- The Beginnings of the Vilna Community
- The Interwar Period
- Vilna During the Holocaust
- Commemoration of the Vilna Community
- Video Testimonies About Vilna
The Beginnings of the Vilna Community
The Interwar Period
The Jews of Vilna Between the Two World Wars
Parties, Movements and Organizations
Vilna During the Holocaust
Outbreak of the War – September 1939
German Occupation – June 1941
Daily life in the Vilna Ghetto
Final Days of the Ghetto
Partisans in Vilna
The Jerusalem of Lithuania
The Story of the Jewish Community of Vilna
This page contains a glossary of terms that appear in this exhibition*.
- Czezowski Tadeusz, Antonina and Teresa
- The Council of the State of Lithuania
"The Council of the State of Lithuania" was established in the 15th century and served with the "Council of Four Lands" as a representative body for the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania. The Council determined how the tax demands of the government should be divided among the Jews, represented the Jewish communities to the government and was relied upon to judge between Jews in all matters pertaining to Jewish law and internal conflicts within the community. The councils were disbanded during the mid-18th century.
- Decree Forbidding Giving Birth in the Ghetto
Decree Forbidding Giving Birth in the Ghetto - On the 5th of February 1942 the Gestapo informed the Judenrat representatives in the Vilna and Siauliai Ghettos that a directive from Berlin had forbidden further births. In July 1942 the decree was also applied to the Kovno Ghetto. Officially the maternity wards in these ghettos were closed. The medical services carried out many abortions and provided contraceptive advice and supplies. The doctors faced difficult moral dilemmas relating to the decree banning births; primarily in dealing with women who refused to terminate their pregnancies and also the question of the fate of babies born after the decree had been issued.
- Dubnow Simon
- Dudżec Jadwiga
- Dworzecki Mark
Mark Dworzecki (1908 – 1975) - Mark (Meir) Dworzecki was born in 1908 in Vilna and completed his medical studies at the University of Vilna in 1935. When the war broke out he served in the Polish army and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He escaped and returned to Vilna and worked as a doctor in the ghetto. His attempt to join the partisans failed. He was deported from the ghetto to a labour camp in Estonia. Following the liberation Dworzecki immmigrated to Israel and was one of the pioneers in researching medicine during the Holocaust. He testified at the Eichmann trial. One of his books is about the history of the Vilna Ghetto "Jerusalem of Lithuania in Resistance and in the Holocaust" (Yerushalayim D'lita B'meri U'va'shoah) in 1953 he was awarded the Israel Prize for Social Sciences.
- Einsatzstab Rosenberg
- Emigration from Vilna
Aliya (emigration to Eretz Israel) from Vilna - At the beginning of the 1920s, it was mostly halutzim (pioneers) that emigrated from Vilna to Eretz Israel. The Aliya movement then grew until its cessation by the British. The Va'ad Kehillah organized protest prayers, and after the Passfield "White Paper" of 1930 was published, Zionist organizations arranged a protest rally and decided to send a petition to the British government. In the 1930s, the rallies continued, along with lectures and activities supporting Aliya. Some were able to emigrate as tourists under the sponsorship of the "Maccabia" or as capitalists. In 1933, for example, some 2,800 Jews emigrated from Vilna to Eretz Israel – more than a quarter of all those who made Aliya from the whole of Poland. The Vilna Jews also supported the halutzim that came from outside the city. In 1921, halutzim from Ukraine arrived in Vilna on passage to Eretz Israel. They were penniless, and had to stay in the city until they could acquire the necessary certification. They organized themselves in work forces, and were supported by the YEKOPO committee – one of the charities in the city – as well as by the Eretz Israel office. They were provided with accommodation, food and work tools. Their stay in Vilna stirred local Zionist youth to engage in music and drama. The notables in the city managed to organize financial assistance for them, as well as the travel passes they needed. In December 1922 a leaving party was organized for most of the group.
- Gens Jacob
- The German Civil Administration
The German Civil Administration - On the 17th of July 1941, an order was published announcing that in Eastern areas where fighting had ceased, power would be transferred from the Military Administration to a Civil Administration. Hans Christian Hingst was appointed as the Gebietskomissar (Head of the Civil Administration) of Vilna. His adjutant was Franz Murer who was also responsible for Jewish affairs.
- German Policy During the Period of Relative Stability
German Policy During the Period of Relative Stability - During the "period of relative stability" the aktions stopped as the German losses in the war and the murder of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war had led to a severe shortage of manpower. Lithuanians held back from enlisting for work since they understood that cooperating with the Germans would not lead to their independence but rather the opposite. The value of the Jews who remained as a work force in the ghettos increased. In April 1942 the validity of the scheins expired but in Vilna fresh work certificates were issued and the fear of an immediate liquidation of the ghetto waned.
- Glazman Josef
- Glik Hirsh
- Gordon Judah Leib
Judah Leib Gordon (1830-1892) - Judah Leib Gordon, one of the greatest Hebrew poets in the period of the Enlightenment, was born in Vilna and learned in heder (Torah school for young children) and a beit midrash (study hall). From a very early age, he displayed an expertise in biblical sources. He was drawn to the Enlightenment movement, studied foreign languages, and began to read more general literature. When he completed his studies, he went to work as a teacher in the cities and towns in the Vilna region, and also started to write poetry and prose. Gordon wrote about the misgivings of the Jews of Eastern Europe in the era of passage from tradition to the Enlightenment. He called on his fellow Jews to integrate into the wider society. In his poem "Hakitza Ami," he incorporated the rule: "Be a man in public and a Jew in your home." Other works of his were influenced by the Bible and the history of the Jewish people. He also wrote parables, most of which were adaptations of classic and other fables.
- The Gra – The Vilna Gaon
The Gra – The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) - In the 18th century, Vilna saw the birth and activity of Rebbe Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman – the Vilna Gaon or Gra. From his earliest childhood, the Vilna Gaon wrote novellae in Jewish Law. Despite numerous offers to lead the Jewish community, the Vilna Gaon refused, so that he could continue his studies. He lived on a stipend given to him by the community, and dedicated his time to researching the Talmud and scriptures. He found mistakes, established an accurate version of the texts, clarified the Babylonian Talmud, Midrash (homiletic teachings on the Bible) and Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law), wrote explanations of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and made religious rulings. He also learned mathematics, algebra, astronomy and other "external wisdoms," encouraged the acquisition of general education, particularly the sciences, and even supported the translation of works in these areas. At the age of 40, the Vilna Gaon began to teach a small group of elite scholars, who later became famous in their own right. This group grew into a huge spiritual centre that was highly influential in the areas of Jewish Law and Kabbalah. During his life, Vilna became known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." Under his influence, the yeshiva world of Eastern Europe became the leading current in ultra-orthodox Judaism, and remains so today. The Vilna Gaon detested long-winded debate, instead preferring to learn and teach in a manner that led to direct religious rulings. He did not flinch from ruling according to his own understanding, sometimes coming out against previous adjudicators, the Shulchan Aruch, or the standard practice. The Vilna Gaon stressed the importance of living in Eretz Israel as part of a process that would bring the Redemption. He even once set out for the Holy Land, but returned. At the beginning of the 19th century, after his death, three groups of his students left for Eretz Israel.
- Grade Chaim
The poet and writer Chaim Grade was born in Vilna. His father was a Hebrew teacher. Grade studied in the Lithuanian yeshivot (Talmudic colleges) in Vilna and its surroundings, including seven years with the “Chazon Ish” (“Avraham of the Play” in Grade’s book Tzemach Atlas). At 22 years old, Grade quit his Torah studies and began to attain a general education and to write Yiddish poetry. Grade’s works induced an immediate interest in Vilna. He joined a group of other writers in the city, and was one of the leaders of Jung Vilna.
During WWII, Grade was a refugee in Russia. At the war’s end, he emigrated to the US where he continued to create poetry and began to write prose. His works dealt with Polish Jewry in general and that of Vilna in particular. His books commemorated the destroyed Jewish world, and he dealt largely with the tension between the secular and religious communities in Vilna, as well as with the mental and spiritual angst of the Jews that stood at the edge of Enlightenment, but still felt a connection to their traditional world. One of his anthologies was dedicated to his wife, who perished during the Holocaust, and another was written about the refugee life that he experienced in the USSR.
Grade’s wish was not only to create works of literature, but also to document ethnographically the Judaism that had been lost.
The US Academy for Jewish Sciences presented Grade with a medal of honour, and ensured that his works were held in the highest historical regard as an exalted tombstone to an extinct world.
- The Great Provocation
The Great Provocation – 31st August – 2nd September 1941 - On the 31st of August two Lithuanians in civilian dress entered a non-Jew's apartment on the corner of Glazer Street and Breite Street. They shot two shots from the window, ran out into the street and shouted that Jews had shot at Germans. The Lithuanians and a group of German soldiers burst into another apartment in the building, took two Jews out into the street and shot them. Thus began the "cleansing" of the area that had been designated for the ghetto. All residents of the streets where Jews had lived for centuries were deported and their homes plundered. They were not allowed to take anything with them, or even to dress. Many were taken in their underwear. The victims were deported to Ponary. Most of them were first sent to the Lukiszki prison where they were abused. The men were marched on foot and the women, children, elderly and weak were deported in trucks. In Ponary the men were murdered in groups of ten, followed by the women and children. Six women who were only lightly injured managed to escape the pits at night; they returned to Vilna with the help of local farmers and were treated in the Jewish hospital. On the 1st of September Hingst announced that the entire Jewish population was responsible for firing on the Germans. On the 2nd of September most of the members of the original Judenrat were sent to Ponary. According to various sources, 3,700 – 8,000 people were murdered in "The Great Provocation". A number of Jews bribed the German soldiers that they worked with and thus were able to secure the release of individual relatives from the Lukiszki prison.
- Grossman Haike
- HKP - Heeres Kraftfahrpark
H.K.P - Heere KraftfahrPark - With the conquest of Vilna, engineering units of the Wehrmacht established two military-vehicle maintenance facilities in the city as part of the HKP network of Wehrmacht factories. Jews were employed in them under the command of Major Karl Plagge. Following the first transport to Estonia in August 1943 the HKP workers and their families, about 1,000 people, were transferred from Ghetto II to two groups of buildings in Subocz Street, outside the ghetto. The site was enclosed and became a camp. On the 27th of March 1944 an aktion took place against the children in the camp. With the advance of the Soviet army the HKP camp was liquidated and the people were transported to Ponary and murdered. On the night between the 2nd and 3rd of July about 150 people escaped from HKP. On the night of the 4th of July an armed group from HKP was caught by the SS guard; they injured two guards and escaped from the camp. 150-200 people from HKP, including children, survived in melinas and by escaping.
- Kaczerginski Shmerke
Oscar Glik, a Jew from Austria was deported to Vilna. He met a German soldier, a childhood friend from Vienna who arranged work for him in Kailis – a fur factory. Glik disguised himself as a Volksdeutsche (ethnic German) and secured forged papers for himself. Many of the Jewish workers of Kailis were deported during the Aktions and the factory faced closure. Glik proposed to the Major responsible for military supplies in the region to run Kailis for the army. Following the liquidation of the Ghetto II, Kailis became a closed labour camp and the workers and their families were housed in a special wing of the factory. In January 1942 a fire broke out in the factory and following a German investigation it was revealed that Glik was Jewish. Glik and his wife were arrested and shot. In Kailis the Jews lived under relatively good conditions and the Jews of the ghetto considered it to be a safe place. Initially there were around 800 people there; over time the number rose to around 1,250. In Kailis there was a school for children and a small library, lectures were given and sports activities took place. The Germans murdered the Jews of Kailis in Ponary a short while before Vilna was liberated by the Red Army.
- Kalmanovitch Zelig
Zelig Hirsch Kalmanovitch, a Yiddish Culture researcher, was born in Latvia in 1881. He specialised in Semitic linguistics and researched Yiddish language and literature and its dissemination. With the founding of YIVO Kalmanovitch became a member of the managing committee and edited the institution's journal "YIVO Bleter" for the duration of the Second World War. During the ghetto period he was employed in the Einsatzstab Rosenberg. During the Holocaust he became increasingly religious. He supported the head of the Judenrat Jacob Gens and opposed the resistance movement, which in his opinion endangered the ghetto. At the end of September 1943 he was sent from the ghetto to the camps in Estonia where he was murdered.
Kalmanovitch left behind a diary from the Holocaust period which has since been published.
- Katzenelson Itzhak
- Kibbutz "Shacharia"
Kibbutz "Shacharia" in Vilna - "Shacharia" was the largest training kibbutz in the Vilna region. In 1935, it had 180 members, almost half of them girls. By 1934, more than 500 members had undergone training at "Shacharia." Members of the kibbutz lived in close quarters at the dormitories organized for them by the Va'ad Kehillah. They worked in every area, from manual labour to jobs that required a full education. The kibbutz ran a sewing factory that received outside work, as well as a shoe workshop for its members. Members of the Vilna community aided them by providing work and obtaining land and buildings for the kibbutz close to Vilna, where kibbutz members established a farm and a convalescence home. Members of "Shacharia" even established a choir.
- Kovner Abba
- The Kovno Train
The Kovno Train - On the 3rd - 4th of April 1943 the remaining Jews from the ghettos of Oszmiana, Michaliszki and Sol were loaded onto freight cars and sent to Kovno. A few days prior to this a notice was published in the Vilna Ghetto that those with relatives in Kovno could join a train of Jews that was to pass through Vilna. About 350 Jews were brought from the Vilna Ghetto to the train station and put onto six carriages that were attached to the train en route to Kovno. Among them were Jacob Gens and a number of police. The train departed on the night between the 4th and 5th of April. Following their departure it became clear to Gens that the destination was Ponary. At Ponary station Gens and the Jewish police were returned to Vilna by Lithuanian police and passed over to the SiPO. With first light the Jews saw through the cracks that they had arrived in Ponary. When the doors were opened the people were taken to the pits and shot. Hundreds tried to flee but most were shot at the train station and only a few succeeded in escaping. On the 5th of April towards morning a train carrying people from the Swienciany Ghetto arrived in Vilna. Five carriages were disconnected from the train and sent to Bezdany camp; two carriages containing the Judenrat members from the Swienciany Ghetto and from other ghettos were also disconnected and remained in Vilna. The rest of the carriages were sent from the station in Vilna to Ponary. When the people understood where they had been taken they broke out of the carriages and began to run. Some resisted and attacked the Germans and Lithuanians, who surrounded them, with weapons and fists. The Germans and Lithuanians shot into the crowd; about 600 Jews were killed at the train station and in the nearby fields. A number of the escapees succeeded in reaching the Vilna Ghetto. The SiPO became aware of this and demanded they be turned over to them but the order was cancelled by the Germans in order not to arouse the suspicions of the Jews of the ghetto. Gens was promised that the Vilna Ghetto was not in any danger.
- Lewicka Lyuba
Lyuba Lewicka - The opera singer Lewicka performed in the ghetto theatre and was known as "The Nightingale of the Ghetto". In January 1943 she was caught at the ghetto gate with a kilo of pea pods. She was arrested and sent to jail, where she became the "Nightingale of the Prison". The prison guards used to stand outside her cell and listen to her singing. That same month she was sent to Ponary and murdered.
- Mapu Abraham
Abraham Mapu (1808-1867) - Abraham Mapu was born in a town near Kovno, Russia. He excelled in his heder studies, and after his wedding studied kabbalah, joined the Hassidic movement, and worked as a teacher. At the age of 40 he became attracted to the Enlightenment movement, and studied German, French and Russian. He came to Vilna, joined its writers' circle, and began to teach in the state school for boys, where he remained until his death. Mapu wrote Ahavat Tzion (The Love of Zion) over a period of 20 years, publishing it in 1853. In the book, as in his other work Ayit Tzavua, Mapu describes the sovereign Jewish life of the days of biblical kings, as an expression of his desire to fulfil the dream of a new era of Jewish independence. Ahavat Tzion is considered the first Hebrew novel, and together with Mapu's other works, one of the foundations of the ideas of modern Zionism at its outset, and an inspirational source for Zionist leaders and youth. Among the other books he wrote was a Hebrew textbook, and a biography of the Shabbetai Zvi.
- Mich"al - Micah Joseph Lebensohn
Micah Joseph Lebensohn was born in Vilna. His father, the poet "Adam" Hacohen, was one of the leaders of the Enlightenment movement in Lithuania, and the first Hebrew poet in Russia. At a young age, the Mich"al began to translate poetry, and even pen his own. Many of his translations were published, two of his compilations in Vilna, one – "Shirat Bat Zion" (1851) – during his lifetime, and the other – "Kinor Bat Zion" (1870) – by his father after the Mich"al's death from consumption (tuberculosis) at the age of 24.
- An Organised Force Against the Police
An Organised Force Acting Against the Police - In November 1942 Gens, who was responsible for all ghettos in the Vilna region, instructed Glazman to accompany him to the Swienciany Ghetto in order to organise the Housing Department. Glazman feared that he would be forced to participate in an aktion such as those carried out by the Jewish Police in the Oszmiana Ghetto in October 1942. He refused and was imprisoned in the ghetto prison. Following approaches by Wittenberg and Chyena Borowska to Gens, Glazman was transferred to a work camp outside Vilna. At the same time a number of Glazman's friends were arrested. Gens felt threatened by the support that Glazman had received in the ghetto – support that had increased following his refusal to go to Swienciany - and released Glazman.
- Romm Printing House
The "Romm Widow and Brothers Printing House" was a printing press and publishing house founded at the end of the 18th century in Vilna. The edition of the Babylonian Talmud printed by Romm Publishing in 1880-1886 became the basis for all versions of the Talmud printed until today.
During WWI, the publishing business was seriously affected, as was the collection of dues. The printing house reduced its activities and fired workers and clerks. With the advance of the Germans, the authorities ordered the printing house to transfer some of its equipment to the Russian interior.
During the German occupation, the few remaining workers and clerks lived in the printing house, including the elderly director Shmuel Shraga Feigenzohn (Shafan Hasofer). Despite their impoverished conditions, they continued to prepare new books for publication. Before the war was concluded, the printing house had begun its recovery. In 1922, Feigenzohn retired at the age of 90, but the printing house continued to operate and print new editions, in particular religious writings such as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Shas.
V. Sakovich - A Polish journalist who lived near Ponary and witnessed the mass-murder. From the 11th of July Sakovich wrote a chilling diary in which he documented what he saw on a daily basis. In July 1944, he was shot while cycling from Vilna to Ponary and died a few days later. It is unclear who shot him. Parts of the original diary were found after the war; the entries that he wrote after November1943 have not been found.
- Schatz Boris
Boris Schatz, 1866-1932 - Boris (Zalman Dov) Schatz was born in Kovno, Lithuania, and sent by his father to study at the Vilna Yeshiva. Schatz left the yeshiva and began studying art in Vilna, and later in Warsaw. At first he studied painting but soon moved to sculpture, producing reliefs. Schatz lived in Paris, and later emigrated to Bulgaria, where he founded a state art academy. In 1906 he moved to Eretz Israel, where he founded and directed the academy of arts that later became known as "Bezalel." The subjects of his works were mostly taken from the bible, and symbolized the rebirth of the Jewish people. His son, Bezalel Schatz, designed the western door of the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem.
Schein - A certificate issued by the Germans testifying that its bearer works in a German factory or institution. This certificate was regarded as a permit to live: If I work, I must be needed. In October 1941 a yellow permit known as a "yellow schein" was issued. A schein holder could attach to themselves a wife and two children under the age of 16. Many underwent fictitious 'marriages' to schein holders and 'adopted' children in order to increase the number of 'legal' residents in the ghetto.
- Scheinbaum Yechiel
Yechiel Scheinbaum - Yechiel (Ilya) Scheinbaum was born in 1914 in Odessa, Ukraine. He was brought up in Kowel by his grandmother following the death of his mother. He studied at the Tarbut school and joined the Hechalutz Hatzair youth movement and the hachsharah (training) kibbutz Klosowo. He studied to become an electrician at the Polytechnic School in Lwow and then enlisted in the Polish army. During his army service he was active in Hechalutz Hatzair and was punished for this multiple times with imprisonment. In November 1940 he married Pesia Zlotnik. On the eve of the German invasion Scheinbaum was living in Lodz, when the invasion began, members of youth movements were transferred, by the Germans, from occupied areas to Vilna. In the Vilna Ghetto he worked as an electrician in a Wehrmacht factory and sabotaged German equipment to the best of his ability. On the 1st of September Scheinbaum was killed in battle with the Germans who had entered the ghetto. Out of respect for Yechiel Scheinbaum, Gens permitted his burial in the old cemetery where the Vilna Gaon was buried.
- Schmid Anton
- Simaite Ona
- Soutine Chaim
Chaim Soutine was born in Belarus and studied in a cheder (a torah school for young children). Against the wishes of his father, he followed his heart and moved to Minsk, where he began to study painting. A year later he was accepted to the academy of art in Vilna, where he studied for three years.
In 1913, Soutine moved to Paris, where his artistic talents blossomed, inspired in particular by his colleagues including Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani. He was one of the first painters of L'Ecole de Paris, most of whose artists were murdered during the Holocaust. Soutine painted hundreds of works in Paris and throughout France, most of them portraits and landscapes.
During the Nazi occupation, Soutine hid outside of the French capital. Due to illness he was forced to return to Paris, where he died during surgery in August 1943. He was buried at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.
- Sutzkever Abraham
The capital city of Lithuania, situated in the south-east of Lithuania at the confluence of the Vilnelė and Neris rivers. Vilna had previously been the capital of the principality of Lithuania and between the two World Wars, a district of Poland. In the Jewish world Vilna was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" – a spiritual centre of the first degree. Between the two World Wars it was the fourth largest Jewish centre in Poland, equal in size to Krakow but smaller than Warsaw, Lodz and Lvov. Lithuanian: Vilnius. Yiddish: ווילנע. Russian: Вильнюс. Polish: Wilno
* This glossary does not constitute a complete list of all terms relating to the Jewish Community of Vilna and its history.