From the late 14th century up to World War II, Lithuania was the intellectual heart of the Eastern European Jewish world. Largely escaping the pogroms of the other Baltic States, the Jewish community thrived; by the 18th century Vilnius had 100 synagogues and almost 100,000 Jewish residents. The city became the world’s center of Talmudic learning and produced a rabbi so respected he is still simply known as the Vilna Gaon, the “teacher of Vilnius,” who died in 1797.
Today the situation is very different. The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum commemorates the great intellectual in somber remembrance of the World War II massacre of 95 percent of Lithuanian Jews. It comprises three parts: the hard-hitting Holocaust Exhibition; the Center for Tolerance; and the Paneriai Memorial Museum about 16 kilometers outside the city on the site of a Jewish mass grave.
Lithuania’s decimated Jewish population now forms a mostly elderly community as determined to hold on to its pre-war heritage as it is to honor the dead. To this end, monuments and memorials can be found all over the city and Jewish cemeteries have been reinstated. There are also maps detailing the layout of Vilnius’s two Jewish ghettos throughout the city. One of the most moving tributes is found outside the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum in remembrance of Chiune Sugihara, the heroic Japanese Consul to Lithuania who granted visas to thousands of Jews so they could escape from Nazi Occupation.
To understand more about the life and culture of Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews), take a walking tour of Vilnius Old Town under the tutelage of an expert guide.