|Zhydu (Jewish) street|
Vilnius is the city that brought to Lithuanian Jews exceptional fame. Comparing to other towns, Jews settled in Vilnius rather late, in the second half of 16th century. It is true, though that sometimes researchers mention a document which allegedly claims that already back in 1487 there was a Jewish graveyard here. The document, however, did not survive and this information cannot be checked. Besides, our knowledge about the laws and customs of that time makes us think that the above mentioned assertion is wrong. The first document mentioning Jews in Vilnius dates back to 1567. At that time Jews did not have the right to purchase houses in the city, they could only rent them. Jews gained the right to own buildings in Vilnius only in 1593. Before that, they were allowed to reside in the lands which did not belong to the magistrate, so called jurisdiks. At the end of 16th - beginning of 17th centuries they were allowed to inhabit Zhydų (Jewish), Šv. Mykolo (Saint Michael's), and Mėsinių (Butchers') streets. They could also live on Vokietchių (German) street, but the windows of their apartments could not face the street.
Entrance to the Jewish quarter
The Jewish quarter was formed in the Old Town. According to 1784 census there were around 5000 Jews in Vilnius at that time; according to 1897 census Jews constituted 38.8% of town's population (64.000 Jews).After WWI their number somewhat decreased, in 1923 55.000 Jews lived here (33.3% of town's population), and on the eve of WWII, in 1939, Jews made up 27.9% of town's population which was around 60.000 people.
Stripped of the right to construct buildings, Jews set up a synagogue in the palace of Duke Slushka; later the famous Great Synagogue of Vilnius was built. Religious thought began developing very intensively. Forty prominent rabbis lived in Vilnius in the second half of 17th century, although there were only 2500 Jews here at that time. And in 18th century the great genius Gaon of Vilna emerged. Since then Vilnius became a recognized spiritual center. It was called Jerusalem of Lithuania. There are several versions of the story why Vilnius was so exceptional. One of them says that there were 333 scholars in the town who knew the whole Talmud by heart. Those who happened to see the huge foliants of the Talmud can imagine what it means to know 64 such volumes by heart.
But this is only a legend. The fact is that before the Catastrophe Vilnius indeed was the most honored center of Judaic culture. On the eve of WWII there were over 110 synagogues and 10 yeshivas, the most famous among them - the Ramaile yeshiva, in Vilnius. A widespread saying had it - if one wants to do business, one has to go to Lodz, but if one wants to gain wisdom - one goes to Vilnius. The world recognition of Vilnius is testified by the dream of the hero of the story "If I were Rotshild" by the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. The dream is to establish a huge charity organisation, which would provide work for all Jews, everyone would live in peace and study Talmud in yeshivas. And above all yeshivas there would be the chief one, "of course, in Vilnius".
© Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000