What do Shemp, Moe, and Curly Howard from the Three Stooges; the violinist, Jascha Heifetz; the American, singers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen; and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, all have in common? The answer is that all of these men have Litvak, or Lithuanian Jewish, decent.
According to the World Jewish Congress, today (in 2021), approximately 2,700 to 6,500 Jews live in Lithuania. However, as the map from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center indicates in the photo below, prior to World War II, Lithuania once had approximately 168,000 Jews. By the end of WWII, in 1945, approximately 143,000 Jewish people had been murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust, making the death rate over 90%. Many of those deaths occurred in and around Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius (also known as Vilna), since 45% of that city’s population used to be Jewish. In fact, Vilnius used to be called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Sadly, Lithuania had a higher percentage of local people who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust than did most of the other Nazi-controlled countries during WWII.
After WWII, Lithuania fell into the hands of the Soviet Union, making it closed off to the rest of the world. However, Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1989, a year before gaining its independence, Lithuania opened a museum in Vilnius dedicated to preserving Lithuania’s Jewish history. Strangely, I am having trouble finding out what the original name of the museum was, but in 1997, it became the Vilna Gaon State Museum. That is because 1997 marked the 200-year anniversary of the death of the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon was, perhaps, Lithuania’s most famous Jewish resident. He was an eighteenth-century Jewish scholar with a photographic memory. In 2020, the Vilna Gaon State Museum again renamed itself. Now, it is called the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History.
I had the wonderful privilege of visiting the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History’s main building, called the Tolerance Center, in 2017. This large building has historically belonged to the Jewish community for over a century, and was even a Jewish theater at one point.
In my opinion, the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History’s highlight is a display of objects that still exist from the Great Synagogue of Vilna. Built in the 1630s, the Great Synagogue was lamentably demolished by the Soviets in the 1950s. Although the Soviets built a school over it, a team of archaeologists recently began excavating the surrounding area in 2016. In November of 2020, I was able to watch a pre-screening of the first half of a new documentary called The Secrets of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which is about the excavations. The full documentary is scheduled for release this spring (of 2021). From the documentary, I learned that much of the Great Synagogue was built below the ground, meaning that people descended into the sanctuary. This allowed the sanctuary to look huge from the inside, while still following building regulations in which a synagogue could not be taller than a church.
Another major exhibit at the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History is an area full of panels describing the history of Lithuanian Jewry. The only downside to this particular exhibit is that there is a lot of text to read. After a while, I became tired looking up at all of the panels, so I eventually sped read through it. Other parts of the museum include a short documentary that you can watch, and photos of Jewish life in Lithuania prior to WWII.
In addition to the Tolerance Center, the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History owns several other buildings as well. Most of these buildings’ exhibits are not ready for the public yet but will focus on different aspects of Lithuania’s Jewish history. The Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History also owns the Memorial Museum of Paneriai, which is a mass grave where the Nazis murdered many of Vilnius’ Jews. I wanted to visit Paneriai, but, unfortunately, did not have the time.
When I went to visit Lithuania, I honestly had low expectations, but the country exceeded my expectations. Not only is Vilnius a GORGEOUS city, but I saw more Jewish history publicly displayed there than I had anticipated that I would.
Sources and Further Reading
David, Jono. “Virtual Jewish World: Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania.” Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/vilnius-vilna-lithuania-jewish-history-tour (accessed January 22, 2021).
Levin, Don. “Lithuania.” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Translated by Rami Hann. https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Lithuania (accessed January 22, 2021).
“Lithuania.” World Jewish Congress. https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/about/communities/LT (accessed January 22, 2021).
Nadler, Allan. “Litvak.” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Litvak (accessed January 22, 2021).
“The Secrets of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.” The Vilna Shul. https://vilnashul.org/events/event/thesecrets-of-the-great-synagogueof-vilna (accessed January 22, 2021).
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Lithuania.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/lithuania (accessed January 22, 2021).
Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History. https://www.jmuseum.lt/en/ (accessed January 22, 2021).
“Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.” Association of European Jewish Museums. https://www.aejm.org/members/vilna-gaon-state-jewish-museum/ (accessed January 22, 2021).
“Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum to be Known as the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History.” Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History. May 4, 2020. https://www.jmuseum.lt/en/news/i/1263/vilna-gaon-state-jewish-museum-to-be-known-as-the-vilna-gaon-museum-of-jewish-history/ (accessed January 22, 2021).
Wein, Berel and Yaakov Astor. “The Gaon of Vilna.” Jewish History. https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-gaon-of-vilna/ (accessed January 22, 2021).