THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Sun, 9th January, 2011 - Posted by
It was a midsummer Wednesday year 1812. On this day, the 24th of June, Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the Nemunas River with his huge army, heading for Vilnius. Napoleon stayed in Vilnius for 18 days, until the 10th of July, awaiting the Russian Tsar's reply to his new peace offer. 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.
Napoleon was the one who started calling Vilnius ‘Jerusalem of the North’, and it 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 there it was, right before his eyes, an exception to the rule.
And true enough, the history of the Litvaks, as the Lithuanian Jews were called, 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.
During the Second World War, about 200,000 (95%), Lithuanian Jews were murdered. This was the greatest loss in all of Eastern and Central Europe. The Nazi Holocaust led to an almost complete extermination of Lithuania’s Jews, and also destruction of their history and cultural monuments - a most tragic page of Lithuanian history.
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