Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shalom, Lithuania: A Jewish Culture Guide

A Jewish presence in present-day Lithuania can be traced back to the 14th century.

By: Sarah Bauder

Published: April 16th, 2014 in Culture » Society » News

Shalom, Lithuania: A Jewish Culture Guide

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Vilnius

A Jewish presence in present-day Lithuania can be traced back to the 14th century. During this period, the region was known as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its capital being Vilnius. Jews flocked to the capital, upon invitation of the Grand Duke, taking full advantage of all that the Duchy offered.

Over the subsequent centuries, although there were periods of unrest, the Jewish community flourished. By the 18th century, Vilnius had become the epicenter for traditional Talmudic learning and Yiddish culture. It was even referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North”. Undoubtedly, the most influential Jew to hail from the capital during this time was the Great Gaon of Vilnius, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer (1720-1797). In 1795, Vilnius and the quondam lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire.

Consequently, throughout the 19th century, many Jews immigrated, fleeing the restrictions imposed by Imperial Russia. Likewise, by the end of the1800’s, Vilnius became the center of the Jewish Labor Movement, led by The Bund (Socialist party) that advocated both equal civil and political rights for the Jewish population. During the Interwar period, Vilnius was very much the thriving center of both Yiddish culture and learning.

In June 1940, Lithuania was occupied by Russia. By June 1941, the country was overtaken by the Nazi occupation. Vilnius contained two notorious ghettos, which were sealed by the Nazis in September 1941. Throughout the course of World War II, it has been estimated that 90 to 95% of Lithuanians Jews died in the Holocaust.

The Choral Synagogue

Today, approximately 6,500 Jews reside in Lithuania, with 5,000 living in Vilnius. Only two functioning synagogues remain in Lithuania, one of which is located in Vilnius. Built in 1903, the Choral Synagogue was designed in the Moorish-style. First established in 1913, The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum provides numerous exhibits, including the Holocaust Exhibition, and the Paneriai Memorial and Museum that is located 10 km outside of Vilnius. The site commemorates “the tens of thousands of Jews and other victims murdered in Paneriai” under German occupation in WWII. The Jewish Community of Lithuania provides a list of 19 Jewish tourist sites of interest.

If you’re inclined towards guided tours, there are a number of outfits offering professional tours of Vilnius and the Baltics, including Baltic Roads. There is a Jewish Culture and Information Center. Chabad Lubavitch is also located in Vilnius.

Links:

http://www.lzb.lt/en/history/167-history-of-the-jews-in-lithuania/299-henrich-agranovski-choral-synagogue-taharat-hakodesh.html

http://www.jmuseum.lt/index.aspx?Lang=EN

http://www.jmuseum.lt/index.aspx?Lang=EN

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