Vilna During The Holocaust
Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) was once a hustling, bustling center of Jewish cultural life. For the previous 300 years, Vilna had functioned as the seat of Jewish scholarship in the Baltic states. More than 100 synagogues existed in Vilna in 1910, and over half the city’s population was Jewish in 1901. Vilna was considered the center of the Zionist movement in the Russian Empire prior to its downfall in 1917.
In the interwar period, Jews had lost some prominence and their economic situation worsened. Many Jewish-dominated industries were nationalized by the state during the Communist years – wood, textiles, and other manufacturing industries were now run by the state. Many clashes between locals transpired during these difficult economic times, and they inevitably included Jews – who still accounted for over 1/3 of the city’s population. Despite the lackluster period of economic difficulty, Vilna remained a prolific cosmopolitan center where Lithuanian Jewry flourished. There was a system of elementary and secondary schools that were set up for the community, as well as the founding of YIVO institute for Jewish studies in 1924 (now in New York City.)
(Above) Wealthy Jewish Family in inter-war Vilna.
(Below) Old Synagogue of Vilna, built in 1500s.
Vilna fell on the side of the Soviet occupation and was occupied as of September 19, 1939. Later the Soviets allowed it to be ceded to Lithuania, but only for a short time as Stalin re-occupied Lithuania in 1940 and integrated the land into the Soviet Union as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. Jewish life under the Lithuanians had actually been very comfortable in comparison to the Soviet era that followed, in which all Jewish cultural activity was immediately halted. Many of the wealthy Jewish families were murdered, and others were sent into the Russian interior to serve sentences at Soviet work camps – little did they know that they were the lucky ones, because the Jews that stayed behind eventually fell prey to the Germans who attacked the city in 1941.
German Occupation: As it Happened.
On June 24, 1941 the Germans reached Vilna. Jews were immediately the victims of Lithuanian murder gangs and some were kidnapped for forced labor by the Nazis. All Jews were fired from positions in government and special queues were created for Jews at grocery stores. The new administration required the Jews to wear a yellow star of David (later, it was switched to a white armband with the same star of David.) Jewish property was confiscated and free movement of Jews was restricted entirely. On the 4th of July, 1941, German soldiers from a division of ‘Einsatzgruppen B’ began shooting Jews at a holiday retreat called Ponary. This destination was just 10 kilometers outside of the city and consisted of a series of pits where Jews were shot daily.