LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 21, No.3 - Fall 1975
Editors of this issue: Antanas Klimas, Thomas Remeikis, Bronius Vaskelis
Copyright © 1975 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Jerusalem of Lithuania, Illustrated and Documented. Collected and arranged by Leyzer Ran. 3 volumes, New York, 1974. (Vols. I and II 14,1/2 inches by 11% inches, hard bound; vol. III paperback: 11 inches by 8,1/2 inches; Library of Congress Catalog Number 73- 90918). Available from: Vilno in Pictures, Inc., 34-40 93rd Street, Jackson Heights, NY 11372.
This is one of the most amazing books I have ever seen. It attempts to recreate several centuries of Jewish life in Vilna (Vilnius), capital city of Lithuania. (Latin Vilna, Lith. Vilnius, Rus. Vil'na and Vil'no. Ger. Wilna, Pol. Wilno, Eng. and French Vilna). The editor of this amazing work, Leyzer Ran, with his numerous helpers, devoted 25 years to this incredible and colossal undertaking.
Vilna is one of the most exceptional cities in the world. Its prehistory goes back into the mists of the early medieval ages. But it emerges suddenly as the main city and the capital of Lithuania when the Lithuanian king Gediminas permanently established the capital of Lithuania in Vilna in 1323. Through the ages, it has always been the cosmopolitan capital of Lithuania. Lithuanians, Jews, Tartars, Latvians, Caraites, Poles, Byelorussians, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and even French have all through the ages lived, worked, and suffered together in this city of Vilna.
The first Jews may have arrived in Lithuania as early as the 12th or 13th centuries. Since the 14th cent., they have been granted privileges by Lithuanian rulers, and these privileges made it possible for them to live in well-organized, self-sustained and self-sufficient communities, mainly, in Lithuanian cities. For centuries the most important Jewish community was in Vilna. On page 4 in vol. I we find a very interesting statistical table of the Jewish population in Vilna, data reaching as far back as 1645, of which we'll take only a few samples:
It is quite clear that, from the 17th century on — and possibly earlier — the Jewish population of Vilna made up a considerable part of the city's population — sometimes reaching more than 33%.
Throughout these several centuries, the Jews of Vilna developed into one of the most important Jewish communities in that part of Europe, maybe even in the world: they had their Hebrew and Yiddish language schools, yeshivot, learned societies, banks, daily newspapers in Hebrew and in Yiddish, hospitals, huge printing and publishing houses, many various organizations, clubs, etc. Vilna .certainly became the center of Jewish learning: from the simplest yeshivot to learned societies with scientific publications in Hebrew and in Yiddish. In 1941 -1944, this community of flourishing culture was annihilated by the German Nazis: about 80,000 Jews were murdered near Vilna, and in other places of human destruction. And now, after WW II, the present ruler of Vilna, the USSR, is trying to completely eradicate this from history! To at least partially correct this was originally the cause inspiring Leyzer Ran and his supporters to begin this monumental undertaking. Let him speak in his own words:
The tragic awareness of the total catastrophe — the extinction of the community and the destruction of all spiritual and cultural values — that we have acquired upon return to the liberated city (1944-1945) and the no less bitter additional information that the "liberators" have definitely resolved to continue the liquidation of organized Jewish life of surviving Vilna Jews in every Jewish organized life that has survived the catastrophe — these were the chief determining factors in the very initiative, which was conceived as a book that would preserve the Jewish physiognomy of the destroyed city that was being rebuilt and dejudaized.
(Vol. III. p. 34)
No city in Lithuania — possibly no city in Eastern - Central Europe — has so much written about it as Vilna: literally hundreds of books, albums, brochures on practically everything in Vilna, and in many languages: Latin, Lithuanian, German, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Byelorussian, French, English... (cf. the Bibliography, vol. III, pp. 286-467). However, in vol. III, p. 33 we read:
Unbelievable as it may sound, it is a fact that among thousands of books, anthologies and handbooks that appeared in Vilna in Hebrew and in Yiddish in the course of 142 years (1799-1941) there is not a single comprehensive picture book of Jewish Vilna.
But this work is more than an album, or a collection of photographs. It includes them, too, but it also contains many very important, irretrievable documents rescued by somebody unexpectedly finding some yellowed piece of paper, a postcard in an old pocket or in some almost discarded book. Indeed, as the editor puts it:
Thus our carefully aimed quests led us to the definitive form: a thematic handbook of the Jerusalem of Lithuania. In the selection of materials for each page we were guided by an unwritten directive: to provide the reader and researcher with the most objective facts, pictures, documents, statistical and other data and leave the interpretation of the materials entirely to them.
(Vol. III, p. 36)
The main body of this monument consists of two huge volumes of photographs, drawings, documents, with commentaries in four languages: Hebrew, English, Yiddish and Russian. The third volume contains contents, indexes, bibliography and remarks of the Editor, Layzer Ran. Very briefly, the basic structure of the contents:
500 Years of Life and Creativity in Jewish Vilna
Basic chapters of this volume are: Forewords in four languages (pp. I-XXII), Historiography of Jewish Vilna (3 pages), Statistics (2 pages), Documentation of Jewish life in Vilna (11), Vilna under various regimes (16), Jew-hating, baiting and persecutions (11), Vilna — a multi-national city (16), Vilna topography (6), Vilna streets and lanes (22), Vilna suburbs (7), Vilna vicinity (6), Jewish way of life and clergy (8), Funerals, cemeteries, consoling mourners and visiting graves (5), Synagogues, houses of study and prayer and Torah societies (13), Gaonim, rabbis and board of rabbis (11), Vilna Jewish representation and Jewish Community Council (10), Communal institutions and societies (17), Institutions and organizations for public health (13), Auxiliary funds (4), Free loan societies and people's banks (4), Commerce and merchants' association (11), Jews in trade and industry (15), Jews at farming and gardening (3), Jewish trade schools (5), Jewish professional unions (10), Jewish workers' movement (9), Socialist parties and political organizations (6), Communist movement (6), Zionist movement (15), Zionist revisionist movement (3), Religious parties and organizations (4), Jewish sports associations (8).
Institutions for orphans, neglected and retarded children (7), Schools for Jewish children in foreign languages (5), Chadorim, Talmud - Torahs and yeshivot (12), Secular Hebrew school movement (8), Secular Yiddish school movement (21), Rabbinical school and teachers institute, teachers' seminaries, courses and conferences (10), Unions of Jewish and Hebrew teachers and melam-dim (3), Jewish student union circles and corporations (3), Jewish printing shops, publishing houses, book merchants and libraries (8), Hebrew and Yiddish culture (7), Documentation and research institutions of the Jewish past(6), Jewish writers' unions (4), Yiddish and Hebrew press and periodicals (7).
Cantors and choirs, conductors and composers (6), Jewish music institute, orchestras, opera and ballet (7).
Jesters and Purini plays (2), Performances in schools (3), Drama circles, studios and young theater groups (4), Other chapters on theater, artists, etc. (34).
Destruction, Resistance and Perish
Lithuanian Vilnius — a door to the free world (5), Soviet Lithuania (2).
The organization of the extermination of the Jews (7), Behind the ghetto fence — in the domain of the Judenrat and the Jewish police (14), Organization for Jewish spiritual resistance (13), The liquidation of the ghetto (4), Ponary (6), Saints in Nazi Sodom (4), Extermination addresses of Vilna Jews (4), Vilna survivors (3), Organization for Jewish armed resistance (23), Vilna Jews in the Allied armies (7), Vilna liberated (3), On the ruins of Jerusalem of Lithuania (11), Attempts to renew Jewish life in Vilnius — near Ponary (6), The decree of the liberators is — liquidation (6), Farewell and assemblage (2), Trials of the mass murderers of Vilna Jews (3).
Contents, indexes, bibliography.
Jerusalem of Lithuania has four forewords: by the Editor, Leyzer Ban, by Professor Ben-Zion Dinur, by Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, and by Dr. Israel Klausner. They explain, very often in vivid terms, the significance of Vilna in Jewish life and history, and the importance of this stupendous achievement, the towering monument, Jerusalem of Lithuania. I think that we cannot summarize this whole amazing project better than Dr. Klausner in his foreword "A Monument for Jerusalem of Lithuania" (vol. I, p. XXII):
Vilna was among the first in the Hibat Zion movement. There too the first revolutionary circles made their appearance. Later on Vilna served as a center of the Jewish parties, their press, conferences and central committees. The adherents of the parties fought one another bitterly, just as in former years Hassidim and Misnagdim had fought. And as becomes brilliant Litwaks, each of the social trends sought to establish in Vilna prominent position in order to exert influence on near and remote Jewish settlements. At a conference in Vilna the foundation was laid for the Jewish Social Democratic "Bund". For a while Vilna housed the Central Committee of the Zionist Organization in Russia. Here too the central organs of the other Jewish parties were located. At a conference in Vilna it was resolved to found the "Mizrachi," which gave rise to the National-Religious Party. The Zion's Zionists (Zione Zion), who fought the Uganda Project and demanded exclusive settlement in Palestine, met in Vilna. The Jewish parties published their organs and sought to establish in Vilna institutions in their spirit. The Orthodox wing, headed by Rabbi Khayim Oyzer Grodzensky, established there the "Committee on Yeshivas" and a weekly. The Zionists opened during World War I the first Hebrew secondary school outside Palestine and later on established Hebrew elementary schools and Hebrew Teachers Seminary. Similarly, the "Mizrachi" established khadorim, elementary schools and a Teachers Seminary. The Yiddish-secularist movement, led by folkist and socialist activists, created a net of kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools and a Yiddish Teachers Seminary and worked assiduously to create a higher rung for the school and culture movement — the YIVO. The Yiddishists sought to make Vilna a center of their cultural activity, or in the felicitous phrase of Leyzer Ran, a "Jerusalem of Yiddish."
Vilna had numerous youth organizations, which were under the influence of the parties. The trade unions too were under the influence of the parties. Elections to the community administration represented fierce party contests and the results of these elections reflected the moods dominating the Jewish community.
Vilna was noted for its philanthropic institutions and just as much and perhaps even more, for its sport clubs, music, theater and art associations. The interested reader will find in this book ample illustration and documentation of all these associations.
The book also affords insight into the Jewish mode of life and into the daily life of the inhabitants in the Jewish alleys of the old ghetto and its passages. It provides not only photographs, but also art drawings and paintings of toiling Jews, artisans, porters, coachmen, and the like. We see here how Jewish poverty struggled desperately to earn its morsel of bread by trade in second-hand goods, peddling with fruit, hot chickpeas and the like.
All these figures were exterminated in the Nazi holocaust, courts and institutions are now being obliterated by the new rulers, who seek to liquidate all remembrances of this great Jewish community.
The editor of this book, Leyzer Ran, has endeavored by means of the assembled pictures, documents, printed and other materials to reflect the vibrant life of Jewish Vilna in its unique picturesqueness. A large number of these pictures, documents and other materials have never been published. The book is a treasury of memories for each man and woman of Vilna and their descendants and a worthy monument for Jerusalem of Lithuania.
Indeed, some chapters are illustrated more richly than others. But understandably so: the material was collected under the most difficult circumstances, aggravated by the Vilna's present ruler's (the Kremlin's) wish to eradicate any mention of such an important Jewish community existing in Vilnius for 500 years.
All who read these pages cannot help but be moved by the holocaust in which a peaceful group of 80,000 people were murdered. .. It is poignant in its irretrievability, in its final tragedy. One gasps in spiritual misery, asking oneself: "Did it really happen in this, the XXth century?"
No historian of Lithuania, no man interested in the history of Vilna/Vilnius can disregard this book.
The University of Rochester