London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London


A visit to Jewish Vilnius and the Karaite town of Trakai, Lithuania - February 2006

With its mixture synagogues and Churches of all denominations Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  For centuries its varied peoples and religions co-existed in relative harmony.  Jews came to Vilnius in the 14th century as economic migrants.  Their immigration was encouraged by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania who regarded them as assets that would bring prosperity with them.  Vilnius was a centre of non-Chassidic learning in the Jewish World and the home of the Vilna Gaon - Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman, 1720 -1797.  He was the foremost non Chassidic scholar of his day and regarded as a genius (the meaning of the word 'Gaon'). Vilnius once contained 105 synagogues.  Now only The Choral Synagogue remains. As of Feb 2006 a dispute between competing rabbis seeking its leadership led to its closure.  Before the War Lithuania was home to hundreds of thousands of Jews.  Now only some 2500 remain.  Very sad.

Karaites, a Turkic tribe of Jewish origin that do not accept the validity of Rabbinic commentaries (The Talmud) on the Torah, came to Lithuania in the 14th century.  Before the War approximately 2500 Karaites lived in Lithunania.  Now, according to the guide who accompanied me on my visit, only around 65 remain. The Karaities mainly lived in the village of Trakai, some 15 miles or so from Vilnius.  See the photos below.

On the steps of Vilnius Cathedral, Lithuanian independance day 16 Feb 2006Jews and Karaites were murdered on mass by the Nazis during World War Two.  The subsequent Soviet occupation was a blight on the lives of all surviving Lithuanians.  It was wonderful to be present on Lithuania's independence day on 16 February to witness the joy the people felt as they celebrated their hard won freedom

A visit to Vilnius is a must for all interested in Jewish culture and history.  The 'Old Town' is the centre of all that is picturesque.  Wonderful Baroque buildings are everywhere, while houses painted in a patchwork of pastel colours light up the Winter streets.  There is no readily available map listing Jewish sights/Jewish walking tours (or if there is I didn't find one!) so you will have to discover your own way around using the scattered information available.  Make sure you keep both eyes open for plaques on walls.....and bars serving 'warm wine''.....try it you'll like it.....

Some photos of Jewish Vilnius and the nearby Karaite village of Trakai are below.

 Double click the photos to enlarge

Wall Plaque on cafe in Rudninku St - a memorial to the victims of Nazi atrocities in the Vilna Ghetto & a hard to follow Ghetto map

The 1903 Choral Synagogue, Pylimo St, closed (2006)following a dispute between supporters of a local rabbi and an imported Chabbad (Chassidic)rabbi

Ghetto Street scene in Zemaitijos St, near Pylimo St

Yiddish shop sign in Zemaitijos St

Yiddish shop sign in Zemaitijos St: 'Kolonial Gesheft Avraham Tsvi' which translates as:

'Avraham Tsvi's (or Hirsch's in Yiddish) Colonial Company (or business)'

Ghetto courtyard off Zemaitijos St

Gate into the Ghetto in Antokolskio St

House of The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman) in Gaona St

Plaque on wall of Vilna Gaon's House in Gaona St

Soviet era statue of The Vilna Gaon opposite The Vilna Gaon's House in Gaona St

1945 bombed remains of the Great Synagogue immediately opposite the Vilna Gaon's house in Gaona St. Subsequently demolished by the Soviets

Soviet building erected on the site of the Great Synagogue in Gaona St

Part of Vilna Ghetto between Vokieciu, Zydu & Gaona St - once a World Famous courtyard bustling with Jewish life

Vilna Courtyard entrance off Sv.Ignato St. In the courtyard is a building with a plaque commemorating Righteous Gentiles-see next photo

Righteous Gentiles plaque on wall of building inside courtyard off Sv.Ignoto St.

Wall Plaque in Yiddish on building in Sv.Ignoto St -

'Do iz in 1903 gekumen mit a bazuch der groyser tuer fun Yiddishn natzionalen oyflebn Theodor Herzl'. The translation is: 'The great champion of Jewish national revival Theodore Herzl visited here in 1903

Ancient Jewish Cemetery just outside Vilnius on road to Trakai - the last Jewish cemetery in Vilnius

Headstones at the entrance to the Cemetery - used by Soviets as stairs to their 'Sports' Palace - see next photo

Headstones at entrance to Cemetery (close up) -previously used by Soviets as stairs to their 'Sports' Palace - see next photo

Soviet Sports Palace in Vilnius built on top of Jewish cemetery. The cemetery headstones were used to build the entrance stairs.

Trakai, 15 miles from Vilnius was a Karaite village. This is a view of their simple wooden house from across a frozen lake

Karaite Houses on Karaimu St, Trakai. The houses are made of wood with three outward facing ground floor windows.

The 3 windows have the following symbolic meanings: One window is for God, one window is for the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and one window is for the house's inhabitants

Karaite house in Karaimu St, Trakai converted to a restaurant, specialising in 'Karaite style' food

Extract from restaurant menu showing some 'Karaite' specialities on offer

Karaite exhibits on display in Trakai Castle museum, photos, costumes etc.

18th Century Karaite Synagogue in Karaimu St, Trakai

Plaque on entrance gate to Karaite Synagogue (Kenesa), Karaimu St, Trakai

website copyright of Philip Walker