Chapter 2 - History of Lithuania – Until WW II
2005年 02月 20日
For hundreds of years Lithuania and Poland have been indispensable to each other in the history. The primary religion of Lithuania is Roman Catholic and the people are very religious. But actually it was the last country in Europe which converted to Christianity and that was finally led by the marriage of the Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila and the Polish crown princess Jadvyga in 1385. Once the Lithuanian-Polish allies extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, but Lithuania became weakened gradually and that resulted in entering the Commonwealth with Poland. It’s just an aside but I read a story that Lithuanian people tend to boast to foreigners about the fact that once their country owned land from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. That was not a lie. I heard that, too!
In 1795 the Commonwealth was cut up by a partitioning between Russia, Austria and Prussia, and Lithuania became a part of Russia in the end. Tsarist rule brought censorship and Russification, and public use of Lithuanian was banned. National uprising occurred in 1863 and then thousands of Lithuanians began to emigrate to escape tsarist persecution. Among them was the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The Lithuanian Council proclaimed the Republic of Lithuania on February 16, 1918. But on October 9, 1920 Poland annexed Vilnius and the capital was moved to Kaunas, the second biggest city of Lithuania, where it remained for almost 20 years. That’s why there are still lots of Polish people, like my former landlady whom I mentioned in the first chapter, living in Vilnius.
When we talk about the history of Lithuania we cannot avoid mentioning Jews, because until the Second World War there was the biggest Jewish community of the Eastern Europe Region in Vilnius. The date when Jews began to settle in Lithuania goes back to the 14th century and Vilnius became the center of Jewish culture and scholarship in due course. But after the Soviet Union brought Vilnius back to Lithuania from Poland in 1939, German Nazis occupied the country between 1941 and 1944 and 240,000 Jews were killed during the period. It was as much as 94% of the pre-war Lithuanian Jewish population. No other Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe was so comprehensively destroyed and presently only 5,000 Jews remain in Lithuania.
Vilnius was once called “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. In the old town of Vilnius there were Jewish blocks and they were changed into notorious ghettos where all the Jews were packed in to be carried away and killed later. In the next chapter I’ll write about Jewish Vilnius.