At the peak of its influence Vilnius was, in fact, a city of thirds – one third Polish Catholic, one third Jewish and one third everyone else.
The history of the Jewish people in Europe is essentially nomadic, with many first arriving in a place as traders. Their success and difference in religious practice breeds a certain jealousy and distrust which leads eventually to them being chased out from that place after generations. The most recent case is obviously the Holocaust in World War 2, and the most famous personal story that of Anne Frank in Amsterdam but it was not the first story.
The arrival of the Jewish people to Vilnius followed that same narrative.
The first Jewish people to arrive in Vilnius arrived in the year 1388 when they were given the same equal rights as all other free men in the city. The people continued to move to Vilnius over the next 20 years. Their population grew especially in 1492.
In 1492, the rulers of unified Spain, King Ferdinand II and his co-ruler Queen Isabelle I declared with the Alhambra Decree the expulsion of all Jewish people from the Kingdom. The Jewish people had grown to become the richest and most successful people in the Iberian coast, as they established themselves in Moorish Iberia.
However the successful Reconquista of Spain from the Muslim Moors installed the religiously fanatical King and Queen who feared that the success of the Jewish people would encourage large swathes of Spains converted Jewish people to revert to Judaism.
The Jewish people had 3 months to leave the kingdom. And it was at that time that the lights of Poland and Lithuania shone brightly. There was a thriving Jewish community living there, the cities were growing, it was far away from the Iberian peninsula – this would be a place to have a higher quality of life.
That good life did not last long. Barely 3 years later, in 1495, the Jewish people were chased out of Vilnius by the Grand Duke Alexander Jagiellon and only allowed back into the city in 1503. The Jewish people settled back and continued to grow, but their success led to fears and in 1566 laws were introduced to control what Jewish people consumed and dictate that they needed to wear certain clothes (sound familiar?).
The Jews however continued to thrive and by the 1700s Vilnius was centre for Global Jewry and Jewish learning. Jewish people numbered some 500,000 in a Commonwealth of around 12 million people. In Lithuania they accounted for almost 250,000 out of just under 1 million people. Among the luminaries of Lithuanian Jewry was Elijah ben Solomon Zalman known also as the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon is today known around the world because of his brilliance in textural analysis with writings and analysis on the margins of every important Jewish text.
A bust of Vilna Gaon made by the Soviet Union leadership to resemble Karl Marx (Vilna Gaon is commonly seen as having a large hat and small beard)
All this combined to give Vilnius the moniker, Jerusalem of the North.
Vilnius remained a centre for Jewish culture, all the way till the eve of the outbreak of World War II. Just before the outbreak of World War II, 45% of Vilnius (around 100,000 people) was Jewish, and the city had 110 synagogues and 10 religious schools.
The Second World War was a disaster for the Jewish people in Vilnius. Almost all 160,000 Jewish people in Lithuania were transported from all over the country into Vilnius and put into two Ghettos, ghetto number 1 and 2 and made to live in a huge concentration camp. A practice that was also done in Warsaw. It’s in times of adversity that the reliance on a good and a belief in God most provide succor and that was perhaps what happened to the Jewish people in Vilnius. Despite the harshness of their living conditions, their Great Synagogue (while damaged) emerged from the War largely intact and repairable.
The end of World War II was however not the end of the troubles for the Jewish people in Vilna – the Soviet Union had arrived. Because Communism is atheistic, religious symbols and institutions were dangerous. The Great synagogue was progressively taken apart, a basketball court and a small school were built to prevent any form of commemoration of the place. Physical space for God was removed and replaced with a void.
What stands of the Synagogue today, a school
That progressive disintegration an the creation of the Jewish state had perhaps a more lasting effect.
By the end of World War II and the Soviet occupation, there were 2000 Jewish people in Lithuania.
The fate of the Jewish people and the Catholic people in the same city, took very different turns. One turned into the help for a nation and a symbol of resistance, the other is on its last legs.
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