Recollections of life before 1939 evoke the rich diversity of Vilna’s thriving Jewish community, including its multiple synagogues and political and social organizations. The impact on daily life of rising antisemitism foreshadows far darker times to come.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
The Vilna survivors who testify in this first episode came from different backgrounds but from the same generation: the first cohort of Jewish youth to grow up in independent Poland. The Polish constitution guaranteed all citizens equal rights. But in practice Jews were second-class citizens in a state that privileged the interests of ethnic Poles (although non-Poles were 40 percent of the population). Devastated by the destruction of World War I and plagued by a sluggish economy that never recovered from the loss of traditional Russian markets, the new state increasingly saw Jews as unwanted outsiders whose prominent role in Polish commerce and industry constituted a dangerous threat to Polish national interests.
In Vilna, Polish-Jewish relations were even more fraught, symbolized by one date: April 19, 1919. For Poles, this was a revered holiday that marked the day when Polish troops first liberated Vilna from the Bolsheviks and reestablished Polish rule for the first time since 1795. Jews had different memories: of a vicious pogrom fomented by Polish troops that claimed 55 Jewish lives, left hundreds of Jews wounded, and saw massive looting of Jewish property and widespread humiliation of Jews in the streets, including the pulling of beards and casual assaults.
Although violence subsided once the Polish-Bolshevik War ended, subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination continued, fueled by the anti-Jewish propaganda of the nationalist and Catholic press. With the death of the strongman Józef Piłsudski in 1935, growing anti-Jewish violence and economic boycotts sent an unmistakable message to Poland’s 3.5 million Jews that they had to defend themselves—not only politically and economically, but psychologically. As the late Israeli scholar Ezra Mendelsohn reminded us, and as we learn from these witnesses, it was “both the best of times and the worst of times” for the Jews of Poland (and for the Jews of Vilna, in particular): the worst of times because of rising antisemitism, the best of times because Polish Jewry emerged as the most culturally and nationally conscious community in the Ashkenazi Jewish world.
As these testimonies show, Vilna’s Jews felt compelled to “circle the wagons.” The aura of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” its history, collective memory, and special status among eastern European Jewry all served to spark an intense upsurge of collective energy. Vilna Jews built a modern Jewish life that rested on new institutions—schools, self-help societies, newspapers, clubs, synagogues, youth groups. But the new blended with the old. It was anchored in the solid foundations of centuries of Jewish creativity and learning and on the firm bedrock of Jewish tradition: YIVO and the Bund coexisted with traditional neighborhood prayer houses that also doubled as credit societies and social clubs.
In 1926, the Yiddish poet Moshe Kulbak, who was also a beloved teacher at the Real Gymnasium, the crown jewel of Yiddish education in Poland, wrote in his poem “Vilna”:
You are a psalm spelled in clay and iron
a prayer is every stone, a chant, a melody is every wall,
you are an amulet darkly mounted in Lithuania
A book is every stone, a scroll, a parchment is every wall
and Yiddish is the ordinary oak garland,
suspended over the approaches
at once sacred and commonplace
to the city.
Here Kulbak evokes the special aura of interwar Vilna, a place that sanctified the mundane, where the stones and streets of the city were likened to a prayerbook and a psalm—and where Yiddish enjoyed a respect it had nowhere else. Vilna indeed became a center of secular Yiddish culture, with institutions such as YIVO, the Real Gymnasium, and the Technikum. But alongside Yiddish secularism, there was also a religious Vilna, led by the revered rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, and a Zionist Vilna, which boasted the famed Tarbut Hebrew High School.
Despite serious differences that divided Zionists, Orthodox Jews, and Bundists, they were all united by a common language: Yiddish. As Meir Vilnai-Shapiro relates in this episode, “To me the language was Yiddish—signs, stores, conversations, friends.” Some Jewish families, especially very wealthy ones, like William Begell’s, spoke Polish or Russian at home. But one might say that they were the exception that proved the rule. (And, furthermore, as Begell relates, his excellent Polish education did not spare him from antisemitic taunts and insults. Samuel Bak’s parents, also Polish speaking and well-to-do, removed him from his Polish school and put him in a Yiddish-speaking one after a Polish boy spit in his face.)
Thus, interwar Jewish Vilna created a new communal spirit imbued with Jewish pride and a determination to hang on. The late professor Arcadius Kahan wrote that Vilna Jews were “hyper-organized,” and it was hard to find a Jew in Vilna who was not an active member of some kind of society or organization. Sheila Zwany recalled that “they had a synagogue from shoemakers. They had the synagogues from carpenters. They had the synagogues from all kinds of professions.” Sylvia Malcmacher remembered that “the whole town was geared to Jewishness. Academies, Hebrew schools, universities, theaters, libraries. They had synagogues. Every second street were synagogues.” During a time when Polish Jewry was under attack, Vilna stood out for its strong feelings of social solidarity and communal obligation, nurtured both by traditional Jewish values and by the important presence of Vilna professional Jewish elites: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and writers. This critical mass of Jewish professionals, especially doctors, continued the traditions of public service and communal involvement they first acquired as members of the old Russian intelligentsia. And as Abram Zeleznikov recalled, many Vilna Jews still had vivid memories of the heroic struggle that Jewish revolutionaries waged against the tsarist autocracy. Zeleznikov’s father was a leader of the Jewish Labor Bund, the democratic socialist Jewish party that was born in Vilna and that fought for social justice and for Yiddish culture. By the eve of the war, the Bund was the strongest party in Jewish Vilna.
In the 1930s, Vilna’s Jews found themselves threatened as antisemitism increased. State tax policy made it even harder for Jewish businessmen to compete. The late Lucy Dawidowicz, who spent a year at YIVO from 1938 to 1939, recalled aggressive Polish pickets who stood in front of Jewish shops and tried to keep customers out. Stefan Batory University became a hotbed of antisemitic violence and brawls between Jewish and Polish students. During one nasty demonstration, Max Weinreich, the director of YIVO, was struck by a rock that cost him the sight in his right eye. Haim Bassok remembered the ghetto benches that were intended to segregate Jewish students in the lecture halls. Rather than accept them, Jewish students stood during the entire lecture. Hitherto prosperous Jewish merchants also discovered that they could not escape the growing anti-Jewish campaign. Mira Verbin recalled how in 1938 her father was forced to hire a fictitious Polish “front man” to save his business.
As young people came of age, they gradually became more aware of the difficulties they would face in Poland. They were also facing growing generational tensions. Henny Durmashkin Gurko’s testimony is just one example of a widespread phenomenon: the refusal of many young people to accept the religious norms of their parents. Unsure of their future, often uneasy at home, often rejected by their non-Jewish peers, young Jews in Poland turned to their own friends for support and companionship.
The youth movements became a truly novel feature of life in Poland. While some existed before World War I, it was during the interwar period that they acquired mass appeal. Whether Zionist, Bundist, or Communist, youth movements gave their members a home away from home, an alternate family, a nurturing counterculture. Ideology played a major role, but so did literature and theater. Mira Verbin remembered joining the Shomer Hatzair (Zionist Youth) movement at age 11: “I had great company, friends, I was happy there. My sister joined the Communist Youth. My parents were a bit worried about it, but we had a liberal home and they tried not to oppose our desires.” She would leave her parents’ home to join a Zionist farm in central Poland that prepared young people for emigration to Palestine.
Despite differences in ideology, there were striking similarities between the youth movements. Most had a club room (lokal) and a library. No generation in the history of the Jewish people read as intensely and voraciously as the young people of interwar Poland. They looked to Remarque and Gorky, Romain Rolland and Upton Sinclair, Peretz and Bergelson to help them define and solve moral and personal dilemmas. Literature raised questions that were often debated in a kestl ovnt, during which young people would reach into a box and pull out a topic to be discussed. The youth movements sponsored amateur plays and long hikes. Young men and women socialized together, often to the dismay of their parents. YIVO autobiographies, not surprisingly, showed that many young people agonized over relationships and sexual conduct.
The youth movements offered dignity and psychological compensation to young people. They helped break down long-held prejudices in Jewish society against artisans and manual workers. Zionist youth movements held out the hope, however slim, of emigration to a kibbutz in Palestine. Bundist and Communist young people learned about the dignity of work and about a socialist future that would give them the opportunities they so sorely lacked in the present. And they inculcated idealism and mutual trust. Young people badly needed these qualities as they faced an uncertain future. It was from these youth movements that the leaders of the ghetto uprisings in Vilna, Bialystok, Krakow, and Warsaw would emerge. They will all play a prominent role in the episodes to come.
Abram Zeleznikov: Vilna was called the Yerusalem of, eh, Lithuania. And it was a big center of Jewish life.
Sylvia Malcmacher: It was a very progressive town. It was education going on a lot.
Meir Vilnai-Shapiro: In prewar Vilna, about one-third out of the population was Jewish and most of them were in the center of the city, although they were scattered all over. To me, the language was Yiddish—signs, stores, conversation, friends. Yiddish was the language.
Eleanor Reissa: You’re listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” I’m Eleanor Reissa. Chapter one: “Childhood Memories.”
Sylvia Malcmacher: The whole town was geared to Jewishness. Academies, Hebrew schools, universities, theaters, libraries. They had synagogues. Every second street were synagogues.
Sheila Zwany: They had a synagogue from, eh, shoemakers. They had the synagogues from, eh, eh, carpenters. They had the synagogues from, eh, all kinds of professions.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: A Shabbat in a Vilna synagogue is like a concert. The choir is on such a level. And the cantor, the great cantors. It was like sitting at a concert.
Sylvia Malcmacher: Every young child belonged to an organization. As soon as you went to school, every youth belonged to something.
Abram Zeleznikov: There was quite a few high schools in Hebrew and two Jewish high schools with Yiddish as their main language.
Meir Vilnai-Shapiro: It was really like a, uh, oasis, a cultural enclave in all of Europe.
Eleanor Reissa: For centuries, Vilna was a thriving center of Jewish culture, politics, and religion. Jews from all walks of life flourished in the city. In the years leading up to World War II, Vilna was part of Poland.
In this episode, you’ll hear about diverse Jewish backgrounds, childhood memories and the rise of antisemitism in the 1930s. We begin with four people who spent their childhoods in Vilna.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: I’m Henny Durmashkin Gurko. I was born in Vilna, into a very musical family. My, uh, father was a conductor, a musician, cantor. He was conducting the choir in the Vilna temple. He was conducting orchestras in schools all over town.
We lived on the, the Ulica Szeptyckiego. We lived in an old house. The street had, like, a, a lot of maple trees. It was quiet. I, uh, lived with my family on the third floor.
My house was always full of music. Always sounds of music poured out of the windows into the streets, whether it was piano or singing or any instrument. Either my father had a lesson or he had a cantor come in and do some rehearsing. It was always music.
On the Shabbat, a lot of times, we used to go to temple with my father. Of course, he was conducting the choir. And my mother was sitting in the, in the ezrat nashim, and I was sitting with her, with the women.
My mother was a great cook. Gefilte fish, chopped liver, chicken soup. And also every time, she baked a cake.
I remember going to school every day. I remember the winters were so freezing. My father used to walk me, as a little child, so that I wouldn’t get frostbite on my hands and watched that I had my gloves on. And while we walked in this bitter cold, he used to sing to me, or say little poems, and make, make it more interesting, ’cause it was quite a walk.
It was not a long walk to the Zakret Woods. This great, beautiful river, the Wilia, was there. And a lot of people used to swim there. On Sundays, there was an orchestra playing. There were all kinds of rides for children.
We had a lot of fun at home. They used to sit around and tell me to perform. So I did either comedy [laughs]—I was, what, seven, eight? All through the years, they used to do it. And I—and my brother used to, to, uh, you know, accompany me. And I used to sing songs and make up all kinds of comedy acts. And we were hysterical. It was, it was a lot of fun in our house.
William Begell: I was born on May 18, 1927.
Eleanor Reissa: This is William Begell.
William Begell: I was born to a mixed family, if I can call it mixed, because my father was from Lemberg, which is the heart of Galicia or Galitzianer. And my mother was born in Vilna, which is Litvak. Generally, I personally do not think there’s any difference between Galitzianer and Litvaks, except the way they speak Yiddish and, uh, the way they prepare gefilte fish.
Now, my grandfather on my mother’s side was, uh, born in a small shtetl near Vilna named Hoduciski [Adutiškis in present-day Lithuania], uh, became a very rich man under the tsars. And he owned one of the largest hotels in Vilna on the central street, which changed its name, uh, under the Russians, and then under the Poles, and under the Lithuanians. Then again, under the Soviets, many times. But it’s the main street leading to the cathedral in the center of town of Vilna.
My grandfather, my father’s father, was a major, a professional major in the Austrian Army. When my grandfather died, my father went to officer school and as a young lieutenant was stationed in Vilna. Didn’t take him long to, uh, find one of the best-looking young women of Jewish descent, in, uh, in Vilna. And before you know it, uh, in 1925, they were married.
Uh, my mother’s family was religious. My father’s family was not kosher. However, since we all had, uh, breakfast, dinner, and supper in my grandmother’s apartment at the hotel… kosher was the tenor of, of life.
When I was born, I spoke Russian to everyone, because my mother spoke Russian to her entire family. Of course, I, at the age of four, my father rebelled and said, “Well, the kid lives in Poland. We have to start speaking Polish to him.” So I was really bilingual as I grew up.
As far as religious education is concerned, for, uh, the bar mitzvah, a special rabbi was hired, and I learned to say all my brachos, and I recited the, uh, haftarah, and I read from the Torah and I sang, and I, since I had a good voice, it was, was good, but I didn’t understand a word. And the speech was so beautiful that I actually remember people crying. The irony, of course, is that I did not understand a single word I said, because I didn’t speak Yiddish.
Abram Zeleznikov: My name is Abram, called Avreml, Zeleznikov. And I was born in Vilna, the 25th of May, 1924. My mother comes from a little, from a town in Ukraine, Tulchyn, what is very well known in Jewish history from the time from the pogroms of Khmelnytsky.
My grandfather was a violinist and was playing on Jew—on Jewish and non-Jewish weddings. My mother what was born in 1881. As a young girl want to, to leave the little town and go to Odessa to start studying as a midwife. In Odessa, she joined the Russian Social Democratic Party. In 1905, she had to run away from Odessa, where she took part as a nurse in the revolt on the battleship Potemkin. She joined in Tulchyn the Jewish Labor Movement Bund.
My father was born in White Russia, in Pinsk. My father’s older brother, Shloime, Solomon, was the leader of the Jewish fighting groups against the tsarists what made pogroms of the Jews. My father had to run away from Pinsk, and he come to the center of the Bund where my mother come over and she asked for somebody what could come and help to organize the workers in Tulchyn. My father went over there, and there where they meet.
It happened that, uh, my mother went pregnant and my father decided that they have to marry. He went to Pinsk to get his papers. The, um, tsarist police arrest him. They also arrested my mother and my father got six years of hard labor in Siberia.
My father was liberated after the revolution, and they live for a short while with my mother and sister in Yakutsk in Siberia. Then they went to Kyiv, where my father was very—and mother were very active—in the Bund and the Menshevik Party. When the, um, Communist forced the, um, Bund to, um, united with the Communist Party, there, uh, the people what didn’t want to join have to run away. My father ran away to Poland in, uh, 1922. After a while my mother come and they settled in Vilna, where in 1924 I was born.
When I grew up, we have—had all our life in Yiddish, in Yiddish culture.
Mira Verbin: My name is Mira Verbin of the Shabetzky family. I was born in Vilna on October 25, 1919. At home we were only two girls and my parents. My sister was six years younger than I was. We were wealthy. We lived in a big house in the city center, close to the train station. At that time, having an apartment of six bedrooms, with a telephone, a record player, a radio, and central heating was very unusual for a private home. We had a cook and a maid and a carriage with horses.
My mother had studied to be a midwife. My father studied at a yeshiva. He used to tell us he was ordained as a rabbi, but I never felt it, because our house was very liberal and open. My mother never worked in her profession, and my father never worked as a rabbi; he was a wheat merchant for the Polish Army. He was one of the major merchants in the city. My mother never worked in her profession, because, first, there was no need, and, second, her health was not good. Still, we had a very happy home.
At the age of 11, I joined the Shomer Hatzair [Zionist Youth] movement. I had great company, friends. I was happy there. My sister joined the Communist Youth. My parents were a bit worried about it, but we had a liberal home, and they tried not to oppose our desires.
My parents were both active Zionists. We had a blue box for the Jewish National Fund. There were fundraisers. The dream of settling in Israel was very strong, but my parents were like most of the Jews. They really wanted to go to Palestine, but how can you go when it’s so good here? We had a house and money and family, and a job, and there it was only a desert. They talked about going, and every year they postponed it.
Eleanor Reissa: The richness of Jewish life in Vilna had always been circumscribed by anti-Jewish sentiment and policies, sometimes boiling over into violence. In the 1930s, with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, antisemitism reached a fever pitch, pouring across borders. In Vilna, the relationship between Jews and non-Jewish Poles sank to new lows. Mira Berger, Haim Bassok, and Sheila Zwany remember.
Mira Berger: The Polish people made life for the Jewish minority unbearable, or barely bearable.
Haim Bassok: At the universities, they decided Jewish students had to sit on the left in the lecture halls. The Jews didn’t want to be ghettoized, so some of them decided to stand up in the aisles instead. But they had to take notes. So they created a shelf that hung from a belt on their back, and that’s how they wrote. It was tense.
Sheila Zwany: I had a Gentile friend. She lived near me, and she used to come to my house on Pesach and she wasn’t afraid to tell me, “Sheila, by you, they take the blood for matzah. They kill a Gentile, they take the blood and, and they use it for the matzah.” So I say, “Zosha, you’re my good friend. You come to my house. You eat by me the matzah. How could you say like this?” She said, “In the churches, the priest told us.”
Haim Bassok: Some of us young people in Vilna insisted on not giving in—on showing we could go where we wanted, when we wanted. Except for certain times every year, like the Shabbat before Passover, because of their tradition that Jesus was crucified—that was very dangerous. And it was very dangerous to be out during their Christmas holidays. These were days that were designated for attacks on Jews. Then Jews were usually closed in their houses.
Mira Berger: I grew up feeling strongly that I have to leave, that it’s no place for us to stay.
William Begell: Every time there was a antisemitic demonstration in Vilna, I would try to amplify it. I would come into school and proudly announced, “I am late to school, because there were antisemitic demonstrations in the city. And my family felt that it would be very difficult for me to get to school on time and expose me to stone throwing and beatings and what have you.” It was sort of a, a, a proud expression of Jewishness.
Mira Verbin: On Friday nights, when we would return home, our friends did not let us walk alone, and they would always escort us since we were afraid of the Gentiles. If it was very late, I would call home and they would come to pick me up. There were areas that you did not go walking.
William Begell: My exposure to Polish culture and Poles probably exposed me to more antisemitism directly than the kids who went to cheder because they, they did not speak Polish. They did not meet, uh, any Polish people maybe, except, uh, possibly the, uh, the guy who cleaned up the streets. So on a daily basis the feeling of antisemitism was probably much stronger than to the Jewish people who lived in the ghetto area, the prewar ghetto area.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: Where we lived, there was a courtyard of about five hou-houses where some Jews lived. But mainly they were non-Jewish people, Polacks. And, like, about 10 minutes away from our house was Gimnazjum Epsztejna, which is one of the schools on a very high level, very high—uh, with, uh, Polish—in the Polish language. A lot of Jewish children were attending this school. And when they were coming from school, the Polish thugs on our block were throwing rocks at them.
Mira Verbin: The real antisemitic wave started in 1938. My father was fired from his job, and we immediately felt it in our home. My father arranged for a Polish man to take his position and my father paid him a salary to take his place as a front to his business.
In 1938, I went to a Zionist preparation camp in Częstochowa. The antisemitism was growing around us and I thought leaving home would get me closer to making aliyah to Palestine. My parents were not excited, but they accepted it. It was beautiful, a big agricultural farm. We had a farming instructor and an educator from Israel.
We had a great time. We were young people, with romantic attachments, in a beautiful place. We would work during the day, and in the evenings there were lectures, discussions, and dances. We talked about Israel constantly and were waiting for certificates that would allow us to move there.
Henny Durmashkin Gurko: I had, uh, a teacher by the name of Pani Krzhizhanovska. Uh, she was one of the best, uh, voice teachers in Vilna. And she was training me as a coloratura soprano. Uh, I was very young, I was 14 years old. And, uh, uh, she predicted a great career for me. But I was so young.
I, um, was attending the conservatory of music in Vilna. And she asked me to sing at one point “Ave Maria.” And the Polish students were very mad, very outraged, that the Jewess had to sing “Ave Maria.” And there was a lot of controversy going on and a lot of fighting. And she decided to let me come to her house to have the lessons in order to avoid this unpleasant situation.
She lived on Rossa in Vilna, which was on the outskirts of town—the opposite town of where we lived. And I used to go there. It was quite far. She lived in the courtyard of a huge church. Her son was the priest in this church and a, a very nice, very friendly, uh, man, always encouraging me and telling me how his mother had so much hope for a great career for me.
Uh, I used to go twice a week to Pani Krzhizhanovska. And at the end, she was planning a, uh, concert as—as her favorite student, her m-most prominent student, she asked me—and I was only 14 years old—to sing on the radio. And then the date was set, and when it had to take place. And that was the day that the Russian Army marched into Vilna. And I remember the tank with the red little flag coming into our street. And that was the end of our free life.
Eleanor Reissa: World War II began on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The Nazis had made a secret pact with the Soviet Union, which divided Poland between them. The Nazis took the west, the Soviets took the east, and Vilna fell under Soviet occupation.
In this episode you heard from Henny Durmashkin Gurko, William Begell, Abram Zeleznikov, and Mira Verbin, whose Hebrew testimony is voiced by Rachel Botchan. You also heard from Sylvia Malcmacher, Meir Vilnai-Shapiro, Sheila Zwany, Mira Berger, and Haim Bassok, whose Hebrew testimony is voiced by Claybourne Elder.
Next up, chapter two: “In the Shadow of War.”
This special series about Jewish life in Vilna is written and produced by Nahanni Rous and Eric Marcus. Stephen Naron is the executive producer.
Our composer is Ljova Zhurbin. Our theme music is an arrangement of “Vilna, Vilna,” the 1935 song by A. L. Wolfson and Alexander Olshanetsky. The cellist is Clara Lee Rous. Our audio mixer is Anne Pope.
This podcast is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University and YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. I’m Eleanor Reissa. You’ve been listening to “Remembering Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.”