After the partitions of Lithuania and Poland (1772-1795), Lithuania became a colony of Russia. Jews were allowed to settle only in a few provinces, so called Pale of Settlement. They were forbidden to live in the largest towns, villages, possess land. The policy of Russification was fiercely implemented. For example, Jewish kids were forced to go on Russian army service (cantons) for more than 25 years. A rabbinical school founded in Vilnius in 1847 was also designed as a tool of Russification. The school prepared so called state rabbis who had to perform official duties - register births, weddings etc. Jews did not entirely trust them.

When in 1855 the "Czar liberator" Alexander II occupied the throne, a much more liberal policy was employed, coarse anti-Jewish methods abandoned, Russification eased, however, was still carried out.

In 1860s-70s the Berlin-centered Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement made its way to Russia. The maskilim, the adherents of Haskalah, sought for Jews to break the traditional frame of religious education, to get acquainted with secular culture, to become the rightful members of society. A modern system of secular education began replacing traditional religious kheders. The czarist Government supported the establishment of the state Jewish schools, considered it to be a tool of Russification. Teachers for these schools were supposed to be trained in teachers' institute founded in 1873, which replaced the former school of rabbis. Jews, however, realized the role of such schools in the process of Russification and were not very keen on letting their children to attend them. The Haskalah movement in Lithuania did not foster the assimilation. As before, Jews held on to their national culture both in Yiddish and Hebrew. Perfect conditions for further development of this culture were created when Lithuania regained its independence.


The President of the Republic of Lithuania Antanas Smetona presents a flag to the Union of Jewish soldiers. Photograph from the Visual and Audio Archive of Lithuania (VAAL)

Jews were very active in the fights for independence. 500 Jews were among 10.000 volunteers, who answered the December 29, 1918 appeal of the Lithuanian Government to defend the state from invaders. All in all 3000 Jews served in the Lithuanian army in 1918-1923. 23 of them were awarded the highest decoration - the Cross of Vytis - for their outstanding service. According to incomplete data, 73 Jews perished in battles. In 1933 former soldiers founded the Union of Lithuanian Jewish soldiers. In 1935 the Union began publishing its newspaper "Apzhvalga" ("Review") (in Lithuanian).

Jews played an important role in achieving Lithuania's international recognition. They exploited their wide international contacts to foster this process. It was not by chance that a prominent Jewish figure Shimshon Rozenbaum was appointed the Vice minister of Foreign Affairs.

Jews also made huge contribution to the revival of the war devastated Lithuanian economy.

General V. Nagevitchius delivers speech at the ceremony of honoring the memory of soldiers at the Jewish cemetery. Kaunas, 1928. (VAAL)


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Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000