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THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA

28 June 2017
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Vilnius brought exceptional fame to Jewish Lithuania

Zhydu (Jewish) street

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 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 Vokiečių (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 5,000 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, and in 1923 only 55,000 Jews lived here (33.3% of the population), and on the eve of WWII, in 1939, Jews made up 27.9% of the population, which then was around 60,000 people.

In the 18th century the great genius Gaon of Vilna emerged. Since then Vilnius became a recognized spiritual center called Jerusalem of the North. 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.

But this is only a legend. The fact is that before the Catastrophe Vilnius indeed was the most honoured centre of Judaic culture. On the eve of WWII there were over 100 synagogues and 10 yeshivas, the most famous among them - the Ramaile yeshiva, in 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".

Jewish merchants played an important role in the development of Vilnius. As far back as early 15th century, the Town Hall Square was bordered by small shops. With the expansion of the city and the development of trade the number of small shops was increasing. Most of them were selling salt, iron and meat products. It is known that all of these shops could not have been sold, donated or transferred will-fully as everything was strictly regulated. Trading on the Town Hall Square was restricted by a number of regulations such as the prohibition for the Jewish butchers to build their shops both on the urban market and on Vokiečiu Street. It was also prohibited to buy up products on the roadsides and sell them later in the city at a higher price. It was a measure to avoid the season of high prices, especially if there was a shortage of some product such as grain in deficit times. Any violations were punished with monetary fines, flogging, imprisonment and confiscation of merchandise. By the way, confiscated goods were donated to various refuges and hospitals. However, fighting with resellers was often a real challenge: powerful owners of jurisdictions would not always obey the orders of the rulers. For some reasons, Scottish and Jewish tradesmen in the 17TH century were forbidden to trade in golden, silver, silk and semi-silk fringes and edgings, but this prohibition was not applied to the said articles produced in manufactories of Naples and Frankfurt. It is also interesting that following the example of a foreign city Vilnius was granted the Magdeburg rights. According to these rights, merchants from other countries travelling on the routes through Vilnius were not entitled to go round the city and they had to stop in the capital and to sell the goods they had brought to local buyers, if any wished to buy them. In 1503, the city was obligated to build a special guest house so that foreign traders should have some place to stay. Such guest hose was built on the site of the nowadays National Philharmonic. They had rooms for merchants and their retinues to accommodate and some premises to store their goods as well as room for horses, carts and sledge. Strict regulations were also imposed on traders and guilds regarding the construction of their market places and participation in the city’s events.

Category : Litvak forum



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