ToC: Reading Vilna in Jewish Writing and Urban History: A special issue of Colloquia (2021)

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One of the key features of the image of Vilnius is its position on a symbolic spatial and chronological border. Depending on the ideological agenda of a particular imperial or national discourse, Vilnius can be located on the western or the eastern frontier of the imaginary imperial realm (Russian or German respectively), or as a historic national capital (for Poles, Lithuanians and Belarusians). Correspondingly, different national and imperial narratives evaluated particular historical periods differently, usually portraying the more remote past positively, as opposed to the most recent past. The Russian city guide by Flavian Dobrianskii and the German books by Paul Weber and Paul Monty, published respectively before and during the First World War, described the city from two opposite perspectives using the same conceptual opposition of East versus West. Unlike these dichotomous representations, Jewish Modernist poetry, exemplified by two poems entitled ‘Vilna’, by the Hebrew poet Zalman Shneour and the Yiddish poet Moyshe Kulbak, as well as the Yiddish city guide by Zalmen Szyk, sought to restore the imaginary unity of time and space, celebrating the complexity and diversity of the city.




From the mid-19th century through the end of the interwar period, a variety of texts about Vilna were published to guide and inform both tourists and armchair travellers. The Polish, French and German- language guidebooks and travelogues considered in this article were composed both by native sons and visitors who wished to share their impressions of the city, its notable sights, and its residents. While some overlooked the presence of Jews, most devoted some space to Vilna’s Jewish landmarks. Overwhelmingly, they focused their attention on the Jewish quarter, the traditional heart of Jewish life, although a minority ventured to newer neighbourhoods, where they discovered a vibrant modern community. Their attitudes included a mix of sympathy, fascination and revulsion; many employed the language of orientalism, even as they invested that language with a variety of meanings. These authors’ narratives were shaped by their views of the various groups that comprised Vilna’s diverse population, as well as by commitments ranging from Polish nationalism to pacifism. Such accounts thus illuminate competing visions of the larger society and the place of Jews within it.




This article explores changes over time in the manner in which multiculturalism in Vilnius was shown and evaluated in tourist guidebooks written between 1856 and 1939. It provides an overview of narratives which serves as a background reflecting the uniqueness of Zalmen Szyk’s Yiddish-language publication Toyznt yor Vilne (1939). From the mid-19th century on, one can detect an increasingly strident nationalist patriotism in Polish-language books of this genre, underscored by ethnocentrism and nationalistic megalomania. The city is depicted in most of these guidebooks as a bastion of Polish spirit and martyrdom, the quintessential example being a guidebook published by Juliusz Kłos in 1923. Zalmen Szyk, on the other hand, evinces a much greater readiness to incorporate various models of historical memory and interpretations of urban space: Vilnius in his work is unashamedly multicultural, without a trace of ethnocentrism. Szyk is extremely meticulous and unprejudiced in his treatment of all the ethnic groups living in the city and the heritage they left behind. He writes about each group in turn: Lithuanians, Poles, Ruthenians, Tartars, Germans and Jews, and the adherents of Catholicism, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Islam are all accounted for. In comparison with the Polish-language guides, Szyk’s Yiddish guide to multicultural Vilnius contains by far the most comprehensive description of the Polish cultural presence; notably, he does not shy away from incorporating elements of the romantic model of Polish martyrdom.




The absolute majority of maps of East European cities marked only one or two major synagogues, while tens or hundreds of smaller synagogues and Jewish prayer houses were omitted. Using Vilnius as a case study, the article argues that this omission was not only a consequence of viewing the Jews as a ‘not indigenous’ part of the population, but also reflected the reality. The absolute majority of synagogues and prayer houses had no role in the cityscape of Vilnius and other cities of Eastern Europe, and therefore were not noticeable to non-Jewish people. Either synagogues and prayer houses were situated in courtyards, or they had no external features designating them as Jewish sacred places. Only the Great Synagogues and the Choral Synagogues of ‘modernised’ Jews attempted to be visible and prominent in the cityscape. The discussion of the issue of visibility of Jewish sacral buildings is based on the Yiddish guidebook to the city of Vilnius published by Zalmen Szyk in 1939. This book is a unique work, which combines the description of Vilnius ‘in general’ with special attention paid to the Jewish public institutions existing in the city, the majority of them synagogues and prayer houses.




The aim of the article is to show the picture of Jewish Vilnius/ Vilna created by German artists during the First World War. The research is based on an analysis of works of art published in the press of the time, or stored in institutions in Lithuania, Germany and Belgium, and also on an analysis of writings in German periodicals of that time. The media in Ober Ost during the war took an anti-semitic stance, promoted by the top military leadership, but the author of the article argues that there also existed a different attitude towards the Jews of Vilnius and their heritage. The views and origins of journalists, writers and artists taken on by the editorial boards of German newspapers published in Vilnius and Kaunas influenced the emergence of the Ostjuden discourse. This discourse was rather contradictory, and included both fascination with the traditional religious Jewish community, and its cultural heritage and spiritual values, and at the same time horror at the suffering and poverty of the community. This discourse also remained viable in postwar Germany, and influenced the identity of Jewish art in Vilnius in the interwar period.




The outbreak of war in August 1914 marked a new era in the history of Vilna for all of the city’s inhabitants, but perhaps for the Jews most of all. The world war accelerated the processes of political and economic modernisation, to the detriment of local Jews. These processes were not, however, immediately evident to local residents, though the more far-seeing among them feared for the worst. After all, when had Jews gained from military action? In this short paper, I will give an overview of the impact of the First World War on Vilna, and highlight two specific, very different, sources: Paul Monty’s Wanderstunden in Vilna, a guidebook for German soldiers, and Hirsz Abramowicz’s Profiles of a Lost World, a memoir published later (in Yiddish) by a long-time Vilna resident.




A specific vision of Vilna as the model of an East European Jewish civil society crystallised in the years during and just after the First World War, and Vilna’s professional elites and journalists played a critical role in the crafting and shaping of this idea. This paper shows how Zalmen Reyzen, a leading Vilna Yiddishist intellectual who edited Vilna’s most important Yiddish daily between the wars, Der tog (1919–1939), tirelessly sought to convince others that Vilna had a special role to play as a model for the entire Jewish Diaspora, as a city uniquely suited to build a Jewish civil society based on a shared language, Yiddish. Reyzen told his readers in articles and editorials that the collapse of the tsarist regime gave Jews an unprecedented chance to build a new secular school system, create a new democratic communal board (kehile), and break the stranglehold of old communal elites.




This article discusses the artistic genesis of the first avant- garde photography book in Lithuanian art history, The Ghetto Lane in Wilna (1931) by Moshé Vorobeichic-Moï Ver (Moshe Raviv, 1904–1995), and aims to conduct the first in-depth reconstruction of Vorobeichic’s early biographical and creative period in Vilnius in the 1920s in the local Jewish and multicultural milieu. The research is based on archival materials from Lithuanian state archives and the Raviv family archives in Israel. Vorobeichic, who was born in 1904 in Zaskavichy (currently in Belarus), made his artistic debut in Vilnius in 1923, and studied at the Faculty of Fine Art at Stephen Bathory University from 1923 to 1925. He continued his art studies at the Bauhaus school in Dessau (1927 to 1929) and, from 1929 in Paris at the École Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographie. From 1930 onwards, the photographer used the artistic pseudonym Moï Ver, under which his avant-garde photography book Paris, hailed as a masterpiece of the genre, was published by Editions Jeanne Walter in 1931. During the same period, Vorobeichic participated in Jewish cultural life in Vilnius, and was involved in the early stages of the formation of Yung Vilne, the acclaimed literary and artistic group of interwar Yiddish Modernism The article aims to identify the cultural contexts in which Moï Ver’s artistic world-view and avant-garde style started to develop. The reconstruction of these contexts makes it possible to identify new semantic aspects in his avant-garde photography book The Ghetto Lane in Wilna, and to rethink its artistic concept. In this way, the cross-cultural semantics of Moï Ver’s photographic collages of Jewish Vilnius will emerge.




When the Maskil Ayzik-Meyer Dik (ca. 1807–1893) retooled as a kritiker, a writer of satire, he did so by keeping it local. Most effectively, he exposed the evils and failings of the Jewish body politic by locating his satires in and around the crowded shulhoyf, the Great Synagogue and Courtyard, of his native Vilnius. Endowed with a phenomenal memory and a wicked sense of humour, there was no end to the gallery of schnorrers, shnorrerkes, rogues and misfits whom he could rescue from out of the recent, unenlightened past. But to speak for Jewish Vilna the way that Eugène Sue had spoken for Paris meant learning a new set of skills. To write popular fiction meant to draw upon the dialogical nature of language itself: the way low-lives and charlatans mimicked the speech of the learned class, while uncensored speech betrayed their boorishness, voracious appetites and debauchery; the way the speech of servant girls trafficked in the speech of their mistresses and outperformed them. Who spoke for the shulhoyf was the folksshrayber, the popular writer. Speech was dialogical, because to become a responsible folksshrayber required that one allow others to do the talking. Willy-nilly, and despite his professed ideology, Dik became the first writer to turn Ayalon-Linove-Vilna into the natural habitat of Yiddish.




In 1904, a Hebrew journalistic and literary initiative was established in Vilna, headed by the writer and publisher Ben-Avigdor, and the journalist and editor Ben Zion Katz. Vilna was chosen, among other reasons, for being a deeply rooted centre of Hebrew culture, with a long tradition of printing and publishing. The new initiative revived it as a magnet for Hebrew writers and journalists, an impressive team that joined together to create the daily Hazman (The Time) and its supplements. The editors’ policy was not to impose a binding political line on the paper, but to give an opening to all the factions in the Jewish public, while also hoping to expand the target audience of the paper. The year 1905 was the time of glory of Hazman, both for its news and its literary sections. But its momentum was halted during 1906, due to the political storm in Russia and the rapid decline of Hebrew journals, which lost most of their readership to the flourishing Yiddish press. Thus, the Hazman affair embodies a dramatic crossroads. It was the beginning of the decline of Hebrew literature in Eastern Europe, alongside the laying of the foundations for Hebrew literature in the Land of Israel during the first two decades of the 20th century. This essay draws an outline of the affair on the basis of a variety of sources, including the newspaper itself, memories of the personalities involved, and correspondence that has survived from those days.




During the interwar period, many attempts were made to perceive and interpret the legacy of Jewish Vilnius, both in the city itself and abroad. Many of the images of the city created in that period betray nostalgic and half-mythological features, even while they present a living and breathing Jewish environment. This essay is a comparative case study of two literary texts that might provide some answers to these questions. One is the Hebrew poem Vilna by Zalman Shneour (1919), and the other is the Yiddish poem ‘Vilne’ by Moyshe Kulbak (1926). Each poet, the paper argues, set opposing goals for himself: for Shneour, it was creating an ode to a legendary centre of Jewish learning and spirituality; while Kulbak attempted to capture the pulse of the actual city that he lived in. Accordingly, Shneour essentially reiterated every traditional rhetorical trope of Jewish Vilnius, without creating a new poetic vision of it; whereas Kulbak used the potential of modernised Yiddish and Expressionist poetics to paint a vibrant and exciting portrait of the city. However, after the trauma of the physical loss of Jewish Vilnius during the Second World War, it was Shneour’s stylistic approach and depiction of the city that would prevail.




This article introduces readers to the fiction by Moyshe Levin, a member of the Yiddish literary and artistic group Yung Vilne (Young Vilna). I argue that Levin challenged sentimental myths of Vilna as a centre of Yiddish culture by crafting naturalist fiction and reportage focused on the struggles of Vilna’s Jewish underclass and workers. In doing so, he developed a fictional universe that was directly engaged with and explored the social and political challenges of local Jewish life in the 1930s.