Lithuania

Lithuania, according to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, is home to between 2,700 and 6,500  Jews. Jews have a deep connection to Lithuania, as it was home to a historically large and influential Jewish community. Consequently, a large number of Jews throughout the world can trace their roots back to the region and can be considered “Litvaks.” Lithuanian Jews live harmoniously with the general Lithuanian population and there has been a somewhat recent revival of Jewish learning in the community. Despite some manifestations of anti-Semitism, Jews in Lithuania enjoy a relative sense of security. The Jewish community in Lithuania is represented by the Jewish Community of Lithuania – the Lithuanian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress. 

WJC Affiliate

The Jewish Community of Lithuania

Telephone: +370 52 613 003
Fax: +370 52 127 195
Email: info@lzb.tl
Website: http://www.lzb.lt/en/

President: Faina Kulkliansky  
Executive: Renaldas Vaisbrodas


Community News


History

The presence of Jews in Lithuania dates back to almost a thousand years ago, though there are no official records of a Jewish presence in Lithuania until the fourteenth century. During this time, Lithuanian Grand Dukes issued invitations and charters of rights to Jewish settlers, recognizing their importance in international and local commerce. By the following century, Jewish communities throughout the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were prospering. This was notably seen in Vilnius, which became known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” and was considered a great center for Jewish religious learning.

 

In the sixteenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed, and indicative of a larger historical trend for the Jews of Lithuanian, they found themselves caught in the more encompassing fluctuations of regional developments. In this instance, Lithuanian Jewry thrived, as the population steadily increased and members of the Jewish community were heavily involved in trade and commerce. Lithuanian Jewry was also given a sense of autonomy, as the various communities throughout the commonwealth were able to form the Va’ad Mediant Lita, a national Jewish council which had considerable influence on the rules and regulations that governed Jewish life in Lithuania.  

 

The partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century saw many Lithuanian citizens, including its Jewish population, become citizens of the Russian empire. This saw Jewish life in the region be subjected to stricter laws regarding Jews, and was indicative of a general seesawing between tolerance and persecution for Lithuanian Jews in successive centuries.

 

In the early twentieth century, a libel that Jews were helping the German army during World War I saw coordinated attacks against Jews in rural areas force various members of Lithuanian Jewry to flee to Vilnius. The aftermath of the war saw Lithuania regain complete independence from Russia. There was a decrease in the Jewish population of Lithuania after the war, but Lithuanian Jewry still remained the largest national minority. In fact, the Ministry of Jewish Affairs became a fixture in the Lithuanian government and saw the adoption of a number of guarantees, including civic equality, proportional representation in parliament, and recognition of Hebrew and Yiddish as official languages promised.

 

However, the Lithuanian constituent assembly, which was charged with adopting the country’s new constitution, did not include these provisions into the actual ratified constitution in 1922. The political leadership that emerged in the internationally recognized independent Lithuania was nationalist and ethnocentric. By 1924, the Ministry of Jewish Affairs had been ended, and the sense of autonomy enjoyed by Lithuanian Jewish communities, including the power of communal taxation, was no longer tolerated.

 

The coup d’état of 1926 brought the Nationalist Party to power, and saw Lithuanian Jewish communal organizations scaled down to solely deal with satisfying religious needs. There was no official representation for Lithuanian Jewry, and as a result, Zionism became the largest political group among Lithuanian Jews. A number of clandestine Jewish organizations, dealing with educational, monetary, and social communal needs, also sprouted during this time.

 

A strict adherence to Lithuanian national culture and heritage espoused by the government saw tensions arise between Lithuanian Jews and their gentile neighbors, as a premium was placed on being “Lithuanian” rather than “Jewish.” In 1937, articles concerning the rights of minorities in the Lithuanian constitution were repealed, and some instances of violence against Jews became somewhat commonplace.

 

The Holocaust absolutely devastated Lithuanian Jewry, with almost the entire pre-war Jewish population murdered. Many survivors emigrated to Israel and never returned to Lithuania. The aftermath of the war also saw the Soviet Union reannex Lithuania as a Soviet republic and a latent tension between the Jewish community in Lithuania and authorities persisted throughout Soviet rule. That being said, Jews did enjoy a slightly more relaxed atmosphere than in Soviet Russia or Ukraine, with some limited expressions of Judaism tolerated in Vilnius.

 

Lithuania regained its independence in the early 1990s, and with that, dropped all restrictions on Jewish religious and cultural life. Today Jews in Lithuania are able to openly and freely practice their religion and espouse Jewish culture without fear of repercussions or censorship. There are instances of anti-Semitism and problematic tolerance by authorities, but for the most part, Jews in Lithuania live without issue.

The years of the Holocaust

On the eve of the Shoah, violence and turmoil in other regions in eastern Europe (particularly Poland after the invasion by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) saw Jewish refugees flee to Lithuania in 1939.

 

The following year saw Soviet forces take over the territory of Lithuania and establish an occupying administration. There was some apprehension and wariness among Lithuanian Jews, but compared to the alternative of a Nazi occupation, the presence of the Russians was preferred (though this was like choosing between a rock and a hard place for the people of Lithuania).

 

Life under the Soviets saw the closure of all Jewish public and religious institutions and the arrest of a number of prominent Jewish leaders. Things turned from bad to worse for Lithuanian Jews with the Nazi invasion in 1941. Pogroms and attacks by ethnic Lithuanians were almost immediately implemented (and in some cases preceded German occupation), and by summer of that year, the Einsatzgruppen began murdering Jews throughout the countryside. By the end of August 1941, almost all Jews in rural Lithuania had been shot. By November, most Jews concentrated in ghettos and larger cities had also been almost completely exterminated.

 

Surviving Lithuanian Jews were placed in labor camps and ghettos – Vilna, Kovno, Šiauliai., Svencionys – throughout the country, with miserable living conditions. By 1943, the Nazis had liquidated the Vilna and Svencionys ghettos and converted the remaining ones into concentration camps. A number of Jews in Lithuania were deported to killing centers in Nazi-occupied Poland.  

 

With the Soviets slowly reoccupying Lithuania, the Nazis completely withdrew from Lithuania in the latter half of 1944 – not before deporting about 10,000 Jews to concentration camps in Germany. By that time, the Nazis had murdered about 90% of the prewar Jewish population. This is considered one of the highest victim rates in Europe. 

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that there are between 2,500 and 6,500 Jews in Lithuania, as of 2018, out of a total population of 2,755,599 – 0.0956% of the population. Lithuania is largely a Christian nation, with 2,180,019 Catholics – 77.2% of the population; 115,778 followers of the Russian Orthodox Church – 4.1% of the population; and 22,590 Old Believers – 0.85 of the population.

 

The majority of Jews in Lithuania live in the capital of Vilnius, but there are a number of smaller communities throughout the country, including Kaunas, Klaipėda, and Šiauliai.

Community Life

Jewish communal life in Lithuania in organized around the Jewish Community of Lithuania, which acts an umbrella organization for various Jewish groups throughout the country. Its headquarters in Vilnius act as the national meeting place for Jews in Lithuania, and the international address for Litvaks around the world.

 

Recent efforts to rehabilitate numerous Lithuanian collaborators as “victims’ of the Soviets has been cause of concern not only for Jews living in Lithuania, but for Jews throughout the world. The Israeli government and Jewish bodies, especially Jews of Lithuanian origin, have been especially active in demanding the prosecution of Lithuanian Nazis. Negotiations for the restitution of Jewish property are under way. In that regard, the Jewish Community of Lithuania also works to ensure that the Holocaust is properly remembered and commemorated in Lithuania.

 

The Jewish Community building in Vilnius houses the Israel Center of Culture and Arts, the Center of Yiddish Culture and Music, and the Zalman Rejzen Foundation Supporting Jewish Culture, Education, and Science. It also provides a number of Jewish activities and clubs, including the Union of former Ghetto and Concentration Camp prisoners, senior events, and a Yiddish literary meeting circles.

Religious and Cultural life

Lithuania has synagogues in Vilnius and Kaunas, the two largest Jewish populations in the country, but attendance is low. Rabbi Kalev Krelin has served as Chief Rabbi of Lithuania since 2016. Additionally, there is a Chabad house in Vilnius that has its own rabbi.


Kosher food and other supplies, such as Matzot, are imported due to the small size of the community.

Jewish Education

The Sholom Aleichem ORT Gymnasium School in Vilnius operates as a Jewish day school for almost all primary educational levels, and includes a focus on the study of Hebrew. In terms of strictly religious education, there are Sunday schools in Lithuania and the Chabad House organizes some classes on Judaism as well.


The Vilnius Yiddish Institute, the first Yiddish center of higher learning established post-Holocaust in eastern Europe, offers a fully Jewish-oriented secondary education. This includes Jewish history, cultural, Holocaust, and linguistic (Yiddish-based) courses. It also runs annual summer programs that focus on the Yiddish language and culture.

Jewish Media

The community publishes a monthly newspaper called Jerusalem of Lithuania in Lithuanian, Russian, Yiddish, and English. The Jewish Community of Lithuania’s website also details some of the events, activities, and happenings of the community.


http://www.lzb.lt/en/ 

Information for visitors

Jewish sites of interest can be found throughout Lithuania, particularly in Vilnius. The medieval Jewish quarter and the grave of the Vilna Gaon constitute notable Jewish spots in the capital city. The Moorish Choral Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship to survive the Holocaust, is also of significance, as is the State Jewish Museum, which houses a number of items that demonstrate the long history of Jews in Lithuania.


There are also substantial memorials and exhibits dedicated to the Holocaust. These include the Green House Holocaust museum and the infamous Ninth Fort of Kaunas, which was used as a place of execution of Jews during the Holocaust, and has been converted into a museum and memorial. The Nazi killing grounds at Paneriai (Ponary) also has a memorial to victims of the Nazi genocide. There are numerous mass graves throughout Lithuania, and there has been a noble effort to mark these spots and honor the victims of such callous evil.


Outside of Vilnius, there is a Jewish museum in Trokai that tells the story of the Jewish community there. Additionally, in many smaller towns that were Shtetls, there are observable traces of Jewish life, including synagogues and old Jewish cemeteries.

Israel

Israel and Lithuania enjoy full diplomatic relations, with Israel recognizing Lithuanian independence in 1991.


Israeli Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania
Konstitucijos pr. 7, Vilnius


Telephone: (+370) 5 2502500
Fax: (+370) 5 2502555
Email: info@vilnius.mfa.gov.il

Updated

 

August 2018

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