The spacious square by Žydų (Jewish) Street in central Vilnius now contains little else than a children’s playground, parking lots and a derelict kindergarten, but it was densely packed with houses before World War Two. Most of the houses were occupied by Jews and the area was the centre of the city’s Jewish quarter.
Lithuania has dedicated the year 2020 to the Vilna Gaon and the History of the Jews of Lithuania. LRT English together with Vilnius University and Jewish Heritage Lithuania bring you a series of stories exploring Litvak history.
The official beginnings of the Jewish quarter of Vilnius date back to the 17th century when the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Wladyslaw Vasa granted the privilege to the Jews to reside in this quarter. Interestingly, however, the Jewish Street had held its name even before that, so it is likely that Jewish residents of Vilnius had already lived around here.
The growing size of Jewish communities in towns and cities of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had created the need to regulate their settlement, a policy that was common for other ethno-religious communities, too. Setting up Jewish quarters was one of the forms of the regulation.
The purpose was to create a dense Jewish area in some parts of the city. Such an area was not called a quarter in the 17th century: the law allowed Jew to settle in particular streets where, in turn, Christian settlement was prohibited. Still, each town would implement the rules in their own ways.
The Jewish quarter of Vilnius was formed in 1633 on the request of Jews themselves. Such requests were not common in the Grand Duchy. The quarter included Žydų, Mėsinių (now Antakolskio) and Šv. Mikalojaus streets. These and smaller adjacent streets became the centre of the Jewish quarter where the most of the residents were Jews until the Second World War.
The privilege to settle in the quarter did not, however, prohibit residing Jews to live in other parts of the city. Thirty years after the privilege, Jews were also settling on adjacent Vokiečių (German) and Stiklių (Glaziers) streets, as attested by contemporary complaints from gentile residents.
As the Jewish population continued to grow and it became clear that controlling Jewish settlement was futile, the Grand Duke granted a new privilege in 1742. It allowed Jews to settle anywhere in the city except in the “sacral” streets reserved for the nobility, that is, the area between the Gates of Dawn, the Gates of Trakai and Vilnius University.
The Jewish quarter was the centre of Jewish communal life. Construction of the Great Synagogue of Vilna began soon after 1633. It did not take long for the synagogue’s courtyard, surrounded by communal buildings, to develop into a busy communal area. Gradually, the whole quarter became a densely built-up area, as seen in city plans from 1941.
Buildings of the Jewish quarter were slightly damaged during the battles for Vilnius in 1944. In July, Soviet soldiers burned down the part around the Great Synagogue.
It wasn’t befroe 1950 that the crumbling leftovers of the quarter, including the remains of the Great Synagogue and one side of Vokiečių street, were completely demolished.
Vokiečių street was widened and became a spacious promenade leading to the Town Hall, framed by a row of new houses with parking lots and children playgrounds. A kindergarten was constructed on the site where the Great Synagogue used to stand.
Stories of other Litvaks and their Lithuanian histories, below:
– Toad, elk and gunpowder: first pharmacies in central Lithuania – Street in Vilnius tells a hidden story of Litvaks and conversion – The humble Litvak beginnings of petrol stations in Lithuania – Splendour, music and uproar at Vilnius’ historic Bristol Hotel – Visionary Litvak family caught between wars, international relations, and the Holocaust – Bunimovich chocolate factory that was once the pride of Vilnius – The story of a real Dr. Dolittle in Jewish Vilna – Vilna Ghetto Theatre, a form of resistance in the presence of horror
The series is prepared by Vilnius University’s Faculty of History and the association Jewish Heritage Lithuania. You can find more stories on the mobile app Discover Jewish Lithuania.
Jewish Heritage Lithuania, funded by the EU, aims to promote Jewish heritage in Lithuania, create thematic and regional tourist maps, encourage local and international tourism to Lithuania.
Lithuania plans to enact 70 different projects throughout the year, including performances, exhibitions, building and renovating monuments, and borrow the so-called ‘Pinkas’, or register, of the Vilna Gaon’s synagogue from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.
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