The Interwar Period
Vilna was one of the first cities in Russia to be reached by the Enlightenment movement, via tradesmen and doctors who arrived from Germany. At the beginning of the 19th century, Vilna was one of the most important centers of Enlightenment in Eastern Europe, with many of the greatest Jewish writers and poets living in its environs, among them Micah Joseph Lebensohn (Mich"al), Abraham Mapu of "Chibat Zion" and Judah Leib Gordon. Jewish students studied medicine at Vilna University, and female students studied midwifery in the same faculty.
Educated Jews in Vilna spoke German, Polish and Russian. At the end of the 19th century, a branch of the St. Petersburg "Association to Disseminate Enlightenment" opened in the city. The historian Simon Dubnow lived in the city for a number of years at the beginning of the 20th century. Important writers visited the city and gave lectures there, among them Shalom Yaacov Abramowitz (Mendele the Bookseller), Yitzkhok Leibush Peretz and David Frishman. Revenues from their lectures were designated for welfare organizations.
In the 19th century, Jewish printing presses opened in the city, publishing opinion pieces and essays by poets and writers of the Enlightenment movement. At the beginning of the 20th century, new presses were established, the most important of which were Sreberk and Klatzkin.
The Interwar Period
During WWI, most of the Jewish writers fled to Russia. After the war, the majority returned, and the rich life of Jewish literature and journalism was renewed. Vilna won back its position as the center of Hebrew and Yiddish literature and media. Most of the writers that returned from Russia left Vilna after a while, but still contributed to the city's spiritual life. These included S. Ansky (author of the play "The Dybbuk"), Pinchas Shifman, Y. Gutman and the religious author Ben-Zion Alphas.
Many Yiddish writers settled in Vilna, including Shmuel-Leib Citron, Zalman Reisin, Max (Meir) Weinreich and Aharon Yitzhak Grodzinski. From 1929, a group of Yiddish artists, writers and poets, painters and sculptors met in the city. The group was called "Jung Vilna," and was led by, among others, Chaim Grade, Abraham Sutzkever, Peretz Miranski,Shmerke Kaczerginski and Hirsh Glik. The city was a cultural hub, attracting visits by Jewish writers from across Eastern Europe, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Itzhak Katzenelson, Shimon Halkin, Daniel Charney, Peretz Markish, Shalom Asch, Uri Zvi Greenberg and the poet Elisheva (Bikhowsky). The argument between the Yiddishists and the Hebrew supporters brought about a separate association of Hebrew writers. The Polish Yiddish Writers' Club also had its own branch in the city.
After WWI, Yiddish newspapers began to appear in Vilna and, later on, Hebrew newspapers as well. Journals of movements and political parties – including Hebrew culture, secular, socialist and religious Zionism, and communism – were also publicized, most of them for only a short while. By the end of the 1920s, between 100-200 and sometimes more Hebrew and Yiddish books and brochures were published annually in Vilna.
The Jewish sculptor Mark Antokolski began a school for the applied arts, which was opened after his death. In the 1930s, the city held a number of exhibitions of famous Jewish artists, including Arthur Shik and Maneh Katz, who used Vilna as their subject matter. Vilna also ran a local theatre built during WWI, a drama studio, and amateur choirs. In addition, Vilna was the birthplace or place of study for the violinist Jascha Heifetz and other famous musicians and cantors.