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(Vilna cont.)

The First World War and its immediate aftermath

The outbreak of the War made Vilna into a transit station and refuge for Jewish refugees from the region and other parts of Poland and Lithuania. At the end of July 1914 the first refugees arrived from Kaunas, and at the end of September Jews from the Suvalki region streamed in. Other refugees followed in their footsteps. On October 10, 1914, there were 519 refugees in the city, and by December 1, they reached the number of 1,607. The association Hatzdaka Hagdola established a committee of 27 members with a soup kitchen for the refugees as well as a day care center for their children. During the spring and summer of 1915, many Jews were banished from the Kaunas and Grodno districts, and Vilna was flooded with 200,000 refugees on their way to the Russian interior. Some attempted to return to their homes by any means. About 3,500 of the first refugee wave remained in the city, but after the German invasion their number increased manifold. The city administration and the association of local councils participated in the financing of the activities devoted to the welfare of the refugees. Assistance was also rendered to the families of the conscripts to the Tsarist army.


The German Invasion

The German army invaded Vilna on September 18, 1915 and included it together with the whole of Lithuania in the conquered region ‘Oberost’. The Germans confiscated food and materials, issued strict sanitation regulations, and in matters of economics and taxation acted with great severity. Many youths were conscripted or impressed for labor in work battalions under harsh military conditions and were forced to work during the Jewish festivals. Due to the unemployment then rife, about one thousand Jews registered for work in Germany. The number of deaths doubled and trebled because of the prevailing hunger and distress. At the beginning of 1916 identity cards were issued to the population, and those of the Jews carried a Yiddish translation. According to the census of March 1916, Vilna had 60,619 Jews (43.8% of the total population), over one third of them refugees.

The Jewish leadership could not cope with the shortages and the refugees. The 90,000 Roubles available to the Yekopo organization (the refugee welfare committee), were quickly spent. The connection with the organization's center in St. Petersburg was cut off by the German advance.


Children of the Vilna Jewish orphanage in the dining room
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


Vilna, porters in the Jewish quarter
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


In the Jewish quarter of Vilna during the First World War
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


A water carrier in the Jewish quarter, Vilna
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


An additional committee was set up in the city connected with Berlin and thereby with the USA. Jewish assistance organizations in Germany sent money. In July 1916, Dr Yehuda Leyb Magnes and Dr Alexander Dushkin representing the American ‘Joint’ visited Vilna. Until the beginning of 1917, the ‘Joint’ transferred directly, and later via Holland, a total sum of 5 million Marks. Later, Yekopo renewed its connection with Vilna and sent money via Copenhagen. The money received was used in part for the founding of 32 co-operatives for the supply of food and 95 soup kitchens for the needy.



In the days of the German administration, the first Jewish secular schools were opened. On December 22, 1915, the German headquarters for the east issued an order by which all teaching in the schools were to be in German and religious studies for Jewish children were to be conducted in Hebrew. A sharp division took place within the Khevrat Mefitsei Haskala as to which language should be used for teaching and the proponents of Yiddish won the argument. In December 1915, the association had three schools for girls, for boys and a mixed school in the Antokol suburb (all three teaching in Yiddish). Dr Epstein established a Hebrew high school the same month (in spite of the German order forbidding this), and under its aegis also conducted teaching training classes. After his demise the school was named after him. In 1916, two Hebrew public schools were opened. The ‘Agudah Lema'an Hayeled’ which took care mainly of orphans, opened a school for girls alongside its institutions as well as a few children's homes. The Khevrat Mefitsei Haskala held technical courses in 1916 and in October 1918 opened courses for teacher training. The United Committee of the orthodox and the religious headed by Rabbi Itshak Rubinstein, dealt with the ‘Ezra’ network of heders and talmud Torah. In April 1916, an agricultural school with a registration of 40 young students was opened in the village Wielicziany, 8 km. outside Vilna.


Political and Military Developments

On September 19, 1917 the Lithuanian council, the Tariba, was constituted in Vilna. The Jews were allowed two seats but they were prevented from choosing the delegates until being recognizes as a national minority. On December 11, 1917, Lithuanian independence was declared, under German aegis, with Vilna the national capital. The Jews continued to demand to be recognized a national minority and the Germans promised to support them. But in the meantime, a revolution broke out in Germany and it became a republic. In November 1918 the Germans began preparations for retreat, the Red Army approached the region and the Vilna communists established a workers council which declared itself the legal government in the city. On December 8, 1918, a convention of Lithuanian Zionists took place in Vilna, with the participation of 60 delegates from 33 towns, among them Bialystok and Grodno. The convention discussed the democratization of the communities and the demand for national autonomy and equal rights for the minorities in the independent Lithuania about to be established.

By the end of December 1918 the last of the German forces left Vilna, and on January 5, 1919 the city was taken over by Polish legions. Two Jews were killed in the battle for the city. On January 5, 1919, Bolshevik forces entered the city and the establishment of a Soviet Lithuanian republic was announced. Under the Bolshevik rule, the economic situation in the city worsened trade came to a standstill, the army authorities confiscated goods, and in searches of homes valuables, clothes and foodstuffs were also appropriated. A few Jews were appointed to official positions, but most of the merchants, artisans and laborers remained unemployed. The community lost its control to the Bolsheviks over education and welfare which were transferred to the official state organs, leaving them only the reduced function of religious services. Zionist activities ceased almost completely. The Bolsheviks were in favor of educating children in their national language and consequently the Yiddish language schools received governmental assistance whereas radical changes were demanded of the Hebrew schools including stopping the teaching of religion. In this matter the Zionist representatives approached Adolf Yoffe, head of the Soviet delegation to the peace talks with the Germans which met in Vilna. His suggestion that the Hebrew schools be included in the general educational system was not taken up due to the opposition of the Bund. The Hebrew high school found itself in financial straits and received a small grant from the community. The authorities intended to close all the heders and yeshivot and confiscate the Jewish libraries (including the Judaica library named for Mattityahu Shtrashun) and to open in their stead an official library. The Zionist newspaper ‘Di Letzte Nayes’ was closed. The Bund publication ‘Unser Shtime’ continued to appear. ‘Der Kommunist’ appeared until April 1919. ‘Der Shtern’, brought from Minsk, took its place after that. The ‘Commissariat for Culture’ published a monthly called ‘Di Naye Velt’, edited by Shmuel Neiger, as well as a fortnightly pedagogical ‘Folks Bildung’ and a children's newspaper ‘Grininke Beimelekh’ edited by Daniel Charney. On January 8, 1919 the first issue of the literary monthly ‘Di Vakh’, appeared, edited by Shmuel Neiger and A. Viter (only four issues appeared). An official Yiddish theater consisting of professional and amateur actors was opened the ‘Vilner Troupe’. The first performance took place on February 15, 1919 and after that plays by Peretz Hirshbein, Shalom Ash and Arthur Schnitzler appeared on the stage. A plan to found a Yiddish publishing house came to naught because of the short time available. During the period of Bolshevik rule, Jewish delegations from the Ukraine and Russia to the Peace Conference passed through Vilna and the Jewish leadership helped them cross the border illegally westwards.

On April 19, 1919, the Polish army returned and Vilna and the region once again fell under Polish hegemony. The army troops, assisted by local Poles, harassed the Jews and plundered their property. Hundreds of Jews (among them the writers Leyb Yaffe, A. Viter and Shmuel Neiger) were arrested, 70 were shot and the others, numbering 221, were beaten and taken to Lida. Six days later, they were freed after intervention from Jewish quarters to the head of the government, J. Pilsudski. Others were incarcerated in camps and prisons in Poland. During the visit of Pilsudski to the city, Jewish leaders requested him to free the remaining prisoners. He ordered to set up a commission for this matter and a few months later all the prisoners were freed.

The harassment of Jews by police, Polish army personnel as well as by ordinary citizens continued. The United States government charged the ambassador in Warsaw to verify the rumors and the ambassador met with Jewish leaders and reported to the government about the events in the city. As a result of the report, President Wilson appointed a committee of enquiry headed by Henry Morgenthau. The committee reached Vilna on July 29, 1919, listened to some 500 witnesses, and on January 12, 1920 reported to Washington of 56 Jews killed, property plundered from some 2,000 houses and shops in a total value of well over 10 million Roubles. Morgenthau deliberately avoided blaming the Poles, in order to allow an opportunity for an improvement in their behavior in the future. A further commission of enquiry by the British headed by Stewart Samuel arrived in Vilna on November 13, 1919. On May 14, 1919, a commission from the Socialist International also reached the city which decided to condemn the responsible for the harassment of the Jews. But despite these efforts, they did not bring the oppression to an end.

In the middle of July 1920 the Red Army once again took the city and handed over authority to the Lithuanian army. The Lithuanian government accepted the Jewish demands for equality of rights and national autonomy as formulated at the Lithuanian Zionist convention of December 8, 1918. Seven Jewish representatives three of them from Vilna were included in the Tariba, Dr Ya'akov Wigodsky (Zionist), Minister without portfolio for Jewish Matters, the jurist Shimshon Rosenboim (Zionist), deputy Foreign Minister and Dr Nakhman Rachmilewitch (Agudat Yisrael), deputy Minister for Industry and Trade.

On October 9, 1920, the Polish army under the command of General Lucian Zheligovsky returned to Vilna, it took over the region and declared the area to be a supposed independent Polish entity Middle Lithuania. In April 1922 the Polish Sejm decided on the annexation of Vilna and the region to Poland and this status remained until the Second World War.


The Jews between the Two World Wars

After the War Vilna remained a major Jewish center, among the most important in Europe. In the census of 1921, 46,559 Jews were counted (36.1% of the total city population), and in the census of 1931 their number grew to 55,006 souls (women accounted for a little over half) Almost seven eighths of the above declared Yiddish their mother tongue, one eighth were listed as Hebrew speakers and a few hundred as speakers of Polish and other languages. The division by age groups follows:


Age group 0 -14 Babies and children 24.5%
Do.15-19 Youths 10.0%
Do.20-29 Young adults 20.0%
Do.30-50 Adults 20.0%
Do.50+ Aged 25.5%


First rehabilitation and welfare efforts

The Jewish welfare offices opened in Vilna during the War and immediately afterwards continued to function also after the annexation to Poland. In the first part of 1919, when the connection with Russia was renewed, Dr Tsemakh Shabad received monies from the Yakopo center in St. Petersburg. Following consultations, a Yakopo committee for Lithuania was elected on February 16, 1919, with Dr Tsemakh Shabad at its head. It contained representatives of the Bund, Ort, Oze, and the Khevrat Mefitsei Haskala. The committee assisted refugees to return to their homes, and covered the deficits of the community. The Soviet authorities did not interfere with the work of the committee. The Ort organization, which began its activities in the city in the period at the end of the German occupation and received financing from St. Petersburg founded artisans cooperatives and assisted them in purchasing tools and raw materials. It also organized agricultural cooperatives in the villages surrounding Vilna, and assisted Jewish farmers to purchase machines and seeds, and supported the Jewish agricultural school on the village of Wielicziany which had 30 students. Rabbi Itshak Rubinstein requested assistance from Jewish organizations in the USA through the committee for assistance to Jews in Holland, and received $35,000 for the Vilna Jewry.


Jews in Polish Authority Institutions

After the war the representation of the various population groupings in the local authorities depended seemingly on their relative population numbers. Jewish collaboration in the city government helped them get budgetary allowances for the Jewish schools and cultural institutions such as the YIVO institute, libraries, conservatory and music academy, theater etc. The authorities did their best to reduce the number of Jews in the city council by including village communities (which hardly had any Jews) within the city boundaries. Again and again the Vilna city boundary was extended and in 1928 it included, apart from the suburbs, 26 villages and farms, covering a total area of 10,400 hectares (the city itself only covered half of that area).The ratio of Jews in the enlarged city constantly diminished-from 41.4 % in 1897 to 36%, in 1921 it fell to a mere 28.2% in 1931. In the elections in 1927 12 Jews were elected to the city council (3 representing the Bund, and 9 of the Jewish Civil Bloc) and one of them was included in the governing body (the magistrate). In 1934 only 11 Jews were elected to the council, one as a member of the governing body. In the last elections (May 1939), 17 Jews were elected 10 representing the Bund, 5 of the National Bloc, and 3 of the Poalei Zion Hit'akhdut. Budgetary allocations to Jewish institutions were reduced annually, until they were entirely stopped in 1936.

Beginning in 1922, Jews were also elected to the Sejm and the Senate. Dr Ya'akov Wigodsky was elected to the Sejm in 1922, together with the jurist Michael Stuczinsky and Rabbi Itzkhak Rubinstein to the Senate. In the elections in 1928 only Dr Wigodsky was elected to the Sejm and Rabbi Rubinstein with Dr Tsemakh Shabad to the Senate. In November 1930 Vilna did not elect a single delegate, in 1935 Rabbi Rubinstein was elected to the Sejm, and in the last elections in November 1938, Rabbi Rubinstein was elected to the Senate.


The Economy and employment

The Jewish economic situation worsened after the war, in comparison to the period preceding it. After the fighting for authority over the region came to an end and the political situation in the country was stabilized, Poland was now cut off from the Russian markets which in the past had absorbed its exports. Vilna, in the past the capital of the North Western region of the Russian empire, was now a town in the Polish periphery. The policy of the Polish government, which massively interfered in the economy, also played a critical role in the impoverishment of the Jewish population. The main tax burden was imposed on the independent mercantile section, while the Jews were forced to compete with the Poles who had only recently penetrated trade and production, with the encouragement and active assistance of the government, and at the same time were forced to navigate an endless sequence of new and restraining regulations.

At the end of the twenties the government nationalized a number of economic branches which previously had been almost entirely in Jewish hands. A further worsening occurred during the continuing economic depression beginning in 1929, and in the late thirties anti-Semitism and economic boycott were added on.

At the beginning of the thirties, Vilna had 23,215 breadwinners (approximately 27% of all the breadwinners in the city), close to half that number 10,027 in industry and handcraft, and 7729 in trade and finance. 2,363 were active in education, culture, medicine and hygiene. Transport accounted for 964 and 995 were unemployed. Out of the 23,315 breadwinners, 9% employed workers, 50% were self employed who did not employ workers, 24% were laborers, 12% white collar workers and 5% uncategorized workers. About 80% of the Jews had a low or a very low income.



The scope of Jewish trade was reduced after the war, compared to the period antedating it. Shops and businesses closed in consequence of the economic crisis, the heavy tax burden and the sharp reduction in profits. In 1929 the Polish government nationalized the activities in alcoholic liquor, tobacco, matches and salt. The concession in these products was given to Polish war invalids and to discharged soldiers, and Jewish business owners and their employees lost their income. About 22% of Jewish shops were closed in 1929. The nationalization of the tobacco business, alcoholic liquor, matches salt and forestry struck a heavy blow at the industrialists and merchants as well the Jewish workers, most of who were fired and replaced by non Jews. In the late thirties local and national Polish trade associations combined with anti-Semitic elements in advocating an anti Jewish economic boycott, with the support of the Sanacja government then ruling the country.

The famous statement by the prime minister in 1936, ‘It is forbidden to hurt anyone in Poland, no decent house owner would permit anyone to harm a person in his home, but an economic boycott by all means.’ Many sectors of the population interpreted this as permission for a boycott. Squads of young Endetsie (members of the nationalist party ND) stood in front of Jewish businesses and stopped buyers from entering, public and municipal bodies boycotted Jewish suppliers. As the crises continued and the boycott intensified, the profits of the Jewish firms were constantly reduced and the comparative numbers of Jewish businesses in the city shrank year by year (although their absolute number did not fall).


Year Businesses
in Vilna
1920 3,882 2,916 75.1%
1925 5,455 4,267 78.2%
1937 5,288 3,133 59.25%


The above details do not refer to the size of the business or to its profitability. Most of the Jewish owned shops in 1937 were small, as can be seen from the type of business license issued to them. In a number of business activities, the Jews were in an absolute majority: hides and furs 92%, textiles 86%, timber and wood work 83.7%, ready wear clothes and haberdashery 75%, food, technical equipment and building supplies about half, paper and books 43%, pharmacy 24%, export of flax, mushrooms and natural medicines still remained mostly in Jewish hands.



In the early 20s many Jewish industrialists rehabilitated their plants, but the extent of Jewish industry nevertheless shrank. Jews developed a few new industrial lines in Vilna, such as production of radio sets (A factory named Electric). In the processing of oils, flour and groats (grist) a few Jewish owned plants remained. Two beer breweries sold their products throughout Poland, eight timber yards, a plywood factory producing for export (to Eretz Yisrael as well), some 20 small plants for the production of chocolates and candies, a few plants producing canned foods and a large plant producing galoshes, all Jewish owned, retained their high profit level. In the hide processing line, many plants closed due to the imposition of high taxes, but the leather glove production both for local consumption and for export, the fur industry and stockings production were not impaired. In 1920, 144 out of a total of 168 industrial plants in the city (85.7%) mostly small scale were Jewish owned. In 1928, 183 plants were Jewish (including printing), but their relative number fell in 1925 to 79.1%, in 1933 to 58.0% and in 1937 to 54.0%. From 1934 it held fairs which competed with the Leipzig fair.


Vilna, A tailoring workshop
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives



Most of the crafts were in Jewish hands. In 1920, 488 out of a total of 652 workshops in the city were Jewish owned (74.8%). This ratio hardly changed until the end of the twenties, but the size of the workshops was reduced and the average number of employees fell by two thirds. Until the passing of a law in 1927 regarding the creation of trade unions, the association of artisans in Vilna did not allow its members to organize according to trades, but in 1928 the first trademens' associations were founded of barbers, tailors and others. The following details point to the relative weight of the Jews among the various skilled workers: chimney sweeps 100%, clothing, hatters, sheet metalwork 100%, carters 50%, locksmiths, cobblers 30%, woodworkers 20%.

In the years 1927-1934, the Bund and the Democratic Party under the leadership of Dr Tzemakh Shabad caused the breakup of trade unions and the creation of a number of other parallel unions, but in 1937 a general union was formed which numbered some 2,000 members and contained within it 11 unions in some 60 crafts.


Credit Institutions and Trade Associations.

From the end of the 19th century Vilna had Jewish savings and loan societies and a private Jewish bank. The First World War and the political discord in the years immediately after disrupted the financial sector and most of the institutions and societies in the city became insolvent or closed. In 1921, with the help of Yekopo, a popular co-operative bank was founded, the Folksbank, with branches in many communities. In 1922, merchants and small merchant banks were founded, in 1925 an industrialists' bank was formed and in 1928 a property owners' bank was opened, and in addition, a few private banks as well as 48 free loan societies were active. All the above supported the Jewish economy and particularly during the crisis, at the end of the twenties and during the thirties, not always with great success.

The Jewish merchants association in Vilna, founded during the days of the First World War received recognition from the Polish government in 1919. That year it had 350 members, and the number rose to 2,700 by the year 1925. It published a fortnightly in 1922 and in 1927-8 under the name ‘The Jewish Merchant.’ In 1927 it split and an association of small merchants was formed. The new association participated in the elections to the Jewish community council and the municipality and had representatives on those bodies. In summer it numbered some 900 members. A further split took place in the merchants association in 1932. The wholesalers joined the industrialists and founded the Jewish Association of Merchants and Industrialists.


The Community and its Institutions

On December 25, 1918, as the last of the German troops were leaving Vilna a new community council was elected in a democratic election. Some ten lists participated but only about one third of the eligible voters cast their vote. The Zionist and Bund lists received mandates each, Akhdut Ha'am (the national religious under the leadership of Rabbis Rubinstein and Grudzhinsky) won 9 mandates, Artisans 7, Democrats (led by Tsemakh Shabad and Zalman Reisin) 5, the remaining lists won single mandates. The Jewish council elected in December 1918 continued its activities and the defense of the Jewish public and also in the days of the anti Jewish riots during 1919. Dr Wigodsky met with public figures including Marshal Pilsudski and the commissioner in charge of Vilna and the district, Osmolowski. The council was active in finding food and distributing it through 19 shops and 6 co-operatives. 21 food kitchens served 21,700 meals daily, some 10% of these were given free to the needy, and special restaurants were opened for children and the elderly. Most of the financing came from an allocation of a quarter million marks contributed by the Joint to the community and sent via the chairman of Yakopo, Dr Tsemakh Shabad. According to the Joint report, Vilna Jewry and its surrounding area received assistance of 920,000 Marks almost five times as much as was allocated to Pinsk or to Lewzheshetz (Brisk).

On May 25, 1919, a new presidium consisting of 7 members was elected Dr Tsemakh Shabad (chairman), Dr Ya'akov Wigodski and Rabbi Itzhak Rubinstein (deputy chairmen), and Shlomo Kleit (representing the Bund). The administration consisted of 7 departments headed by Eliezer Kruk (chairman). The head of the department of religion was Rabbi Haim Ozer Grodzinski. Out of the 48,265 Jews in Vilna in July 1919 approximately half depended on assistance from the community which received budgetary allocations from the Joint and parcels of clothes from the USA and England. In March/April 1920, a new community presidium was elected, Dr Ya'akov Wigodski (chairman), Rabbi Itshak Rubinstein and Eliezer Kruk (deputy chairmen), Dr Yosef Berger, Rabbi Grodzinski, Arieh Levit and Yaakov Sheskin. The Bund and the representatives of the Left withdrew from the presidium. At a meeting of representatives of the eastern frontier communities (excluding Galicia), on September 27, 1926, Dr Wigodski called for a widening of the community rights. His demands were not accepted.

The community budget was financed by the meat slaughter tax, burial charges and other service payments, and essentially from the community tax, from one Zloty up to a few thousand. Most of the tax payers were in the lowest tax bracket one to fifty Zloty, and collection was not complete as there was no means of coercion available. In 1938 for instance, only half of the households were charged the community tax, two thirds of these were included in the lowest tax bracket (up to 180 Zloty), and the collection was not full. The major expense items were rabbinic salaries, slaughterers and other religious employees, burial grounds and synagogue upkeep ( the renovation of the Great Synagogue), allocations to educational institutes, welfare and health organizations, welfare allocations and varied other items (distribution of Matzah on Passover, granting about 7,000 free kosher meals to Jewish soldiers stationed in Vilna, etc). A sharp difference of opinion arose between the Zionists and the Bund in the presidium and the committee over the allocation of funds to the schools and the national funds. The annual budget had to be approved by the regional governor (the Starosta), and the provincial governor (the Wojewoda), who made cuts in the various budgetary items as they saw fit. In 1931, after much endeavor, the Hatzdaka Hagdola fund was transferred to the community by order of the authorities.

In the elections to the executive committee in 1928, 4,077 voters participated with 11 lists. Members of Mizrahi and the other Zionists took 5 out of the 25 mandates, the artisans 4, the Bund 3,the Akhdut list 3, Agudat Yisrael, the Democratic List and the Small Merchants 2 mandates each, and the property owners-1. Dr Wigodski was elected chairman of the community council, and Eliezer Kruk chairman of the executive committee. In the beginning of 1935 the authorities dismissed the executive and replaced it with an appointed committee of engineers, doctors and industrialists. In 1936 elections were held, by order of the authorities, to the community councils in Poland. The elections were held in Vilna on September 6 with the participation of 5,683 voters out of 12,813 eligible voters. The mandates divided of as follows: among the General Zionists 6, Mizrahi 5, Bund 5, the progressive list and artisans 2 each, Poalei Zion, merchants and property owners 1 each. Dr Wigodski was elected chairman of the community committee and these were the last elections held.


Vilna, front of the Shulhoyf. Behind the gate is the GRA synagogue and the Strashun library to its right
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


Vilna, The great synagogue
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


Religion, Rabbis

In the years 1920-1922 Vilna had 16 rabbis and 6 preachers (Magidim). In a 1929 agreement document, the signatures of previous rabbis appear as well as 8 additional ones, Rabbi Binyamin Mileikowski, Rabbi Eliyahu Halperin, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Grodzinski, Rabbi Zeev Segal, Rabbi Yosef Shub, Rabbi Mendel Zalmanowich, Rabbi Moshe Karlitz, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman. Previously, Rabbi Khanokh Henikh Newizhski, Rabbi Isaac Koschikowski, Rabbi Meir Basin, Rabbi Eliyahu Gordon and Rabbi Asher Yedidowich were also active in Vilna. The city preacher was Rabbi Menakhem Krakowski, and after his death, Rabbi Haim Shimon Topp was appointed to fill the position. Many of the city rabbis were pro Zionist. The Rabbis Slutzki, Segalowich, Frid, Gordon, Shtamler and others signed a document with the title ‘Together we shall do National Work’, and many others agreed to collaborate with the Zionists (Rabbis Basin, Gurewich, Kaplan, Zalmanowich, Halperin, Karlitz, Filwishki, Grodzinski, Margolis, Yedidowich, Yisraelov and others). The Zionist leader, Dr Shmaryahu Levin continued to fill his rabbinic position in the Taharat Hakodesh synagogue (the Koreli). Liberals prayed there, accompanied by choir singing while religious extremists shunned it.

The appointment of the Zionist Rabbi Itshak Rubinstein to the position of the city rabbi in 1928 was strongly opposed by the Agudat Yisrael rabbis and other rabbis in the city. The Khafetz Khayim published a leaflet of protest, and in response to that Rabbis Khanokh Henikh Eiger and Ya'akov Kohen demonstratively resigned from membership in Hamizrahi. After changes in the regulations, Rabbi Ozer Grodzinski was appointed the official community rabbi in 1932.


Political and Zionist Activities

In the period between the two World Wars, Vilna saw an ever expanding flowering of activities of Jewish and Zionist parties and movements. In the winter of 1919 a branch of Hekhalutz was founded, which had a training farm in the village Weilicziany. In 1920 the first Vilna Khalutz group of 28 members immigrated to Eretz Yisrael. In May 1921 the Lithuanian Hekhalutz center was established in Vilna and in May 1925 the kibbutz Hakovesh was established with 185 members. In August of the same year, the members began to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael group by group, first to Kfar Sava and later they founded the kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh. In the second half of the twenties the Hekhaluts movement weakened in Vilna, but recovered in the thirties. It had 40 branches in 1931 in the whole province with 1,062 members, 220 of these on training farms. A year later it had two kibbutzim Shakharia and Banativ. The ‘General Zionists’ one of the dominant parties in the city, also started a training center on a farm near the city. Hashomer Hatzair began its activities in the city in 1920 and expanded rapidly with wide ranging activities. Other organizations active in the city were Khever (school youth) associated with the General Zionists and student organizations, Kadima, Eretz and Dror. In 1925 a branch of Betar was opened and by the end of 1930 it counted some 400 members. Alongside this branch, Revisionist student organizations acted, Tiomkina, Yardenya, Bitriya and Khashmonai. In the thirties, Ze'ev Jabotinsky visited a number of times. The Brit Hatzahar (Revisionist party), had a large branch of about 2,000 members. It established its central provincial office in Vilna in 1936, with Yisrael Epstein at its head. David Yoten was appointed to manage the Tel Hai fund. The city also had small branches of the State party, founded by Meir Grosman and its Khalutz movement Yehuda. The divisions within the Zionist movement and the affair of the murder of Arlozorov created tensions between the Revisionists and the left Zionists which often resulted in violent altercations. The old established movement Kherut Utkhiya (founded in the early 1920s) was active in the city, but faded away as most of its members immigrated to Eretz Yisrael. Vilna also had an active women's branch of WIZO.

The Zionist center, active in the city even before it was annexed to Poland in 1922, kept its independence at first. In 1924 however, the leadership decided to join the national center in Warsaw. After lengthy negotiations, the union was completed in 1929 and the separate Zionist parties became branches of their centers in the Polish capital. In 1934 the center of the World Zionist Alliance was established in Vilna. Another large party, the Zionist Socialists, Labor Zion (Poalei Zion, known as the Hahit'akhadut, later joined by Hekhalutz and the youth movement Gordonia) attracted mainly educated youths devoted to Hebrew. The Eretz Yisrael League, which came into being with the unifying of two previous parties, strengthened the Zionist socialist camp. Hekhalutz, Ha'oved, Hashomer Haza'ir, Gordonia, Freiheit (Dror), and others, all functioned under its patronage.

The following were the results of the elections to the Zionist congresses in Vilna in the thirties:


Congress list 1932 (No.18) 1935 (No.19) 1937 (No.20)
Labor 1,564 2,283 1,002
General Zionists A 240 1073 334
General Zionists B 60 186 52
Hamizrachi 261 560 514
Revisionists 941 ------ ------
State (Grosman) ------ 703 147


The non Zionist left wing included the Bund and a small group of Communists. In the first years of the twenties the Bund underwent a severe crisis and a division, the Kombund split off and joined the Communist Party. The struggle between the Bund and the Kombund lasted until 1924. In 1925 the Communist Party was declared illegal in Poland and it carried on limited underground activities. The Bund, in the present as in the past, concentrated on trade union activity (and pushed aside the Zionist Socialists), Yiddish education and on anti Zionist agitation. Its best known leaders were Arkadi Kremer (one of the founders), A. Litwok, Ana Rosental, Baruch Kohen-Wirgili and Ya'akov Zhelnikov. Each year, on the first of May, the Bund organized demonstrations or public events, and it had representatives on the community and the municipal councils. Youth and children's movements, Tzukunft and Skif, functioned under the Bund banner. After the Bund joined the Socialist International, Tzukunft in Vilna split and some of its members joined the Communist underground (most of the Communist activists arrested were Jews). Vilna also had a small branch of the Democratic Movement led by Dr Tsemakh Shabad. Its members collaborated with the Bund and the Territorialists (led by Yosef Chernikhov and his son, Zalman Kalmanowich and Dr Josef Kruk).

Agudat Yisrael was to be found on the other anti-Zionist extreme end. After the end of the First World War Rabbi Ozer Grudzhinski returned from Russia and began to work towards the establishment of an orthodox organization. He convened a rabbinic council in Vilna in 1920, which decided to establish the Agudat Yisrael in Lithuania with its center in Vilna and Rabbi Grudzhinski was elected chairman pro tem. The first congress of Agudat Yisrael met in Vilna in 1923 (The Great Assembly), with the participation of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen of Radin (The Hafetz Hayim). Rabbi Grudzhinski was very active in expanding orthodox education and in 1924 formed, together with the Hafetz Hayim the Va'ad Hayeshivot (Yeshiva council). In 1926 the council supported 17 large yeshives and 35 small ones in Eastern Europe. 200 local committees in Poland collected funds for their upkeep. As mentioned above, Rabbi YItshak Rubinstein was elected to the post of city rabbi over Rabbi Grudzhinski due to the support he received of the General Zionists and economic bodies in the elections in 1928. The later was appointed to the post of community rabbi only in 1932. A convention met in 1939 in Vilna with 200 rabbis attending. According to the report submitted to the convention the Va'ad Hayeshivot collected over 4 million Zloty in the 15 years of its existence in 400 cities and towns of the eastern Polish border land.


The Jewish Educational System

Immediately after the war, the department of education of the community in the city lent its support to the Jewish schools. The departmental head, Dr Yosef Brener, a Zionist, introduced many changes in the educational system, more so in the Talmud Torah. His demand that Hebrew be taught also in the Yiddish language schools met the opposition of some of the teachers. The Yiddish schools in the city were affiliated to the Central Education Authority (Tzentraler Bildungs Komitet, TzBK), which was formed in 1919. This was a result of the initiative of the Khevrat Mefitsei Haskala, the Association for Children and representatives of teachers of Yiddish. In that year, 1838, children studied in Yiddish schools in the city, 1,425 children attended Talmud Torah of the United Committee (religious), and 418 attended Hebrew language schools. By the end of 1928, 8 primary schools with 1,900 pupils in the city were under the direction of the TzBK. Although by the end of the thirties a few were joined together and only 5 schools remained with 1,900 pupils: 2 kindergartens, one science high school and another emphasizing the arts which was closed in the late twenties. As of 1920, Vilna had bi-annual pedagogic courses for teachers of Hebrew and Yiddish in the sciences and national arts. In 1921, a five year seminar was opened for Yiddish teachers. It was closed in 1931 by order of the authorities who suspected it of communist activity. The TzBK center also published text books in Yiddish, maps and two publications a monthly for children Grinike Beimalekh and Der Khaver for youths, teachers and parents.

The TzBK split in 1928/9 and a new Yiddish Zionist educational stream, Shul Kult, was created by Poalei Zion. This educational stream had a Yiddish primary school in the city educating in the Zionist spirit.

After the creation of the Tarbut stream in 1925, it was joined by the leading Hebrew educational institutions in the city. Dr Epstein founded a ‘Real Gimnasia’ alongside one of the schools and it was named after him (closed in 1931). A tri-yearly seminar for Hebrew teachers was opened in Vilna in 1921, (renamed the Pedagogical Lyceum in 1934) with a Hebrew kindergarten attached to it. In 1934 a Hebrew seminar for kindergarten teachers was opened in Vilna, the only one such seminar in Poland. Tarbut also published popular scientific brochures for the young.

The Takhkemoni national religious educational stream had 11 primary schools in Vilna in 1922, mostly Talmud Torah, but because of budgetary difficulties only 8 remained in 1929/30. A private religious high school was opened in 1924, Tushiya, and in 1929 it had 292 students.

The Yavne center (or Horev), supported 216 kheders and 23 yeshives in Vilna and the vicinity. In 1921 the primary school Yavne was opened with 7 classes.

A number of primary state schools were opened in 1927, Shabatovkas (schools for Jewish children, closed on the Sabbath, and teaching Jewish and religious studies). By the end of the thirties there were five such primary state schools in Vilna with 6643 pupils.

In the thirties, five Jewish educational frameworks were active in Vilna: TzBK, Tarbut, Takhkemoni, Horev (orYavne), Shul Kult, and two associations of Hebrew and Yiddish teachers.


Vilna, Jewish High school girls
Source: Yad Vashem photo archives


In addition to the major educational bodies, the city also had a number of private educational institutes. Dr. S.I .Charny opened a private Hebrew teachers' seminar in 1926 in which general subjects were taught in Polish. Dr. Charny also opened a seminar for kindergarten teachers, a kindergarten and a Hebrew Polish high school. The teacher seminar was closed in 1936, but all the other Dr. Charny schools continued to function until 1939. There were a few other private high schools in Vilna. Most of them changed the language of instruction from Russian to Polish in order to be recognized by ministry of education (a condition for acceptance into academic institutes). Alongside the Anna Wigodski high school, which changed the language of instruction from Yiddish to Polish, a Yiddish primary school existed as well as a kindergarten. The Sophia Gurewich high school changed from Russian to Yiddish. It was closed by order of the authorities in the school year 1932/3 because of suspicion of communist activities.

As of 1921, an important technical high school operated in the city, the Tekhnikum run by Ort, teaching mechanics and electricity. The language of instruction was Yiddish and the teachers were forced to translate material from other languages. In 1936 teaching was begun also in Hebrew. In 1936 the Tekhnikum was changed to the ‘Technical Lyceum’ where the high school graduates studied for an engineering degree. In addition, a few trade schools and technical courses were run by the ‘Ezra al yedey Avoda’ company (Help through Work) and the women's league. In the mid thirties a school was opened in the city for children with learning handicaps.


The Jewish press and Literature

The manifold activity around the Jewish press and writing, which had been temporarily interrupted by the First World War due to the movement of most of the writers to the Russian interior, was now renewed and Vilna once again took its place as a center of Hebrew and Yiddish press and literature. Among the important Jewish authors living in the city after the war were Shmuel Leyb Tsitron, Moshe Shalit, Zalman Reisin, Max Weinreich, Falk Heilpern, Aaron Itzhak Grudzhanski and Moshe Kulbak (imigrated to the Soviet Union in 1928). A group of Yiddish authors was active in the city I Folikman (moved to the Soviet Union), Avraham Sutzkever, Moshe Levin, Shmaryahu Kacherginski, Hirsh Glick (wrote the words to the Jewish partisan hymn), and many others. Among the important Hebrew authors in the city were to be found S.I. Charny, Pinlas (Panueli), Moshe Basuk, Zvi Arad, Yosef Khanani and Dov Khomski. Writers and poets from other centers visited the city, among them Sholem Ash, Elisheva, Yosef Opatoshu, H.N. Bialik, David Bergelson, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Peretz Hirshbein, Dr Haim Zhitlowski, Peretz Markish, Rachel Feinberg, David Pinski, Alter Kacyzne and Itzhak Katzenelson.

After the Polish annexation of Vilna a group of Jewish writers and journalists reorganized themselves in 1922 and registered as a professional association. A constant struggle took place between the adherents of Yiddish and those who espoused Hebrew which caused temporary splits in the association. By the end of the twenties a separate Hebrew writers association came into being in Vilna. Vilna held the Polish branch of the PEN club of Yiddish writers.

The important libraries in the city were the Strashun Library, it had 33,134 volumes on the shelves in 1931, the Hevrat Mefitzei Haskala library contained 46,234 volumes in 1931 and the YIVO library possessed approximately 100,000 volumes at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Immediately after the War, two Yiddish newspapers appeared on the stands: Tog, published by the Yiddish speaking non-Zionists, edited by Shmuel Neiger and later by Zalman Reisin, and the Zionist Yiddishe Tseitung, edited by Leyb Yaffe (afterwards called Undzer Freint and then the Zeit). Both continued to appear until the Second World War. In the thirties ,the Revisionist Frimorgen appeared, as well as the Vilner Moment, Der Mesles and Undzere Shtime (for short periods), and three evening papers Ovnt Kurier, edited by Itshak Grudzhanski, Vilner Express and Vilner Radio (the last two local editions of Warsaw newspapers). In addition, brochures were published by the parties and movements (mostly for short periods), three of these in Hebrew- Hakhaim, Galim and Zramim, and others in Yiddish - Dos Vort (published by the Yeshivas council), Ha'am (published by Mizrahi), Dos Fraye Vort (a Socialist publication), Undzer Gedank of the Tzeirei Zion, Undzer Shtime of the Bund, Vilner Lebn of the Zionists, Di Vokh and 7 Teg of the underground Communists. Periodicals and anthologies devoted to literature and the arts also appeared- Der Pinkas, Vegn, Di Bime, Kunst un Lebn, Di Vokh Etyudn, Kultur, Vilner Literarisher Kunst Zhurnal.

According to the city annual statistical report, 11 newspapers and journals were published in 1926, in Yiddish and Hebrew, 9 in 1927, 10 in 1928, 15 in 1929, 14 in 1930, and 17 in 1931. In 1931 Vilna had 5 Jewish daily newspapers, 3 weeklies, 2 fortnightlies, 3 quarterlies, and 3 journals published irregularly. In addition to the above, books and publications in Yiddish and Hebrew were published as follows; 109 in 1928, 215 in 1929, 149 in 1930 and 224 in 1931.


The Arts, Theater, Music

Vilna had a school of applied art, founded on the initiative of the sculptor Mark Antokolski (opened after his death). During the thirties a number of exhibitions were held of famous Jewish painters: Mauricio Minkovski, Arthur Shik (Artur Szyk). Maneh Katz, Issachar-Ber Rybak. Vilna figured high in their paintings.

During the First World War the Vilner Troupe theater group was organized and appeared throughout Poland until finally settling in Warsaw. In 1928 a few of the original troupe members returned to Vilna and founded a local theater. During the years 1921-1923 the city also had a drama studio which graduated some 25 actors. An amateur troupe was active in the city and theater groups from other center visited from time to time as well theater stars. Among them the Esther-Rachel Kaminski troupe and the Azazel troupe from Lodz. The Warsaw Yung Teater moved to Vilna in 1937 after its license was withdrawn because of suspicion of communist tendencies.

A number of Jewish musicians were born or studied in Vilna, among them the violinist Jascha Heifetz. The child prodigy Leybl Nesvizhskii (Nieświeżycki), who in later became a renowned pianist and choir conductor and settled in Palestine in 1922, changing his name to Aryeh Avileah, the violinist Manyah Bloch (studied in Vilna), the singer Lyuba Levitzki and the famous cantors Gershon Sirota, Mordechai Hershman and Moshe Koussovitzky.


Scientific activity and the YIVO institute

A number of Jewish associations functioned in Vilna in scientific and cultural matters, among others: the Kultur Lige (Cultural league, founded on December 21, 1918, under the initiative of Shlomo Zanvel Rapoport, better known under the pen name Ansky). The History and Ethnography Institute (founded in February1919), also headed by S. Ansky and after his death named after him. The History and Ethnography Institute opened a museum and archive, publishing in 1922 the ‘Pinkas far der Geschichte fun Vilne in di Yorn fun Milchome un Okupatsie’ (Journal of Vilna History in the days of the War and the Occupation). In 1924 YIVO was established (‘Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut’: Institute for Jewish research) as the highest research institute of the Yiddish language and culture. The institute had two major aims: original updated scientific research in Yiddish, and translations from other languages of research done by Jews and others throughout the world. At the beginning the institute had four departments: History (among its members were Shimon Dubnow, Shaul Ginsburg and Eliyahu Cherikover), Linguistics and Literature (among its members were Alexander Harkavy, Yehuda Yoffe and Max Weinreich), Economics and Statistics led by the statistician Ya'akov Leshchinsky and the department of Psychology and Education (among its members were Eliyahu Golomb and Leybush Lehrer). The institute published historic studies, linguistic studies, and economic studies. It held two international scientific conferences (October 1929 and August 1935), and established a young researchers group, ‘Aspirantur’. YIVO collected a great deal of material about Jewish life in the Diaspora (with the emphasis on the Yiddish speakers) and documented Jewish folklore. By the Second World War the institute library had collected some 100,000 volumes, a further 100,000 manuscripts and innumerable archival documents. Some of this rich collection was destroyed during the Holocaust: the remainder was taken by the Nazis and, after the World war, transferred to the New York branch of the institute, which had become, since 1940, the new YIVO center.


Vilna, Jewish newspapers between the two wars


Anti-Semitism, Political and Economic Terror

During the thirties, with the deepening of the economic crises in Poland, and inspired by Nazi Germany with whom Poland had signed a non-aggression treaty, a wave of a new sort of anti-Semitism spread throughout the country accompanied by political terror and violence. A Polish Nazi party was founded, which, contrary to the German model, bore a Christian character and pressure was put onto Polish Jewry to stop the boycott they had declared on the import of German goods. In June 1934, the activity of the Polish Nazi party was forbidden and it was disbanded, but two other Polish nationalist parties the Endecja (N D, National Democrats) and Nara (Radical Nationalists, a Christian oriented party established by young extremists who had split off from the Endecja in 1934), and these continued the anti-Semitic agitation, terror and violence. In the spring of 1935 the agitation and violence worsened. Jews throughout the country were attacked in the streets, in the markets and in public places with knives, guns, stones and iron rods. Synagogues and cemeteries were profaned and vandalized and there were also cases of the use of explosives. The government reaction was disappointing. The Endecja and the Nara were banned, but substitutes were permitted in some districts, and some of their activities were forbidden, but many of the members joined other organizations.

Anti-Semitism found rich ground in Vilna. A delegate from Sosnowiec founded a branch of the Endecja in January 1933, and in October 1933 its constitution was submitted to the authorities for legal recognition. In the document Big Capital and the Jews were defined as the enemies of the Little Citizen. The Jews were accused of dominating trade, industry and the free professions and of the attempt to take over the press, and the solution proposed was exile to Palestine or their dispersion among other nations. Two leading members of the Endecja, who sat on the city council representing the party, joined the Polish Nazi party. A manifesto (Podubka) was distributed throughout the city which was confiscated by the authorities. German financing was instrumental in the publishing of a number of new anti-Semitic newspapers in addition to the ones already in existence. A single issue of the weekly Pszebojem (forceful outburst) appeared in October 1933, another newspaper belonging to a local leader was called ‘The National Socialist Front’, both papers were filled with poisonous anti-Semitic agitation. Seven armed groups were founded in Vilna whose task was to assault the Jews and to interfere with the other parties. In February 1934 the authorities confiscated leaflets and arrested their distributors and the Nazi members of the city council. After the liquidation of the Polish Nazi Party in June 1934, its two leaders in Vilna were arrested and charged, but the anti-Semitism and the violence continued. Nara members assaulted Jews and placed bombs in shops. In February 1935 an explosive device was placed under a synagogue and caused grave damage. The violent incidents increased as time went on. Many Jews were badly injured in the streets and one was killed. In the summer of 1936, the Nara leader in Vilna was put on trial together with two students who had thrown a bomb at a shop and a third one who had laid an explosive device near a shop. All four were sentenced to prison time. Their friends demonstrated before the court house and at their exiting called out ‘martyrs’.

The universities in Poland, including the one in Vilna, were a hotbed of anti-Semitism in the country, as were other important universities which had about one thousand Jewish students. Gangs of Endecje students attacked their Jewish peers in the lecture halls and corridors. The Jews defended themselves vigorously, often in groups, but many were injured, some badly. Most of the lecturers did not dare interfere. In the lecture halls, ‘Ghetto Seats’ at the sides were allocated to the Jewish students, but they preferred to stand throughout the lecture time, or leaned against the walls in order not to suffer this indignity. Furthermore, the Endecje attempted to introduce a day free of the Jews at the Vilna University and set pickets at the entrances. Students who managed to pass through were badly beaten and injured. The rector held a referendum among the students and when it transpired that the majority was against the Ghetto Seats he resigned. In February 1937 a Jewish student was stabbed by a fellow student and had to be hospitalized in serious condition. A 24 hour protest fast by the Jewish students made little impression. The Endecje students gave an ultimatum to the rector and locked themselves in the university. Finally, they were removed by the police and the Vilna University was closed for a while. In the autumn of 1937 the Ministry of Education permitted the rectors to publish regulations concerning ‘Preserving Order’ and Ghetto Seats in the universities were legitimized. The agitation and violence in the universities continued until the outbreak of the Second World War.


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