history and philosophy classes.

During the Holocaust, the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sigahara issued 6000 visas for safe passage out of Lithuania to Jews despite his government’s order not to do so. He has been labeled one of the Righteous among Nations by the Yad V’ashem in Israel.

In sum, Vilnius and the Lithuanian Jews sustained authentic Judaism as long as they existed. Therefore the Germans  and their Lithuanian collaborators shall, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, live in infamy forever.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Assault on Democracy (2017).

Home ] Up ]