In Lithuania the year 2020 was dedicated to the memory of Vilna Gaon and Jewish history in Lithuania. This symbolical dedication invites Lithuanian society to pay attention to the extraordinary story of Vilna Gaon. For religious Jews, he represents high scholar standards with his well-known comments on Babylonian Talmud, and for the rest of the society, his person is a symbol of Vilnius as the cultural North Jerusalem.
Elijah ben Solomon Zalman was born in 1720, in a small town of Sialiec in nowadays Belarus. Both of his parents were from families with well-known Rabbis, and his own father, Shloma Zalman was constantly studying Talmud. All household chores and financial stability of the Zalman family with seven children were on the shoulders of Elijah`s mother Traine. She owned a small shop in Sialec. So it is no surprise, the later in his life, the talented Elijah created the family of the same traditional structure and his wife was responsible for keeping the family alive. Elijah`s extraordinary talents were discovered when a seven-year-old visited Vilnius with his father. This brave boy gave a sermon in the Great Synagogue, which was surprisingly mature and startled the local community. Vilna Rabbi at that time, Joshua Herszel, was ascertained, that Elijah is no ordinary boy and called him iluj – the talented one. Elijah was suggested to come to Kėdainiai and continue his Talmudic studies with the supervision of Rabbi David Kacenelenbogen. After his bar mitzva Elijah married the daughter of Kėdainiai merchant – Chana – and for the first years of his marriage, he lived alone in a wooden house on the outskirts of town. There is a legend that this place was so secluded that only his wife Chana knew how to get there. In 1745 already famous for its wisdom Elijah with his family (wife and children) moved to Vilnius, and thus it began an inseparable story of Jewish Vilna and Vilna Gaon. Although he was offered various positions in the community, Elijah did not want to limit his possibilities of working on the sacred scriptures, so he refused each one. However, Vilna Jewish community was proud to have such a prominent scholar in the community, so they aimed to help Elijah – for instance, they gave him a scholarship, and assisted his family with daily life struggles. In a way, the phenomenon of Vilna Gaon was enabled by the local Vilna Jewish community, which understood the importance of his persistent intellectual work. People from various places in Eastern Europe came to hear him speak – they went home inspired and spread the word about this genius in Vilnius.
Vilna Gaon died in 1797 after several years in the struggle with various illnesses. He was buried in the main Jewish cemetery of that time Vilnius in Sznipiszok. The local community built his tombstone and engraved on it such words: „He studied and explained the Scripture, Mishna, Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, midrash, the Book of Zohar… Already in his young age, he refused all earthly pleasures and dedicated his body and soul to the worship of the Creator…” The old Jewish cemetery in Sznipiszok was planned to be demolished at the beginning of the 20th century, so his family mausoleum was moved to the new Jewish cemetery in Užupis. Sadly, this cemetery was also demolished in 1968, and local Jews moved his mausoleum for the third time – to the newest Jewish cemetery on Sudervė road (Sudervė road, 28, Vilnius). Now, this mausoleum is one of the most visited objects related to Vilna Jewish heritage.
Jewish street, 54.679532, 25.285090
The place of the Great Synagogue and shulhof (jid. shulhoyf) (Žydų g. 3), 54.679901, 25.284511
A sculpture of Vilna Gaon (Žydų g. 3), 54.680137, 25.285079
Choral synagogue Taharat ha–Kodesh (Pylimo g. 39), 54.676070, 25.281575
Užupis synagogue (Užupio g. 36), 54.681471, 25.298633
A sculpture of doctor Cemachas Šabadas (sculpt. Romualdas Kvintas), 54.677248, 25.284342
Pohulanka (now. J. Basanavičius street), 54.680145, 25.276134
The place of old Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės (Olimpiečių g. 1a), 54.690243, 25.291117
Jewish cemetery in Užupis (Olandų g. 22), 54.688106, 25.307748
The printing house of widow Rom and Rom brothers (A. Strazdelio g. 3), 54.675534, 25.292128