Street in Vilnius tells a hidden story of Litvaks and conversion

Šv. Stepono street, stretching from the edge of the old town, hides stories of conversions from Judaism to Christianity and hidden signs of a buzzing Vilnius Jewish life.

 As Lithuania gears up to mark 2020 as the year of 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 name of the street derives from the Church of Šv. Stepono at the end of the street, which no longer serves its original purpose. The dean of the church, Stefan Turcinowicz, founded a women congregation Maria Vitae in the 18th century to convert primarily Jewish women to Christianity.

The congregation also taught crafts and attempted to arrange successful marriages, which not only helped the converts to adapt to the new social environment, but also reduced the possibility of conversion back to Judaism.

While there is no reliable data, evidence suggests that the Maria Vitae congregation was rather successful – there were around 400 converts in Vilnius alone, and the majority of them were baptised in the Šv. Stepono church. Although densely settled in the city centre, Vilnius’ Jews were not keen on living outside the city walls on Šv. Stepono street, even though the first Jewish census in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1764-1765) showed their presence both in Šnipiškės (Yid. Shnipishok) area and the suburb of Antakalnis.

The second Jewish census, carried out two decades later, indicated that several households on Šv. Stepono street were already Jewish, and their community had established closer to the city walls located at the end of the street, near the present-day ‘egg’ statue.

When the city expanded and the wall was gradually demolished by the Imperial Russian administration at the turn of the 19th century, the area attracted Vilnius’ Jews. The Choral synagogue was just around the corner, and during the 19th and 20th centuries, Litvaks began moving to the Šv. Stepono street.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a building on Šv. Stepono 6 housed the Shloime-Zavel Shreberk printing house. Few houses away, printing house Der Hamer (דער האַמער; The Hammer), belonging to the political party Poalei Tziyon (פועלי ציון; Workers of Zion), was established.

Meanwhile, a relic of an active Jewish presence can be seen on the building at Šv. Stepono 5 – you can find an ad in Yiddish and Polish for a sweets’ factory ‘Minion’. Yet in the 1920s. the building was already turned into an apartment block, which also housed the Rebecca Weiner beverage and soda company ‘Mineral’ during the interwar period.

The original ad can still be seen in the lobby next to the building – feel free to enter if the door is open.

Stories of other Litvaks and their Lithuanian histories, below:

 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. 

LRT.LT

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