Most Jews live in Vilnius (Vilna), the capital, but there are also several smaller communities, notably in Kaunas (Kovno), Klajpeda (Memel), and Siauliai.
Jews trace their origins in Lithuania back to the days of Grand Duke Gedeyminus, who founded the first Lithuanian state in the 14th century. By the late 15th century, there were already thriving communities. In time, Vilnius became known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” a great center of Jewish religious learning.
The Jews of Lithuania lived an intense Jewish life, and their role and influence in the major Jewish political and cultural movements were far greater than their numbers would have suggested.
On the eve of the Shoah, there were about 160,000 Jews in independent Lithuania and another 60,000 in Vilnius and the surrounding area, which were transferred to Lithuania after the Soviet conquest of eastern Poland. That population was bolstered by Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland. During the German occupation, about 95% of Lithuanian Jewry was killed (a greater percentage than in any other community in Europe), in large measure due to the enthusiastic participation of ethnic Lithuanians.
Jews in Soviet Lithuania benefited from a slightly more relaxed atmosphere than in Soviet Russia or Ukraine, and in Vilnius certain limited expressions of Jewish culture were tolerated. Upon regaining its independence, Lithuania dropped all restrictions on Jewish religious and cultural life.
The Lithuanian Jewish Community is the roof organization of Lithuanian Jewry. The rehabilitation of numerous Lithuanian collaborators has been cause of concern not only for Jews living in Lithuania, but for Jews throughout the world. The Israeli government and Jewish bodies, especially Jews of Lithuanian origin, have been especially active in demanding the prosecution of Lithuanian Nazis. Negotiations for the restitution of Jewish property are under way.
There is a Jewish secondary school and kindergarten in Vilnius, and Sunday schools are maintained in other towns. The community publishes Jerusalem of Lithuania, a monthly newspaper in Lithuanian, Russian, Yiddish, and English. The Jewish Community Building houses the State Jewish Museum, the Israel Center of Culture and Arts, the Center of Yiddish Culture and Music, and the Zalman Rejzen Foundation Supporting Jewish Culture, Education, and Science.
There are synagogues in Vilnius and Kaunas, but attendance is low. Matzot and other supplies, such as kosher meat and wine, are imported. The Chabad House, with its own rabbi, has been especially active in organizing classes for young people and promoting knowledge of Judaism.
Israel and Lithuania enjoy full diplomatic relations. Israel is represented by its ambassador in Riga, Latvia. Aliya: Since 1989, 5,591 Lithuanian Jews have emigrated to Israel.
Important sites include the medieval Jewish quarter of Vilnius and the grave of the Vilna Gaon. The Romanesque-Moorish Choral Synagogue is the only Jewish house of worship to survive the Shoah. Among the objects in the State Jewish Museum in Vilnius are ritual items salvaged from the Great Synagogue that was destroyed by the Soviets. These include parts of the original ark and reader’s desk. The museum also includes a section devoted to the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry. In Trokai there is a museum adjacent to the Karaite Synagogue that tells the story of this community. The Nazi killing grounds such as Paneriai (Ponary), where 70,000 Jews were massacred, and the infamous Ninth Fort of Kaunas also attract visitors.
Lithuanian Jewish Community
Pylimo Street 4
tel: 370 2 613 003
fax: 370 2 227 915
Vilnius Yiddish Institute
Vilnius University, History Faculty
Universiteto 7, Vilnius 01513
tel: +3705 268-7187
fax: +3705 268-7186
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