Jews in Lithuania (Litvaks) | True Lithuania
True Lithuania


While some Jewish craftsmen lived in Lithuania since the 14th century, the number of Jews peaked in the 19th century after the Russian czar designated Lithuania as one of the few Imperial lands where Jews would be allowed to settle. At that time the Jews were primarily businessmen, controlling some 80% of the country's small businesses and 90% of large businesses in the mid-19th century. Nearly all Jews were urban dwellers and they became the majority in a few towns and a significant minority in many others. In the 1880s-1930s town Jews were moving to cities; great numbers emigrated (primarily to South Africa, Palestine, and the USA) decreasing the overall Jewish population in Lithuania.

Subsequently, the Jewish community was greatly hit by the Nazi German occupation and its Holocaust (1941-1945). The remaining Jews have largely emigrated to Israel.

Historically the Lithuanian Jews, known as Litvaks, spoke Yiddish, but with the Soviet occupation, many switched to Russian in the 1970s. Currently, a new switch to Lithuanian is taking place. The only secular Jewish school in Vilnius chose Lithuanian as the medium of instruction (the sole religious school offers education in both languages). Less than 10% of Lithuania's Jews spoke Yiddish natively in 2001, the majority of them elderly, and that generation has mostly died out now. 66% declared Russian to be their native language in the 2001 census (this percentage is second only to the ethnic Russians).

A statue dedicated to the Gaon of Vilnius. The final commentator of Talmud he is among the many Litvaks who have influenced the worldwide Jewish culture. On the right side of the picture, the original buildings of the Vilnius Jewish district remain. On the left, however, a Soviet kindergarten, based on a typical project, replaced the Vilnius Great Synagogue, demolished by the Soviets beforehand. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A disproportionally large number of Lithuania's Jews collaborated with the Soviet occupational authorities, with 30,6% of Lithuania's communist party members in 1940 being Jewish (80% prior to mass recruitment). Religion, shunned by the communists, also lost ground: according to the 2001 census, only 25% of Jews profess Jewish faith with the majority of Lithuania's Litvaks being atheists (the biggest atheist percentage among all ethnic communities).

Thus there are similarities between the modern Jewish minority and the Russophone community in their linguistic, irreligious and political preferences.

The widespread atheism causes friction between Jewish religious and secular (ethnicity-based) communities over who are the descendants of interwar Jewry and should be entitled to receive back the real estate nationalized by the Soviets and related compensations.

1923 census enumerated 153 743 Jews in Lithuania (excluding the Vilnius region), or some 7,1% of the entire population (the share was decreasing). It is estimated that by 1939 Lithuania had up to 200 000 Jews (including the Vilnius region). The 1959 Soviet census found 24 672 Jews in the Lithuanian territory (a decrease of 88%, most of it attributable to the Holocaust, but some to successful emigration, Soviet expulsions, or deaths while fighting for the Soviets). Due to emigration to Israel, this number further shrunk to 12 392 in the 1989 census (-50%), to 4 007 in the 2001 Lithuanian census (-68%), and to 3 050 in the 2011 census (-24%).

Currently, there are far more people of Litvak origin outside Lithuania than inside; 70% of South Africa's 85 000-strong Jewry alone have Litvak origins.

Since the 2000s, however, the interest in Jewish culture greatly resurged in Lithuania itself, with hundreds of new monuments and plaques for Lithuania's Jews unveiled and many events regularly held celebrating their culture. Nearly always this is funded by either the government of Lithuania or the foreign Jewish communities (rather than a small remaining Jewish community of Lithuania).

Books of the Minorities Section of the Lithuanian National Library reading room. 64% of the books are about Jews, despite them making 0,1% of the population and never in history more than some 13%. This shows the massive interest and research about the community in Lithuania in recent years.

Books of the Minorities Section of the Lithuanian National Library reading room. 64% of the books are about Jews, despite them making 0,1% of the population and never in history more than some 13%. Additionally, there is a separate Jewish reading room. All this shows the massive interest and research about the community in Lithuania in recent years. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Is it true that Jews do not eat piglets ?

    • Jews who profess Judaism religion should eat only kosher meal. Only some of the food is kosher and pigs (pork) are not kosher. However, as it is written in the article, only 25% of Lithuanian Jews today profess Judaism. Therefore many (likely the majority, but I haven’t seen statistics) Jews in Lithuania today eat non-kosher food including pork. In fact the few kosher restaurants in Vilnius that served kosher food had a hard time surviving.

  2. I was wanting to visit Lithuania but now I am afraid of those ham eating Jews.

  3. I have visited Lithuania many times. People were always very friendly and were sympathizing with the victims of Holocaust and Gulag.
    Nobody should blame Lithuanian or Jewish-Lithuanians for the past . THe present and future counts.”Tooth for tooth” philosophy is is the same as “final solution”.
    We should not judge people by what they eat but by their deeds in relationship to
    all other neighbors.

    • Yes, I agree with you. In Lithuania people (both Lithuanians and Jews who remained throughout the Soviet occupation) are knowledgable of both occupations, genocides and persecutions (as they have experienced or witnessed them first hand). So I feel there is usually a mutual understandment.

      Outside the Baltic area though the situation is different as there are more people whose families experienced just one of these tragic events. So, for example, a Jew from France whose family suffered under nazism but never experienced communism first hand may find it hard to grasp the enormity of tragedy of Soviet genocides and Gulags (as he would have known nobody of the tens of millions Eastern Europeans murdered by the Soviet regime, but he would have many relatives among the Holocaust victims).

      I think it is understandable that people remember the most what their own family or forefathers have suffered. However, while one’s own tragedy can never be forgotten, it should be always recognized that others, likewise, have their own tragedies and that, ultimately, an innocent person killed is an innocent person killed, no matter in the name of what ideology or empire, and no matter what was his/her religion or ethnicity while he/she was alive. I believe most people in Lithuania feel the same way.

    • Bible book of Acts God is not partial …..

  4. I was a 5 generation of the Jews in that place.
    and I always was a Jew that they hate me and all of us , we been foreign body in the midst of them. I always remember the saying ” Russians leave us alone , we will manage the Jews”. didn’t understood back then. I was the only Jew at my faculty ,
    5 Russians , the rest Lithuanians , around 60 students…, few of them racists that hated me. But I came from tough neighborhood and in the matter of few month they understood that.
    not to say that I didn’t encounter really normal humans, I did.
    I left that place in 1974, and I visited there just once.
    I have no fillings to them and to that place.
    I never knew my grand parents, they been killed.
    My Mom came back from camp, so my father.
    We all will be judged by God.

    • Hi,Jacob ! Sorry,that so many years passed and only now I saw your comment. Like you,I was born in Lithuania. Grew up there and immigrated to Israel 1971. All my mom`s relatives lay in a grave near Telsiai. But it is for us ,today living,to remember the past but to work for the future. Together with my friend Eugenijus Bunka – a son of athe last jew in Zemaijtija ,we have built amemorial park in Alsedziai,where school children and other interested people can see Litvak heritage. No vandalism in all these years. Lithuanians went a long way and have developed a remarkable culture. We have to support them as poish people and others. As we jews say :”A human being has his eyes in the forehead to look into the future”.All the best to you wherever you are.Dr.Neil Bakmann Wachtberg Germany

    • I will never visit Lithuania. My grandparents were only able to live and have families after they took a boat from Lithuania to South Africa. They ran like hell from those Lithuanian “Nationalists”. Lithuanians are not friends of our people.

  5. My grandparents fled from the Lithuanian “Nationalists”, and took a boat to South Africa prior to WW2. My Bobba and Oupa were from Vilnius (Vilna) and Shavli (Shavl) respectively. I have no desire to ever visit Lithuania. None. Why would I visit a country whose people hate my guts?

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