Trip to the Baltics, Part I (Vilnius)

Vilnius, as most of us know, is the capital of Lithuania, and was formerly known in some quarters as Vilna.  It is a city of about 500,000 people in a metropolitan area about twice that size; this means that almost 1/3 of all Lithuanians live in or about the city.

Most of us do not know, however, about the unique and complicated history of the city, which is important to keep in mind as we think about Vilnius today.  First, while Vilnius is the historical capital of Lithuania, it has not always been a Lithuanian city.  Founded in the 14th century, Vilnius became an important and cosmopolitan trading city and the most important city in the Lithuanian empire.  That empire, however, came to an end when Lithuania and Poland formed a joint kingdom in the midddle of the 16th century; Vilnius remained an important city, but no longer the capital.

In fact, over time, Vilnius, always cosmopolitan, lost its identity as a Lithuanian city, as Poland became the more dominant force in the area.  Vilnius remained a Polish city until Poland was partitioned at the end of the 18th century by Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia.  After 1798, Vilnius became a major city in the western portion of the Russian empire, where it remained until after World War I.

You may know that an independent Lithuania was created after the end of that war.  Independent Lithuania did not outlast the Second World War, however, as Russian and German occupation led to a more permanent Russian occupation and the incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union and the Lithuanian SSR, a situation which lasted until the break up of the USSR and the re-emergence of an independent Lithuania in 1991.

And, it is important to realize, that the Lithuanian republic that existed for 20 years between the wars, did not include Vilnius (then Wilno), which remained a city in newly independent Poland, that Kaunas (Kovno) was the capital (deemed the ‘temporary’ capital) of Lithuania during that period, and that Vilnius did not become a part of an area recognized as Lithuania until after World War II, when it became the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.

This obviously has important ramifications. Today, Vilnius, the capital of an independent state, is clearly recognizable as a Lithuanian City.  But if you were in Vilnius in, say, the late 1930s, the Vilnius that was then a major Polish city (the home of Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz and political leader Josef Pilsudski, who certainly never thought of Vilnius as anything but Polish), you would not see very many Lithuanians.   You would see a city that was just over half Polish, about 30% Jewish, and which had a significant number of Russian, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians.  Hardly any Lithuanians.  (If you had been in Vilnius even earlier, say the turn of the century, you would have seen a city that had a Jewish majority and a very strong Polish minority (together they made up over 90% of the city’s populace).  And then, after the Russians strengthened their rule in the 1940s, you would see many of the Poles leave the city and head to Poland, and many Russians and Lithuanians move in.

World War II was devastating for the Jewish community (over 90% of the 80,000 Jews of Vilnius were killed), and the 1991 independence movement saw most of the Russians leave Vilnius and head back to the Russian SSR, leaving a city with a heavy Lithuanian majority and a strong Polish minority.

What other city has this history?  I remember remarking several years ago about the history of Prague, another crossroads city, where there had been so many competing religious groups over the centuries, something unusual enough.  But to see a city that had been Lithuanian, then Polish, then Russian and now again Lithuanian (with a very strong Jewish population up until 1940), and which has witnessed so many actual population shifts, is enough to get your mind working in new and different ways.

As to the city today, I found it attractive and comfortable.  We stayed in a very nice hotel (Stickli – Lithuanian for glass dealer or something almost like that) in the heart of the restored portion of the old city.  The old city (formerly walled – in fact, they are engaged in some wall and gate restoration work now) is fairly extensive.   A portion of it has been completely spiffed up, with hotels, shops and boutiques, restaurants and so forth, and a part has not seen such extensive renovation work, but looks to be comfortable and safe.  Up until World War II, the old city was primarily the Jewish area, although it was not a ghetto and Jews certainly lived in other areas as well, and it became the two ghettos created by the occupying Nazis, one a long term ghetto where most of the Jews lived for several years, and the other more of a holding pen, where people were kept for a day or two  before being shipped to labor camps or meeting other even less pleasant ends.  The Stickli was in the smaller of the two ghettos, the holding area.

The Jewish history of Vilnius is very extensive, and Vilnius was the home both of large number of very religious Jews (primarily, Jews who fought against the Hasidism of the south, and who were classified as Misnagdim, very scholarly and very careful about their ritual observance), and Jews who became more modern in their outlook and who supported such research institutions as YIVO (now headquartered in New York), which was the primary institute for research into Yiddish culture in the world.  Most famous of all of the scholars of Vilnius was Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the “Vilna Gaon”, who was born in 1720 and died in 1797.

The war was not friendly to much of the specific Jewish legacy of physical Vilnius, just as it wasn’t to its Jewish residents.  The YIVO headquarters, in a large building then on the outskirts of the city, was destroyed, as was the home of the Vilna Gaon, and the grouping of what were apparently almost 15 synagogues, from large to small, which were crowded together at one location.  The footprint of the the Vilna Gaon’s house has been preserved (and there is a statue of him), but the site of the synagogues are now either vacant or the home of a Soviet era elementary school.  Because so much of the neighboring buildings remain, however, you can certainly get a feel of the area if you have the right guide (we did), and there are indications (old signs, etc.) around and about that at least provide a hint of its Jewish past.  There remains one working synagogue in the area, which was saved because it was near some buildings that the Nazis were using, and because it was in fact outside the ghetto area.  Interesting to visit, evocative of the past, still in use – but it did not seem to be in the best of physical condition.

As you move from the old ghetto area, you enter a large square with the city hall and some fine churches.  As you walk down the main street, past restaurants and hotels and shops, you think you are in a very sophisticated place, and you see what a cultural center Vilnius remains today, with music schools and street musicians playing classical music on about every block.

Driving through the city, although you do see a number of old wood residences with steep roofs, you have the feeling you are in a modern, thriving city.  Some public buildings which went up during the Soviet era are handsome, and there are many newer more modern buildings demonstrating what appears to be a strong economy.  There are any number of churches, which seem to draw more older women than anyone else, that seem fairly active, although there are some, which had been closed by the Soviets, which have not been restored or reopened.  We had the chance to visit a number of them, to look at the architecture and art work, and one an early morning walk, I stumbled into a mass at a Dominican church where the choral music was beautiful.

The majority of the Lithuanian Jews were not sent to death camps, but before the final solution were murdered outright by a combination of Germans and Lithuanians, mostly at a beautiful forested area known as Ponar, which had traditionally been a place for picnics and family outings, and then (when the Soviets took Vilnius in 1940) was meant to be a storage site for fuel.  The plan for fuel storage was interrupted by the German invasion, but the deep pits which had been dug by the Russians were just what the doctor ordered to use as places for the bodies to drop as the Jews were trucked from the ghetto to be shot. There are a number of memorials there.

There was also a partisan movement, where some Jews escaped from the ghetto (not too difficult), and went into the forests (a lot of forests, mainly tall pines), often combining with Soviet groups to fight the Nazis.  This activity is perhaps best shown on the documentary film, “Partisans of Vilna”, made about twenty years ago, and which you should see, if you have not already seen it.  We were scheduled to go to Rudnicki Forest, which became the headquarters of Abba Kovner’s partisan groups, but could not make it because it had been raining heavily and the road washes out through the preserved, remote forest land.

We did have time to visit an “amber museum”, really an attachment to an amber shop, which was in fact fairly interesting, and the amber jewelry can be very attractive, and we had very good food in Lithuania, good fish from the Baltic and from the many lakes of the country, and the always present potato pancakes.


More to come……..








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