Monday, May 7, 2018

Center of Jewish Learning: Vilna, Lithuania

Nadene Goldfoot                                       
Today's Vilna, Lithuania reminds me so much of our own Portland, Oregon.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania. With 542 932 inhabitants (2011), it is the largest city in the country. It lies at the mouth of the Vilnia in the Neris River in a wooded area just 40 km from the Belarusian border removed.

Jews were able to settle in Vilna, Lithuania at the end of the 15th  century.  By 1527 they were banished by Sigismund I because burghers insisted upon it.  Burghers were "citizens of a town or city, typically a member of the wealthy bourgeoisie."  

Some returned anyway after a spell, only to become victims of a riot in 1592.  This is more commonly known as a pogrom.  The next year, Jews were formally allowed to settle, acquire houses and then they practiced the only job they were allowed; lending money.  

Finally, in 1633, permission was granted to trade in precious stones, meat and livestock and to become craftsmen.  There was another anti-Jewish riot in 1635, a pogrom.  
Cossack on duty (portrayal of 16th-17th century), painting by Józef Brandt

In this same year of 1635, those Jews who had not fled were massacred by the Cossack army, another vicious pogrom.    

Then came the famine of 1709 that lasted through 1710.   4,000 Jews were among the victims of this famine.  
It was from the 18th century that Vilna became a center of rabbinical study and was called the Lithuanian Jerusalem.  It's best known scholar was Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, universally known as the VILNA GAON (1720-1797.  Many Haskalah leaders also lived there.  

A gaon was an intellectual leader of his people.  Sometimes, it even meant that they had considerable temporal power during the Babylonian Jewish community in the post-talmudic period from the 6th to 11th centuries.  Usually they were head of their academies, ancient institutions.

This was at the time of the use of the printing press.  Around the late 1430s, a German man named Johann Gutenberg  invented it.  A Hebrew press lasting over several generations belonged to the family of Romm in Vilna.It was Baruch ben Joseph Romm who died in 1841 who established it in Grodno 1789 but brought it to Vilna.    They printed an edition of the Talmud which became standard, called the Vilna Shass.  Family members kept it going and was active until after the outbreak of WWII.  They had printed the magnificent Babylonian Talmud of 1892.  

Vilna was a Zionist center and also the birthplace of the BUND.  This was a political party called the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland , and Russia.  It was the Jewish Socialist Party, founded in 1897, coming out of Russia from the end of the 1880s. 

WWI brought famine to the Jews under German rule and from a pogrom at the hands of the Polish troops in 1919. 

 YIVO was headquartered there from 1925 to 1941.  This was an institute founded in Vilna in 1925 for the scientific study of Jewish life throughout the world but with particular emphasis on the eastern European Jewry and its Yiddish-speaking heir on all continents.  By 1939, they had branches in 30 countries.  

At the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population of Vilna was 140,000.  The 2nd WW by 1941 saw it fall to 65,000 besides taking in 15,000 refugees from Poland.  The Germans created 2 ghettos in Vilna and 30,000 Jews were killed there by the end of 1941.  The 12,000 left were augmented in 1943 by transports from White Russian rural districts.  Deportation of taking Jews to extermination camps began in August 1943 but with some resistance.  When the Russians entered Vilna in 1944, they found 600 Jews hiding in the sewers.  Jews came to Vilna from other areas after the war.  

In 1988, Vilna's population reached 13,000.  By contrast, in 2011, Portland, Oregon's Jewish population reached 47,500.  It had doubled from 25,000.  Still, we Jews are only 2% of our USA's total population.  In the world population, Jews are less than 1% of the population.  
"There are about 14 million Jews in the world as of 2010; 6.2 million in Asia (including Israel), 5.5 million in America, two million in Europe and 100,000 in Africa. Out of the world's population of seven billion, the Jews are about 0.2%."

My grandfather, Nathan Abraham Goldfus, lived in Telsiai, Lithuania.  That 184 miles from Vilna.  Lazdijai, in Suwalki, Lithuania, was on the southwestern border with Poland and Poland took that town in another of their wars.  Our grandmother, Zlata Jermulowski was from there.  Lazdijai is only 79 miles from Vilna by flight.  

I've traced his Goldfus line back to 1730 in Telsiai, Lithuania finding Ionas (Jonah) Goldfus. 
Lazdey was established by King Zigmunt II August in 1570.  Until 1795 it was part of the Polish Lithuanian Kingdom.  

Telz was one of the oldest towns in Lithuania.  mentioned by Crusaders in 1320.  The latter half of the 15th century brought in merchants and artisans to a royal estate established there.  

Reference:  The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
Book: Preserving Our Litvak Heritage-history of 31 Jewish communitites in Lithuania by Josef Rosin, Joel Alpert, editor, published by JewishGen,inc.  

No comments:

Post a Comment