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City in Lithuania, famous as a center of Talmudic learning, cultural institutions, and traditional Judaism. It was the cradle of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and a stronghold of Zionism and Jewish socialism from the 19th century on.

Jews settled in Vilna in the 14th and 15th centuries and were, for the most part, traders. In the beginning they were on good terms with their Christian neighbors. As the Jewish community grew and prospered, the Gentile population became hostile. Jews of Vilna suffered great losses at the hands of the invading Cossacks in 1654. The remaining Jews were expelled by the Russian King Alexis a year later, but returned once more after the victory of the Polish army in 1661. Early in the 17th century, Vilna again changed hands. It was occupied in turn by the Russian and Swedish armies. During this time, 4,000 Jews perished from famine.

Known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” the Jewish community of Vilna rose to prominence through its renowned scholars, the most famous being Elijah, Gaon of Vilna. It was also one of the centers of the Enlightenment (Haskalah) movement. In the early 1860’s, the scholar Samuel Joseph Finn published the Hebrew periodical Ha-Carmel in Vilna. Vilna was the seat of the well-known Romm Publishing house, printer of the Talmud.

Between the two World Wars, the Jewish population of Vilna was close to 60,000. The city had many yeshivot, Hebrew and Yiddish teachers’ training schools, and numerous newspapers. It housed the famous Strashun Library and the YIVO Yiddish Scientific Institute.

During World War II, Vilna was occupied first by Soviet Russia and later, in 1941, by the Nazis. The extermination of the Jews extended through 1942 and 1943. All the historic landmarks and institutions were destroyed. Only a few of Vilna’s Jews managed to escape the Nazi slaughter, among them several hundred who fought as partisans in nearby forests. It is estimated that 6,500 Jews were living in Vilna in 2006. They have a synagogue and a Chabad school.

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