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.