As I first began planning an upcoming European trip which includes a stop in Lithuania and its capital Vilnius, I decided to read up a bit on that city. What did I know? Surprisingly little, perhaps. I knew it was the capital of Lithuania, of course, and knew that, at least on recent centuries, Lithuania was a distinct country only in the twentieth. And then I knew something about its historic Jewish community, the Jerusalem of the North, and of course the Holocaust.
But there was much I did not know. I did not fully know that, although Vilnius was historically the most important city in Lithuania, because Lithuania and Poland combined into a joint empire in the 16th century, Vilnius became a cultural, not a political, center, and that it then suffered. The 17th century brought more problems, with fires and plagues and wars. And the 18th century brought about the total dismemberment of Poland, bringing Vilnius and surroundings under Russian rule, where it remained until World War I.
I did not know that, during the 19th century, Vilnius was not really a Lithuanian city and, in fact, there were few ethnic Lithuanians living in Vilnius and the Lithuanian language was hardly ever heard. The city was primarily Polish, with large Ukrainian and Yiddish speaking Jewish communities.
The world continued it one of Poland’s most important cities and, in fact, between the wars, the Republic of Lithuania did not include Vilnius. Kaunas was its capital, and Vilnius, although it did receive a substantial number of Lithuanian immigrants during the dislocation caused by the war, it remained a Polish city. It became a part of official Lithuania only after the Soviets entered the country in the middle of the Second World War, when Lithuania was incorporated into the USSR, and became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, with Vilnius as its capital. By then, the Jews were gone of course, and the city, in spite of Russian immigration, for the first time in hundreds of years became majority Lithuanian.
We will see how all of this shows up in the city I will visit. My guess is that it won’t.
This gets me to Pilsudski. Josef Pilsudski was the hero of early 20th century Poland. It was he who had the idea that a united Poland (remember that it was divided into Russian, Austrian, and German segments) was possible, who developed a Polish army in advance of the coming First World War, who slyly led his Polish legions during the war first supporting one campaign then another, all the time keeping an eventual free Poland first in his mind. It was he who, in spite of spending extensive periods in both a Siberian prison camp and a German prison, led a Polish army to defeat the Soviet armies in the battles after he end of the war but before independence was achieved and boundaries set, became first Minister of War and later chief of state of the new state of Poland.
Pilsudski was a Polish idealist in the manner of Mandela, Ataturk, and yes Herzl. He was streetsmart, clever, theatrical, strong, tireless, charismatic, magnetic, and above all practical. He was no ideologue. And his vision of Poland was a broad one, a home for all of its peoples.
Pilsudski was very successful, but Poland’s success ebbed when Pilsudski died in 1935. But there is one other point. Pilsudski, the great Polish patriot, grew up in Vilnius, then as Polish as any city in current day geographic Poland. He. Assumed that Vilnius would always be part of independent Poland. And, while he lived, there was no reason to think otherwise. (My information on Pilsudski comes largely from Grace Humphrey’s 1936 biography, an odd source, perhaps, but an interesting story.)