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[Page 84]

Vilnius between Lithuania and Poland

54°41' 25°19'

 

(Memoirs, by the late Moshe Cohen)

 

Yoffe and Rosenbaum draw Lithuanian borders

Translated by Shimon and Oron Joffe

In the summer of 1920, delegations from the Soviet Union and Lithuania met to negotiate a peace treaty between the parties. A. Yoffe, at that time, the deputy foreign minister of the Soviet Union, headed the Soviet side and Dr Shimon Rosenbaum, for a short time a Lithuanian deputy foreign minister and president of the National Council (the National Rat) of Lithuanian Jewry as well as the last minister for Jewish affairs in Lithuania, was in charge of the Lithuanian delegation.

Dr Rosenbaum had much to commend him, both within the country and abroad, in the history of the struggle for Lithuanian independence, and it was most appropriate that he represented the Lithuanian people and their national aspirations at the Paris Peace Conference. The Lithuanian national leadership was aware of what Dr Rosenbaum had done in the past and of his activities in their interests, and consequently chose him to be their representative in the negotiations with the Russians.

The negotiations began at a time of great spiritual upsurge in Soviet Russia; its armies stood poised outside Warsaw, and it was anticipated that the Soviet Union would not only reconquer the areas previously held by Russia, but would also conquer new lands and spread Bolshevism to them. It was of course, difficult to discuss the independence of Lithuania with the Moscow regime in those days, as well as raising the demand for further areas to be added to Lithuania. Never the less, Dr Rosenbaum, as usual, did not hesitate, he was brave and assertive in his demands and knew how to base his claims on logic and his vast knowledge. Good luck served him as well for just then, within a short while, the Poles received aid from the French and the “miracle at the Vistula” occurred. The Soviet army retreated to the Russian interior in the face of Polish pressure. Together with the retreat, the Russian appetite for conquests and domination died away.

Indeed, Dr Rosenbaum achieved in the negotiations what the other Baltic countries did not achieve. According to the peace treaty signed between Lithuania and the Soviet Union, Russia undertook not only to return to Lithuania what the Tsarist government had previously taken from it but also to pay to the Lithuanian treasury the sum of three million gold rubles, a considerable sum in those days for a new and poor state. The great achievement was however, the promise to return to Lithuania its historic capital, Vilnius, then still in Russian hands. The Lithuanian state was very pleased with the results, in particular about Vilnius. Great was the victory and great the joy.

Dr Rosenbaum, never the less, did not rejoice or find satisfaction in the above. He looked forward to a great deal more than that, mainly, to extend the borders of Lithuania to include the Jewish communities in north western Russia. He looked not only at the Hrodna (Grodno) and Suvalki regions, but also at Minsk and Vitebsk and their provinces. A story, current in Lithuania on this subject, gives an indication of Dr Rosenbaum's efforts to acquire new territory.

This then is the legend;

 

Shabat Shalom and Sabat Salom

When the Soviet representative, comrade Yoffe, saw that Dr Rosenbaum's demands have no limits and that his demands for more territories increase daily, he said to Dr Rosenbaum on one occasion:

“Tell me, comrade Rosenbaum, where in your opinion should the borders of Lithuania finally end and the border of the Soviet Union begin?”

Dr Rosenbaum answered him in all seriousness:

“In my opinion, wherever Jews greet each other with Sabat Salom, with an S sound, is obviously Lithuania, and where they say Shabat Shalom with the SH sound may be Russia. But if you wish to be precise then every place where they preface (the prayer) “Hodu” with “Baruch She'amar” is Lithuania, and beyond that it is Russia”.

Dr Rosenbaum did therefore all he could to wrest as much land from the Russian grasp as he could, and add it to the Lithuanian state, and to increase thereby the number of Jews there as much as possible. And not only then. I recall that in 1918 - I was then in Minsk - the Germans were ruling White Russia as a conquered province, and there was a rumor that they intended to establish a White Russian state, like the Ukraine of the Hetman Skoropadsky and the White Russians rushed to set up an ostensibly Belorussian Rada in which Gutman the Jew of the S.S. (Socialist Soviet) was a member, when out of the blue we received from one of the members of the German military headquarters - who had arrived from Vilnius - a verbal instruction from Dr Rosenbaum that in case of a plebiscite as to the nature of the future White Russian state the Jews were to vote in favor of joining Lithuania. We, in Minsk, had throughout the days of German occupation been isolated from the rest of the world and were unaware of what was being discussed in the matter of peace and the future of the new political organization of the various parts of Russia; we had no knowledge of Lithuania or of the other countries which had arisen from the ruins of Russia and as a result the instruction received from Dr Rosenbaum was mystifying to us and we could not make head or tail of it. But the Lithuanian Taryba (council), the organ of the nascent state, had already existed in Vilnius, where negotiations were taking place with the heads of the German occupying powers in Kaunas as to the Lithuanian borders and the political arrangements regarding the other Russian provinces occupied by the Germans, and undoubtedly the concept of a separate White Russian state must have emerged there. Dr Rosenbaum must have been concerned and hastened to warn us and sent us those instructions. But matters did not come to this end at all, for, not many days later the occupying German authorities entered one morning into the office of the Provincial governor, which the Rada had occupied and threw it out in disgrace and it all became a passing dream. After that the Revolution in Germany happened and the Bolsheviks occupied Minsk again and all plans were discarded for the time being.

Dr Rosenbaum did not abandon his plans for a larger Lithuania though, which should include large parts of the Jewish pale of settlement in Tsarist Russia, and proclaimed this ambition at every opportunity, even during the days of negotiations in Moscow, and when he did not achieve his desires and meanwhile the Poles had occupied Hrodno and Suvalki, he had to be content himself with Vilnius alone, but his soul ached.

It was not because Dr Rosenbaum was an imperialist that he had those aspirations and was pained by his inability to achieve his ends, but rather because of his devotion to the Jewish Zionist ideal that he did whatever he did, and all his intentions were for the good of Jewry and Judaism.

 

Dr Rosenbaum's struggle for Autonomy

When Dr Rosenbaum saw the destruction of the great Russian Jewry on the one hand, and the rise of tiny states on the other, he wanted to save whatever could be saved, and desired to concentrate Lithuanian Jewry into one large entity and structure that will enable it to continue to weave that traditional golden thread. Dr Rosenbaum, a yeshiva student par excellence, remained one even after he had “gone sour” (become secular) and still admired Torah and the spirit of Judaism, and therefore saw in Lithuanian Jewry its central kernel and that he wanted to save and leave for future generations.

Moreover. Lithuania immediately promised national autonomy to the Jews. Indeed the promise was kept in the early years, and Jewish autonomy became a reality. Dr Rosenbaum wished to assure the continued existence of the autonomy by increasing the Jewish base in the Lithuanian state, since only by increasing the percentage of the national minorities to a significant level could Dr Rosenbaum hope to assure the rights of the minorities, and of Jewish autonomy in particular.

How correct this analysis was, became evident immediately with the signing of the annexation of Vilnius. Even before the official Lithuanian entry into Vilnius, and before coming into contact with the minorities living there, the Lithuanian government had understood that with this annexation the national make up of the country was undergoing a change, and the discussion began on the question of whether Lithuania is a national state or a state of nations, for by then the Lithuanian government felt that the new and weak Lithuanian nationalism cannot impose its will and spirit on minorities great in numbers and culture, such as the Poles and Jews who, after the annexation of Vilnius must have amounted to thirty percent or even more of the total population. And if this happened with the annexation of Vilnius alone, how much more would it be if further regions such as Hrodno, Bialystok, Suvalki and Minsk were to be absorbed. There was no doubt that a state of nations would be created thereby, and among them the Jewish nation would have its autonomy assured by the objective situation, the Jews would be certain of their rights and also be free to develop their internal life in the spirit of their national tradition.

This then was the concept which impelled Dr Rosenbaum and gave him the courage and strength to appear before the Peace Conference in Paris and lay behind the negotiations he conducted in Moscow and which lit his path in those days.

Dr Rosenbaum did not succeed fully in Moscow, but the little he achieved was enough to bring joy in Lithuania. The Lithuanians rejoiced at receiving their historic capital, where Gadinmian (Gediminas) their king is buried, and the Jews at being joined to the Jerusalem of Lithuania, an important Jewish center, its great influence having influenced and was felt in Jewish life over the past centuries, where each courtyard was history and each house a legend. This was the city which produced the wonder of the ages the likes of whom had not been seen for hundreds of years, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna. This is the birthplace of all the spiritual movements and social revolutions among the Jews - from the new approach in the study of the Talmud, continuing through the Haskala, the socialist movement and ending in Khibat Zion. This is the city every Jewish remembers with a trembling heart and every Jewish soul yearns for. The honor showered upon Dr Rosenbaum upon his return from Moscow was great, and great too the gratitude. But he himself was like a mourner among grooms. He foresaw the collapse of his ideal and expected the dangers awaiting the Jewish autonomy. His heart predicted, and it came to pass.

 

Vilnius between the Hammer and the Anvil

Vilnius had always suffered bitterly. Even when in Tsarist times when it was a provincial capital it did not enjoy good times. Poverty and want were always its share, but particularly difficult times came upon it during the War and afterwards, when it drank its cup of hemlock.

Lithuania and Poland had meanwhile come to an agreement in the town of Suvalki as to the drawing of the border line between the two states. Even before that, Vilnius was transferred by the Soviets to Lithuania during the red army's retreat. According to the Suvalki agreement, Vilnius remained on the Lithuanian side of the border. After receiving Vilnius from the Soviets, the Lithuanian government decided to move the capital from Kaunas to Vilnius, and the Ministry of Jewish Affairs was amongst the first to make the move. Dr Soloweitchik the minister and Dr S Rosenbaum the president of the National Jewish Council (the Natsional Rat”) visited Vilnius, where they were received with great honor. They spoke at a public assembly of the leading members of the community about the coming national activity. The government requisitioned a large house in the Street of the Ashkenazim for the Jewish Ministry, and thousands of Jews stood there for hours feasting their eyes on the large signboard painted in large, bold letters: “Ministry of Jewish Affairs in Lithuania”. Everyone awaited the bright days to come with great expectations, for Vilnius had suffered greatly during the war and afterwards, beginning with the German occupation, when thousands of starvelings lay in the streets unburied, then the horrors of the Polish rioters who murdered hundreds of innocents, and finally under the heel of the Bolsheviks who ruined the city and starved it completely. Vilnius lay desolate and wasted, as if dead. There was no traffic in the streets, hardly any trade or work took place there and the survivors moved about uselessly like shadows. Those same days saw growth and prosperity in Lithuania, work and reward, comfortable livelihood and hope for the future. The rumors of good life and individual and national freedom in Lithuania were brilliant and compelling, and longings and hopes grew. Indeed, Vilnius changed is appearance with the entry of the Lithuanians into the city. The deserted streets now saw movement, trade began to revive, shops began to sell and craftsmen found work. Vilnius was about to become the capital and prepared to receive thousands of heads of institutions and officials, and hope blossomed. For the first time new rulers appeared in town without accompanying riots and without imposing decrees and the winds of freedom and liberty blew encouragement and life into the body public. The national elements among the Jews rejoiced in particular. The national autonomy, the Ministry of Jewish Affairs, the Jewish communities, the Hebrew schools - all these spoke to the despondent Jewish heart. Everyone prepared himself for the great deeds and grand projects.

I was working in the Jewish Ministry at the time, in the department of education, as a school inspector under the direction of Dr Schwabe. I was sent by my department to Vilnius, which was half Jewish, to talk to the teachers, to tell them of the great work done in Lithuania and to prepare them for the work in Vilnius and its surroundings, Everyone was waiting impatiently for the great happy day, the harbinger of goodness and solace.

 

The Zheligovski Revolt

Unfortunately, the joy did not last for long and the dream quickly dissolved.

While we were waiting and preparing for the arrival of the government from Kaunas, one morning a rumor appeared in the press that a general in the Polish army was not satisfied with the Suvalki agreement and that he has rebelled against Pilsudski and had left Suvalki and is marching to seize Vilnius... This news stunned us all. We knew the meaning of “rebellious general” and who was really behind it. We realized that Poland did not wish to uphold the agreement it signed and was about to nullify it by this ruse of “a dissident general”. We knew it was not just a passing episode but rather a thought out policy planned by Poland, and therefore Lithuania had no hope of holding out against it and the fate of Vilnius was already sealed.

The following day - it was a Friday - the rumor was verified. In the afternoon the Lithuanian forces were already seen leaving and the Lithuanian officials hurrying to the railway and evryone knew then that the drama was coming to an end.

On Saturday morning notice by the English and French representatives appeared in the city calling upon the residents to be calm and confident as they were taking all possible steps to ensure that the transfer of power would take place without conflict, in a peaceful and calm manner. At noon the rearguard of the Lithuanian army passed through the city and a while later the sound of machine gun fire and the roar of cannons was heard and a little later the Polish army entered the city. Although the representatives' promise that all will be carried out “quietly” - the Lithuanians did not show any opposition and the Poles did not chase them, but the promise of peace and calm did not materialize - dozens of Jewish victims fell that day and on the following day!

What happened to the Jews in the following days deserves a separate chapter. The nightly horrors of that winter, when whole streets went loud with shouts and screams to chase away the rioters trying to break into the locked courtyards - these memories made bodies tremble for many years to come. For many days we were virtually besieged, imprisoned in our own homes from sundown until morning unable to go outside, awake and afraid all night.

The violation of the Suvalki agreement and the occupation of Vilnius created a storm in world opinion. The world still lived under the influence of the 14 Wilson points, and any act of aggression was considered an unforgivable sin. In order to assuage public opinion, the Polish government staged from the start this farce of the rebellious general. That is, Poland of Warsaw appeared to stand by the Suvalki agreement, but this deed was carried out by one disloyal and defiant general on his own, and Poland would deal with him in a legal and orderly way. For this purpose a new independent country called Middle Lithuania was pretended to have been created. A real state with all the governmental attributes and laws, beginning with ministries and complete with a police force, and this state... is in conflict with Warsaw which was boycotting it and blockading it, allegedly. Warsaw announced that it would not permit any connection or relation with this mutinous state, would not grant it sugar or flour, nor allow post or transport etc. The rebel general appointed himself governor of the independent state and issued laws and regulations in its name, but soon the lie burst open and the plan unveiled. Warsaw accepted the rebels, gave them money and bread, allowed connections to resume and began negotiations as to the future, but the question of the future promised to be resolved not by force but rather by listening to the public - in other words, aplebiscite.

 

The Plebiscite

In those days a plebiscite was very common thing. What can be holier than the will of the public? Even in the very first days of the occupation the Belgian Hymans proposed holding a plebiscite, but he also realized what that meant and suggested sending an international force to Vilnius, to protect the population from undue influence and pressure. For some unknown reason Lithuania objected and the proposal fell. Now Poland proposed a different plebiscite: not a direct one, but rather via the local Seymik (parliament) and it would decide the issue. Anyone having some knowledge of elections knows how little of the real public opinion is expressed in elections held under conditions of occupation. But the Poles wanted to blind world public opinion, and convince it that in any case, all the population was in their favor, apart from the few Lithuanians. In order to give legitimacy to their Seymik, the Poles were anxious for all minorities to participate, particularly the Jews, who were a considerable minority and their influence was felt in Paris and America at the time. But here the Poles were faced with open resistance by the Jews.

The Jews were explicitly in favor of annexation by Lithuania. Not because of simple hatred of the Poles or great love for the Lithuanians. Nor again to avenge the Poles for what they had done to the Jews during the war and afterwards: at first with all those lies and libels about the Jews - that they had spied for the Germans in the Russian border areas - which caused the banishment of the Jews from Kaunas and Kurland on the orders of the Russian general staff headed by the Polish general Januszkewicz, and later by the “Halarchik” forces and others who sadistically maltreated and murdered thousands of Jews. Nor was it a question of an easier life style or civil rights which the existing Lithuanian regime had promised to the oppressed and impoverished Jews of Vilnius. The essential question facing the Vilnius Jews was the national one, the chance of leading a free national life, of national autonomy. And when the opportunity arose before them, they took it with all their heart and were prepared to make any sacrifice to achieve it.

Moreover, those were the days of negotiations in Paris over the minority rights. At the front of these negotiations were the Jews and they demanded primarily this right. Were the Vilnius Jews to forgo the possibility of national autonomy, it would amount to sticking a knife in the back of the negotiations. The recognition of this strengthened the hearts of the Vilnius Jews to face courageously the dangers they could expect from the stand against Poland, and they fulfilled their duty honorably and courageously.

 

The Autonomy in Lithuania - an example for the Jews of Vilnius

If that was the case with all the Jews in Vilnius, so much the more was it for the Zionists among them. Firstly, because of the great influence the Zionists had in the matter of national autonomy within Lithuania. The Zionists were its chief advocates, theirs was the decisive voice, and their leaders, Dr Soloweichik and Dr Rosenbaum were at its helm. The former as Minister for Jewish Affairs and the latter as president of the National Council (the Natsional Rat). Secondly. The Zionists saw in national autonomy a first step of sorts, a preparation for the future Hebrew state to be created in Eretz Yisrael, and the tremendous spread of the Hebrew language in Lithuania, which covered almost 97% of the Jewish educational system was a further reason, being both encouraging and attractive. Therefore the Zionists in Vilnius also followed the Lithuanian lead, and their newspaper “Undzer Fraind” (Our Friend) conducted agitation daily in favor of annexation to Lithuania. But for the same reasons it was the Vilnius “Populars” (the Folklorists) - each and everyone of whom was a declared anti Zionist and an extreme Yiddishists - they, in their secret inner hearts, opposed national autonomy in Lithuania and, like their comrades in Lithuania proper, vigorously attacked the autonomous institutions and did not refrain from libels and quarrels, but they did not dare to openly oppose the autonomy itself, firstly, because they had been so ordered by Dubnow their rabbi, and secondly because of their fear of public anger. They gave their unwilling amen to autonomy itself, but raised obstacles in the path of those dealing with it in everyday life. Therefore, while even the Populars' newspaper in Vilnius “Der Tog” seemed to support the annexation of Vilnius to Lithuania, yet its opinions were stuttering and and always hedged with conditions. The Zionist newspaper “Undzer Fraind” led and influenced public opinion in this matter.

In those days, the Polish authorities took public opinion very seriously, and the newspapers were quoted frequently. The government even established a large information office administered by high ranking officials which led the government propaganda regarding Vilnius. This office also employed two Jewish officials, obvious assimilationists from Galicia, who were the mediators between the Jewish newspapers and the information office. It must be admitted they fulfilled their duty of passing out information most honorably. But as regards moderating between the two camps, they did a very poor job. They did not find a foothold among the Jews and therefore never even tried to mediate, let alone influence, and they left that to the director himself. He indeed tried his hand from time to time in this sphere. I recall a long conversation between me, as editor of Undzer Fraind, and the director. The subject was of course, the Jewish stand in general and that of the newspaper in particular in the matter of Vilnius. The first question was: why are the Jews against Poland but for Lithuania? I explained that it is not a question of animosity or sympathy for anyone, but rather a Jewish matter only, a matter of national rights and having autonomy etc. Then the attack on our position began. At first this came by persuasion, namely, the Jews too are entitled by law to full citizen rights, and there is no place for a “state within a state” in the form of national autonomy and that eventually such an autonomy would come to an end due to lack of practicality and so forth and so forth. Then they moved on to threats: fining the newspaper, closing it, arresting the editor and his assistants, forbidding Zionist activities as well and so on. Finally, by preaching morality and rebuke, that loyal citizens must not behave in such a manner, that Poles in Eretz Yisrael for example, would not permit themselves to act in such a manner with regard to a Jewish state, and so forth. Of course, nothing changed after this conversation and both sides remained fixed in their opinions.

 

The Poles Threaten

Once the Poles realized that they are not achieving a breakthrough with explanations and conciliatory talk they turned to more forceful means. The authorities started to pressure the Jews to change their position. Things reach the point one day that Rabbi Rubinstein and Dr Wigodsky were summoned to marshal Zheligovski's office and there were bluntly told that if the Jews would persist in their pro-Lithuanian attitude, the authorities could not ensure that this would not cause outbreaks of angry Polish anti Jewish riots. The threat was clear and open, and a demand for a response within a few days added a significant undertone to the threat.

Rabbi Rubinstein and Dr Wigodsky held a meeting the very same day with representatives of the political organizations and economic bodies in town, and reported the details of their discussion. Fear of pogroms filled the atmosphere. But wonder of wonders: forty two delegates participated in the meeting and all but one rejected the threats and decided that the Jews would not change their position because of fear of pogroms. It is interesting to note that the Bourgeois did not panic while the one who flinched was the delegate for “Poalei Zion” at the time, Mr. A.R.

The Jews maintained their stance, and when two members of the League of Nations came on an unofficial visit to feel out the views of the population in the matter of Vilnius, the Jewish representatives did not refrain from expressing their opinion and explained the reasoning behind it.

Riots against the Jews, however, did not take place following their political stand. On the contrary, the authorities acted with alacrity to prevent attacks on the Jews. Only one attempt was made, apparently by the local anti-Semites. A famous anti-Semite at their invitation on the eve of an important Catholic festival in order to deliver an oration against the Jews the following day at the great cathedral. The organizers expected a reaction from the incited crowd and the Jews were prepared for it as well. All the Vilnius' carters and all its butchers armed themselves with their trade tools, to repel the attacks. However, nothing came of it.

An open letter in Undzer Fraind addressed to the authorities in this matter, which appeared in the morning of the festival was sufficient, and the general governor immediately forbade the delivery of the anti Semitic speech and advised the inciter to leave town. At the given hour thousands of peasants started to move towards the cathedral to listen to the speech, all equipped with thick sticks and sacks, having apparently been promised booty from the Jews, but the police were out early and did not permit any gatherings or agitation. The disappointed crowd tried to attack Jewish shops in the Street of the Ashkenazim and a rain of stones descended upon Jewish homes and their windows, the offices of Undzer Fraind in particularly targeted, but the police drove them off and peace and quiet returned to the town.

 

Winds blow in Geneva

The Poles at last understood that their attempts to influence the minorities were pointless and they finally desisted. But different winds began to blow meantime in the councils of the League of Nations. Whereas previously the scales were tipped towards Lithuania, they were now clearly leaning in Poland's favor. The Lithuanian stubbornness contributed greatly to this, as it gave a negative answer to every proposal made by other parties to solve the Vilnius problem. However, the main reason for this was the change in the western powers' attitude with regard to Soviet Russia, when they began the process of establishing buffer states between the east and the west and realized that Lithuania was both too little and too weak to serve as an effective buffer state between Russia and Germany and consequently preferred to leave Vilnius in Polish hands to fulfill this role well. This policy change freed the Polish government from previous constraints and it stopped wooing the minorities. The Seymik of Vilnius - being completely Polish - then convened and passed a unanimous motion to be annexed by Poland. A few days later, Pilsudski came to Vilnius, received the keys to the city and signed the articles of annexation. The curtain dropped and the show came to an end.

Lithuania persisted in its claims to Vilnius, forbade any connection or liaison with the city and with Poland in general. The ninth of October - the day of the invasion of the city by general Zheligovski - became its ninth of Av, (Jewish commemoration of the destruction of the Temple), a day when the national flags were flown dressed in black. Throughout the land hundreds of public meetings were held in memory of Vilnius, and the slogan “without Vilnius we shall not rest” was everywhere. A special national league was formed for the liberation of Vilnius - but in spite of the furor the hope for the early conquest of Vilnius gradually died down, and indeed, as time wore on, certain circles, particularly among the Christian-Democrats, started doubting - albeit not publicly - the usefulness and value of Vilnius to Lithuania. Moreover, there were some who began to see the potential accession of Vilnius a cultural danger and an economic burden for Lithuania. This mood became gradually more prominent with the international pressure on Lithuania towards reconciliation with Poland.

That being the case with the Lithuanians, the Jews followed suit. The change in the international public opinion and the forgone annexation to Poland removed for the time being the question from the agenda, and the Jews too were forced to turn their mind towards the actual government in Vilnius and leave alone thoughts of Lithuania. Besides which, an event took place in Lithuania which turned the hearts of the Vilnius Jews away from her.

 

Dr Soloweichik's Delusions

The proud Jews of Vilnius were never satisfied with the legal status of the Jewish autonomy in Lithuania, as the Lithuanian constitution did not make enough provision for the rights of the minorities as demanded by the Jews, nor did the constitution at all protect the autonomic Jewish institutions - the Ministry of Jewish Affairs and the National Jewish Council (Natsional Rat). Moreover, even the Jewish schools were not transferred, either legally or de facto to the Jewish Ministry or the Jewish Council and were basically dependent on the Lithuanian Ministry of Education. These matters concerned the Jews of Vilnius - well experienced with past troubles - who were not satisfied with the position taken by the Lithuanian Jews and demanded vigorous steps be taken to change the situation and bolster the changes. Matters reached a head at the Carlsbad conference in 1921, when the Vilnius delegates turned to Dr Soloweichik - Minister of Jewish Affairs in those days - and spoke to him severely about the anemic attitude of Lithuanian Jews against their government and their tepid attempts to enshrine the autonomy in the constitution. To this day I remember Dr Soloweichik's answer to us, so full of faith and confidence. He said: “I wish we were as confident about the approval of the Mandate in Eretz Israel, as we are about the existence of the Jewish National Autonomy in Lithuania.” Famously, the question of approval of the mandate was in the hands of the League of Nations at that time, and there were many doubts and misgivings.

The emerging reality confirmed the Vilnius Jews' doubts and broke the self-confidence of the Kaunas Jews. Not a year passed since that day, and the situation in Lithuania underwent a complete transformation. As the situation with regard to Vilnius question changed, the Lithuanians' need of the Jews and their support lessened, and negative attitudes towards Jewish national autonomy became more prominent. A mere year had passed, and Dr Soloweichik found himself having to tender his resignation, and from that point on the Lithuanian government proceeded to hinder and restrict the bounds of autonomy until it ceased to exist.

Together with the changes in the Lithuanian attitude toward autonomy, the Vilnius Jewry's attitude towards Lithuania cooled too until their enthusiasm evaporated completely and their approach turned realistic, in accordance with the actual power play. The enthusiastic yearning for Jewish life under a national autonomy was put away for better days to come. For the present, the Vilnius Jews - as so often before - bore their bitter suffering in silence. I had occasion, at times, to visit Vilnius, with or without permission, and my heart bled each time at the sight of the poverty and misery of my Vilnius brethren. What a disastrous fate was pursuing Vilnius since the inception of the present century, a fate that wouldn't leave it alone. And the result of this fate was destruction and total ruin.

 

The Curtain came down again

Vilnius again reverted to Lithuania in totally unexpected circumstances. During the days of confusion in Europe, Poland forced Lithuania to publicly accept that Vilnius belonged to Poland de facto, if not de jure. No one believed or expected that the wheel will turn so soon on Poland itself. In 1940 the Soviet invasion into the west began and Lithuania received again, as it had done twenty years earlier, the city of Vilnius as its capital from the Soviets. The month of October, a month of mourning, became the month of national rejoicing, the month of freedom and liberation. But Lithuania received also a foreign army with this, the Soviet army, and soon Lithuania was swallowed and became part of the giant Soviet super state, and the curtain once again was lowered on Lithuania and its Jews.

 

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