Jewish Neighborhoods: Vilna (Vilnius)

Although the official name of the contemporary capital of Lithuania is Vilnius, many people still refer to it as “Vilna,” which is closer to the city’s name in Yiddish: Vilne. While Vilna has been  controlled by several different kingdoms, rulers, and nation-states, its Jewish history has been continuous for more than 500 years. It was even known as di yerusholayem delite—the Jerusalem of Lithuania, a resounding acknowledgment of the city’s centrality to Jewish cultural life.

Jews began living in Vilna as early as the mid-15th century, migrating in small numbers from German-speaking areas. By the mid-1600s, Jews made up approximately a quarter of Vilna’s population. In 1633, the Great Synagogue of Vilna opened, and the city became a center for religious study. Its most famous sage was the influential Talmudic scholar Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon.

By the 1880s the Jewish population reached 40,000, after many Jews migrated to the city from nearby towns as the economic situations in the countryside grew more precarious. This population boom brought with it a blossoming of Yiddish cultural life as Vilna Jews established political, cultural, and educational organizations. In 1897, working-class Jews and socialist intellectuals came together in Vilna to form the Der algemeyner yidisher arbeter bund (the General Jewish Workers Union). Zionist groups like the Jewish National Fund, WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), and Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion, a Marxist-Zionist group) all had active local branches. Vilna was also a hub for Jewish printing houses, including Roms drukeray (Romm Printing House). The city boasted a vibrant Yiddish press with daily Yiddish newspapers such as Yidishe tsaytung (Jewish Newspaper) and various literary journals.

Despite challenging post–World War I conditions, Yiddish life flourished in the interwar period. A wide spectrum of Jewish religious and political movements operated schools where Yiddish was the language of instruction, including the famous Sofye Gurevich School. The Vilna Jewish Teachers’ Seminary—which boasted such instructors as Max Weinreich—played a major role in the secular Yiddish school system, both as a training institute and as a center for the dissemination of new Jewish pedagogical ideas. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was founded in Vilna in 1925 to document and advance Jewish culture; branches in Warsaw, New York City, Chicago, and Buenos Aires followed. Artistic groups like Yung-Vilne, a literary group with members such as Avrom Sutzkever and Chaim Grade, and the Vilna Troupe—a theater group known for staging plays like S. An-ski’s The Dybbuk—had tremendous impacts on the development of Yiddish culture in Europe and around the world.

In June 1941, the German military took control of Vilna and, along with local collaborators, murdered thousands of Jews in the nearby Ponar Forest. The remainder of Vilna’s Jewish population was confined in two ghettos, the smaller of which was liquidated shortly after it was established. Even in the dire conditions of the ghetto, Vilna’s deep traditions of political organizing and Yiddish cultural production remained alive. A group of Yiddish writers and intellectuals who came to be known as The Paper Brigade organized to save Yiddish books and artifacts from destruction. Representatives from a wide range of Vilna’s Jewish political groups came together to form the United Partisan Organization (FPO), which organized armed resistance. Jews in the Vilna Ghetto continued to create music and art, including the well-known partisan hymn “Zog nit keyn mol” (“Never Say”). In September 1943, Nazis and their local collaborators liquidated the Vilna Ghetto, sending most of the ghetto’s residents to death camps and forced labor camps.

The Holocaust decimated Jewish life in Vilna but did not end it. Around 6,000 Jews returned to Vilna after the war. Although World War II destroyed much of Vilna’s Yiddish cultural infrastructure, and Soviet controls limited public expressions of Jewishness, Jews continued to speak Yiddish on the streets and maintained an active Yiddish theater. By the 1970s the Jewish population of Vilna rose to 20,000 as people immigrated from Russia and Ukraine. After Lithuanian independence in 1991, many emigrated to the United States or Israel, but thousands remained in Lithuania. Today a dedicated group of activists work to ensure the continued presence of Jewish and Yiddish culture in Vilna through the officially organized Jewish Community of Lithuania, a network of Jewish museums, and a small number of Yiddish speakers, many of whom we have interviewed over the past decade.


Vilna in the 1930s: We Lived in Yiddish

Physics professor, son of Yiddishist Max Weinreich, and Episcopal priest Gabriel Weinreich, z’’l (1928–2023), highlights the centrality of Yiddish to the lives of Jews in 1930s Vilna. Gabriel describes how many Yiddish speakers had to learn Polish for everyday tasks, but Yiddish was home to their thoughts, dreams, and fantasies.

Collecting Folklore from Fish Mongers

Yiddish scholar and Vilna native Benjamin (Binyomen) Harshav, z’’l (1928–2015), shares a story about how he and his classmates provoked vendors at the Vilna fish market in order to collect Yiddish curses for their class on folkloric literature.

Remembering SKIF, the Bund’s Children’s Organization

Vilna native, former Jewish partisan, and prominent Montreal-based Yiddish cultural activist Liba Augenfeld, z’’l (1923–2018), discusses her time as a member of SKIF (the socialist children’s group of the General Jewish Labor Bund) in Vilna, sharing memories of going to weekly themed meetings, hearing lectures, attending summer camps, and joining the partisans of the Vilna Ghetto.

We Would Embrace a Stranger: Vilna after World War II

Fania Brantsovsky [Jocheles], former Jewish partisan and librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at the time of this 2012 interview, describes the atmosphere of Vilna in the first days after World War II. Fania recounts a memorable scene of cousins reuniting and shares how people in the community would give hugs to older strangers because they were so happy to see them alive. 


Hopes and Challenges: Perspective from the Chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Lithuania

Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, shares her perspective on the status of the Lithuanian Jewish community in a 2019 interview. She describes her plans to promote Lithuanian Jewish—and specifically Yiddish—language and culture while grappling with challenges such as the community’s small size and lack of financial resources.

“It’s in Our Hands”: Creating a Future for Yiddish in Lithuania

Simon Gurevičius, former chair of the Vilnius Jewish Community and CEO of the Lithuanian Food Bank Maisto bankas, discusses his effort to teach his children Yiddish and the challenges that come with it. Simon shares his optimism for the future of Yiddish in Lithuania, explaining why he believes that passing on Yiddish to younger generations of Lithuanian Jews is crucial to ensure the possibility of a living future for the language and culture.

Cover image is a class photo from the Sofia M. Gurevitch Gymnasium in Vilna taken June 12th, 1932, courtesy of Fania Brantsovsky [Jocheles].