In October 1939 the Soviet Union returned Vilnius to Lithuania, and in the summer of 1940 annexed the country. The returning of Vilnius to Lithuania was very significant to Jews, too. On the one hand, over 80.000 Jews inhabited Vilnius and its area, therefore the number of Jews in Lithuania substantially increased and reached almost a quarter of a million (together with war refugees from Poland). On the other hand, the disappearance of the boarder separating Jews in Vilnius from the rest of Lithuania disappeared resulted in wider contacts and enriching of culture.
The Sovietization of Lithuania cause huge harm to Jewish culture. Yiddish culture was so far not persecuted, nonetheless, everything that had been created in Hebrew was banned, all Hebrew institutions, yeshivas, schools (children transferred to Yiddish schools), all public organizations, all parties. All Yiddishists' organizations were also band, all newspapers suppressed, except for one, which became Communist party's tool. Libraries were cleaned from "harmful" books, among them there were works by the great historian Shimon Dubnov. A lot of Jewish scientists, politicians and others arrested, deported. A famous publicist, the editor of the "Vilner tog", one of the outstanding linguists of Yiddish Zalman Reizen was imprisoned and died in jail.
In the summer of 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazi occupied Lithuania and with the help of local Lithuanian collaborators began the mass extermination of Jews. Here in Lithuania the Nazi started the implementation of the "Final Solution", the euphemistic name for the absolute annihilation of Jews. The murderers took up the vilest anti-Jewish propaganda, blaming Jews for all misfortunes of the Reich, the whole world, as well as the Lithuanian nation. They identified Jews with Communism and claimed that Communism could be liquidated only by eliminating Jews. They subjected Jews to humiliating limitations, thus seeking to erase them from the surface of society. Jews were forbidden to appear in public places, use public transport, walk on side walks. The compulsory distinguishing sign - the David's star - was introduced. All of this was aimed at abasing Jewish dignity, breaking down their resistance, and on the other hand, at "grounding" the resolution to kill Jews. The first days of the war witnessed horrible pogroms - on June 25-26 around 1000 people were ruthlessly murdered in Vilijampole. In the course of only a couple of months the majority of Jewish population in Lithuania were exterminated. The remaining ones imprisoned in the ghettoes in Vilnius, Kaunas and Shiauliai.
A part of theater posters survived. They are kept in the Jewish State Museum as and revered as the most precious relict. The opening of the exhibition of the Ghetto theater's posters. A photo from the funds of the Jewish State Museum
Facing antihuman conditions, which human imagination could hardly bear, Jews showed the unprecedented national resistibility. Cultural, educational activities were launched in the ghettoes. The Councils of the elderly organized special committees, which took care of cultural life. The head of such committee in Kaunas was N. Shapira. Libraries were opened in the ghettoes. The library in Vilnius ghetto was headed by a famous personality of culture Herman Kruk, who escaped from Warsaw to Vilnius at the beginning of the war. He wrote a diary noting the most important events and is often called the chronicler of Vilnius ghetto. Lectures on the topics of literature, culture, philosophy, natural sciences were held. Art exhibitions, literary contest, concerts, discussions were organized. Schools were set up. Virtually all surviving children in Vilnius ghetto attended them. There was also a yeshiva here. A theater was founded in Vilnius ghetto. Classical plays by world and Jewish authors were performed, concerts organized here - in the presence of death! The theater existed until all its actors were taken to Paneriai (Ponar) and murdered. All the cultural activities helped to keep up people's spirits, did not allow the Nazi to turn ghetto prisoners into animals. Some scientists even continued their work in ghettoes. In Kaunas ghetto Dr. Nachman Shapira wrote a pedagogical study on how to teach children to get used to the thoughts about unavoidable death.
Cultural activities, nonetheless, were not the only form of resistance. Military units were also set up, there were attempts to organize an uprising in Vilnius ghetto. The fighters in the ghetto were supported by the members of anti-Nazi movement outside the walls of the ghetto, both sides were in close contacts. The crucial acts of bravery and compassion were exercised by the honorable Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, like doctors Petras Bublys, Elena Kutorgienė, priest Bronius Paukshtis and many others, who saved Jews, first of all children. Thus about a thousand of future users and creators of Jewish culture were saved.
Some of the ghetto prisoners, who were forced to select and put in order cultural values to be transported to Germany, tried to save at least a tiny bit of them. There were also devoted people, like Ona Shimaite, who helped to take those riches of culture from the ghetto and safely hide them.
Still the prisoners of ghettoes were doomed. The Nazi together with local collaborators murdered over 90% of Lithuanian Jews. Such a large part of Jewish population was not exterminated in any other occupied country. Paneriai in Vilnius, forts in Kaunas, especially the IXth, many other places all around Lithuania became graveyards for tens of thousands of Jews. All in all there are 200 sights of mass killings in Lithuania. One tenth of Lithuania's population was eliminated, the entire national community, who enriched Lithuania with huge cultural riches.
Only when Lithuania regained independence the litvak culture, or rather its ruins, were attempted to be restored. (Attempts to revive Jewish life in Lithuania).
S. Atamukas. The way of Lithuanian Jews. Vilnius, 1998 (in Lithuanian)
N. Schoenburg & S. Schoenburg. Lithuanian Jewish Communities. Northvale, 1996
M. Greenbaum. The Jews of Lithuania. Jerusalem, 1995
© Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000