The Two Capitals
The Two Capitals is a way of combining the histories of two cities that have a special significance for the Litvak culture. Vilnius and Kaunas are not only both historical Lithuanian capitals, but also capitals and main cities for the local Jewish history and culture. Vilnius represents strong Yiddish cultural identity, while Kaunas is famous for fostering Hebrew language and culture outside of the religious life. This map will guide you through the Litvak personalities, who created and cherished the two capital cities of Lithuania, Jewish cultural and religious institutions, and heritage sites including the memorial places of the Holocaust.
The Jewish Quarter was the centre of Vilna Jewish community life since it was formed in the 17th century. The construction of the first synagogue in Vilnius, which later became the Great Vilna Synagogue, began immediately after the establishment of Jewish quarter. Eventually, a synagogue courtyard with various community buildings and communal spaces has formed around this building. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, when there were more than 100 Jewish prayer houses in Vilnius, the Great Vilna Synagogue stayed the most important gathering place for local Jews. The Great Vilna Synagogue has become one of the symbols of Vilna Jewish community. The synagogue has been demolished in 1950s, but it`s memory is still alive in visual art and literature.
The central artery of the historical Jewish quarter in Vilnius – Jewish street – has been fiercely destroyed during the Second World War. However, some historical elements of this street remained intact even after this tragedy. They remind us about the colourful past of the local Jewish community. After the restoration of Lithuania`s independence, Jewish street in Vilnius regained some historical and cultural symbols from the past. Firstly, it was connected with the memory of the Vilna Gaon, who lived and woked here. In 1997, near his previous apartment on Jewish str. 3, a memorial plaque dedicated to him was erected and the sculpture of Vilna Gaon was unveiled. Nowadays, there are symbolical street signs on the Jewish street reminding its name not only in Lithuanian, but also in Yiddish and Hebrew. And one wall on the house at Jewish str. 1 is decorated with a drawing of a Jewish man as a part of the project “Walls that Remember”.
In 2007, on the crossroads of Mėsinių and Ašmenos streets, an exceptional work by sculptor R. Kvintas was unveiled. It represents a famous local doctor and public figure Zemach Shabad (1864-1935) with a girl and a kitty. Now this sculpture is often recognized as the sculpture of “Doctor Aybolit” of Vilnius. The presence of the sculpture in the very heart of Vilnius is also a symbolical one – Z. Shabad was dedicated Vilnius citizen, he worked hard all his life for the people of Vilnius and their well-being. Near this monument you can also find Jewish Culture & Information Centre at Mėsinių str. 3a/5.
The ghetto library, which operated here in 1941-1943, was a very significant place for the cultural life in the Vilna Ghetto. Jointly with the ghetto archive, reading room and museum it was located on M. Strašūno str. 6, and its red brick building survived until today. On the same street (now called Žemaitijos street) there are also many traces of the prewar Jewish heritage in Vilnius. On the marked houses on Žemaitijos str. 7 and Žemaitijos str. 9 the are restored shop signs in Yiddish and Polish, that remind us not only about the tragic period of the Vilna ghetto, but also about the vibrant Jewish life in Vilnius before the war.
Since its establishment the choral synagogue differed from other Jewish prayer houses in Vilnius – not only there was a bigger emphasis on the sermons during worships, it was also assisted by a choir. This is the reason, why this synagogue was and is until this day called a choral synagogue. It is the only synagogue in Vilnius, which operated during the Soviet occupation and it is still the only working synagogue in Vilnius at the moment. Nearby you can also explore a restored synagogue on Gėlių str. (Gėlių str. 6) and the surviving building of the Vilnius Ghetto Jewish Hospital (Pylimo str. 38).
This grand building was built in the junction of the 19th and 20th centuries. The secular Jewish gymnasium of “Tarbut” branch operated here before the Second World War. Today, the Lithuanian Jewish Community is located here. They have opened the Bagel shop, which is waiting for visitors with both popular bagels and other snacks of Litvak cuisine.
Undoubtedly, Pohulanka (nowadays – J. Basanavičius street and its surroundings) was a space for modern Jewish inteligents and businessmen of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Almost in every house in this area of that time lived people, who later became either locally or even worldly famous. In the beginning of the 20th century, many famous Vilnius society figures lived in this particular area – the owner of „Victoria” confectionary factory Israel Bunimovicz, doctor Zemach Szabad, or founder of YIVO Max Weinreich. The writer, winner of the Goncourt Award – Romain Gary – also spent his childhood in Pohulanka.
Romain Gary spent his early childhood in Pohulanka, in Vilnius. His early living space was so memorable, that it was vividly described in the later works of the famous author. He never forgot Vilnius and his first love in this city. Vilnius citizens likewise are not forgetting this talented writer. There is a sculpture next to his childhood home in Vilnius, which is inspired by his novel “The promise of the dawn” (1960). Sculpture depicts a young boy with galosh in love looking towards the sky – the prototype of the young writer.
In 1925, in Vilnius YIVO opened it`s door – it was the only scientific research institute in Yiddish language in the world. The founders of YIVO – Max Weinreich and Zalman Reisen – made their primary mission to collect and preserve cultural and ethnographical heritage in Yiddish. Furthermore, research work began only after collecting substantial archives. The actual building of YIVO (1933-1944) at Vivulskio street was demolished during the Soviet times. However, memorial plaque commemorating YIVO was uncovered in the place of a former building, reminding the passers-by about the previous existance of this world famous institute in Vilnius.
Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History is the only Jewish history and culture museum in Lithuania. The museum has 6 branches (Tolerance Centre, the Samuel Bak Museum next to it, Holocaust Exposition, Paneriai Memorial, future Lithuanian Jewish Culture and Identity Museum and Jacques Lipchitz Museum). The Tolerance Centre is based on Naugarduko str. 10. It was established In 2001 in a building with a rich Jewish history. During the interwar period this building was well-known as a place for gatherings of Jewish cultural figures in the city. Also, for a short time, there was a professional Jewish theatre located in this building.
Romm printing house is historically famous as one of the biggest and longest running Jewish printing houses in Vilnius, where the canonical Babylonian Talmud was printed. Through the doors of this printing house various books have seen the daylight – from the already mentioned Babylonian Talmud, or later Jerusalem Talmud, to Jewish socialist newspapers and secular fiction literature. The printing house successfully operated under different political powers in Vilnius. However, it was nationalized when the Soviets came in 1940.
In 1829, the second Jewish cemetery in Vilnius was established in Užupis territory called Popówka. The burials in this cemetery began in 1831, the territory was expanded several times due to the growing burials. At the beginning of the 20th century, family chapels, obelisks, and monuments became popular in this cemetery. In 1959, Soviet authorities in Lithuania decided to close this cemetery and in 1965 it was totally demolished. At the moment there is a memorial for the former Jewish cemetery. Part of the entrance gate of the old cemetery was also restored.
The first cemetery of Vilna Jews in Sznipiszok operated in 1592-1831. It was closed due to the lack of new burial space, but at the beginning of the 20th century, this cemetery was still constantly visited. All famous Jews from the local community were buried in this cemetery, including Vilna Gaon. During the Soviet period, the old cemetery was demolished, part of the remains were reburied in the new Jewish cemetery. The Sports Palace was erected on the site of the old cemetery.
A mausoleum of the most famous Vilnius Jew – Vilna Gaon – has been relocated several times and it is currently in Sudervė Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius. It is one of the most visited sites of Jewish Vilnius, to whom Jews from all over the world give their respect. He is widely known and reffered in the Jewish religious communities for his comments on the Babylonian Talmud. For the remaining non-religious part of the Jews and other Lithuanians, this person is a significant symbol of Vilnius as Jerusalem of the North.
Paneriai Memorial tells us the stories of both the biggest mass murder in Lithuania and of the tragic fate of Jews during the Holocaust in the whole region. Since 1991 Memorial Museum of Paneriai belongs to the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History. It presents a detailed history of Paneriai tragedy.
During the interwar period Jewish community made up a significant part of the city population in Kaunas. Therefore, it is not surprising that there were more than 20 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in the city of which only 7 has remained. The only choral synagogue is still open. Kaunas Jewish religious community is also located there. The neo-Baroque exterior catches the eye of a passer-by and the traditional decor of the synagogue interior fascinates those who come inside. The interior is dominated by the wooden aron kodesh, there are many plant motifs and beautiful arched windows.
It would be difficult to find a Lithuanian citizen, who never heard the nostalgic song “My love has drowned in the sea of Palanga…”. The author of this song and many other popular Lithuanian songs, the pioneer of Lithuanian pop music was a polyglot Danielius Dolskis. He was an important figure of interwar Kaunas cultural life. An elegant sculpture of him is located in the heart of the city in Laisvės avenue – right in front of the previous building of the “Metropolis” restaurant, where Dolskis used to sing.
Perhaps, there is no surprise when a boy who spent all his childhood in his father`s bookstore in his adult years becomes a philosopher existentialist. But when a professor of Sorbonne university says that he published his first article in the Lithuanian journal “Vairas” (en. “Steering wheel”) it catches more attention. And all of this was in one extraordinary person – Lithuanian Jew Emanuel Levin. In 2006, a memorial plaque was unveiled on the Oldtown house where Emanuel Levin was born and raised (Karaliaus Mindaugo avenue 37). In 2013, the street in Kaunas was named after Emanuel Levin, and after two years the square nearby famous Kaunas Funicular received his name as well.
One of the largest old buildings on the river Nemunas embankment – the historical Jewish Schwabe gymnasium building. The gymnasium was founded by a famous scientist Moshe Schwabe, thus it was named after him. It was the second Jewish gymnasium in interwar Kaunas, which operated for a short period in 1920-1940. A memorial plaque to the scholar and poet Leja Goldberg has been put on the building in 2010. She spent her young days here and graduated from this gymnasium.
Abraham Mapu was born in Vilijampolė, and later he became a prominent Jewish writer, the pioneer of the modern Hebrew novel and one of supporters of Haskalah movement ideas. A. Mapu who loved to write in Aleksotas surroundings is considered to be the first novelist in Hebrew language in the world. In today’s Kaunas, a street is named after him. Furthermore, a playful sculpture of the great writer was created in 2018.
The history of Kaunas during the harsh times of the Second World War is unimaginable without the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (1900 – 1986). In the summer of 1940, he gave away Life visas, which helped thousands of people to escape from war-zone Europe. Many of those, who escape, where Polish Jews trying to save their families from Nazis. In 1985 he was named the Righteous Among the Nations. Today in Kaunas there is a museum – Sugihara House – in a previous building of Japanese consulate, where Sugihara used to work. It is dedicated to honour of the diplomat.
The 8-hectare Žaliakalnis Old Jewish Cemetery complex is considered to be one of the largest cemeteries in Kaunas city. This historical cemetery was established in the middle of 19th century and was used for burials during the whole century. The most famous members of the Kaunas Jewish community are buried here.
Until the 19th century Jews had no rights to settle in Kaunas town. They mostly inhabited a private suburb near Kaunas called Vilijampolė, which belonged to famous local noble family – the Radziwiłłs. Between local Jews Vilijampolė was also known as Slobodka (a free place to live) and in the end of the 19th century it was made wordly-famous by the establishment of Slobodka yeshiva. It was one of the largest and the most famous yeshivahs not only in Lita but in all Eastern Europe as well. The most talented local students and American or South African Jews used to arrive here to study.
The Kaunas (Kovno) Ghetto was established by Nazis in 1941 in Vilijampolė district, which was abundantly inhabited by Jews at the time. When the battlefront was approaching the city, it was decided to burn the territory. Until then the Jews, who were imprisoned in the ghetto, were exploited for free labor and systematically selected, transported to concentration camps or the 9th Fort, and then murdered. The ghetto was liquidated in July, 1944. Only a small portion of ghetto prisoners managed to survive. The symbolic gate of Kaunas Ghetto is one of the places reminiscent of the tragic history of Vilijampolė and all Kaunas Jews.
The 9th Fort in Kaunas is a building with one of the most paradoxical histories in the city: at the beginning of the 20th century it was built as a defensive fortification to save the local people. Eventually, it was turned into a prison and used for mass murders. Today, there is a museum in its place. It not only tells the tragic history of the 9th Fort, but also the horrendous history of the entire Nazi occupation in Lithuania.
Arbit Blat (1908-1999) was born and grew up in Kaunas, where the boy’s creative talent was quickly unfolding. The young boy, who started painting and creating sculptures as a teenager, sought to present them to Kaunas public. Even before leaving for Paris, in 1932-1933, he opened a private art gallery in Kaunas. There he exhibited not only his own art, but also the works of other Kaunas artists. After traveling to Paris for creative inspiration, Arbit Blat became part of Picasso and Braque’s creative circle and eventually got famous for his own artistic genius around the world.
Street of L. Zamenhof in Kaunas is a part of a love story. Ludwik Zamenhof was the inventor of the Esperanto language who came to Kaunas to his beloved girl and future wife Clara and lived together with her on this street. The father of the beloved Clara believed in the crazy idea of his son-in-law to create a universal language, thus he supported the publication of the first Esperanto textbook. Doctor Ludwik Zamenhof (1859-1917), who was born in Bialystok, was closely connected with the territory of Lithuania – his sister lived in Veisiejai. L. Zamenhof lived with her for a year there when he wrote the most important elements of the Esperanto textbook. In Kaunas, he found both a love of his life and an opportunity to implement his vision.
The “Courtyard Gallery” is located in the former Jewish quarter in Kaunas, very close to the choral synagogue. It is a continuous project of paintings, photo collages and art-historical installations. It invites us to remember both the history of this quarter and look closely at our own surroundings. Since a number of Jewish families has lived in the houses of this courtyard, some of the stories presented in the “Courtyard Gallery” remind us about their lives and give meaning to their destinies.