Walking Around Town: Vilnius Part 1

Between September 9-13 I had the pleasure of exploring the beautiful city of Vilnius, Lithuania while simultaneously getting the opportunity to learn about the oppression and destruction of the Jewish culture that occurred here.

Day 1

After everyone’s flights arrived in Vilnius on Wednesday, we met up with our instructors Hana and Juliet in the lobby of our hotel at 7:45 to walk to dinner. While everyone was clearly somewhat tired from their travels, the excitement of walking through this new city was palpable. The journey to our restaurant took about 20 minutes of walking through winding roads, small alleys and unique architecture. I was somewhat surprised by the amount of graffiti I saw on the walls of buildings, but it somehow added to the atmosphere of the city.

The restaurant was small, but quaint, tucked into an alleyway. The dining room had maybe four or five tables and our party of 12 seemed to overwhelm the room. For dinner I ordered the beef cheeks with a potato cake and glazed carrots. Everything was incredibly delicious and made me excited for more Eastern European food.

Beef cheeks with potato cake and glazed carrots
Beef cheeks with potato cake and glazed carrots

Walking home from dinner, I couldn’t help but feel thankful for the opportunity to be here while also bursting with excitement to see more of the city tomorrow.

Day 2

We began our first full day in Vilnius eating breakfast as a group in the lobby and going over the syllabus for our first class, Negotiating Identities Across Europe’s Borders. The main thing on our schedule today is a walking tour of Vilnius.

Breakfast with the group.
Breakfast with the group.

Despite my original thought that the walking tour would be of touristy Vilnius, we immediately jumped into our class with a walking tour of Vilnius’s Jewish history. Our first stop was inside a building off of a small alleyway near “Old Town” to see the remains of an old Yiddish sign.

Top part of the sign is in Polish, the bottom is in Yiddish. It says "Sweet Shop"
Top part of the sign is in Polish, the bottom is in Yiddish. It says “Sweet Shop”

This sign is one of the only remaining Yiddish signs in Vilnius, a place where there was a large enough Jewish population, you could get by just by speaking Yiddish. According to our tour guide, Yiddish was practically the second national language of Lithuania.

The next stop on our tour was the last remaining synagogue in Vilnius. Prior to WWII there were over 100 synagogues in the city, but after the war and Soviet occupation, only this one remained.

Inside of the synagogue. Built in 1903.
Inside of the synagogue. Built in 1903.

While the synagogue was closed during the Nazi occupation, it stayed open during Soviet occupation only because of the brave members that chose to help run the synagogue  despite what it would do to their reputations. This synagogue was one of the 63 synagogues open in the 11 time zones the Soviet Union covered.

Another stop on our tour was this unassuming building that once housed the Jewish mafia prior to WWII.

Jewish Mafia Headquarters
Jewish Mafia Headquarters

Our tour guide made a point to inform us of the normal lives the Jews lived prior to the Nazi and Soviet occupations, including having their own mafia. Many people living in the neighborhoods behind this building worked as beggars. The guide even mentioned a woman who would hire a nanny while she went to beg because it was enough to be her full time job. Across the street from this building was a school for pick-pocketers that would teach small boys the art of pick-pocketing.

Just a short walk from here were the outskirts of the Jewish ghetto that was established September 6, 1941. Despite the hard life in the ghetto, there were 27 sports played and over 100,000 books borrowed from the library.

Ghetto Library with pictures of residents on the wall.
Ghetto Library with pictures of residents on the wall.

Here the tour guide showed us the old Jewish neighborhood. In the 14th century many Jews moved to Lithuania because they had more lenient laws that they could live under. At this time, the Jews could own pawn shops and were given three streets to live on. The only things the Jews could not accept at their shops were horses at night (because they would likely be stolen) or clothes with fresh blood on them (they could accept them if the blood was dry). In 1568 the Jewish community was officially established in Vilnius.

Old e Jewish Neighborhood
Old Jewish Neighborhood

Our final stop was outside the location where the Great Synagogue once stood. Up to 6000 people were able to worship in this synagogue at once. Unfortunately it was destroyed during Soviet times.

Location of the Great Synagogue
Location of the Great Synagogue

When the tour ended, we were given the rest of the afternoon/evening off to explore the city. A group of us took this time to walk through some of the more touristy parts of town, including this gorgeous church.

Beautiful Church
Beautiful Church

After exploring the city for a while, the whole group met back up at the hotel to get to know each other better. We eventually decided to go out. We got a little lost on our way, but it was the perfect way to end our first full day in Vilnius.

I feel like I learned so much in just this first full day, I can’t imagine what I will get from the rest of this trip. In order to give Vilnius the full attention I think it deserves, look out for the remaining posts describing my time there.

Much love,

KCO

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