“Vilna” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VIII
(Vilnius, Lithuania)

54°41' 25°19'

Translation of “Vilna” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem



Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 30-92, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

[Page 30]


In Lithuanian Vilnius, in Polish Wilno

District capital, Capital of Lithuania


Part 1 Written by Shmuel Spector

Part 2 written by Aaron Weis

Translated by Shimon Joffe

Notes on the translation

With very few exceptions, place names are are given in their Polish spelling. A list of place names is appended to this entry giving alternative versions of the names.
Personal names are also given in their Polish spelling, but with many exceptions, accomodating Hebrew or common pronunciation. A glossary of general terms is also included at the end of this document.


Year General
1645 ~12,000 1,225 *
1690 ~15,000 3,000 *
1765   3,887 *
1795   3,613 **
1800   5,692 ***
1827   10,761
1832 35,922 20,646
1860 60,000 24,000 *
1875 82,668 38,668
1890 109,808 63,698
1892   58,277
1897 154,532 63,841
1901   76,000 *
1906 205,514 103,514
1916 138,379 60,613
1919 128,954 46,265
1923 167,452 55,817
1931 195,071 55,006
1937   58,611

~ Approximately
* Poll tax payers in town. 5,316 in the entire region
** in town, plus 348 Jews in Shnipishki and in Antokol
*** plus 1279 Jews in Shnipishki and Antokol

Vilnius was in the past the capital of the Duchy of Lithuania and between the two world wars, the capital of a Polish province. At present, it is the capital of the independent republic of Lithuania. In the Jewish world it was known as Yerushalayim d'Lita (the Jerusalem of Lithuania), a Jewish spiritual center of the first order. Between the two world wars it was the fourth largest Jewish concentration in Poland - alongside Cracow and after Warszawa, Lodz and Lwów.


City History

Vilna lies on a number of hills and the valley below them at the confluence of the rivers Wilija and Wilejka. Thanks to these two rivers and at the end of the 19th century, to the junction of the main railway lines which met at the city, as well as roads connecting it to the Baltic countries and to Russia, it became a commercial center of first order. Other important sectors in the economy were forestry, raising cattle and sheep and later also the creation of agricultural industries, timber based industry, tanning, production of agricultural machinery and other equipment, clothing, footwear etc. Vilna has a university and many cultural institutions. During the 11th and the 12th centuries Vilna was the seat of the prince Połock. In 1323 the Lithuanian prince Gediminas moved his capital from Trokai to Vilna and built a fortress next to it. In 1387 Vilna was granted the Magdeburg Privileges. During the second half of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries the city suffered many incursions by the Teutonic knights coming from eastern Prussia. The city, built of wood, burnt down a number of times and had to be rebuilt each time. In the 16th century it was the capital of the Lithuanian prince and the seat of government, the prince's mint and many public institutions. After the Polish Lithuanian union in 1569 (The Lublin Union), it was recognized officially as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania within the United Kingdom. The Polish kings, who also bore the title of Grand Duke of Lithuania and visited it regularly, consolidated its position as the center of government, of the economy and of Lithuanian culture. In 1579 King Stefan Batory founded the Academia et Universitas Vilnesis, and from 1581 the Lithuanian Tribunal (High Court) sat there.

In 1655 Vilna was invaded by the soldiers of Tsar Alexei (the Muscovite), allies of Bogdan Chmelnitsky who had rebelled against the Poles and whose bands devastated many Jewish communities (the 1648-9 calamities). Immediately afterwards, in 1655-6 the Swedes invaded the Duchy of Lithuania and sowed mayhem and destruction. The wars were followed by plagues and other disasters and it took many years before demographic and economic growth recovered. A number of satellite townships sprang up nearby and these eventually became city suburbs-Antokol in the north, Snipiszki in the north west, Lukiszki in the west, Popowszczyzna in the north east and others.

In the third division of Poland in 1795, the region was annexed to the Russian kingdom, and in 1796 Vilna became the capital of the province (gubernia), which included most of the area of ethnic Lithuania. In 1801, when the Russian government reorganized the civil administration, the Lithuanian province was divided in two: Vilna province, having 11 counties, and the Grodno province. After the failed Polish rebellion of 1831, the Tsar cancelled the semi-autonomous status of Vilna as the capital of the Lithuanian province, made it into the capital of the north eastern region of Russia (Severo-Zapadnyi Kray) and made it the seat of the Governor General. At the same time, oppressive steps were taken to Russify the culture and education.

A few months after the outbreak of the First World War in autumn 1914, Lithuania became a battle field between the armies of Russia and Germany, and in September 1915, Vilna fell to the Germans without battle. The conquerors confiscated goods and foodstuffs, imposed stringent sanitary regulations and German was declared to be the only official language and introduced in all schools. Many young men were mobilized or press-ganged into labor brigades. The economic distress, the great number of refugees in town and the prevailing hunger caused a doubling of the death rate. After the German withdrawal in November 1918 the region passed from hand to hand: on December 7 the government of a Soviet Lithuanian republic was established in Vilna. In April 1919 it was taken by the Polish forces. On August 24, 1920, the Bolsheviks returned, took Vilna and handed it over to Lithuania. On October 9, 1920 the Polish general Lucjan Zheligovski took Vilna and its surroundings from the Lithuanians, with the secret agreement of Pilsudski and Vilna was declared the capital of Middle Lithuania, as an autonomous part of Poland. Both Poland and Lithuania rejected the proposal of the League of Nations to hold a plebiscite regarding its political status. In May 1921, the League of Nations proposed that two Lithuanian cantons be established and be joined onto Poland: a Vilna canton and a Kaunas canton, but Lithuania demanded full independence with Vilna included in its territory. In April 1922 the Polish Sejm affirmed the annexation of the Vilna region, and the League of Nations ratified this decision. Vilna then became a provincial capital in independent Poland, a step which created an prolonged conflict between Poland and Lithuania and a complete severance of relations between the countries until the Second World War. On September 17, 1939, the region was annexed to the Soviet Union. On October 10, Vilna, with part of the province, was transferred to Lithuania and became the capital of the Lithuanian republic within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. On June 15, 1940 the Soviet Union took over Lithuania and it became a Soviet republic with Vilna as its capital city.

On June 24, 1941 Lithuania was invaded by Nazi Germany. During the occupation, about half the buildings in the city were destroyed and between 55,000-60,000 of its Jewish inhabitants and a further 10,000 non Jews were murdered. After liberation by the Soviets on July 13, 1944, Vilna was declared the capital city of Soviet Lithuania and since 1990 it has been the capital of independent Lithuania.


The Jews under the rule of Lithuania and Poland (until 1795)

Jewish settlement took place, it would seem, in two stages: from the last quarter of the 15ththde non tolerandis Judaeis’ (the right to forbid Jews to settle in the city and to trade there), which was in turn reaffirmed by the kings Sigismund August and Sigismund III Vasa. Individual Jews settled in the fiefs of the bishops and those of the aristocrats outside the boundaries of the city jurisdiction (the Juridicum) and in 1487 (according to tradition), sanctified the first cemetery across the Vilija river. In 1490, Michael Ben Daniel leased the rights to collect customs across the river. One Jew, named Januszowski, owned a house in the city and lived there. In 1495, during the banishment of the Jews from Lithuania, a house owned by Jews in Vilna is mentioned as passing into the hands of the city. During the fair in 1507 in Vilna, Michael of Brisk (Brzesc) in Lithuania sold goods to the value of 114.5 Lithuanian Shok to Sigismund I, and in 1536 Joske Ben Pesach leased the wax tax in Vilna. In 1551 King Sigismund August granted personal ‘Letters of Privilege’ to Shimon Doktorowicz and Yisrael Ben Yosef of Krakow granting them the right to trade (as guest merchants), to lend money against pledges and to rent shops and houses in the city. In 1556 Jona Ben Itshak received a similar privilege and transferred his rights to two Jews from Brisk. In 1554 city burghers filed a complaint against Mendl of Krakow for breaching the law of de non tolerandis Judaeis and buying a large quantity of goods in Vilna. In the second half of the 16th century Jews managed the prince's mint in Vilna: in 1560 Felix of Krakow leased the mint and in 1569 King Sigismund August granted Itshak Borodavke the right to mint coins. The right to try Jews was with the crown castle court and not with the city judges who tried the local Christians. In 1563 the city also had a law court consisting of Polish judges with a Jewish representative who sat in on disputes between Jews (as in a dispute between Jewish tax farmers from Plotsk). In 1573 the noblemen were authorized to permit the erection of a prayer house and synagogue in the Juridicum outside the city limits and in that very year the Jews built the first wooden synagogue.

In the second half of the 16th century, with the growth of the general population in the Lithuanian capital, there began an accelerating growth in the Jewish population within the Juridicum–mostly tax farmers and wealthy wholesale merchants. The city burghers struggled endlessly against the developing Jewish community and complained to the crown court. In 1568 there was a Jewish community who paid taxes in the Juridicum attached to Vilna. In 1573, as mentioned, a synagogue was built and in 1592 the street on which it stood was called Jews' Alley. That year anti-Jewish riots broke out at the initiative of city's Christians — shops and homes were plundered and damaged and the synagogue burnt down. The Jews took the rioters to the crown court and the case ended in a compromise. In June 1593 King Sigismund III granted the Jews a new collective Letter of Privileges and reaffirmed their right to live in the Juridicum, to engage in trade and craft, to practice their religion and have a synagogue, a cemetery, a ritual bathhouse and meat stores for the sale of kosher meat for their own use. The Letter of Privilege of 1593 marks the beginning of the second stage – the growth of the Vilna Jewish population and its formation into a community. In place of the burnt synagogue, a new one was erected built of bricks, based on the design of synagogues in Western Europe.

In the middle of the 17th century, Jews from Polish cities, Prague and Frankfurt am Main settled in Vilna, among them wealthy financiers, scholars, petty merchants and artisans. The total number of Jews in the city came to 3,000 (out of a total 15,000 inhabitants). Compared to the city burghers, the Jews enjoyed some extra privileges – exemption from taxes and customs duties on alcoholic drinks and permission to work in trades without membership in the guilds of craftsmen and retail trade. Foreign non-Jewish merchants, but not Jews, were permitted to trade in the city only in wholesale (later, this limitation was imposed on the Jews who were not residents of the city, as demanded by the Jewish community itself, as detailed below).

Thanks to the endeavors of Shmuel son of Moshe and his brother Eliezer of Frankfurt, king Wladyslaw 1V Vasa, granted the Vilna Jews a collective Writ of Protection on February 19, 1633, in which he confirms their ownership of the synagogue, the cemetery and the ritual bathhouse ‘forever and after’ and gives permission to build yet another synagogue. The rabbi was given judicial autonomy in dealing with internal conflicts. In economic matters, the Jews received a number of concessions-permission to engage in wholesale and retail trade in foodstuffs, textiles, silk, Turkish carpets, gold, to work in crafts which did not have guilds, and the distillation of alcohol and its sale. They were also permitted to buy and slaughter cattle for their own needs, to use the city scales and the city water supply for the usual payment. Alongside the rights a number of limitations were imposed: a number of separate streets were allocated to the Jews and they were expected to move there within the following 15 years (the intention was to isolate them). Jewish tailors were forbidden to sew clothes for Christians, and Christians were forbidden the use of the ritual bathhouse. On the strength of this Writ of Protection, the Jews built a new synagogue of stone. On July 20th of the same year the king published an amendment to the Writ, probably after pressure by from city burghers. The area of the Jewish quarter was enlarged slightly, and the Jews were exempted from payment of most city taxes, except for the special annual impost of 300 Zloty and in times of war 500 Zloty. But a few limitations in trade and craftwork were added: the sale of meat, alcoholic liquor, salt and salted fish to Christians was permitted only wholesale, and engaging in craftwork where guilds existed was permitted only for internal needs, tailoring, for example, because of the Jewish law forbidding the mixing of cotton/flax and wool). For a period of ten years Jews were permitted to sell furs, clothes, silk, valuables, and other trade goods to noblemen only and only in 12 designated shops. The complaints of the city burghers and their threats of riots continued and in 1634-1635 violence and damage to Jewish property increased. The Jews received a universal crown order forbidding riots and disturbances, but the burghers blamed the Jews for the riots claiming that the fault lay with the Jewish taverns which encouraged rioting, that they continued to live in streets not appointed for them, and that they sold cheaply and thereby prevented fair competition etc. King Wladyslaw 1V appointed a commission of enquiry and following its recommendations made the city in 1636 ensure the safety of the Jews and compensate them for the damage done. He also permitted the Jews to keep 20 shops for the sale of alcoholic drink. In addition, he extended the Writ of Protection of 1633 for a further 5 years and postponed the obligation to live in a separate area (and the purchase of houses from Christians) by 25 years. Anti Jewish riots were renewed in the years 1639 and 1641, this time on the initiative of the students at the Jesuit seminary (the Jews named the Jesuit student riots ‘shilergeloyf’, the student run).

At the city census in 1645 1,225 Jews living in the city in 251 dwellings were counted: 32 houses of bricks and wood (including the synagogue) were owned by Jews and the remainder of the Jews lived in houses owned by Christians.

The 1648-9 calamities, as the killings and pillage committed by the Chmelnitsky bands to the Jews is known, destroyed complete Jewish communities, the economic framework was ruined and the trade links of Vilna Jewry with near and far Jewish communities were severed. Many survivors streamed into Vilna and supporting them proved to be a heavy burden on the local Jews. A few years later, the area experienced new disturbances. In 1655, when Vilna was invaded by the soldiers of Tsar Alexei (the Muscovites) most of the Jews escaped the city and those who remained were murdered. The escapees, led by the community rabbi — Rabbi Moshe Rivka's, author of the work Be'er Hagolah — reached as far as the Zhamut* (Samogitia, Zmudz, Zamaitija) region and even further. During the invasion, the Jewish quarter in Vilna was burnt down, and the refugees who returned found themselves mostly without shelter. In 1658 Tsar Alexei confirmed the municipal rights of the Vilna Christians, but, bending to their demands, forbade the Jews to live within the city limits.

By 1661 the invasion was over. The Polish-Lithuanian rulers restored the rights of the Jews and the community began to recover. The Polish kings Michael Korybut Wisniowiecki, Jan III Sobieski and Stanislaw August Poniatowski reconfirmed the Charter of Privilege granted to the Jews in the past. The guilds of the glaziers, the fishermen and the jewelers were granted royal prerogatives which limited Jewish activity in their sphere (for instance, keeping Christian apprentices was forbidden). During the second half of the 17th century the first Jewish artisans' societies were founded.

The Christian burghers and the Jesuit students continued to harass the Jews. In 1682, with the strengthening of the counter- reformation, Jews who were undergoing military exercises and, as ordered, had mustered to defend the city, were attacked on this occasion by the Christian artisans, but this time the students came to their defense. King Jan Sobieski III also defended them, and in view of the disturbances, exempted them from duty to defend the city and punished the assailants.

The wars between the Muscovites and the Swedes, the plagues and all other disturbances during the second half of the 17th century caused a general paralysis in trade and the economy, and individual Jews and the community leaders were obliged to borrow large sums of money from Christians at high interest. In 1687 a crowd of artisans, shopkeepers and Jesuit students attacked the insolvent Jews who hadn't paid their debts. The value of the damage caused by the riots was estimated at 120,000 Zloty. The King once again punished the city and forbade it to transfer the collection of debts to the students and aristocrats. By the end of the 17th century the community debt reached an astronomical amount – 800,000 Polish Zloty – and in 1695 the community was also required to share in the expenses of the ‘Council of Lithuania’ in the amount of 76,300 Zloty. The community funds were exhausted and on occasion, the communal leaders were forced to close the synagogue, the cemetery and other community institutions. The state courts dealing with the claims for non payment of debts imposed on the communal leaders the duty to pay the general debts as well as those of individuals who had absconded. In their desperation, the Jews turned for help from the Vaivoda, the Bishop or noblemen from the area (who were embroiled in conflict among themselves).

In 1690, the Jewish quarter in Vilna held 227 families, and a similar number, or a little more, lived in the Juridicum. The 18th century, particularly the first half, was filled with wars, invasions and natural disasters. In 1702 the Swedes conquered Vilna and imposed heavy taxes on the community. In 1705 the city was taken by the Russians, but a year later in 1706, fell into Swedish hands again. The wars caused famine and plagues (in 1708-1710) and a few huge conflagrations (in 1706-1749) destroyed streets and complete quarters. After a great fire in 1737 the Kahal (convocation) published a public appeal for assistance and received a generous donation from the Amsterdam community. In order to raise the great sums needed for the payment of ransom to the invaders and to restore the homes and property, the Jews were again forced to take huge loans, particularly from monasteries and priests. In 1766 their debt reached the enormous sum of 719,849 Zloty. The lenders demanded payment without mercy, attacked the property of individuals and of the community, and a number of private persons as well as community leaders were imprisoned. The community was forced to pawn the holy vessels of the synagogue.

After the end of the wars and the invasions, the Jews renewed local and foreign trade with Germany, Russia, Walachia (then under Turkish rule), and other countries and even expanded it. Two of the wealthiest and best known merchants were Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Zvi-Hirsh Fesele's and Reb Yehuda Ben Eliezer ‘Safra Vedayana’ (YSUD).

Under pressure from the Christian merchants and the artisans, a commission was set up at the beginning of the 18th century to investigate the complaints. In 1712 it proposed city ordinances that would limit the involvement of Jews in trade and craft and to create a separate Jewish quarter. In 1713, the Kahal appealed to the crown court against the city government which had discriminated against them in judgments. In 1738 King August III confirmed the Privileges previously granted the Vilna Jews by his predecessor, extended by 20 years the permission to open shops and renewed the license to trade in alcoholic liquor. The burghers appealed the royal decree and in 1740 received a new decision which renewed de non tolerandis Judaeis of 1527. Fearing they may be banished from the city, the Jews opened difficult negotiations through their representative, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Eliezer Safra Vedayana. The community was forced to accept a compromise involving harsh limitations on trade and craft and renewal of the limitation on housing. The negotiations continued for decades. In 1783 the Jews received a verdict which restored to them the rights to trade and craft, cancelled the limitation on housing (apart from two streets which were closed to them), gave them parity with the burghers in the payment of taxes and even cancelled the special annual impost.


The Kahal and the Council of Lithuania

When the ‘Council of Lithuania’ (the leadership of all Jewry in the Duchy), broke away from the ‘Council of the Four Lands’ in 1623, it was led by the leading men from three major communities – Brisk, Grodno and Pinsk. The representative of Vilna did not belong to the leadership and in the minutes of Pinkas Hamedina (the records book) of 1623 (para. 89) Vilna is not mentioned at all. It is possible that it was subordinate to the Brisk community as is hinted in Para. 90 of Pinkas Hamedina ‘Regarding the debts of Brisk to the Council, Vilna was allocated additional 3 Shok above the original figure on account of the blood libel’ (a Lithuanian Shok was equivalent to 60 Groshen). The custom was that the major communities participated in the expenses of the communities subordinate to them regarding disorders and libels. It seems that the Vilna community rose in importance afterwards. In Pinkas Hamedina appears ‘Vilna with the other communities which do not appear in the Brisk account, have a special arrangement for the community leaders with their surrounding communities to cover the expenses connected with intercession to punish murders and revenge.’ In other words, Vilna was then a leader in the region, with the surrounding communities directly subordinate to it. In the collection of monies for expenses in intercession to punish murderers of Jews, its rights were limited at first, but in a compromise reached in 1634 it was empowered to collect imposts and poll tax from ‘the surroundings’ (Jews who lived in the nearby towns and were subordinate to it), except for Samogitia and Troki. The surroundings also acted as a support for the major communities as they were able to lay most of the tax burden upon them (as indeed was done). In the dispute which arose between Vilna and Grodno as to the responsibility over the Olkieniki community the Council decided in favor of Vilna.

Another important economic issue which caused the local leadership much trouble was the matter of non local Jews trading freely in the city, thus impairing the income of the locals. In a regulation from 1634, which laid down weights and sizes, the Council limited the rights of outside traders to sell wholesale and only to Jews, and only after the passage of a stipulated time were they permitted to sell to Christians as well. They had to pay a tax to the local community on their sales. A few months later the Council permitted Vilna merchants to trade in all the communities and towns within the bounds of the three communities of the Lithuanian region: in a compromise reached between the Slutzk community and representatives of Vilna, Grodno and Pinsk in this matter, their merchants were given certain concessions. The rise in the status of Vilna is demonstrated by a resolution of the same year dealing with the expenses caused by the intercession to punish the murderers of Jews: ‘as to the holy community of Vilna, being a huge metropolis among the nations, should anything happen and it becomes necessary, it is in the hands of the leaders of the Vilna region and the Vilna community to spend whatever is needed without asking the head of any other region (a previous resolution laid down the need for the leaders of Vilna to consult with the leaders of four other regions). The lobbying to bring murderers of Jews to trial fell naturally upon the leaders of Vilna, capital of Lithuania and the seat of the rulers of the Duchy. The economic status of the Vilna community can be gauged from the amounts tax laid upon it: in 1644 Vilna and its surroundings paid 100 Lithuanian Shok, Brisk paid 270 Shok, Grodno 66 Shok and Pinsk 70 Shok. In 1650 Vilna paid 88.5 Shok, Brisk 100 and Grodno 93, and in 1664 Vilna had to pay 7 Polish Zloty (3.5 Lithuanian Shok), Brisk paid 10 Zloty, Grodno 5 and Pinsk 4 Zloty. That year, the Council's debt to Vilna reached the huge sum of 30,700 Zloty. The repeated demands of Vilna to be recognized as a major community were first acknowledged at the Chomsk gathering in 1652. It was declared a major community, but it was determined that its status will be equalized that of the other major communities in stages over 35 years. In 1652 Vilna was given the right to send a representative (Rosh Medina) to the and his expenses would be covered by the Council, in 1660 it was entitled to a further Rosh Medina, in 1668 to a third Rosh Medina or to the participation of the community rabbi as president of the national rabbinic Beth Din, and in 1674 to a fourth Rosh Medina or to the appointment of the rabbi as head of the Beth Din. The Vilna Kahal was also allowed a representative in the lobbying delegation from Lithuania to the Polish Sejm in Warsaw (at the community's expense) and later its rights were further extended. In 1668 three representatives from the communities of Grodno, Pinsk and Vilna were added to the financial trustee from Brisk. In 1673 the parnas (civic leader) of Vilna was added to the leading administrators of Lithuanian Jewry and his expenses charged to the Council. In the assembly in Zabludow in 1687 the Vilna Kahal was also permitted to appoint a scribe and an attendant. “Now they are equal in everything to the leading communities, and seeing that the word of this worthy community is honest and straightforward …”.’

In the last years of the Council's existence, the number of incidents which required the intervention of the intercessor (shtadlan) increased greatly. The Lithuanian Council accordingly appointed a permanent lobbyist who would remain during the sitting of the Lithuanian Tribunal, follow it to Minsk and Novogrudek and “his eyes would remain open to (learn) what the Council needs to know to argue before His Majesty the King and the noble ministers” His appointment was for three years and it was decided that the Vilna community would free him of taxes.

In 1765 the Lithuanian authorities disbanded the Council and held a census to determine the payment of a poll tax by individuals (every Jew over the age of one year). Vilna and its surroundings had 3,887 Jews and together with the surrounding communities had a total population of 5,446 Jews (Snipiszki-116, Musznik and its environs-255, Olkainiki-55, Michalszki-388 and Galwani-109). It is known that in other areas many avoided the census in order to avoid payment of the tax, so it may be assumed that the number of Jews in Vilna was greater.

That year the treasury estimated the debt of the Vilna community at 823,047 Zloty, of which 719, 849 to the monasteries and to priests. As a consequence, a special court was appointed to check the claims and to arrange a schedule of payments of the debts. An officer representing the Starosta (the representative of the King) was appointed to supervise the income and expenditure of the Kahal. The supervision was stopped in 1772 and renewed in 1785. After its dissolution, the Kahal nevertheless continued to meet informally for some time.


Religious life and Religious Leadership

During the period of the Council, Vilna was a leading Torah center and a seat of scholars of great fame. The first rabbi was apparently Rabbi Abraham Segal. After him came Rabbi Menachem Munish, the son of Rabbi Itshak Hayut, author of the pamphlet‘Zmirot Leshabat’ (Prague 1621). A manuscript of his other work ‘Derech Tmimim’ may have also survived. He died in 1636 and his gravestone was the oldest one standing in the old Vilna cemetery. Rabbi Uri Shraga Feivish, who immigrated to Jerusalem and served as the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in 1650-1653 (thereby earning the sobriquet ‘the Ashkenazi’), the ruling Rabbi (posek) Moshe the son of Rabbi Itshak Yehuda Lima (1605-1658) author of Chelkat Mechokek, of whom the famous phrase was said “Between Moshe (Moses of the bible) and Moshe (this one) there was no one like Moshe (his rulings appear in Pinkas Hamedina from 1650 onwards). His colleagues at the Beth Din were equally famous: the Dayan Rabbi Efraim Ben Rabbi Aaron Hacohen author of Sha'ar Efraim (from 1635 until his death in 1678). In 1655 he fled from the Cossack invasion to Moravia and thence to Vienna and Budapest: Rabbi Shabtai Ben Rabbi Meir Katz (‘the SHAKh’ 1628-1663), who wrote at the age of 24 the treatise Siftei Kohen about the Shulchan Aruch, and among whose other important works are Nekudot Hakesef, Tkafo Kohen, and Gvurat Anashim. Rabbi Shabtai became famous and corresponded also with Christian scholars. In 1655 he fled to Moravia and was a rabbi in Helishoi. Rabbi Aaron Shmuel Ben Rabbi Israel Kaidanover (MHRSHAK, 1614-1676), author of Birkat Hazevakh, Birkat Shmuel, Emunat Shmuel (responsa), and Tiferet Shmuel who, after his exile from Vilna, served in Frankfurt Am main and in Cracow, Rabbi Hilel Ben Rabbi Naftali Hirtz (1615-1690) author of Beth Hillel, and other treatises on the subject of Halakha, Drash and Musar (law, exegis and ethics). After his escape from Vilna he served in the communities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek among others. Vilna also had Rabbi Shlomo Halevi (who gave religious judgments before the SHAKh). Rabbi Haim Ben Rabbi Moshe Shamai: Rabbi Naftali Hirtz Reich: Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel Ben Yosef “Kharif” (“the sharp”) author of Pnei Yehoshua, a native of the city: Rabbi Heshel Tsoref (born 1633), one of the most important rabbis of his generation (his work Sefer Hatzsoref is a treatise of five volumes on the Kabalah full of Sabbatean allusions. Some suggest he was a crypto Sabbatean, though during his lifetime he was not considered one and he is venerated to this day by the Hassids and Kabbalists). In the middle of the 17th century a Talmud Torah (religious seminary) was founded in the city and a local philanthropist created a fund to support students.

After the calamities of 1648/9 and the 1655/6 wars, Rabbi Yitshak Ben Rabbi Abraham, officiated in Vilna, and later in Posnan. During his tenure, Rabbi Moshe Rifka's returned from his exile in Amsterdam. The ‘sin’ of his running away he describes in the introduction to his book Be'er Hagolah (Amsterdam 1664). After Rabbi Yitzhak the following served in Vilna: Rabbi Nakhman from Ludmir (1673); Rabbi Moshe Ben Rabbi David known as ‘Kremer’ (died 1698), ancestor of the Gaon of Vilna; Rabbi Shimshon, whose signature appears on a number of documents; Rabbi Hillel Ben Rabbi Yona Halevi (died 1706); Rabbi Barukh Kahana Rapoport ‘Harif’ (in 1708-1712), who moved to Furth in Germany and died in 1746; and from 1712 Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel, the son of Rabbi Shaul of Brisk and Cracow and the son in law of Rabbi Hirsh Ben, Rabbi Benyamin Mirlish, a wealthy Vilna resident. In 1714 his contract terminated and the congregation wished to appoint someone else in his stead, but he received a Bill of Protection from King August II which forbade his replacement and he remained in the position until his death in 1749.

From 1709 onwards, Rabbi Moshe Ben Rabbi Naftali Hirtz (died 1726) served as head of the Beth Din and preacher in Vilna. Among the great Torah scholars in Vilna were the Dayan Rabbi Arieh Leib Ben Rabbi Yitshak Shapira (born 1701) author of Nakhalat Ariel and Ma'on Arayot and a friend of the Karaite Khakham (having the role of Rabbi among the Karaites) Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aaron of Trokai; Rabbi Josef of Pinchuv, author of Rosh Josef and Rabbi Moshe Kremer's in-law; the grammarians Rabbi Azriel and his sons Nisan and Eliyahu; Rabbi Zvi Hirsh from Koidanov; the Dayan Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer; Rabbi Hirsh Ben Rabbi Ezriel, author of the work Beth Lekhem Yehuda; Rabbi Ya'akov Vilna-Ashkenazi, who emigrated to Eretz Yisrael with the group around Rabbi Yehuda Hasid and was one of the pillars of the community; Rabbi Aaron Gordon, who was also the doctor to the king of Poland; Rabbi Yehuda Leib, who was the head of the Beth Din of Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel; Rabbi Yekutial Ben Rabbi Leib Gordon, who studied medicine in Padua, was influenced by Rabbi Moshe Haim Lucato (the RAMCHAL) and was among the signatories to the rules of the RAMCHAL group. Upon his return to Vilna he studied, in addition to medicine, Talmud and Kabalah. His composition ‘Problems in the Talmud’ survived in manuscript form.

According to tradition, a convert to Judaism, Abraham Ben Abraham lies buried in the old cemetery. In the first part of the 18th century he had settled in Ilya, but because of a petty squabble a local Jew denounced him to the police as a Christian who had converted to Judaism. While in prison, the police investigated and discovered that Abraham Ben Abraham was no less than a son of Graf Potocki whose whereabouts were unknown. Despite the pressures applied on him to return to the Christian faith, he stood by his conversion and kept his Jewish belief. He father in law, the miller Betzalel Halevi, an important personage in the Ilya community and other public figures and even the Graf Potocki himself, did their best to convince the authorities to free him, but to no avail. Abraham Ben Abraham was condemned to death and on the second day of Shavuot was burnt at the stake. Rabbi Eliezer Sitskes of Vilna, who was without a beard, disguised himself as a Christian and using a bribe managed to retrieve some of the ashes and a finger which had survived the fire, and buried them in holy ground in Vilna (without a gravestone or mention of name) where to this day the grave serves as a place of pilgrimage. It is said that a woman who laughed while he was being consumed by the fire was struck dumb, and that the homes of the residents of the adjacent town, who had supplied the wood for the fire, burned down. The story was first published in an anonymous manuscript of 1749, The Story of the Convert. This manuscript was copied over and over again, translated to Russian and other languages and copies are to be found in many libraries (the oldest copy was brought by Lithuanian Jews to Johannesburg).


Vilna, The GRA synagogue
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


Pride of place among the public leaders and rabbis of Vilna is reserved for Rabbi Yehuda Ben Eliezer Safra Vedayana (YSUD). He made his fortune in trade, donated much money to the community and built a synagogue which bore his name (the Old Kloyz). In addition to being a rabbi he was also active in public matters affecting the Kahal and the ‘Council of the Lithuanian Land', as well as interceding (acting through the pleader Rabbi Shaul he received a new Charter of Protection from the King which eliminated some of the limitations on the Jews, freed them from the city law courts and subjected them to the royal court instead). In the argument between Rabbi Yonatan Eivshitz and Rabbi Ya'akov Amdan, Rabbi Yehuda Safra Vedayana supported Rabbi Yonatan and convinced the Vilna scholars and the Council to take his part. During his time, Vilna had 12 Dayanim. After the death of Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel in 1749 Rabbi Yehuda forced the Kahal to appoint his son in law, Rabbi Shmuel Ben Rabbi Avigdor, to the position for life, in return for a large donation. After the death of Rabbi Yehuda (1762) a sharp dispute developed between the Kahal and Rabbi Shmuel who wanted to appoint members of his family to public positions and intended his son Rabbi Israel to succeed him in office. For some 30 years, the conflict raged on, drawing into it powerful factions from Vilna and elsewhere and threatened the community's autonomous standing. The Kahal – the official leadership – opposed Rabbi Shmuel and accused him of corruption and taking bribes but he was supported by the ‘mob’ (the artisans who, despite their large number, were not represented in the Kahal), and later by the Hassids, who operated underground. Both parties involved rabbis of other large communities and the authorities, first and foremost the Voivoda, Carl Radziwil who received ‘presents’ from both sides. In 1777 a compromise was reached in favor of Rabbi Shmuel, but in 1785 the conflict was renewed and the Voivoda even appointed a special court to deal with this issue. The two sides also appealed to the crown court and the Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu) of Vilna, who was imprisoned for a time because of his support for the Vilna Kahal. The representative of the ‘mob’, Rabbi Shimon Ben Josef, was also imprisoned, and while sitting in the Nieszwiesz prison wrote a pamphlet in Polish about the need for reform in the authority given to the communities. The pamphlet reached the king of Poland, who published a royal order, on July 30, 1786, which forbade the Vilna Kahal to oppress and extort by the use of taxes. It was only after the death of Rabbi Shmuel Ben Avigdor at the beginning of 1791 that the conflict came to an end.


The Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilna (the GRA) and the struggle of the Mitnagdim (Misnogdim, ‘opposers’) against Hassidism

During the period of the GRA the term Yerushalaim d'Lita was given to Vilna. Rabbi Eliyahu was born in Vilna (1729), and was considered a genius even in his early days. After his marriage, he ‘went into exile’ in various communities in Poland and Germany, and upon his return the Kahal gave him an allowance for the upkeep of his family, even though he did not have any official function and devoted his time to the study of the Talmud and the Texts in the Pshat (plain meaning) method. He found mistakes, set the precise version, wrote commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrashim and provided explanations to the Shulchan Aruch (see glossary), and judged in matters of law. In addition to the above he also studied mathematics, algebra, astronomy and other secular sciences. When he reached the age of forty, he began to teach a limited group of select scholars, who in time became famous in their own right. This group of scholars became an influential spiritual center in the study of Halacha and Kaballah.

Under the leadership of the GRA, Vilna was, at the end of the 18th century, in the forefront of the struggle against Hassidism and became the fortress of the Mitnagdim. Hassidism came to Vilna via Karlin near Pinsk, from Amdur, Grodno and Minsk. At first, the community of Hassidim was small and the Kahal did not interfere in their affairs, but after receiving communications from Shklov condemning the Hassidism of the BEShT(Ba'al Shem Tov, see glossary), the Kahal decided to investigate the practices of the Hassidim. When the GRA was asked for his opinion he replied that it is imperative to persecute and drive them out of the community. The Beth Din ordered the burning of Hassidic writings and obliged the Hassidic leaders to confess publicly before the Holy Ark (Rabbi Eliyahu was angry at the light punishment imposed by the Beth Din). Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Vitebsk and the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi journeyed to Vilna to explain to Rabbi Eliyahu the essence of Hassidism, but he refused to receive them. On the 1st Iyar in (4 May) 1772, dispatches were sent to the main Lithuanian communities, Minsk, Shklov and Brody. The pamphlet Zmir Aritsim Veharvot Tsurim printed in Olesko, near Brody in Galicia, included letters from Vilna alongside declarations of excommunication from the Brody and Leszniow communities, and additions by the editor. In 1777 Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Vitebsk immigrated to Eretz Yisrael at the head of a group of Hassidim and wrote to Vilna from Safed, in an attempt to bring about peace between the warring camps. The dissention indeed died down for a while but after Rabbi Josef of Polna , one of the first students of the BEShT published in 1780 his book ‘Toldot Ya'akov Yosef’, the division arose again. On the Sabbath, the 20th Av (11 August) 1781, a new excommunication was established, and Rabbi Eliyahu was among the signatories to it. The Vilna community once again became the epicenter of the struggle against the Hassidim and sent messengers to communities far and near and to the Council of the Land, which met in Zelva at that time and reaffrirmed the excommunication. Some of the Hassidic leaders were forced to leave their communities and to wander west into Poland. A few dozens of Hassidim were left in Vilna who met in secret and later joined Rabbi Shmuel Ben Rabbi Avigdor and the ‘Mob’ in their quarrel with the Kahal. In 1790 two Hassidim were elected to the community council and gradually their representation increased. But after the annexation to Russia in 1795 the strife was renewed in full force.

In the time of rabbi Eliyahu many more brilliant and important scholars lived in Vilna—his brothers, Rabbi Abrahan Ba'al Ma'alot Hatorah; Rabbi Avigdor of Volkovisk, father of Rabbi Shmuel (died 1771); Rabbi Pinkas Eliyahu, author of the first science book in Hebrew, Sefer Habrit, printed anonymously); Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ben Rabbi Yitshak Hakohen, whom Rabbi Eliyahu called a genius; Rabbi Menachem Eliezer author of Ya'ir Kino (died 1807); Hamore Tsedek Rabbi Shimon the Great (1777); Rabbi Shaul Shishkes author of Shvil Hayashar (1797); The Magid Rabbi Hayim, a representative of Rabbi Eliyahu (1805); The Magid Rabbi Yehoshu'a Gershon; Rabbi Yehuda Hurwitz, a doctor, author of Tsel Hama'alot and other tracts. Hamore Tsedek Rabbi YItshak Shimon Segal (died 1813) and the son of the Rabbi Eliyahu, Rabbi Abraham (died 1809).


The period of Russian rule (1795-1915)

The Jews and their surroundings. Changes in their legal status.

During the Kosciuszko revolt in 1794 the majority of Jews supported the rebels and the Kahal assisted with money. Thirty Jews were killed in one of the Vilna suburbs during the siege. In the census conducted by the Russians in the annexed areas of Poland in 1795, 3,613 Jewish poll tax payers were counted (excluding babies under one year, clergy and tax evaders). At first, the Russians accepted the Charters of Privilege granted by the Poles, and the legal status of the Jews hardly changed. At the end of 1798 the aristocrat Ivan G. Prizel was appointed governor of Vilna. After conducting an investigation and research he proposed that the tasks of the Kahal be limited, to abolish its duty to collect the poll tax, to add the Jews for purposes of tax to the three classes—merchants, craftsmen and peasants—and to forbid marriage before the age of twenty. His proposals were submitted in 1804 to The Commission for the improvement of the Situation of the Jews appointed by Tsar Alexander I, who proposed a number of alleviations alongside a number of new hardships: to permit Jewish children to study in all the educational institutes; election of Jews to municipal councils (limited to no more than one third of the delegates); to admit them to the four classes (industrialists, merchants, craftsmen and peasants); Jews to be forbidden to live in villages and to lease taverns in them (within a few years); the tasks of the rabbinic courts to be limited to arbitration only. Most of the rights of the Kahal to remain save for a few small changes. The Jewish leadership requested Tsar Alexander I to cancel the edicts. In a decree of the 19th February 1807 the Tsar postponed the date of the expulsion from the villages. For some time there were sundry expulsions, but in 1808 a commission appointed by the Tsar determined that the Jews were guilty of the deteriorated state of the peasants and proposed that the expulsion end. After the abolition of the expulsion decree from the villages the Vilna Kahal collected gold and silver ornaments to finance the settlement of Jewish agriculturalists.

The Napoleonic armies, in their invasion of Russia, took Vilna on June 28, 1812. The Kahal leadership presented itself to the French commander and declared its full support for the new regime, in the hope that it would bring to an end the oppression (but the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim opposed the invaders in the fear that these would encourage assimilation and a weakening of religious belief). The Jews, like the rest of the population, were required to finance the upkeep of the French army. The French also asked to mobilize the Jews into the National Guard but due to opposition converted that into a monitory contribution. The provisional Lithuanian government established by the French also imposed heavy taxes and war loans on the community which payments caused the emptying of the public purse. The soldiers desecrated the Jewish cemetery, damaged gravestones and turned it into a pasture for the animals. In the final analysis most of the Jews remained faithful to the Russian regime, merchants continued to sell supplies to the Russian army, and the Jewish mail system quickly and efficiently transferred intelligence information. The Jews were commended for this by the Tsar.

During the revolt of the Polish against the rule of the Tsar in 1831, Lithuanian Jewry stood aside resisting the Polish attempts to include them in the fighting. Suppliers to the army (among them Nisan Rosenthal), even carried information about the Polish rebels. However, after the suppression of the revolt the authorities did not repeal the previous limitations placed on the Vilna and Lithuanian Jewry. In 1835 all the Troki Rabbinic Jews were exiled to Vilna and in 1843 the old regulation was renewed which forbade the Jews from living outside the Jewish quarter and about two thousand Jews were removed from a few streets. In 1842 the Tsar published a decree forbidding Jews to wear sidelocks or to walk about in the streets wearing traditional clothes. The police acted with heavy hand against the culprits going as far as cutting sidelocks and clothes in public. In 1844 the Tsar's government dissolved the Va'ad Kehila, appointed a rabbi and turned the synagogue administration into a tool for the imposition of the laws and the collection of taxes (See below). Besides the Korovka tax (a tax on kosher meat), Jews had to pay a candle tax, the income being used to finance the government schools for Jewish children. The protests of the Jewish leadership, who argued that the taxes hurt the poor mostly, were to no avail. In 1853 the Jews of the Vilna province were required to pay a total candle tax of 13,500 Roubles. In 1861 Tsar Alexander II abolished the order forbidding Jews to live in a number of streets.

In 1842 Moses Montefiori visited Vilna and met with the leaders of the Kahal and rabbis, with scholars and local authorities. He was given a state reception by the authorities. He was handed a memorandum on the ‘State of the City of Vilna in the Present Times’ which contained description of hunger, the high mortality rate and the persecution by the local officials. It contained details of the 38 trades practiced by the Jews. The visit contributed little besides some sympathy and a exaltation. In the forties a decree was published categorizing the Jews as ‘useful or non useful’ and those are to have further restrictions cast upon them. This order, which brought fear in its wake, disappeared with the outbreak of the Crimean war.

In 1863 the Poles once again rebelled. The Russians suppressed the revolt severely and the governor of the north western province, Muraviov, began to eradicate Polish influence which was still strong in Lithuania and particularly in Vilna. A few Jews who were connected with Polish culture and who had assisted the rebels were punished, and in spite of the fact that many other Jews were Russophile supporters of the regime, the Russian governor treated them all harshly, accusing them of assisting the Poles and raised their taxes.


Economics and Employment

Immediately after the annexation to Russia the economic situation of the Jews improved as well as their trade and craft status. In the first half of the 19th century most of the Vilna Jews made their living in retail and wholesale trade, including shop keeping and peddling. The proportion of Jewish merchants in town rose from 22.2% in 1806 to 75.6% by 1827 (118 out of 156) and by 1831 reached 81%. Craftwork came second. The Jews were the first to organize professional bodies. In 1819/20 the city had 12 artisan organizations, and the number grew in time. In the middle of the 19th century Jewish trade was circumscribed in the interior parts of Russia outside the Pale. The proportion of Jewish merchants in Vilna fell to 62.5% in 1850 but increased again within a few years. In the manual trades, the numbers of Jews also gradually increased. There were many Jews among the tailors, surgeon-barbers, jewelers, book-binders, frame-makers and watch-makers. A few trades such as roofers, hatters, tanners and carters transporting goods were exclusively Jewish. 60% of the coachmen and most of the porters were Jewish. According to the researcher Subotin, the fierce competition between the tradesmen provided a mere pittance at the end of the day.

In the census of 1876 2,752 Jewish merchants were counted (86% out of 3,194 merchants in town) mostly in petty trade, and the weekly take did not rise above 2-3 Roubles. A further 5,962 Jews were artisans (56.5% out of a total of 10,534 craftsmen in town). They were organized in 25 professional bodies: most of these had mutual help funds which lent small amounts of money to the members without charging interest: a few also had their own Beth Midrash (Kloyz). There were also 43 small industrial undertakings in Vilna belonging to Jews. The census details did not specify preachers, teachers (melamed), and others connected with the synagogue as well as members of the free professions, whose numbers were constantly on the increase with the spread of education.

Jewish economic activity was supported by a number of financial institutions, mostly mutual loan societies. The first one was founded in 1887, most of its members (485 out of 572) were Jews and it lent small sums to petty traders and artisans. There were also a few private ‘bank offices’ belonging to Jews and also some Jewish ‘Discounters’. In 1893 a second Loan society was opened. The chairman was Aaron Hakohen Levenson (son of Abraham Dov) and the manager was Sheftel Klachko.

After the decree of May 1882, which forbade Jews to live in villages, many moved to Vilna and increased the population pressure and unemployment. In the census of 1897, 63,831 Jews were counted (41.5% of the total population) in Vilna, approximately half were children and youths under the age of 19, and about 52% were females (in the general population the males numbered slightly more than half). Most of the Jews stated their mother tongue to be Yiddish. Out of 26,745 Jewish home providers 46.4% were employed in industry, craftwork and transport. The Jews had 125 light industrial undertakings in paper, printing, woodwork, tanning, flour mills, beer brewing etc. Some two thirds of the workshops in town belonged to Jews (mostly in tanning, hatters, sewing and sock production). 61,117 Jews were active in trade (about two thirds), mostly retail traders and poor peddlers. 7,952 Jews, among them 2,600 women, worked at various services. There were 1,206 members of the free professions including 45 doctors (about 45% of the city doctors), 49 dentists (out of 57), and the remainder pharmacists, jurists, teachers and others. Jewish economic activity was supported by five Jewish private banks and dozens of mutual loan societies. Vilna Jews, as well as Jews from other Lithuanian cities were among the railway builders, road builders and initiators of industrial undertakings in Warsaw, Lodz, Bialystok, and other cities in the past Polish kingdom and within Russia (The Polish Jews called them Litvaks).


Jewish Agricultural Settlement

In the middle of the 19th century, Jewish agricultural settlements arose in the Vilna region, with government encouragement. The initiative of Tsar Nikolai I to turn the Jews into ‘useful’ citizens by settling them on farm land, resonated widely among the poor by giving them an opportunity to break out of the poverty cycle. Many registered for settlement in the steppes of southern Ukraine and Siberia, but in the Vilna region, nine Jewish settlements were also established on state land, one on the Guri estate and another in Bodprodzie near Vilna. In 1858 there were 209 Jewish farmer families (2,242 souls) in the Vilna province, but after the abolition in 1856 of the ‘Cantonist’ as well as other decrees, the government stopped settling Jews on state land in 1859. By 1866 some 1,000 Jews remained in the settlements.


Jews in Local Government

In 1799 a group of Vilna Jews requested the addition of Jews in the local government, the municipal council and the city law court. Governor Prizel supported the request and it was approved twice although in each case the burghers revived the old prohibitions. In the census of 1800 Vilna had 6,917 Jews paying taxes to the city. With the return of Russian rule after the French invasion, Tsar Nicolai I abolished completely the law of 1804 which allowed for Jewish representation in local government. Until the last quarter of the 19th century the Jews were subject, for better or for worse, to the rule of the municipal councils in many important areas ones like taxes or managing the Korovka tax, interference in the election of an ‘official’ rabbi (a state appointment), and the Gabai (treasurer) of the Hatzdaka Hagedola, which took upon itself the functions of the Kehila council after its dissolution etc. The law of 1873 returned to the Jews the passive and active election rights to the city governing bodies and in 1883 the city mayor was elected, for the first time, due to the Jewish support and a Jew was elected to the city council. In the elections of 1883 an additional Jew was joined the council. The law of 1892 laid down that Jews would not be elected to the city council but would be appointed and they could not number more than one tenth of its members. In 1893 four Jews were appointed to the council and in 1901 six: Paul Frumkin, Adolph Gordon, B. Segal, Aaron Liptz, I. Bonimowitz, and Dr Shlomo Zalman Zalkind.


Anti-Semitism and Pogroms

During the 1881-1882 bloody period in southern Russia (‘The Storms in the Plains’), tension arose in Vilna. The governor general accepted the request of the Jewish public figures and brought army units into the city; the Jews too stood to arms. A group of butchers overcame some army recruits who had tried to fall upon Jewish houses and shops, and handed them over to the police. On the eve of Passover a blood libel was bruited about in Vilna. A Polish woman who was employed by a Jewish barber-surgeon, returned injured and told that the Jews had tried to slaughter her to use the blood for baking Matzot. The barber was tried and sentenced by the first instance to 16 months prison. His defending council, attorney Oscar Gruzenberg appealed, and a higher court acquitted the barber and cleared his name. The blood libel of 1900 resulted in an upsurge in anti-Semitism in the city.



The pogroms and the poverty among the Jews in the final decades of the 19th century resulted in a wave of emigration from the Russian communities to the USA, South America (from Vilna to South Africa where the prayers were recited in the Lithuanian version). In 1891 the USA government sent a commission of officials of the Department of Immigration to study the reasons for the wave of mass immigration. The members of the commission visited Russian cities as well as Vilna. In their report they spoke of indescribable poverty the like of which was unknown, wide spread unemployment, inhuman working conditions and the meager wages of workers in industry and workshops. In 1906 125,234 Jews immigrated to the USA from the Russian kingdom, among them Jews from Vilna. The ‘Jewish Immigration Society’ founded in St. Petersburg kept in close contact with Vilna public figures, and the local branch of the ‘League’ attended to the emigration from 30 towns in the area. In 1914 the ‘League’ center moved to Vilna. In 1913, 2,834 Vilna Jews immigrated: 1,446 to the USA, 86 to Canada, 72 to Germany, 52 to Eretz Yisrael, and 41 for the Argentine.


Jewish Life

Adjuncts to the struggle between the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim

After the Russian annexation in 1795 the struggle between the two camps was renewed and they informed upon each other to the authorities. The Hassidim complained to the Governor General Prizel, who forbade the Vilna Kahal in 1798 to impose fines, physical punishment or excommunication because of religious disagreements, and permitted the Hassidim to practice their religious mode. The Mitnagdim for their part, informed against the Hassidim that the latter rebelled against the kingdom and that resulted in the imprisonment of Rabbi Shneiur Zalman of Liadi and 22 of his followers in Vilna and the vicinity. A short while after their release, leading Hassidim in Vilna invited Rabbi Eliyahu to a discussion with their leader Rabbi Shneiur Zalman of Liadi but in Succoth 1979 the Gaon died. The Vilna community erected in his memory a Beth Midrash for study and prayer.

The death of the Gaon in 1897 marked the end of an era. The Jewish Vilna of the 19th century was much different from the social, religious and spiritual society which had informed the world view of the Gaon of Vilna.


The immigration of the Prushim to Eretz Yisrael

The Gaon of Vilna esteemed highly the Mitzvah of settling in the Land of Yisrael, and even intended to fulfill the mitzvah himself by organizing an immigration movement, perhaps as a counterweight to the immigration of Hassidim under the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, which served to renew the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem. In 1778 the Gaon left on his journey but returned without giving any explanation. A few years after his return, in 1808, a group of his students arrived in Eretz Yisrael, under the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov. They settled in Tiberias and then moved to Safed. In 1809 a second group arrived under Rabbi Sa'adia Ben Nathan Neta, also a prominent student of the Gaon, and at the end of the year a third group arrived under the Rabbis Yisrael of Shklov and Rabbi Haim Ben Tuvia Katz of Vilna. In 1813 many of the Prushim, students of the Gaon, died of a plague which had spread in the Galilee.


Vilna, Ancient gravestones in the Jewish cemetery
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov returned after traveling to collect donations for the settlement and worked to renew the Prushim group in Safed. In 1816 the Prushim group numbered some 460 souls in Safed. The immigration of the Prushim resulted in the strengthening of the connection of the Vilna Jews with Eretz Yisrael and from 1827 Vilna became the money collection center for the Prushim Kolel.

The struggles and accusations in Vilna continued for some time. The community council forbade, for a period, the purchase of alcoholic liquor from Hassidim-merchandise of great economic importance in those days. In 1799 the authorities audited the books of the Kahal and discharged the Parnasim and the Dayanim and over the year a new Kahal, of Hassidim, was elected. At a later stage, the two sides reconciled and a new Kahal was elected representing both camps. The Hassidim were permitted to have their own Minyanim and the antagonism slowly dissipated. The Hassidim leader, Rabbi Meir Ben Rabbi Raphael was elected, by contrivance, the head of the Kehila.


The religious leadership

After the death of Rabbi Shmuel Ben Rabbi Avigdor in 1791, a new rabbi was not elected in his place because of ongoing disagreements and the leadership remained with the heads of the Beth Din and Moreh Tsedek. Alongside the old chief of the Beth Din, Rabbi Ber Treves author of Revid Hazahav, and who had already served in the days of Rabbi Shmuel Ben Rabbi Avigdor, the Moreh Tsedek, Rabbi Avraham Aveli (Avraham) Fusswalar was appointed, and after the death of Rabbi Dov Ber Treves he became the head of the Beth Din. Rabbi Avraham (Abeli) was both great religious studies as well as having a wide education, wrote approvals to the books of the first Maskilim, Teudah Beyisrael by Itshak Ber Levinson, and ‘To Discover a New Land’ by Mordekhai Aaron Ginzburg. Thanks to his fluent Russian, he was later appointed by the government to be the official rabbi. After his death, the community invited Rabbi Akiva Iger of Poznan to serve as chief rabbi, but after his refusal Rabbi Yekhezkel Halevi Landa (1779-1870) was appointed head of the Beth Din. He was one of the outstanding students of Rabbi Haim of Wolozhin, who was also very popular with the public. The most important Moreh Tsedek of the time was Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Grudzhenski, son of Rabbi Itshak Grudzhenski, and the son-in-law of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (served from 1855 until his death in 1886). After the demise of Rabbi Aba Aveli Faswalar the position of the chief of the Beth Din was abolished, and the Moreh Tsedek chose one of them to rule in very serious matters. In 1842 Rabbi Betsalel Hakohen was chosen Chief Moreh Tsedek of the city. He wrote the works Reyshit Bikurim, Tosfot Bikurim, Mreh Kohen, and was a central figure among the Lithuanian rabbis. After him the task fell to Rabbi Ya'akov Baritt, the head of the Vilna Yeshiva, who spoke a number of languages and was a national public leader. In 1860 Rabbi Baritt opened an uncompromising struggle against the convert Ya'akov Brafman, and in 1882 participated in the delegation which met with the Tsar Alexander II and affected the repeal of the law forbidding Jews from living in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Among the Magidim in the city were: Rabbi Yekhezkel Feyvl Ben Rabbi Wolf of Derechin (died in 1837), author of ‘Toldot Adam’, who was considered an outstanding Magid; Rabbi Yitshak Eliyahu Landa (died 1876), who wrote many books and was famous for his public activity. Among the later city Hassidim Rabbi Shneur Zalman Katserinski stood out (died 1888); he was known as the ‘Great Wealth.’

A few large scale merchants living in Vilna competed with the rabbis in their knowledge of the Torah and at times even overshadowed them. Among them was Rabbi Avraham Danzig, a student of Rabbi Yechezkel Landa of Prague (the Famous One in Judea), who achieved fame with his works ‘Khayey Adam’ and ‘Khokhmat Adam’ (died 1821). Most of his life he devoted to trade, but in his old age he lost his fortune and agreed to serve as a Moreh Tsedek: Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (died 1872), who had never enjoyed any rabbinical position. He lived on the income from the general store run by his wife. He devoted his time to Torah and his output was abundant and choice: annotations of the complete ‘SHAS’, reflections and comments on the ‘Midrash Raba’, etc. His son, Rabbi Matityahu Strashun (1812-1886), was a genius and a compulsive bibliophile, was active in public matters. He died single and in his will he left an enormous sum of money and his treasured book collection to the community. It was later housed in the Strashun Library, specially built for it. Many other merchant-scholars left their Torah literature to the community, among them Rabbi Mordekhai Eliezer Kovner, author of ‘Karney Re'em’ (Psakhim Tractate in the Talmud) and annotations on the Shabbat Masekhet, printed in Vilna (died 1874); Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Dov Ber Eisenstadt, the son of Rabbi Moshe Avraham , who in addition to his trading activity published innovations in Halakha which were published in various centers, etc.


The Community, the Dozor, the Grand Charity, and the Welfare Structure

In 1844 the community council (whose tasks had earlier been limited by decree in 1804), was abolished by the Russian government and replaced with the ‘Dozor Buzhnitsi’ (synagogue administration), whose task was the collection of taxes, conscription of youths for the army, and other tasks. A rabbi was appointed by the authorities (Rav Mita'am), and amongst his commissions was the keeping of the Jewish population register. Among the appointed rabbis in Vilna was Rabbi Sheftel Klachko (from 1866), Rabbi Avraham Gordon (from 1879), Rabbi Mordekhai Namzer (in 1895), Rabbi Yehuda Leib Kantor (from 1905), and Rabbi Itshak Rubinstein (from 1909). The Gabaim (wardens) of the ‘Great Charity Company’ served also as the Gabaim of the synagogue and the ‘Dozor’ and in practice became the new leadership of the Kahal. The responsibility for the collection of the ‘Korovka tax’ rested with the municipality and the Gubernia (province, county). The main items in the ‘Dozor’ budget were used, among others, for the continuation of repayment of previous debts of the Kahal and the tax payments of the poor and missing.

The ‘Grand Charity’, founded at the beginning of the 19th century, was the central body for the Jewish welfare work in the city. The leadership consisted of three Gabaim and three deputies, elected once every three years by a body consisting of some 800-900 ‘Honorable Citizens’, merchants, members of the first and second guilds, tax payers of the top 5 levels, Gabaim of the synagogues and the Maskilim. An advisory body functioned alongside the company which was not recognized by the authorities. The orthodox and the merchants together with the Maskilim competed for influence in the Grand Charity Company. The company budget was financed by income from housing and shops left it in wills, as well as from various services, donations, and at a later stage from a part of the Korovka income (kosher meat tax) imposed by the municipality.

The convert Ya'akov Brafman who lived in Vilna during the 1860s, incited in his letters and articles against the Jews and the Jewish leadership and caused great damage. Brafman's influence, and that of other agitators induced the authorities to ban all Jewish societies including the ‘Hevra Kadisha’ and the administration of the cemetery passed to the hands of the ‘Gabaim’ of the ‘Grand Charity.’

Many other charitable societies were active in Vilna and extended welfare assistance. ‘Bikur Holim’ (aiding and visiting the sick), was among the important ones. It built a hospital in 1805 and the state participated in its upkeep. In 1842 the authorities transferred the administration of the hospital to the city welfare office and dismissed the Gabai of Bikur Holim from the administration, but the hospital continued to serve Jewish patients. In 1838 the Beth Hakhnasat Orkhim was founded and it served as a hostel for visiting Jews who could not afford to stay in a hotel or an inn. In 1864 a shelter was opened for the aged. The society ‘Tomekh Noflim’ (Aid for the Fallen, founded in 1871) assisted impoverished merchants and artisans. In 1881 a free kitchen was opened which provided some 900 free meals daily to the needy. From the beginning of the 19th century a number of charitable loan societies were active and from the middle of the century mutual assistance funds belonging to the artisan societies came into existence. A charitable loan society founded by Dvora Esther Galper, who gathered donations, became in time, with the aid of some munificent donations, one of the largest funds in Vilna, with an independent capital base of 60,000 Roubles. From 1899 the Fund held annual meetings at which a full report was given of its activities, and over time the meeting became a demonstration of gratefulness for the founder. The fund started by Shimon Ben Ya'akov Shlisgol (Shimon Kaftan), was also famous. This was a sort of one man institution. Most of his energies were directed to the gathering of donations and in time charity boxes were distributed in public places and in private homes. The income, about 40,000 Roubles annually, was distributed among Yeshiva students, invalids and old people. His name was immortalized in a poem by the Polish poet Wincenti Korotinski translated into Hebrew and Yiddish, and a sculpture was raised in his memory in the city museum by Polish noblemen.



The Russian administration entrusted the Polish prince Adam Czartoryski in 1803 with the task of inspector of schools in the North Western province. He asked to open Polish schools to entry by Jews, but the Jewish representatives who met in Vilna opposed this. The Vilna University administration also proposed a similar scheme to the Vilna community but, as there was no response, opened in 1808 such a school on its own initiative and some 200 children were registered in it. In view of the success, the University heads suggested that the community open similar schools but the Jewish Kahal refused to finance such institutions and by the end of the year the university school closed as well. In 1830 Sha'ul Perl opened a school for girls in Vilna, and later Yehuda Leib Germayza was appointed its principal. In 1841 the first improved kheder was opened and in June the same year a second improved kheder was opened. In 1842 the Russian government sent Max Lilienthal to Vilna with the task of opening modern Jewish schools. In 1847 the private school of Dr Shlomo Zalkind became the first government school for Jewish children and in the years 1860-1861 there were 36 government schools for Jewish children in the Vilna region (out of 90 in the entire Russian kingdom). In 1892, a trade school was opened alongside the Talmud Torah which became famous and in time added more technical training. During the 19th century the city also had a Jewish high school.

In 1847 the authorities opened in Zhitomir a Beth Midrash for rabbis. It was financed out of the Korovka and candle taxes. In the mid-1850s 251 students attended the Beth Midrash for rabbis. In 1871/2 their number reached 463. In 1873 the institute was changed to a Jewish teachers seminary and by the beginning of the 20th century it had qualifies some 500 students, among them Ya'akov Aba Finkelstein, Aaron Zundelewicz, Aaron Shmuel Liberman, Yehuda Leib Dawidowicz and their compatriots: these were among the first socialists in Russia.

In 1897 Vilna had 698 Jewish educational institutes, mostly kheders. All told, 15,000 students attended classes. By 1907, a mere 275 kheders remained. 12,847 Jewish pupils attended general primary schools. The informal educational framework in Vilna included dozens of classes for the study of literature, drama, music, graphic arts (named after Antokolski), choirs, etc.


The Enlightenment, Haskala, Maskilim

In the 18th century Vilna was one of the first cities in Russia to embrace the Haskala philosophy brought by itinerant merchants who travelled for business to Germany and by doctors of German origin. Among the first Maskilim in the city stood out Yehuda Leib Halevi Hurwitz, a doctor and author from Berlin who belonged to the Moshe Mendelsohn group and Rabbi Yosef Ben Eliyahu, who corresponded with David Friedlander in Berlin. Worthy of mention is the community attendant Rabbi Moshe Maizel, author of Shirat Moshe, one of the Hassidic leaders in Vilna, who had seen the Gaon and who was also educated and well versed in German and German literature. During the French invasion he spied for Russia and was rewarded with honorary citizenship for the rest of his life. In 1813 he immigrated to Eretz Yisrael and was among the first settlers in Hebron.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Vilna was counted among the leading Haskala centers in Eastern Europe and some of the important Hebrew writers and poets made it their home. By 1810, about 40 Jewish students attended the university, mostly in the faculty of medicine, and a few young women studied in the department for midwifery in the same faculty. One of those, Malka Brulant, published a book in Yiddish on the hygiene and upbringing of children. In the beginning stages, the Haskala movement was not opposed by the community leadership and at first it had a very conservative face. 14 community personages signed the Moshe Mendelsohn commentary on the Bible.

The first Maskilim in the city were, as mentioned above, close to German culture, but also acquainted with the Polish language and culture. Over time, Russian displaced the Polish language and culture which the early Maskilim had adopted: this tendency suited the Russian government, which wished to hasten the process of Russification of the Polish areas previously held by Poland. The Jewish writer I.L. Levanda, who wrote in Russian, was appointed adviser in Jewish matters. In 1863 the Mefitsei Haskala company was founded in Odessa and in 1880, a branch was opened in Vilna.

Among the Vilna intelligentsia in the middle of the 19th century, the names of Adam Hakohen Levenson (1794-1878) and of his son Mikha Yosef Levenson (1828-1852), should be mentioned, as well as those of Shlomo Alkind, Aaron Ginsburg, Yehuda Leib Germayza, Shmuel Yosef Fein, Mikhal Gordon, Kalman Shulman, Isaac-Itshak Meir Dik (Yiddish Literature), Avraham Mapu, Yehuda Leib Gordon.Yehoshua Steinberg, R.A. Broides, A.I. Papirna, I.L. Kantor, the poet and comic entertainer (badkhan) Elyakim Tzunzer, the sculptor Mordekhai (Marek) Antokolski, the pianist Leopold Gudovski, I.A. Ben Yaakov, Benyamin Mandelstam, Matityahu Shtrashun (founder of the Judaica library), Zvi Hersh Klatshko, and the Rozental family, who supported writers and poets as well as Jewish institutions. Towards the end of the century Ze'ev Yaavetz came from Jerusalem and while living in Vilna completed his work on the history of Israel. His contemporary, Shimon Dubnov (in Vilna in the years 1903-1906), wrote, lectured and was active in the political life of the city, and the Zionist leader Dr Shmaryahu Levin who, in the years 1904-1906, successfully preached in the Taharat Kodesh synagogue. Important writers such as Mendele Mokher Sfarim, I.L. Peretz and David Frishman visited the city and delivered lectures. The income from the lectures and the receptions was devoted to charity.


Political and Zionist Activities

During the 1880s the ‘Khevrat Yishuv Eretz Israel’ was active in Vilna as well as ‘Am Olam’ and ‘Ohavei Zion’ connected with the ‘Khovevei Zion’ center in Odessa. A local ‘Khovevei Zion’ association was founded, being one of the first in Russia. In 1889 Vilna was host to the convention of the Khibat Zion movement. A few Vilna Jews, singles and families, emigrated to Eretz Yisrael.

Three delegates from Vilna participated in the first Zionist congress (Basel, 1897), and subsequently Zionist organizations study circles of Hebrew, literature and speculative philosophy were founded in Vilna after the second congress (Basel 1898). A convention took place in Vilna before the third congress (Basel, 1899), with 71 representatives from the full province. The discussions centered around the question of cultural education and the opposition of the rabbinic institutions to it. The attack on Zionism was led by the ‘Black Office’ in Kaunas (a derogatory name given by the Zionists to the semi secret association which led the struggle against them), and the Vilna opposition to Zionism joined them in their contentions. Before the fourth congress (London, 1900), 168 representatives from the Vilna and Homel provinces met in Vilna, among them Rabbi Shloimele Hakohen of Vilna, founder of ‘Hamizrachi’, Rabbi Itshak Yaakov Reines of Lida, Rabbi Avraham Itshak Hakohen Kook of Kerlitz, and a number of other well known rabbis. In 1902, Rabbi Reines opened the founding convention of Hamizrachi in Vilna, and their monthly journal began to be published there (edited by Zeev Yavetz). The preacher Rabbi Khanokh Henikh Eiges of Vilna, author of Markheshet served as honorary president of Hamizrachi. On August 16, 1903, Dr Theodor Herzl visited the city on his way to St. Petersburg, He received a royal welcome at the railway station, but the sight of the Cossacks whipping the crowd caused him a great shock and impaired his health.

After the seventh Zionist congress (Basel, 1905), the central office of the Zionist Organization in Russia was opened in Vilna (members: Dr Shmaryahu Levin, Itshak Leib Goldberg, Boris Goldberg, Shimon Rosental and Betzalel Yaffe). The Zionist financial office moved to Vilna as well. New political parties and Zionist movements were established one by one, the lead taken by ‘Tzeirei Zion’ and ‘Poalei Zion’, with their centers in Vilna.

The initiative to establish the Israel Association also came from Vilna. In 1907 Rabbi Haim Ozer Grudzhinski gathered together a group of rabbis in Vilna, and called upon them to create an orthodox association under the name ‘Knesset Yisrael’. The suggestion was accepted, branches of the association were set up in many communities, and at the year's end the authorities approved its establishment. Rabbi Grudzhinski's plan to hold the founding convention in May 1908 was cancelled in view of the oppressive policy of the Tsarist government. In agreement with German rabbis consulted by Rabbi Haim Ozer, the convention took place in Bad Hamburg (Germany) in 1909, and there a decision was taken to create a world orthodox organization. In 1912, the founding convention of Agudat Yisrael took place in Katowitz, and there too, Rabbi Ozer Grudzhinski was a leading figure.

In the closing decades of the 19th century, Vilna was the center of struggle for workers rights. In 1887 the first strike broke out of stocking knitters (mostly Jewish women), and after other worker strikes, a shortened 8-10 hour working day was achieved. In 1909 the city had 15 trade unions registered with the government industrial inspectorate whereas the industrialists had only a few associations. The trade unions established mutual aid societies for shop clerks, apprentices, barbers, merchants etc. Most of the trade union members were Jewish.

Jews were also active in the general Social-Democratic party, Vilna being one of the important centers in Russia. In 1895, an all Russian congress of Social Democratic associations took place in the city. In October 1897 the founding congress of the Bund (Der Algemeiner Yiddisher Arbeter Bund in Russland un Poiln: The General Jewish Workers Union in Russia and Poland), took place in Vilna with the city becoming its center. The Bund was active mainly in the trade unions, in organizing strikes and in the struggle to improve working conditions. On May 1, 1901, the Bund organized a mass demonstration in the city, despite the ban by the authorities. The police arrested a group of demonstrators and whipped them in front of the Governor General. In revenge, a Vilna Jewish cobbler, Hirsh Lekert, shot at the governor general and wounded him. Lekert was sentenced to death and executed by hanging on May 28, 1902.

The Bund was active in the 1905 revolution. At the outbreak of the revolution, the new official rabbi, Dr Yehuda Leib Kantor, organized a meeting of Jewish Socialist activists in the city. The historian, Shimon Dubnow, one of the organizers of the meeting, participated in the framing of the petition to the authorities and inserted in it a demand for national rights. During the above meeting the ‘Association for Equal Rights’ was founded and P. Getz (representing the Orthodox) was co-opted. It consisted of Shmaryahu Levin, Itzhak Leyb Goldberg and Boris Goldberg (Zionists) and Shimon Dubnov (representing the Folklorists). In line with the decision of the new association, all the Jewish representatives on the city council resigned. Dr Yaakov Wigodski headed the Constitutional-Democratic party, founded in Vilna. On April 9, 1905, elections to the Russian Duma took place and Dr Shmaryahu Levin was elected the representative for Vilna.

Immediately after the suppression of the revolution, when pogroms broke out all over Russia, members of the Bund, Poalei Zion and the Zionist Socialists organized self defense units but the authorities dispersed the groups and confiscated their weapons. Zionists and many Bund members were arrested (among them Dr Tsemakh Shabad), many leading members escaped abroad and the remainder went underground.


Printing and Publications

The large number of educated persons in the city revitalized afresh the printing and publishing business. In addition to the famous publishers The Widow and Brothers Romm, active in Vilna from 1810, directed by Rabbi Menakhem Mann, other Jewish printing works opened, but were closed by the authorities because of difficulty with censorship. The Romm printing firm, the only one to receive a license from the government, printed in the years 1834-1854 the Babylonian Talmud with the Tosafot and the Alfassi commentaries. Many of the great rabbis, Russian and others, devoted themselves to collecting versions and corrections (from the Vatican Library as well), grammarians and fine proofreaders all participated in the preparation for the printing. In 1880, the printing began of the extended and luxurious edition of the Babylonian Talmud and by spring 1886 all 26 volumes were published. 22,000 of the first volume were sold and sales increased as the other volumes appeared (this edition is famous and accepted even in our day). As the printing works in Vilna and in Zhitomir were the only ones in Russia they also published, alongside religious works, essays and poetry by Haskala intellectuals. In 1842, S.I. Fein and Eliezer Lifman, of Vilna, published the first literary scientific compilation, Pirkhei Tzafon, and in 1844 the second volume was published. The bibliographic compilation of all the Hebrew books and manuscripts – Otzar Hasfarim – by Itzhak-Isaac Ben Yaakov (printed after his death, in 1877-1880 in Vilna by his son Ya'akov with the assistance of the bibliograph Moshe Steinschneider).

During the 19th century a number of publishing firms and printing works were opened in Vilna, apparently with official permission, with the B. Klatzkin and Shreberk publishing firms the most important among them.



The first Hebrew weekly in Vilna, ‘Hakarmel’, appeared during the years 1860-1880. In 1865 a single issue of a brochure, intended to be a quarterly, ‘Hakokhavim’ was published. At the beginning of the 20th century a daily newspaper appeared in Vilna. ‘Hed Hazman’. From 1898 on ‘Severno-Zapadnyi Golos’ appeared (Russian ‘The Voice of the North’), which was edited by a Jewish assimilationist and withthe participation of many Jews, as in the Zionist ‘Novoya Zorya’ (Russian-the New Dawn).

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vilna was an important center of literature and public press in Yiddish and in Hebrew. Among the newspapers and publications in Hebrew published was ‘Hazman’, a daily newspaper transferred from St. Petersburg to Vilna on December 1, 1904 (editorial staff were I.A. Treivish, I.Kh. Taviov, Hillel Tseitlin, Shmuel Chernowitz, Sh.L. Tsitron, etc) as well as a monthly bearing the same name, edited by I.L. Berkowitz and later by Dovid Frishman. The finest writers, Shalom Aleichem, Zalman Shneur, Peretz Hirshbein, Reuben Breinin and others wrote for them. The authorities closed Hazman on a number of occasions because of ‘unreserved daring statements’ but again and again it reappeared under different titles. In 1915, however, it was finally closed by order of the Russian Commander in Chief. During the years 1909-1913 thousands of copies of the Kadima calendar issued by the Zionist Organization were printed in the city. At the beginning of 1909, the Zionist Haolam was transferred from Köln to Vilna, first edited by Leyb Yaffe and later by Alter Droyanov. In the years 1905-1908, the children's newspapers ‘Hakhayim Vehateva’ and ‘Hekhaver’ appeared in Vilna, and from 1913, ‘Hanoar’ as well. The first newspapers to appear in Yiddish were Bund dailies which were soon closed by the authorities. ‘Der Veker’ (32 issues published from January 1906). ‘Folks Tseitung’, ‘Di Hofnung’, ‘Der Morgenshtern’ (which were closed by the end of 1907), also ‘Yiddishe Tseitung’ (1909). ‘Dos Folksblat’ (1911), ‘Der Tog’ (1912), ‘Der Shtern’ (1913), ‘Der Fraynt’ (1914), ‘Vilner Togblat’ (July 1914) all met the same fate. The city also saw publications issued by the parties: ‘Der Neier Veg’ published by the Territorialists and edited by Litvakov (from 1906), ‘Dos Yiddishe Folk’ of the Zionist Organization, ‘Di Folkshtime’ published by the Poalei Zion S.S, ‘Di Velt’ published by the Bund. In addition, there appeared also a number of periodicals and literary journals: ‘Der Hamer’ published by ‘Poalei Zion’, edited by I. Zerubavel, ‘Literarishe Monatsheften’ edited by Shmaryahu Gorlik (an independent monthly), ‘Leben Un Visnshaft’ (1909-1912, a popular science monthly). The publication of all newspapers, periodicals and books was banned in 1915, by order of the Russian Commander in Chief.


Art and Theater

In the 1860s, a state art school was opened in Vilna, and an unlimited number of Jews were permitted to register. Some of the Jewish graduates continued their studies at the academy of art in St. Petersburg. Among the important Jewish artists were the sculptor Mark Antokolski, who proposed the setting up of an academy for applied art: it was established in the city after his death: Boris Schwartz, the founder of the Bezalel art academy in Jerusalem: Nakhum Ahronson and the painter Haim Soutine (studied in Vilna), Lazar Segal and Yehuda Epstein. A theater troupe from Russia frequently appeared. One of the best known among them was the Bialystok Nakhum Tsemakh studio. Its first performance took place in Vilna (the Habimah Theater in Moscow developed out of this troupe). In 1912, Yitzkhak Katzenelenson appeared with the Lodz troupe.


The Community and its Institutions in the period between the 19th and the 20th centuries

In 1893 Vilna had 33 synagogues and kloyzes, and in 1910 it had 104 places of worship registered and recognized by the authorities. Among them the Khorli synagogue (Tohorat Hakodesh), established in the first years of the 80s by a group of intellectuals and moved from place to place until 1903 when it was housed in a magnificent building. The young synagogue preacher, Dr Shmaryahu Levin drew great audiences to his sermons, and the historian Shimon Dubnow occasionally lectured there.

Thirty three ‘Morei Tzedek’ were active in the city, a few of them the sons of previous preachers. The leading Torah authority in 1900 was Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen the author of Kheshek Shlomo, Orakh Khaim, Yoreh De'ah, and Khoshen Mishpat and among the leading proofreaders of the Talmud printed by the Romm brothers (died in 1906). Rabbi Shlomo was a supporter of Zionism, and was among the reception committee welcoming Herzl in 1903 to Vilna and gave him a Kohen blessing. After his death, the title was passed on to Rabbi Ozer Grudzhanski, one of the founders of Agudat Yisrael (died in 1941).

The Hatzdaka Hagdola association remained the organization for co-coordinating welfare work. The annual income grew from 54,600 Roubles at the end of 90s to a total of 124,241 Roubles in 1906, divided as follows: 31,268 Roubles income from rentals, 20,572 from the Korovka tax, 22,517 from funeral fees and 22,517 from donations. The expenses divided off as follows: Rabbis and synagogues 20,568, cemetery upkeep 13,191, other property upkeep 11,169, support for the poor 28,058, loan repayment 27,515, sundries 19,437. Mention should also be made of the Mishmeret Kholim association which employed 35 doctors, 10 medical orderlies, and 10 midwives. It had available a large pharmacy in the city which employed 8 pharmacists and 13 apprentices. The Jewish hospital, which as mentioned was built at the beginning of the 19th century, remained in the hands of the city authorities, and all efforts of the Jews to bring it back under their control came to naught. In 1908, it held some one thousand patients. Free kitchens continued to exist and served around one thousand meals to needy Jews and non-Jews. The main support for these institutions came from contributions and the Korovka tax. The city administration contributed very little. In 1908 a children's community was founded in Vilna by the World Jewish Health organization (OZE).


Vilna, Jewish children selling newspapers, First World war
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


Vilna, Jewish tinsmith
Source: Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain


Next Page »


 Yizkor Book Project    JewishGen Home Page  

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
Emerita Yizkor Book Project Manager, Joyce Field
This web page created by Jason Hallgarten

Copyright © 1999-2023 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 23 Mar 2013 by LA