THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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There are very strong communities of Jews of Lithuanian descent (Litvaks) around the world, especially in Israel, the United States, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil and Australia.
In all these countries they hold top positions in politics, economy, science, culture and society in general.
Their names are frequently found among the Nobel laureates and in many other honorable contexts.
They often lead in matters and innovations that affect and influence us all, wherever in the world we live.
So also in the U.S., where they have been prominent leaders in economics, science and culture since the 1800s. It is, for example, said that Hollywood would not have existed had it not been for the Litvaks.
Litvaks are Jews with roots in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: (present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and the northeastern Suwałki region of Poland).
Lithuania was historically home to a large and influential Jewish community that was almost entirely eliminated during the Holocaust. Before World War II there were over 110 synagogues and 10 yeshivas in Vilnius alone. Before World War II, the Lithuanian Jewish population was some 160,000, about 7% of the total population. Vilnius (then Wilno in the Second Polish Republic) had a Jewish community of nearly 100,000, about 45% of the city's total.
The reason for the Litvaks’ huge success is likely to be found in the fact that Vilnius through many centuries was considered the Jewish intellectual and cultural capital, with a huge number of teachers and scholars who taught and ruled this tiny community with wisdom and deep knowledge about a large number of disciplines.
Tolerance and interpersonal respect was also a hallmark of this community and for the whole of Lithuania through hundreds of years.
It was this that made Napoleon to name Vilnius as "Jerusalem of the North" when he came here on his way to Moscow in 1812. It is said that Napoleon himself became very surprised on what met him in Vilnius, a city so far away from the European mainstreams and still with a lively Mediterranean mood and life.
Vilnius was the first and only "Jewish city" Napoleon would ever see. He was no doubt aware of the Crusades, Inquisitions, pogroms and laws designed to discourage Judaic life. But here he had found a city, right before his eyes, that was an amazing exception to the rule.
And true enough, the history of the Litvaks is unusual and surprising. It was a history of mostly peaceful coexistence with other peoples and cultures that lasted for more than six centuries. It was a history that spawned an incredible number of eminent Jews, not the least of whom was Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), also known as “The Gaon of Vilnius”.
The "Golden Age of Jewry" in Lithuania started with Grand Duke Gediminas (1275-1341), the empire builder who took a liking to foreigners and Jews whose skills and education were badly needed in medieval Lithuania. In the early 1300's he attracted them to his realm with numerous perks, including guarantees of religious freedom and tax exemptions.
The Jews of Europe responded in droves, and Vilnius became the heralded centre of Jewish culture and learning. There would be synagogues, schools, theatres, publishing houses and the Yiddish Institute of Higher Learning. At a time when others in Europe were effectively illiterate, all the Jews in Vilnius could read and write.
This was so unusual that it provoked the invention of a brand-new word, "Vilner," meaning "an educated man with knowledge." For almost 700 years, the Litvaks became an inseparable part of Lithuanian society, having enriched the country’s economy, culture, science, and education.
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