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[Pages 1131-1154]

Vilnius – Jerusalem of Lithuania

by Dr. Mordecai Kossover

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

My hands do not rise, the pen trembles and the letters break as I write about the ve-eym b'yisroel [important Jewish cultural center] that perished at the ruthless hands of animals in the form of men. A great light was extinguished. No living spirit of life can be breathed into the annihilated kehilah [Jewish community]. One can only try to browse through the book of episodes of the distant and recent past. One can barely extract a pale shadow by describing the greatness of what we have lost.

Historians have described her and writers have portrayed her, poets have celebrated her in song and artists have painted her. Whoever came into Vilna's domain was captivated by her inner beauty and modest vanity. She possessed determination, Jewish Vilna, a determination to prevail. In her very difficult last years, when she labored with great effort just for a piece of bread, the well known Yiddish saying, “If you cannot go over, you must go under,” became: “If you cannot go over, you must go over.” In a city of which it was said, “Half of Vilna lives off charity and all of Vilna gives charity,” during the most difficult economic conditions, even starvation, cultural institutions were built that had a worldwide reputation. From yeshivas and talmud-torahs to modern Yiddish secular schools and Hebrew libraries, teachers and students followed the same path, fulfilling the command to “eat bread with salt and drink water with measure,” in order to maintain the flame of yiddishkeit, from the past and the new yiddishkeit.

In addition to the greatly respected and eminent personages, the simple Vilna Jews were also captivating—the weary fathers and busy mothers who labored with all of their strength under the oppressive yoke of earning a living that became more difficult from year to year.

The voice of torah in the broadest sense of the word [i.e. study of the entire body of religious teachings] was never silenced in Vilna. Children studied in khederim [religious elementary schools] and talmud-torahs [elementary schools for the poor], young men in yeshivus and householders in a Mishnah society or in a Talmud group in study houses and prayer houses. Students were offered teg [“eating days” at different homes] and sat down for “study and prayer” al ha-torah v'al ha-avodah. And when the modern Jewish secular schools arrived and the Hebrew library became full of students, they threw themselves into the new studies with ecstasy and through them opened a gate to the world for themselves. And again, the old met the new: a page of gemara [rabbinical commentaries] met a page of Mendele [Moykher Sforim, author of Yiddish stories], from which came a wonderful synthesis. Vilna's Yiddishism had widespread support and “Vilna style,” it follows, was not narrow and insignificant. And it was, consequently, no surprise that on this soil the Yiddish Scientific Institute–YIVO–later arose.

The list of Vilna celebrities is very long so we cannot list them here. They all extended the golden thread of torah and modern Yiddish knowledge that came from Germany through Poland and across to Lithuania, where Vilna became the most important center. Many of them traveled from their homes and brought along their deeds and accomplishments and protected the good name of Jewish Vilna, which was crowned with the designation, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, yerushalaim d'lita. Thus, R' Yakov Emdin wrote in his autobiographical megilat sefer (on page 5) about the eminent Vilna personages who left for Germany during the second Swedish-Polish war of 1655 (known as the Massacre of 1655):

And this happened in the year 408 as calculated by local custom from the year when the calamity of Chmelnitsky affected the Jews in Poland, Volyn and Ukraine, and from there the massacre reached the holy Jewish communities in Lithuania. And the holy Vilna Jewish community, famous and noble, left her nest after sitting safe and calm and very rich… She surpassed every other holy community with wisdom and with praise and the Vilna sages were very respected when during their wandering and migration they arrived in Germany and its lands. In general, they surpassed with their good name all of the eminent people in Poland. Her esteemed sages were great scholars who did not wander from the tent of torah. There they studied all day and through the night they did not stop studying halakhah [Jewish law] and poskim [halakhic decisions], investigating and pouring over the truths of torah and gemara. They became heroes, lions of the torah, and they were worthy of becoming religious judges for the Jews as well as great scholars, rich men, and leaders.
Here R' Yakov Emdin mentions the names: R' Efraim Hakohen, author of sher efraim; R' Aron-Shmuel of Koydanov, author of birkat hazevah and sheiles av tshuves; R' Shabbatai Kohen, the shakh, after the name of his book sifte kohen on the yoreh de'ah and hoshen mishpat; and R' Hillel ben Naftali Hirtz, author of beit hillel on the yoreh de'ah and even haezer.
They all went into exile, scattered, in order to spread torah among the Jews, and they were great “lights.”
A fortress of torah, Vilna was connected with books and her name became known in this connection in the Jewish world through the famous Romme Publishing House. [Author's note: see Dr. Jacob Shatzky's essay, “The Cultural History of the Haskalah of the Lithuanian Jews,” as yet untranslated, also in Lita, volume 1]

Romme's Publishing House continued the tradition of the beautiful Jewish art of printing inherited from Bomberg and Soncino of Venice, Prague and Lublin,and the Vilna talmud from this publisher became renowned.

The tradition of Yiddish books was further upheld by the Vilna Publishing House, founded in 1910 by the timber merchant, Boris Kletzkin, whose family traced its descendants through the golden links of a chain of 10 generations of rabbis. His publishing house, under the leadership of Sh. Niger, Nakhum Shtif and Zelig Kalmanovitch also made history. From January 1913, the monthly journal di yidishe velt [The Yiddish World] was published there, which first came out in Petersburg in 1912. There the first children's journal di grininke beymelekh [The Green Little Trees] was founded. Later, it continued until almost the last years of the Second World War with longer pauses under the Vilna teacher and folklorist, Shlomo Bastomski. And there, in 1913, der pinkhas, the yearbook of the history of Yiddish literature and language, of folklore, criticism and bibliography was published, edited by Sh. Niger, - di groyse khartye fun der moderner yidisher filologye [The Great Charter of Modern Yiddish Philology] (Zalman Reizen, Lexicon, III, column 700).

When the poet Moshe Kulbak–former teacher of Yiddish literature in the Vilna Jewish gymnazie and Teacher's Seminar, and who years later was arrested and perished in a Soviet prison–sang of the city in the poem “Vilna,” he compared her to a book “with pages turning mysteriously and opened in the night.” Kulbak's lines are extremely deep and symbolic and I convey here an excerpt from the poem as an appropriate conclusion to the introduction about Vilna:

Who goes around on your walls in a talis.
He is himself sorrowful going through the city at night.
…You are a Psalm put together with clay and iron;
Every stone is a prayer, a nigun [melody]–every wall.
When the moon seeps down in your little streets of Kabalah
And bleaches out the naked and ugly, cold magnificence.
Your joy is sorrow–the joy from deep basses
In the band. Holidays are the funerals,
And comfort–the clear, luminous poverty,
As quiet summer fogs at the intersections of the city.
You are a dark amulet set in Lithuania,
Recorded as grey and old with moss and with lichen throughout;
A book in every stone, a parchment–every wall
With pages turning mysteriously and opened in the night.
Here we will try to turn the leaves of several pages of the book entitled vilna, yerushalim d'lita. Vilna is not one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, but she has a history behind her of more than 400 years. Vilna occupies one of the most distinguished places in Eastern Europe together with such old Jewish communities as Krakow, Lublin and Birsk. . [Concerning the origins of Vilna and the communal invitation of Jews, the author cites Dr. Mark Wishnitzer's essay, “History of the Jews of Lithuania,” as yet untranslated, also in Lita, volume 1]

The origin of her Jewish settlement goes back to those past years of which we know nothing or very little. There is only a tradition here in connection with Vilna's old cemetery, that it was established in the year 5247 (1487). Hillel Noakh Magid (Shteinshneider), the Vilna Jewish historian, brings this up in his book, ir vilna [The City of Vilna] where he presents a clue from the pinkhas [book of records] of the khevra kadishe [burial society]. Several historians have come out publicly against his interpretation because there is no support in documentary evidence.

We have definitive information about the Jews in Vilna from the rabbinical literature of the second half of the 16th century. In the responsa [published rabbinical opinions on rabbinical law] of R' Shlomo Luria, the Shal, who had, among other places, lived in Brisk and in Vilna, there is a question in Section Four about a dispute that broke out in Vilna between two Jewish lessees, R' Yitzhak bar Yakov, known as Zelikman, and R' Yona bar Yitzhak about the lessee of Plotsk. The date of the testimony is Sunday, the 7th of Shevat 5497 (1556), relating to the minutest details of the case in Vilna and it is signed underneath by the witnesses, R' Menakhem bar Elikum, of blessed memory the distinguished Meshulem, son of the distinguished Rabbi Yehiel, may he continue to live as a king in the next world, and Meshulem bar Yehuda. In a second testimony in Yiddish, the above-mentioned Rabbi Yitzhak bar Yakov, known as Zelikman, responded that he does not agree to accept any compromise, does not accept the warning to appear before a Jewish court and will not accept its judgment: “The above-mentioned R' Yitzhak answered, I will not accept the decision; I will see if we Jews will be forced to stand trial by the Jews or which Jews will defend me, as we Jews have our own laws for this matter.”

In the second interesting testimony in Yiddish that was received seven years later in Vilna, we find in the questions and answers of R' Yoel Sirkish, the bokh [contraction of the name of his famous book, bait khadash (New House)].

In the questions and answers of Section 75 it is told that Yakov bar Menakhem Katz appeared before the Vilna rabbinical court and testified on behalf of the agunah [widow of a man whose death cannot be verified], the married woman Sarah daughter of Dovid the city elder, may God protect and deliver him, whose husband, Shmuel bar Ezriel perished with two other Jews in Polotsk. He heard this in Dokhlinov from the Polotsk priest, who saw the deceased lying dead and naked on the ice. He had a fine white body and a high nose. He was named Shmuel and he was the leader of the Jews of Polotsk…” This testimony ends with: “So testified before us, Yakov bar Menakhem Katz on the fourth day of the week, the 23rd of Tammuz 5327 (1563 [sic, should read 1567]) here in the city of Vilna.”

The third testimony in the questions and answers of the maharam [Rabbi Meir bar Gedalia] in Section Seven also concerns an agunah, the deserted wife of Yehudah bar Kasriel, brother of our distinguished teacher Nathan, known as Krepl, and recalls the testimony that was taken in Vilna in 5453, that is, in 1593 (“…to be exact, testimony was taken in the holy community of Vilna on the third day of Tammuz, 5453”). The agunah did not receive her separation very quickly because four years later in 5457 (1597) we hear about the matter in the detailed testimony of one Reuven, son of the late Rabbi Shmuel, who explains that he had heard about the deceased “on his way to the Yarburg custom house, that is none other than the Lithuanian city of Yarburg [Jurbarkas], southeast of Memel and northeast of Kovno [Kaunas]. Here is the testimony that was taken on the second day of the week, the 15th of Shevat, 5457. The witness, our distinguished teacher, Reuven bar Rabbi Shmuel of blessed memory, stated in Yiddish that three years ago, in the customs house on the way to Yarburg, he heard from several gentiles that Pavel (Feyvel) killed our distinguished teacher Yehudah, may God avenge his spilled blood. Krepl's brothers and his own son-in-law told me on several occasions that Pavel killed the teacher, Yehudah. This fact that Pavel killed our distinguished teacher, Yehudah, may God avenge his murder, was known by everyone in Yarburg.

In that year, 1593, we hear about an accusation that the Vilna Jews brought before the Lithuanian High Tribunal against the Christian citizens who a year earlier, in the spring of 1592, attacked the synagogue and houses in the Jewish neighborhood. There was then a visible Jewish kehilah in Vilna and its representatives before the court were enumerated: Yakov Davidovich (Yakov bar Dovid), Faytl Mikhailovich (Feitl bar Mikhel), Judash Salomonovich (Yehuda bar Shlomo) and Abram Moizeshovich (Abraham bar Moshe). It was hereby was stated that they spoke “for themselves, and also in the name of the other Jews, who lived in the city of Vilna.” The tribunal punished the citizens with a large fine and with six weeks of arrest. However, the latter came to terms with the Jews and the agreement was written in the deed of the city court. Hereby the four above-mentioned Vilna Jews signed the agreement “in Yiddish handwriting.” [Author's note: Pismos Zydoskim Podpisany– Authenticated Jewish Articles Collected by a Military Commission Regarding Jews, Volume XXVII; “Acts about Jews,,” number 52, pp. 42-43).]

This was the first documentary evidence about the old Jewish synagogue of the Vilna Jews. It is not in agreement with the transmitted legend that the Vilna City Synagogue was built in 5333 (1573) that is mentioned by Shmuel-Josef Fin in his kiria neamana and Hillel Noakh Magid in ir vilna and that younger historian, Israel Klausner, mentions in his toldot ha-kehilah ha-'ivrit be-vilnah [History of the Jewish Community of Vilna in Hebrew]. This matter is discussed by the Vilna historian, the martyr, Pinkhus Kon, who came to the conclusion that “The synagogue was built between the end of 1630 and 1633,” and that “because of its large structure, the synagogue was probably first finished close to 1633, that is, the beginning of 5493. At that, he cites two privileges that the Vilna Jews received on the 25th of February 1630 and the 8th of August 1633 and were certified anew in 1698 when August II became the king of Poland. [Author's note: P. Kon, “When Was the Vilna City Synagogue Built?” YIVO bleter VII (1934), 162-163.]

Drawing: Interior appearance of the Vilna Great Synagogue.
From a drawing by Mark Antokolski [1843-1902]

Another historian, the martyr, Z. Honik, shows, in connection with the discussion, that the new Vilna City Synagogue was built later, between the years 1633-1635, and he states that the above-mentioned privilege of 1630 was confirmed by King Michal Wisnioweck on the 15th of November 1669. He again cites a privilege from King Vladislav IV at the Coronation Seim in Krakow of the 25th of February 1630, “On building a synagogue in the Jewish neighborhood, on the spot where the old wooden synagogue stood.” Vladislav's coronation first took place in February 1633, and then the Vilna Jews received the privilege of building a brick synagogue on the same spot where the earlier wooden synagogue stood. [Author's note: Z. Honik, Yivo Bleter, IX (1937), 405-409.]

Writing about the history of the Vilna settlement, the Russian historian, Sergei A. Bershardski, adds that in 1635, “a giant building was located in the Jewish neighborhood, able to accommodate up to 3,000 people, in addition to a women's section.” A synagogue of such stature shows that at that time Vilna already had a considerable Jewish settlement. However, the beginning of the settlement was comparatively late, and its growth was slow. The first Jews who settled in Vilna were merchants who came to the markets, and a number of them could be included in the category of capitalists–money lenders, lessees of land and workers in coin foundries. Their Jewish employees and servants came with them, as was the custom, and immediately after them–tradesmen and craftsmen.

Photograph with caption: The chandelier from the Great Synagogue that is famous for its decorative figures

They immediately met opposition on the part of the Christian city residents, the burghers who struggled against the privileges for Jews from the Polish king. In 1527 the city inhabitants extracted a privilege that prohibited Jews from remaining in the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The efforts of Jews, mainly with the help of Lithuanian nobility, overcame the limitations. In order to fight Jewish penetration in Vilna, the city inhabitants began to use illegal means: attacks on the small Jewish settlement. Here the process of assaults, pogroms, receiving privileges, strengthening them with new agreements, expanding them through various intercessions constantly repeated itself.

Under Russian Czarist rule, there was a ban on Jews living in the main streets of Vilna. Here the last decree in Polish and in Yiddish entitled, Announcement of the Vilna Police and dated the 10th of September, 1832 alludes to old privileges.

As for the statistics of Jews in Vilna, a count from city hall in 1645 shows us that 2,620 Jewish souls then lived there in comparison to 12,000 Christians. In 1784, when the count for a head tax was completed across all of Lithuania, there were 4,827 Jewish residents in Vilna and the community was considered the largest Jewish kehilah in Lithuania (1,809 Jews lived in Grodno and 1,414 in Brisk). There were already a considerable number of Jewish craftsmen and in the counts for 1765 and 1784 more than 45 trades were enumerated in which Jews were employed and among them tailors, furriers and lace makers occupied the most important place. For the exact details, see Israel Klausner, toldot ha-kehilah ha-'ivrit be-vilnah [History of the Jewish Community of Vilna in Hebrew], pp. 46-54.

This was the situation at the end of the 18th century, and in the middle of the 19th century, the Vilna Jews added more trades. They were included among the craftsmen who were mentioned in a memorandum about the Vilna situation at that time, that the Vilna communal workers submitted to Moshe Montefiore during his visit there in 1846. [Author's note: Published from archive material by Shaul Gintzburg, Historical Work, Vol. 2, 293-298.]

Here is the interesting list: “masons, goldsmiths, jewelers, painters, bakers, musicians, musical leaders, tinsmiths, hat maker, tailors, cabinet makers and carpenters, shoemakers, glaziers, cap makers, bronze workers, candlestick makers, locksmiths, mechanics, chimney sweeps, glove makers, watchmakers, ale makers, barber-surgeons, turners, cotton-makers, apothecaries, teachers, writers, flax brushers, cobblestone pavers, blacksmiths, midwives, tanners, printers, copper joiners, patchers of clothing, tool and die makers, candle makers, dyers and students.” It was added here that there were also several farmers, and that others were porters, woodcutters and water carriers, and all had a life of drudgery.

The workmanship of sock production in Vilna and of Vilna gloves had a good reputation abroad and in the 17th century was already widely known in many Jewish communities reached by Vilna goods or Jewish exporters from other localities. Thus, we find an interesting record about this in the questions and answers in Section 63 of a testimony from 5392 (1632). A drowned Jew who came from Chomsk is discussed, and a witness from Brisk says about him: “He had gotten dressed early in the day to go to Brisk. He put on his boots and could not put the boot over his sock… I said, take a nitshe–(legging–linen kerchief) and wrap the foot… So he took hay and put it in his boot… This is how we wore the boots. I saw old linen underwear… And the socks… were a regular pair of socks that were the product of Vilna (Vilna work).” The products of Vilna also reached Prague, and about this we hear from Moshe ben Mehrar [acronym for mori harav rabi–son of my teacher, the rabbi] Hirsh Poreys–Porges (or as he is referred to, “Moshe Prager), who, it seems, traveled from Prague to Jerusalem in the 17th century and wrote a small guide named darkei tzion (in the year 5410–1650; printed–not submitted, it seems in Prague). We read there, in part from shaar biat haaretz [Gate of Entry to the Holy Land], where he gives advice as to what one should take with them to eretz-yisroel: “Several pair of good shoes should be taken along and good winter Vilna socks… A pair of Vilna knitted gloves should be bought.”

In the 17th century, such trades as glove makers, tailors, shoemakers and others were already organized in groups of tradesmen in the manner of the Christian guilds of that time. Although the groups carried on in their own way, had their own houses of study and synagogues, they were under the control of the kehilah that controlled the entire Vilna community through strict organization.

As we come to describe the kehilah and its conduct, mainly in relation to receiving taxes from the Jewish population, the picture is not so ideal. The kehilah leaders showed their power in regard to the poor and weak and they also imposed their authority on the rabbis. For placing himself in opposition to the kehilah, a rabbi was often deposed from his rabbinate through various means in order to elicit approval from the government. Such was the fate of the famous rabbi and Kabbalist, R' Tzvi-Hirsh Koidanover, the author of the well known musar-sefer [book of moral teachings], kav ha-yashar, who had to flee from Vilna at the end of the 17th century and go to Frankfurt am Main. The struggle of the leaders of the kehilah against the last rabbi, R' Shmuel ben Avigdor, son-in-law of the YeSoD [acronym for Yehudah, Scribe and Judge] was stubborn and bitter. The struggle blazed in a great feud that lasted nearly 30 years (from 5422 to 5451; 1762-1791). The rabbi lost, but the power of the kehilah was also broken. The result of the struggle was as Shmuel Josef Fin explains (in kiryah ne'emanah [The City of the Faithful], p. 25), it happened that “the state of the rabbinate and the financial situation of all the holy kehilos in Lithuania were undermined.”

[Author's note: For precise information about the quarrels see: Israel Zinberg, milkhomes ha-kahal be-rav ha-akhron be-vilna (Kehilah Wars Against the Last Rabbi of Vilna) in ha-avar (The Past), Vol. 2 (1918); the unfinished part of Zinzberg's work in YIVO's Historical Writings, vol. II; and Israel Klausner, in his book, vilna bi-tekufat ha-ga'on (Vilna during the Period of the Gaon), Jerusalem, 1942. Certain archival material about the matter was also published by Dr. Jacob Shatzky in Historical Writings, volume I.]

This was the sorrowful conclusion of a radiant epoch that ended with the collapse of Jewish autonomy–of the va'ad arba' aratzot [Council of the Four Lands] in Poland and the va'ad medinus lita [Council of the Country of Lithuania],” the “Lithuanian Jewish Seim” (it was definitively abolished in 1764). [Author's note: see Dr. Mark Wishnitzer's essay vaad lita, as yet untranslated, also in Lita, volume 1.]

Vilna was then a kehilah reyshes [leading community], one of the chief communities, equal to Brisk, Grodno and Pinsk (it became so late, in 5412–1652). Such a membership was considered a great honor and this could only be attained when the kehilah showed its considerable spiritual accomplishments; this it could achieve with its scholars and great rabbis. Now we come to the chapter about the spiritual-cultural history of Vilna that gave it its great reputation all over the world.

“Jerusalem of Lithuania” reached its height in learning with the Vilna Gaon, R' Elihu of Vilna (ha-gra ha-rav ha-gaon, 5480–5558; 1720–1797), the last representative of classic rabbinical literature, according to the publication by Prof. Ginzburg. [Author's note: see Prof. Louis Ginzburg's essay “The Gaon of Wilno, Rabbi Elijah,” as yet untranslated, also in Lita, volume 1]

The Vilna gaon took upon himself the task of strengthening yiddishkeit internally, and in the new movement of hasidus, which was then arising, he saw a danger that would break down the wall of mitzvos [good deeds] and learning. Perhaps we must seek the roots of the embittered struggle in the evil influences of the Frankist movement that the Vilna gaon declared was found among the followers of the baal shem tov [“Master of the Good Name,” Yisrael Ben Eliezer, founder of hasidus]–a struggle that ended with the victory of hasidus. [Author's note: The struggle is described in detail by Simon Dubnow, in his toldut ha-hasidus [History of Hasidus], 107-169, 242, 286. In the supplement at the end of the book, important documents are also published about this matter.]

The Vilna gaon also could not stop another cultural trend that little by little began to invade Vilna–the haskala [Jewish Enlightenment]. There were then the first swallows of the Enlightenment in Vilna: the kehilah doctor (feldsher [barber-surgeon] of the blessed community) Yehuda haLevi Hurwitz and R' Shimeon ben Zev Wolf (R' Shimele Nekha's son), who was put in prison by the leaders and there wrote to the Polish Seim [parliament] about the necessity of carrying out reforms in Jewish life, and Dr. Shmiryahu Polonus, who called upon the Jews of Vilna to take part in the Polish uprising of 1794 against Russia and also proposed a project of reforms. [Author's note: see: Pinchas Kon, “A Jewish Voice in the 1794 Uprising in Vilna,” in YIVO Bleter, IV, (1932), 134-148, and “To the Biography of Dr. Polonus,” Ibid, V (1933), 53-57.]

Photograph with caption: The Old Vilna cemetery, Tomb on the Grave of the Gaon

This was at the end of the 18th century. It was the time after the first division of Poland among the three Great Powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, in 1772. White Russia was then severed from Lithuania and united with Greater Russia, and 20 years later, some time between 1793-1795, Lithuania passed entirely to Russia. A crisis occurred in the economic condition of the Jews of Vilna and Lithuanian Jews in general. In addition, the changed political conditions caused Lithuania to be cut off from its trade with Poland and the economic connection with Russia had not yet been developed. Even more, this Czarist Russia of Catherine the Great, with the influx of a large number of Jews, was observed to have a “Jewish question [problem]” that in 1792 very quickly found an “answer” in the establishment of the “Pale of Settlement” for all Jews in Russia. In 1795, after the third division of Poland, all of Lithuania, with Vilna and Grodno gubernia [province], was joined to the restricted territory–with the Dneiper River as a dividing line–where Jews were permitted to live. Economic conditions worsened even more by the time of Napoleon's war with Russia in 1812, which also did not bypass Vilna.

Vilna along with Russian Jewry now began to languish under the Czarist yoke of persecutions and restrictions, from pogroms and expulsions that had only one purpose: to suppress Jews economically and oppress their social-cultural strivings. From time to time, attempts were allegedly made to “better” Jewish life and to bring in “culture” through the barbaric hand of the Russian Orthodox rulers and their subjugated servants–the “functionaries” of all kinds. A considerable number of the Vilna adherents of the haskala were also caught in the net of belief that the Czarist government's “reforms,” as for example, re-introducing the recruitment of Jewish youth of the youngest ages, as Nicholai I had done in 1827, were for the benefit of the Jews. Among them were great men, famous Hebrew writers (Mordekhai-Aron Gintzburg, in particular, was an exception among them), Shmuel-Josef Fin, the poet Adam haKohen Lebenson and his son, Mikha-Josef or Michel, the historian, Kalman Shulman and Matisyhu Shtrasin, the poet, Judah Leib Gordon, who pushed the new Hebrew literature miles ahead. In this respect, their very great importance had great worth. Dr. Josef Klauzner, historian of modern Hebrew literature, had an entire volume (the 3rd) of historyah shel ha-sifrut ha'ivrit [History of Modern Hebrew Literature] devoted to the Vilna Era. [Author's note: Dr. Izrael Tzinberg has a lengthy chapter about the Vilna maskilim in the 8th volume of his monumental work, The History of the Literature of the Jews.]

Through them Vilna became a center of Hebrew literature. However, Yiddish literature also had its pioneers in Vilna. It has its roots in the small folk books and story books as well as in books of secular content that were published in Vilna in the 1920s and 1930s. It is apparent in the names of Arye-Leib ben Abraham Liond'or, author of the first Polish-Yiddish dictionary; Asher-Leml ben Meir Meirshon, author of a method of learning Polish; and it reaches to Yehuda-Leib Germayze, translator of [Joachim Heinrich] Kampe's Swiss Family Robinson, and also others, such as, Mordekhai Aron Ginzburg, author of the Yiddish book about Columbus, The Discovery of America; and the names Eizik Meir Dik, author of dozens of books in Yiddish, and Mikhel Gordon, known for his Yiddish poems; Sh. Katzenelenbogen who wrote poems in Yiddish that were a great achievement at that time for their form; and Eliakim Zunzer. [Author's note: see Sh. Niger [Charney]'s essays on Dik and Gordon, and J. Kisin's essay on Eliakim Zunzer's songs, all as yet untranslated, also in Lita, volume 1]

The Vilna rabbinical school, which opened in 1847 and existed until 1873 when it was transformed into a teacher's institute, accomplished a great deal in the spreading of the Enlightenment and education among the Jews. Among the teachers, there was the well known Hebrew pendant and lexicographer, Yehoshua Shteinberg, author of the concordance, mishpat ha-orim [Law of the Lights], and among his students, the so-called adherents of the institute, who graduated later, were outstanding activists in the Jewish community movements. Among them was the well known Av. Kahan, editor of the forvarts and a pioneer of Jewish socialism in America.

There was another group with them of well-known members of the Enlightenment and the educated who were famous in the Jewish world and who gave Vilna a rich local color. They were absorbed in books–day and night spent in collecting and studying–with R' Matityahu Strashun at the head (1817-1885), whose library, the famous Strashun Library, became the pride of Vilna. Of this group, R' Khaim Leib Markon (1848-1909), the actual editor of the Hebrew weekly newspaper and, later, monthly journal, ha-carmel, which in the course of twenty years (1860-1880) was published in Vilna under the editorial board of Shmuel-Yosef Fin (1818-1890), must be remembered. The lawyer, Dovid Solnimski (1840-1907), who organized the defense during the course of the trial against a blood libel in 1900, against Dovid Blondes; R' Dov-Ber Ratner (1852-1917), famous for his 12 volume work, ahavat tsiyon vi-yerushalayim [Love of Zion and Jerusalem] on the yerushalmi [Jerusalem Talmud]; R' Yitzhak Aizik Ben-Yakov (1801-1863), author of the famous bibliographical book, oytzer ha-s'forim [Treasury of Books], published by his son, Yakov Ben Yakov, (1858-1926), who worked on a new edition of this book continuously for 45 years.

Torah and the haskalah went hand in hand for all of them. Fortified with Jewish piety that in truth was a little “modernized,” they stood with both feet in an entirely Jewish world and were close to Orthodox Judaism. Yiddishkeit was strong in Vilna until the last day of its existence. And her representatives were like the links in a chain that were not disconnected. Among them were such as R' Avraham Danzig, author of the book khayei adam [Life of Man], R' Khaim Volozhiner, R' Shaul Katzenelenbogen, R' Avraham Abele Poszvoler, R' Israel Salanter, R' Yudl Zaretsher, R' Betzalel Khen, R' Avraham Kretzmer, R' Khenokh-Khenikh Eigers, R' Shmuel Frid, R' Khaim-Ozer Grodzenski and R' Yitzhak Rubinshtein.

They were all an integral part of the extensive Jewish organized society in Vilna and, therefore in the 1910s remained continuously at the center of Jewish life in Russia, and later, in Poland. Thus, for example, Vilna in the 1870s also became a center of revolutionary propaganda and the first city of the Jewish Socialist movement. The Jewish workers of Vilna then began a struggle for social and economic improvements–a struggle that received a more distinct form with the founding of the Bund in 1897. [Author's note: See the important compilation, Vilna, edited by Yefim Yshirin, N.Y. 1935, published by the Vilna branch 367, Arbeter Ring, in honor of its 25th anniversary, where the Bundist and other revolutionary leaders are described in detail.]

The soil was prepared by such fighters as Ahron Zudelevich, who almost perished on the gallows; Ahron-Shmuel Liberman, the founder of the first Jewish socialist organization, agudas ha-socialistim hebrim bundim [Association of Hebrew Socialists] in London in 1876 and editor of the first socialist journal in Hebrew, ha-emes [The Truth] in 1877; Vladimir Yokhelson, member of the first revolutionary circle in Vilna; L. Martov (party name of Julius Tsederbaum), who prepared the ideological terrain for the Bund; Arkadi Kremer, one of the first leaders of the Bund with Zemmah Kopelzon and Shmuel Gozhansky (known under the pseudonym “Lonu”); also Abraham Lyesin (Walt), a pioneer of the national direction in Jewish socialism and editor of the monthly journal, tsukunft [The Future] for many years.

A Jewish national tide progressed in Vilna along with the penetration of socialism–the storm of khovevei tzion [Lovers of Zion] that bound Jewish hopes with eretz-yisroel. The first Zionist group in Vilna was called ahavei tzion [Friends of Zion] and its founder, in 1882, was Elihu Eliezer Frydman–later the editor of the Hebrew daily, ha-tzefira, published in Warsaw in 1903-1905. The idea of the Lovers of Zion quickly planted deep roots in Vilna and among its first volunteers were the then already old R' Shmuel Josef Fin, Mikhal Uriahson, Y. L. Apel, the writer L. Levande, Yitzhak-Leib Goldberg and Pinkhas Shukian. With the rise of political Zionism, Vilna became one of the most important centers of the Zionist movement in Russia, in which the individual Zionist parties were strongly represented with socialist platforms, such as S.S. [Socialist Zionists], poalei-tzion and in part tzeirei-tzion.

Vilna maintained its reputation as the center of the most important Jewish communal movements until the outbreak of World War I. With the war, a new era began for Vilna–of occupation and hunger, of repression and suffering, not to mention pogroms, and a general decline from which it did not recover. The evacuation of the Czarist army in 1915 left a poor, starving Jewish community without the prospect of further economic, communal and cultural survival. The German occupation that lasted until the end of 1918 reinforced even more the hunger and the general need in the midst of German cruelty against the civilian population. With great self-sacrifice, Vilna Jews wrestled with their bitter fate that would not release them. They lived with extreme fear through the abortive rule of Polish legionnaires in December, 1918, and immediately, in January, 1919, fell under the first Bolshevist occupation. It lasted not more than three and half months. Hol ha-moyed pesakh [three middle days of Passover], 5729–the 19th April, 1919–the Polish militia, under Josef Pilsudski, entered Vilna and “celebrated” his victory over the Red Army with a bloody pogrom against the Vilna Jews. Seventy Jews fell as martyrs, among them–the people's teacher, Leizer Gurvich, and the writer, Ahron Vayter (Devenishsky), a fate that the well known Jewish literary critic, Sh. Niger, and the Zionist worker and poet, Leib Yaffe, almost met.

The adventurous march of the Polish army right to Kiev ended with an ugly defeat and brought the Bolsheviks back to Vilna on the 14th July, 1920, who handed the city over to Lithuania in August 1920. However, the hope for a free life under the Lithuanians vanished because Vilna was again occupied by the Polish army, under the leadership of General Lucian Szeligowski. Consequently, the Vilna population would alone determine to which state (to Lithuania or to Poland) it would belong, and meanwhile a sort of new “independent” Middle Lithuania [Republic of Central Lithuania] was created. The Polish farce did not last long and at the beginning of 1922, Vilna was incorporated into the Polish Republic.

From then on, Vilna used all its strength to recover. It became a renewed cultural center and continued to pursue its earlier traditions, although with a modern approach throughout to questions of Jewish life. A modern Jewish educational system arose with a large network of Jewish schools with Yiddish and Hebrew as the languages of instruction. The Jewish educational institutions, with the Jewish real gymnazie and the Jewish Teacher's Seminar, with the Hebrew gymnazie, named after Josef Epshtein, with the well known pedagogues M. A. Khun and Dr. Josef Regnsberg as teachers, as well as a beis midrash lemorim [teacher's seminary] became famous all over Poland. Societies and unions of Jewish creation and construction arose: historical-ethnographical societies named after Sh. Anski, of blessed memory (which published the cultural-historical journal, fun nohnt over [From the Recent Past] in 1937-1938 under the editorship of Moshe Shalit with the close participation of the martyr, A. Y. Goldshmid); Central Jewish Education Committee (which published the pedagogical journal, der neye shul [The New School] and shul un heym [School and Home]); tarbut [Culture]; Culture League; YeKoPo [Jewish Committee of Relief] (combined its work in the registry, oyf di khurvus fun milhomus un mehumus [On the Ruins of War and Turmoil], edited by Moshe Shalit, Vilna, 1930); Society for Jewish People's Health, OZE (with its monthly journal, folks-gezunt [People's Health], edited by Dr. Tzemach Shabad); ORT, for agriculture and craft; produce cooperatives; societies for Jewish folk music; Yiddish Theater Society; Jewish Art Society; Yiddish Dramatic Studio; Union of Jewish Writers and Journalists that united the members of the Jewish daily press (vilner tog [Vilna Day], ed.–Zalman Reizen, di zeit [The Time], edited by Khaim Lewin, ovnt-kurier [Evening Courier], edited by A. Y. Grodzenski, vilner ekspres [Vilner Express], vilner radio and a series of weekly and monthly journals); Jewish sports unions; Jewish teachers associations along with dozens of professional unions, economic organizations, aid organizations, parties and party organizations, interest-free loan funds and societies. Along with all of these organizations, the Vilner kehilah, with Dr. Yakov Vigodsky as president, carried out widespread social aid work through taxes on a large part of the Vilner Jewish population, according to the law.

Photograph with caption: First Gathering of the Jewish Provinical Press in Poland (Vilna, December, 1926)

First row, from right to left: H. Drakhle–editor of poleser ekspres, Z. Segalowitch–of warszawer heint [Today]; the third–unknown; Moshe Shalit–president of Vilna Men of Letters Union; Shmuel Leib Citron–veteran of the Yiddish press; Zalman Reizen–editor of the vilner tog [Day]; Pesakh Kaplan–editor of the Bialystoker dos neye lebn [The New Life]; Yisroel Kahn–editor of lodzer togeblat [Lodz Daily Newspaper]; Nakhman Meizil, editor of the literarishe bleter [Literary Newspaper], Warsaw; Trizshanowitz.

Second row, from right to left: A. Y. Grodzenski–editor of vilner ovnt kurier [Evening Courier]; Khaim Levin–editor of zeit [Time]; A.Y. Goldshmidt–for vilner tog; Hirsh Abramowitch–of vilner tog; Engineer Uri Gliklik–from brisker vokhnblat [Brisk Weekly Newspaper] and from poleser vokhnblat [Poleser Weekly Newspaper]; Sura Reizen–from warszawer undzer ekspres [Our Express]; R. Federman; last two–unknown.

Third row, from right to left: Attorney Pinkhas Kon – from vilner tog, correspondent from Moment and nasz przeglad [Our Review]; second–unknown; Shmuel Drayer–from vilner tog; Mordekhai Gintzburg–editor of poleser shtime, poleser vokhnblat and kobriner vokhnblat; Moshe Visotski–editor of bialystoker shtimel Y. G. Shteinsapir–editor and publisher of the bialystoker yidisher kourier; M. Y. Kaplan and R. Ritshik–editor and publisher of vilkovisker lebn; last–unknown.

Fourth row, from right to left: Y. Sh. Zager; 2nd and 3rd–unknown; Yeheil Yudelewitch–from vilner ovnt kurier [Evening Courier]; Leib Statski–from vilner zeit; Nekhama Epstein–from vilner tog; Attorney Gordon–from vilner tog; L. Strilovski–from vilner tog. (This picture was received from Mordekhai Gintzburg, Montreal).

Vilna searched for a new path under the most difficult conditions. The famous Strashun Library, the mefiste haskalah [Promoters of the Enlightenment] Library, People's University and lecture auditorium for workers, for children and for parents expanded their activities. However, over all of them, arose, in 1925, yidishe vishshaflekhn institut–YIVO (together with the “Friends of YIVO” society) that quickly became famous all over the Jewish world. YIVO established a pro-aspirantur [preliminary program for students without a university education] and aspirantur [a series of advanced studies], in the name of Dr. Tzemach Shabad, to educate and prepare the young Jewish educated, under the leadership of Dr. Max Weinreich, one of the co-founders of YIVO (together with the martyrs, Zelik Kalmanowitch and Zalman Reizen and the deceased literary scholar, Benum Shtif).

A rich, creative literary group, yung vilne [Young Vilna] arose. In 1929, Zalman Reizen published a special page in vilner tog with the work of still unknown young Yiddish writers, and the page was entitled, araynmarsh in der yidisher literatur [Festive Entry into Yiddish Literature]. This was the literary rise of yung vilne. Great credit for this development goes to the Vilna writers and pedagogue, Falk Halperin. A number of the Young Vilna members were very well respected in Yiddish literature.

Photograph with caption: Yung Vilne [Young Vilna]

Standing, from right to left: Bencie Michtom, Elchanan Vogler, Sheyne Efron, Moshe Levin, Khaim Grade.
Sitting, from right to left: Shimshon Kahan, A. Sutzkever, Sh. Katsherginski, Roza Sutzkever, Leyzer Volf.

Vilna was a tower of light and Vilna Jews made an effort with all of their strength to elevate it during all the years in which the city was transferred from hand to hand. Things went from bad to worse, politically and economically, accompanied with constant vexations and persecutions by the Fascist government in Poland. The Jews in Vilna were choked and oppressed more than anywhere else because the city belonged to the so-called borderland area that the Polish government wanted to make Polish by force. The legal pogrom of Owszem [Polish: “of course,” implying acceptance of economic boycotts against the Jews] dominated economically. Politically, persecutions against everything and everyone that dared to stand against the Sanacja [Polish: “cleansing” political life of factionalism and corruption led by Marshal Josef Pilsudski].

And the Jewish settlement in Vilna continued to live in the great nightmare and took comfort in the achievements in various areas and directions, until that dark day, when WWII broke out, which brought the dreadful destruction of all Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe, including Jewish Vilna.

And not entirely by chance, an inscription comes before one's eyes, that on the 13th day of Adar I, 1919, Sh. Ansky, of blessed memory, had written in the sefer ha-zahav [Book of Gold] of the Strashun Library when Vilna lay victimized right after WWII.

I will not be at all surprised if during the current strange times we reach the point where there are evil decrees to burn the Talmud or to destroy all of the mystical books in the Jewish libraries. Human history does repeat itself. However, I never forget the old, wise saying, 'Do not fear the immediate fear.' The pulpits of our 4,000 year old culture are strong enough and they will bear the attack of every Inquisition, in whatever garments they clothe themselves. The important thing is the 'soul of the people' and it is everlasting and I feel a glowing spark of the soul here in the great treasure house of books at Strashun. [Author's note: Cited from Khaikl Lunski, “The sefer hazhav [Golden Book] in the Strashun Library,” in vilner almanak, edited by A. Y. Grodzenski, Vilna, 1939.]

Human history repeated itself, only with more savagery and violence, and not only were the Yiddish books burned, but also those who taught and read them. Vilna Jews breathed out their holy souls on the fields of Ponar [Forest outside of Vilna], tortured by the murderers in “an attack by an inquisition” whose equal we had not experienced in our long, long history.

The beautiful life of a great Jewish community, of an important Jewish cultural center was annihilated. A great light was extinguished. A crown of the Lithuanian state and–of the entire Jewish world–fell with the ruin of Vilna.


There is as yet no full bibliography about Vilna, in general, and about Jewish Vilna, in particular. The materials are scattered and spread through books and periodicals in many languages, chiefly in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Belorussian, Lithuanian, German and partially also in other European languages. Now, after the destruction of Vilna by the German assassins, it is almost impossible to create such a bibliography.

We record here the most important materials about Vilna:

A bibliography about Vilna during various times and with more subject matter, described in considerable detail, can be found in: Zalman Shik, toyznt yor vilne [1,000 Years of Vilna], part one, Vilna, 1939, pp. 456-508; “Vilna in the Yiddish Literature,” “Vilna in the Hebrew Literature,” “Vilna in the Belorussian Literature,” “Vilna in the French Literature.” Zalman Shik, leader of the vilner landkentshaft-gezelshaft [Vilna Topography Society], prepared a second part of his book, vilne, which has not yet been published: the author perished in Lida, as a martyr, in 1942.

Moshe Shalit, “Artistic books about Vilna,” bikher-velt [Book World], 1923, 202-206, 466-470; from the same: “The New Historiographia of Vilna” in Yishurin's collection Vilna, 365-370.

Abraham Pekler, “Articles and Books about Vilna and the Province in the Years 1919-1929,” in Moshe Shalit's Pinkes, oyf di khurves fun milkhomes un mehumes [On the Ruins of War and Turmoil], 949-984.

Biographical material about the Jewish Press in Vilna is found in the articles of A. Y. Goldshmidt in pinkes of the Historical-Ethnographical Society, 571-612 and in the above mentioned collection, Vilna, 339-356.

Yefim Yishurin, Ibid, 364-357.

About the Hebrew press in Lithuania:

Sh. L. Citron, in Pinkes, 613-618.

A list of longer articles about the yidishe shul [Jewish school] that were published in the vilner tog and in the Vilna publications of the group undzer gedank [Our Thought] was published in Shul-Pinkes, Vilna, 1924, 347-356.

Here also belongs the bibliography about the Jewish school of Shlomoh Bastomski in his article, “The Jewish Secular Educational System in Vilna,” in vilner almanakh, 1939, 200-202.

Materials about Vilna can also be found in Abraham Duker's bibliography of Evreiskaia Starina, in “the Hebrew Union College Annual,” volume VIII-VIX (1931-32), 525, 602 (Particularly in the section, “History,” and kehilus [communities], and in the “YIVO Bibliography,” New York, 1943.

The librarian, the martyr, Khaikl Lunski, of blessed memory, worked on a bibliography of Vilner Yiddish printing for many years and even continued it in the Vilna Ghetto, as Sh. Katsherginski gives witness in his book, khurbn vilne [Destruction of Vilna] (New York, 1947), p. 198.

The topography of Vilna, with its streets and alleys, was described in detail in Zalman Shik's 1,000 Years of Vilna. There, he depicts the historical places and monuments, the notable Jewish antiquities and also gives information about the flora and fauna of Vilna and its vicinity.

The historian, Dr. Israel Klausner gives a sweeping scholarly, elaborate history of the Vilna kehilah in his toldot ha-kehilah ha-'ivrit be-vilnah [History of the Jewish Community of Vilna in Hebrew], part one, Vilna, 1938. (The book, published by the Vilner kehilah, was also translated into Yiddish) and vilna bi-tekufat ha-ga'on [Vilna during the Period of the Gaon], Jerusalem, 1942. The book, korot beit ha'almin hayashan Bevilna (The History of the Old Vilna Cemetery], Vilna, 1935 is also his, and in the first volume of a larger work about Vilna, areim vimahot b'yisroel [Cities with Large Jewish Populations], Jerusalem, 5706 [1946], 141-175.

Israel Cohen presented a history of Jewish Vilna in his book, vilne, published in the series, yidishe kehilus by the Jewish Publication Society, Philadephia, 1943.

A longer article about Vilna–a short one from a longer work–was written by the writer of these lines published in the New York Tog, 10th July, 1944.

Shmuel-Yosef Fin, the oldest historian from Jewish Vilna, wrote about Vilna's rabbis, teachers and adherents of the haskalah in his kiryah ne'emanah [The City of the Faithful], published in Vilna, 1860 (second revised edition, Vilna, 5675-1915) and Hillel Noakh Magid-Shteinshneider in his ir vilna [The City of Vilna], part one, Vilna, 1900). The second part remained in manuscript form with his son, Professor Dovid Magid in Leningrad, and according to a private message from my friend, the bibliographer and cultural historian, R' Yitzhak Rivkind, the first 23 pages were already set in type. The proofed pages are with him and the biographies of the Vilna adherents of the Enlightenment appear in them.

Dovid Magid also described a series of Vilna adherents of the Enlightenment in the quarterly journal, fun noentn over [From the Recent Past], 1937-1938.

Vilner rabbis are also depicted in geoynim un gdoylim fun noentn over: sipoyrim un agodes fun zeyer lebn un shafn [Gaons and Prominent Men from the Recent Past–Stories and Legends from Their Life and Works, by Khaikl Lunski, Vilna, 1931.

Material about the Jewish workers movement in Vilna was published in the collection, Vilna, edited by Y. Yishurin.

We find important works abut the Jewish workers movement in the third volume of YIVO's Historical Writings, Vilna, 1939. In connection with the Jewish typesetters and print workers, we need to record the “Anniversary Book the Prof. Union of Print Workers in Vilna, 1906-1936,” Vilna, 1936

Yitzhak Broydes wrote about Zionism in Vilna in his book, vilnah ha-tsiyonit ve-askaneha, Tel-Aviv, 1939, which comprises the achievements of the khovevi zion [Friends of Zion] and Zionists in Vilna in the years 1881-1924. Important material can also be found in the memoirs of Eliezer Eliyahu Fridman, sefer ha-zikhronot, Tel Aviv, 1926 and from Yehuda Appel, btokh rashit hatkhiya [The Beginning of the Reawakening], Tel Aviv, 1936.

Sweeping and well edited material about Vilna during the war and occupation is found in the two volume Vilna Collection, edited by Dr. Tzemach Shabad (first volume, 1916; second volume, 1918), and in the pinkes far der geshikhte fun vilne in di yorn fun milhome un okupatsye [Pinkes for the History of Vilna in the Years of War and Occupation], under the general editorship of Zalman Reizen, Vilna, 5683-1923 (about the pinkes, see the detailed and courageous review of Bal-Dimyen (Nokhem Shtif) in three issues of tsukunft [Future], June, July and September, 1923); here also belongs the small book, fun vilner geto [From the Vilna Ghetto], by Khaikl Lunski, Vilna, 1920. In the same era, the shul-pinkes, a five-year work by the Central Education committee, Vilna, 1924, must be added; a continuation of the earlier pinkes is the monumental pinkes, oyf di khurves fun milkhomes un mehumes [On the Ruins of War and Turmoil], edited by Moshe Shalit, published by the regional committee, Yekopo, Vilna, 5691-1931. Among other important articles and materials is found a biographical lexicon of a series of activists and Jewish organizations and societies in Poland before WWII.

Right before the great destruction, the last collection, vilner almanak, edited by A. Y. Grodzenski, was published in Vilna in 1939, with considerable interesting material about Jewish Vilna, her cultural institutions, her organizations and societies.

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