Historic Jewish Vilna & the VYI
Today’s city of Vilnius has been known for centuries in Yiddish as Vílne (Vilna), and lovingly called Yerusholáyim d’Líte —“the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” The name is said to have been coined by Napoleon during his 1812 encampment, when he was struck by the richness and intensity of the city’s Jewish life. The Vilna heritage spans the Ashkenazic universe, from the greatest Talmudic genius of the last thousand years, the Gaon of Vilna (Eyliohu ben Shloyme-Zalmen, 1720—1797), to the founding of the world’s first Yiddish academic institute, the famed YIVO, in 1925. (Its successor, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, is now the world’s leading institution for the study of East European Jewry.)
The Vilnius Yiddish Institute harbors no illusions about reconstructing prewar Jewish life in Lithuania or any other East European country. Rather, it aims to make noteworthy contributions to Yiddish culture and East European Jewish studies internationally. It does this by concentrating on activities that are best carried out in the pre-war Yiddish homeland and complement, rather than duplicate, the work of its sister institutions elsewhere
The Vilnius Yiddish Institute is situated in Vilnius University’s History Faculty, where it occupies a two-level headquarters in the four-century-old campus in the heart of the Old City, a stone’s throw from the spot where the Gaon of Vilna lived out his life immersed in his studies.
The Institute is dedicated to cultures “that have no army or navy.” It also enjoys close ties with the small but vibrant Jewish Community of Lithuania and its Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. Thanks to early gifts from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the Yung Yiddish Center of Jerusalem, the institute has a growing working library. As soon as funding permits, it will begin producing a catalogue of the substantial Judaica holdings of Vilnius University, in order to make these treasures accessible to researchers everywhere. Further plans include a cartography of the Yiddish cultural geography of the region; production of CDs of authentic Yiddish folk music; documentation of major sites of pre-war Jewish culture in Vilnius and their marking with multilingual historical plaques; helping people from around the world rediscover the towns from which their families hailed, and seeking out genealogical records. All the Institute’s activities are conducted on a strictly non-profit basis, with surpluses reinvested in the institution and its programs.