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.