'Jerusalem of North' Tells of Pre-WWII Jewish Life

Lithuania launched a new campaign for European students that reveals the country's once rich Jewish culture, as well as its tragic end.

Rachel Hirshfeld ,

students on March of the Living (illustrative
students on March of the Living (illustrative
Flash 90

Lithuania has launched a new campaign for European students that reveals the once rich Jewish culture in the Baltic state and its tragic end during the Holocaust.

Around 40 students gathered for the first tour on Sunday at the Choral Synagogue, the only active synagogue in Vilnius, a city once called "Jerusalem of the North"  by Napoleon, with over 100 places of Jewish worship. 

Before WWII, Jews called the city the "Jerusalem of Lithuania", as it was a center of learning and piety.

"We wanted participants to feel the Jewish life their music, songs, food, and the way they died," developer of the EU-funded program, Ruta Vanagaite, told AFP. 

Participants were also taught Jewish dances and songs in Yiddish, and enjoyed kosher food at the community center, before visiting a former ghetto and a Holocaust museum.

By the end of the tour, Lithuanian, German, Polish and Spanish students attended a memorial ceremony and each left a small stone in a forest where 70,000 Vilnius Jews were massacred during World War II.

Joachim Werner, 27, a sociology student from Germany, said he was impressed by the program, which will be attended by hundreds of students over the next five months.

"If you just visit a museum, you have some depressive view on all Jewish life here in Vilnius. Now it's more impressive after singing, dancing, listening to the music," Werner told AFP.

Jews started to live in Vilnius in the 16th century, and before World War II, they numbered around one-third of the population in the city, attracting Yiddish intellectuals and writers.

Around 200,000 Lithuanian Jews, more than 90 percent of the pre-war population, perished at the hands of the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators. Lithuanians began murdering Jews months before the Nazis reached the country.

Simonas Gurevicius, the Lithuanian Jewish community's executive director, said education is crucial for young people who know too little about Jewish heritage in the Baltic state.

"We hope very much that this nice initiative will be an example to the Lithuanian education system," Gurevicius told the news agency. 

Lithuanian students admitted the tour was a revelation for them.

"I have discovered many new things. Before the tour, I haven't had any connections with the Jewish culture," said Lina Eidikyte, who studies economy at Vilnius university.

Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Lithuania.