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Jewish Vilnius Tour

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Lithuanian Jews trace their origins back to the days of the Grand Duke Gediminas. By the late 15th century, thriving communities existed throughout the country. In time, Vilnius became a great center of Jewish religious learning and was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." Jews from other parts of Europe flocked to the great Lithuanian yeshivas, and those who learned according to the guidelines laid down in the Lithuanian yeshivas were called "Litvaks". The Jews of Lithuania lived an intense Jewish life and their role and influence in the major Jewish political and cultural movements were far greater than their numbers would have suggested.  
Lithuania was also an outstanding center of Yiddish culture, and Vilnius was the site of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. On the eve of the Shoah there were about 160,000 Jews in independent Lithuania and another 155,000 in Vilnius and the surrounding area. During the German occupation about 95% of Lithuanian Jewry perished, a greater percentage than in any other community in Europe.

Vilnius is the city that brought to Lithuanian Jews exceptional fame. The first document mentioning Jews in Vilnius dates back to 1567. At that time Jews did not have the right to purchase houses in the city, they could only rent them. Jews gained the right to own buildings in Vilnius only in 1593. Before that, they were allowed to reside in the lands which did not belong to the magistrate, so called jurisdiks. At the end of 16th - beginning of 17th centuries they were allowed to inhabit Jewish, Saint Michael's and Butchers streets. They could also live on German street, but the windows of their apartments could not face the street.

The Jewish quarter was formed in the Old Town. According to 1784 census there were around 5000 Jews in Vilnius at that time; according to 1897 census Jews constituted 38.8% of town's population (64.000 Jews).After first world war their number somewhat decreased, in 1923 55.000 Jews lived here (33.3% of town's population), and on the eve of second world war, in 1939, Jews made up 27.9% of town's population which was around 60.000 people.

The first stop in our tour of Jewish Vilnius will be the only surviving synagogue - the Great Choral Synagogue. Jews set up a synagogue in the palace of Duke Slushka; later the famous Great Synagogue of Vilnius was built. Religious thought began developing very intensively. Forty prominent rabbis lived in Vilnius in the second half of 17th century, although there were only 2500 Jews here at that time. And in 18th century the great genius Gaon of Vilna emerged. Since then Vilnius became a recognized spiritual center. It was called Jerusalem of Lithuania.

Then we will go to Paneriai. There were 100,000 people killed at Ponary Forest.  Of these, 70,000 were Jews, mostly from Vilna.  Ponary is located 3.7 miles from Vilna, Lithuania.  The Soviets had dug large pits im the sandy soil of Ponary in order to install oil tanks.  When the Germans took over, the pre dug pits were used as mass graves. Victims were taken to Ponary by train, truck, or marched.
The Jews had to climb down the sides of the pit and stand in a circle.  They were then shot in the head.  The bodies were covered with lime/sand and the next batch came to be killed.  In this way the pits were filled with corpses.

After we will visit two Jewish cemetery’s in Vilnius.  On the way back we will see the main ghetto areas in the Old Town.

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