Jewish Studies Vilna
Mordechai Zalkin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0205


The Jewish community in Vilna began in the middle of the 16th century, when the Polish king, Zygmunt August, allowed the Jews to settle in the city and operate mainly in the commercial sphere. From this stage onward, the local Jewish community developed rapidly, the community synagogue was established and the Jews lived in the space allocated to them, and later became recognized as the Jewish quarter. From the middle of the 18th century Vilna became a community of unique importance in eastern European space, due to the development of a religious scholarly center, the most prominent of which was Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer, known as the Gaon of Vilna. Since the beginning of the 19th century, there has been a significant increase in the city’s Jewish population, which has spread to other neighborhoods in the city. At the same time, various circles among local Jews underwent a gradual process of cultural change, manifested in the absorption of the worldview of the Enlightenment. Several social circles operated in this spirit, among them poets, writers, and educators. The latter initiated the establishment of modern schools, and in the middle of the 19th century Vilna became the most important center of Jewish enlightenment in eastern Europe. In the second half of the century, Vilna became one of the main centers of the spread of nationalist and socialist ideologies, as well as one of the worldly most known center of Jewish books printing and publication. At the beginning of 1880, the first association of Hovevei Zion was organized in the city, and in 1897, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Russia, Lithuania, and Poland, better known as the Bund, was also established in Vilna. During the First World War many of the Jews of Vilna left the city, and at the beginning of 1920 the city was annexed to Poland. In the period between the world wars, most of the local Jewish population suffered from considerable economic difficulties, and at the same time they experienced a significant cultural and educational flowering. The Institute for Jewish Research, known as YIVO, was established in Vilna in 1925. Likewise, during those years there was an impressive diversity in the local Jewish educational system, both for boys and girls, and especially for those with a Zionist orientation. Hundreds of Jewish students studied at the various faculties of the local university, despite manifestations of hostility and violence by militant groups of Polish students. With the outbreak of World War II, many refugees from Poland arrived in Vilna, and with the German invasion in the summer of 1941, all city Jews were concentrated in two ghettos. During the war, most of the Vilna’s Jews were murdered in Ponary, and other murder sites. After the war, a small Jewish community lives in the city.

Regional History

For hundreds of years Vilna was considered the capital of Lithuanian Jewry, even during periods when the city was under Polish, Russian, or German rule. In light of this, in all studies dealing with the history of Lithuanian Jewry, including the studies quoted in this section, a significant place was given to the Jewish community in Vilna.

  • Greenbaum, Masha. The Jews of Lithuania. Jerusalem: Gefen, 1995.

    A comprehensive description of the history of Jewish life in Lithuania, from the beginning of Gediminas’s reign as king of Lithuania in 1316 until the end of World War II. A central part of this book is dedicated to the Jewish community in Vilna.

  • Sirutavičius, Vladas, Darius Staliūnas, and Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė, eds. The History of Jews in Lithuania. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2020

    This study is an attempt to provide an overall picture of the history of Jews in Lithuania. The world of Lithuanian Jewry is reconstructed through different aspects of the development of community and society, such as spread, demography, social and economic activity, self-government institutions of the community, cultural and religious movements, literature, press, and education.

  • Stanislawski, Michael. Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825–1855. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983.

    This book deals with the processes of change that took place in the world of the Jews living in the Pale of Settlement in the second quarter of the 19th century. The central and most significant process discussed by the author is the Jewish Enlightenment, whose main and most important stronghold was in the Jewish community of Vilna.

  • Solomonas, Atamukas. Lietuvos žydų kelias. Vilnius, Lithuania: Alma Littera, 1998.

    Although this book purports to present a comprehensive picture of the history of the Jews of Lithuania and the Jews of Vilna in general, the author focuses mainly on two periods: the Russian regime from the end of the 18th century until the First World War, and the period of independent Lithuania from 1918 to 1940. Second ed., Vilnius, 2001; third ed., Vilnius 2007; Konstanz, 2000 (German).

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