Every trip I’ve taken to Eastern Europe has involved the odd out-of-body experience. A few years ago, for example, I stood at a crosswalk in Warsaw on a bright, sunny day with lots of people out and about and suddenly thought, “It was not that long ago when one out of every three people crossing this street would have been Jewish, and a Yiddish speaker.” Warsaw was home to over 350,000 Jews on the eve of World War II, or about 30% of the city’s population. Similar proportions could be found in other major centers of Eastern European Jewry at the time: Łódź, Poland ( 233,000 Jews, or 34% of the population); Odessa, in present-day Ukraine (200,000 / 33%); Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine – 110,000 / 33%); in Minsk, in present-day Belarus (71,000 / 30%); and Wilno (Polish) / Vilnius (Lithuanian) / Vilna or Vilne (Yiddish): the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” home to some 55,000 Jews, or about 28% of the total population, in 1939.
The numbers are important, but they tell only a small part of the story of Jewish life and Jewish culture in such cities in the period between the World Wars. All of the metropolises mentioned above, and many more, were sites of rich, varied, and complex networks of Jewish culture: newspapers, literary journals, theaters, concert halls, publishing houses, and so on. But formal organization was not required for Jewish culture to be produced – often but not only in Yiddish. Poets and fiction writers kibbitzed, declaimed, and argued in cafés and salons. Klezmer musicians performed in courtyards and on street corners, as well as at countless weddings and concerts. And millions of Eastern European Jews – and millions of others around the world with their own or ancestral roots in the region – made up the eager and lively audience for Yiddish culture.
During the 1920s and 1930s, that culture reached its zenith. By then, Yiddish had been spoken for the better part of a millennium. The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, that began in the second half of the 18th century ultimately helped spark a remarkable flowering of Yiddish secular culture: fiction, autobiography and other non-fiction, poetry, journalism, music, drama and theater, and film. Most of that activity originated in places like Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Romania, and ultimately spread to the rest of the Yiddish-speaking world when millions of Eastern European Jews left the region between the early 1880s and the middle of the 1920s. Even after that mass exodus, though, cities like Warsaw, Łódź, Moscow, Minsk, Bucharest, Vilna, and many others continued to be important centers of Yiddish language and culture during the interwar period – and in some cases, though to a lesser extent, after the Holocaust too.
Vilna had a special place in that constellation of cities. It was so renowned for its yeshivas and other institutions of Jewish learning, its Hebrew and Yiddish publishing houses, it libraries, and its extraordinary tradition of rabbinic scholarship that it earned the nickname yerusholayim d’lite – the Jerusalem of Lithuania. That scholarship reached its height under the leadership of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720 – 1797), the towering figure in rabbinic Judaism of his day, a staunch opponent of Hasidism, and mentor to many who would become important religious leaders in their own right.
The interwar period in Vilna was extraordinarily difficult. Soon after the declaration of an independent Lithuanian state in 1918, the city was invaded first by the Russian and then by the Polish army, and Vilna remained under Polish rule for most of the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, it continued to be known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” a term that came to encompass a remarkably rich Jewish cultural landscape: religious and secular; in Yiddish and Hebrew; and in the form of noteworthy institutions, networks of artists and thinkers, publications, performing-arts groups, and other institutions and processes of cultural production.
If we could hop in a time machine and travel back to the streets of Vilna in the late 1920s or early 1930s – and much the same goes for other Jewish cultural centers in Eastern Europe during that period – the environment would be head-spinning. We would encounter startling levels of poverty and suffering. We would also immediately notice signs of Jewish life and language unlike anything one would find today outside of Israel, even in cities with enormous Jewish populations like New York or Los Angeles. At newspaper kiosks, we could buy publications in Yiddish, Hebrew, and other languages reflecting the internal diversity of the Jewish community, with ideological slants including Labor Zionist, religious Zionist, Bundist, and Socialist. The city’s Jewish schools would have reflected a similar range of outlooks and languages. We could encounter some of the great institutions of Jewish life in modern times, such as the legendary Strashun Library; the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (founded in 1925 and now based in New York City); and the Rom family printing house. And we could find no shortage of other ways to be enlightened and entertained: lectures on the issues of the day, theatrical productions in Yiddish and Hebrew, operas and concerts, and so on.
In the span of just a few years, most of the people, institutions, and activity that made Vilna the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” would be obliterated by the Nazis. Vilna was captured by the Soviets at the beginning of World War II, and then by Germany in 1941. Ultimately most of the city’s Jews would be murdered, first in mass killings in the nearby Ponary Forest, then in the Vilna Ghetto, and ultimately through the ghetto’s liquidation. Among the Jews who escaped the ghetto was the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever (1913 – 2010). In the ghetto and after his escape from it with his wife Fredyke, Sutzkever smuggled weapons, concealed important books and manuscripts, and chronicled life under Nazi occupation in poetry, prose, and in testimony at the Nuremberg trials. He and Freydke escaped into the forest in 1943 and joined a Soviet partisan group fighting the Nazis.
Sutzkever was just one of the courageous, resourceful, and forward-thinking “book smugglers” whose story is told in the current Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit. He and his comrades knew that the vibrant Jewish environment in which they had come of age would soon be unrecognizable, if any of it would even survive at all. By saving Jewish books, they helped preserve a record of that world, which they added to in their own powerful words, as recorded in poems, songs, memoirs, essays, and other genres. It feels fitting to end this reflection with lines from Sutzkever’s wartime poem “The Lead Plates of the Rom Printers” (from the English translation by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav), in which ghetto residents transform not swords into ploughshares, but printing plates into weapons:
Like fingers stretched out through the bars in the night
To catch the free light of the air that is shed —
We sneak in the dark to grab up, as in spite,
The Rom printing plates, with old wisdom inbread. We
dreamers now have to be soldiers and fight
And melt into bullets the soul of the lead.