The Litvaks

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A summer post written by Leora gave me ideas for a lesson on the Jews of Lithuania, or rather this provided me with a concrete example of a vanished community that the Holocaust destroyed.

Since I did not know much about the Jews of Lithuania, I bought and read a book Jew Wishes had recommended, The Litvaks: A Short History of the Jews in Lithuania. Isn’t the virtual community wonderful? Although it deals with the whole period when Jews lived in Lithuania, this book concentrates on the years 1918-1945. Now a French book, Les Litvaks L’héritage universel d’un monde juif disparu, about which I heard a review on Sunday has just been released. Its authors spoke about it and have helped me understand the particularities of the Litvak community.

The word Litvak comes from the Polish Litwak and means Lithuanian yet specifically refers to a Lithuanian Jew. The term Lithuania is slightly misleading if you think of the country as it is today; the map on Wikipedia gives a fair idea of the size of Lithuania in the Middle-Ages.

The first Jews arrived in Lithuania great numbers from the 12 th century. They came from the Rhine Valley from where they had been driven away by the crusades. The Jews were famous for their talents in crafts and trade and were therefore encouraged by the authorities ruling the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to move there to help develop the country. The same thing happened with Turkey when the Jews were forced to leave Spain in 1492.

At that time Lithuania was not a Christian country yet; it only formally adopted Christianity in 1389, which probably explained why the authorities had no prejudice against the Jews and thus granted them far more rights than in any other part of Europe. Thus in 1388, the Jews were granted a special charter. This is its preambule:
In the name of God, Amen. All deeds of men, when they are not made known by the testimony of witnesses or in writing, pass away and vanish and are forgotten. Therefore, we, Alexander, also called Vytautas , by the grace of God Grand Duke of Lithuania and ruler of Brest, Dorogicz, Lutsk, Vladimir, and other places, make known by this charter to the present and future generations, or to whomever it may concern to know or hear of it, that, after due deliberation with our nobles we have decided to grant to all the Jews living in our domains the rights and liberties mentioned in the following charter.

Thus the Lithuanian Jews formed a class of freemen subject in all criminal cases directly to the jurisdiction of the grand duke and his official representatives, and in petty suits to the jurisdiction of local officials on an equal footing with the lesser nobles (szlachta), boyars, and other free citizens. (Wikepedia). In the book mentioned above I was surprised to read that, at that time, hitting a Jew was a serious an offence as hitting a noble men.

These equitable laws allowed the Jews of Lithuania to reach a degree of prosperity unknown to their Polish and German co-religionists at that time. It also allowed them to develop a unique culture and religious organizations.

Unfortunately this Golden Age ended when Poland was partitioned – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was part of Poland – in 1793 and the Jews became subjects of Russia.

15 thoughts on “The Litvaks

  1. Thank you for writing this, Ilana-Davita. I guess one’s family history is part of oneself, so it feels like you are writing about my family.

    The book I own is called The Jews of Lithuania: A History of a Remarkable Community, 1316-1945 by Masha Greenbaum. She was born in Kovno and survived the Nazis. She now lives in Jerusalem. I actually bought the book at a fair of Israeli products.

    Two of the great rabbis that came from Lithuania were the Vilna Gaon and R. Chaim Volozhin. I am supposedly a descendant of R. Chaim Volozhin, so at some point, that might be a post.

    That map explains that Lithuania used to be a lot bigger, since Volozhin seems to be in Belarus.

    I will link to this post when I write about my grandfather.

  2. A very interesting post!
    The Jewish people were an important, integral part of Lithuanian History for many centuries.
    The ‘Dark Hand’ of Russia and Nazi Germany were quick to destroy this vibrant community. And unfortunately to pollute the minds of many Lithuanians in the process.

    I am reminded of many stories told to me over the years, which confirmed an atmosphere of peaceful co-existance and genuine friendships between Lithuanians and ‘Litvaks’.

    And deeply saddened by shameful accounts of those Lithuanians who participated in barbaric acts against the Long standing population of Lithuanian Jews.

    As for me and my extended Lithuanian family…we have great admiration and respect for the Jewish people. And offer our most sincere wishes for their continued prosperity…wherever they so choose to call ‘home’.

    Mykolas
    Bieksia’s Weblog

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  4. My zaide left Vilna and came to America. A few of his brothers left for other parts of the world, Israel, London and South Africa.

    To the best of our knowledge those family members that didn’t leave perished in the Holocaust.

  5. To the best of our knowledge those family members that didn’t leave perished in the Holocaust.
    Yours and mine. My mother said they never heard from those relatives again.

  6. Thanks everyone for your visits and above all your comments.
    Leora: I hadn’t realized that R. Chaim Volozhin was a Litvak. Before reading your own posts with references to Lithuania I had always wanted to know more about the Jewish community there because of another great Litvak, namely Emmanuel Levinas.

  7. I am going to have to do more research on R. Chaim Volozhin. According to Wikipedia, he lived his whole life in Volozhin, which is not part of current Lithuania. However, he was a student of the Vilna Gaon and taught in his style. And Wikipedia mentions his descendants being named “Fried”; I think this is a reference to my family members, who were from Mariampole. So perhaps a daughter of Chaim Volozhin married someone named Fried or Friede and then moved to Mariampole? All guesswork on my part. I have been told that I am a direct descendant of Chaim Volozhin, via my maternal grandfather.

    I looked up Emmanuel Levinas; thanks, he sounds interesting!

  8. Very interesting! A few years ago I saw a documentary on a local history channel about one typical Lithuanian community. Through pictures and interviews with survivors, it showed a vibrant, wonderful community…which completely vanished in the Holocaust. And it was just one of countless lovely communities that vanished.

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  10. What an excellent, post, Ilana-Davita! And, thank you for mentioning me.

    My paternal great-great zayde/zaide and bubbe/bubbie were from a small Shtetl in Lithuania. They eventually made their way to England, where they remained for the rest of their lives. But, other relatives stayed behind, and were massacred in the forest outside of Shillel.

    The new book sounds interesting, and I wonder if it will be translated and printed in English.

    Good job on this, very informative!

  11. Litvaks are the descents of all the Jews having roots
    in a very broad area, corresponding to the post- medieval “Duchy of Lituania” ( more than 1 million
    sq. kms ) including Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraina,
    a large part of Poland & Slovakia,a small crunch of
    Russia, Romania, Hungary.
    In their time of splendour, Litvaks were over 1.2 millions, forming a whole community of faith, language, social organization, ways of living,culture.
    Salt of the Earth, no?

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