Although the Lithuanian State Jewish Museum and National Museum of Lithuania hint at elements Vilnius’ multiethnic past, I have yet to encounter a guidebook or a museum that presented it in an a straightforward or narrative manner. Consequently, I hope this humble contribution may be of some use to you in appreciating the multiple influences that have shaped what is now a predominantly Lithuanian city.
"Lithuania! My fatherland!" Every Polish schoolchild knows though words because the constitute (in Polish) the first line of Poland’s national epic, Pan Tadeusz. Yes, you did read that correctly. The explanation for this paradox is that their author, Adam Mickiewicz (or Adomas Mickevicus, as he’s known is Lithuania), hailed from the vicinity of Vilnius and attended Vilnius University until he was expelled for anti-Russian activities in 1824. That Lithuanians and Poles alike consider him among their greatest poets (the latter having a stronger claim in that their language was the mother tongue in which he wrote) hints at the fraught relationship between the two peoples.
The Polish-Lithuanian Union (1387-1795) preserved the latter’s independence. This prevented Vilnius (or Kaunas for that matter) from becoming a member of the German Hanseatic League, unlike all the major towns in modern-day Latvia and Estonia, and consequently it never developed a sizable German population. Lithuania did, however, acquire a sizable Polish population, and to this day ethnic Poles constitute 7% of the country’s population, making them the country’s second largest ethnic minority group (after Russians). Quite a few Lithuanians emigrated to Poland, among them some of the ancestors of Karol Wojtyla (better known to the world as Pope John Paul II) who honored them in 1993 by planting a cross on the Hill of the Crosses outside Siauliai in northern Lithuania.
In general, however, the relationship between the two countries, which today are officially NATO allies, has been highly contentious. Poles generally regard the Union as their nation’s golden age, while many Lithuanians regard it as a time during which Poland sought to politically and culturally dominate them. The second period of the Union, when it was declared a Commonwealth (Rzeczpolita) and the whole realm was ruled from Warsaw, rather than the constituent elements being governed from Vilnius and Krakow, respectively, particularly aggrieves modern Lithuanians. To put this in its proper context, however, Lithuanians much preferred this arrangement to rule by Russia (1795-1919) which sought to impose the Orthodox religion and Russian language on the country, even though Vilnius regained its status as a capital, albeit a provincial one.
The current uneasy relationship between Poland and Lithuania is rooted in the 20th century, however. Not only was Poland’s national poet born in Lithuania, so too was General Jozef Pilsudski, the founder of the modern Polish state, who was born in 1867 to a noble family in Zulow, although he regarded Vilnius as his home city. Although many of the region’s inhabitants were ethnic Poles, Pilsudski’s ancestors were Lithuanians, albeit ones who had long been Polonized. After defeating the Bolsheviks to assure Poland’s postwar independence, Pilsudski sought to retake Lithuania and Ukraine from them as well in the hope of reestablishing the Commonwealth. However Polish forces under General Lucjan Zeligowski (another ethnic Lithuanian) only succeeded in gaining control of Vilnius and southeastern Lithuania and after Lithuanian forces successfully drove out the Bolshevik invaders themselves, he was compelled to recognize the country’s independence.
Although Pilsudski’s actions and his opposition to Lithuanian independence are today generally seen as repugnant, they were typical of his time. Although he was eager to reestablish the Commonwealth for historical reasons, he did not believe that Lithuania was sufficiently large enough to preserve its independence as a practical matter. Both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (neither of which had previously existed as a political unit) were created at the same time based on the same assumption. Polish speakers also far outnumbered Lithuanian speakers within the city at the time, although the rulers of the new Lithuanian state regarded the city’s inclusion into Poland as such an affront that they designated Kaunas their "Provisional Capital." To this day, inhabitants of the city are wont to point out that it is the country’s most ethnically Lithuanian city, both as a proportion and an absolute number of its population.
It was Jews, rather than Poles or Lithuanians, who constituted the largest ethnic group in inter-war Vilnius. The first Jews came to Lithuania before the Polish-Lithuanian Union, at the invitation of Grand Dukes Augustus II and Augustus III, who sought their expertise in trade and as craftsmen. The community flourished under the toleration afforded by the Union (although this was often more in law than in fact) and concentrated its activities in Vilnius, which was second only to Warsaw as a center of Jewish learning. The scholar Gaon of Vilna, after whom a street in the Old Town is named, was esteemed as the 18th century’s Jewish scholar. This role continued between the wars as YIVO, a worldwide organization for the preservation of Yiddish language and culture, was located in Vilna (as the city was known in Yiddish), rather than Warsaw or New York.
Over ninety percent of present-day Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The extent of complicity by Lithuanians in the Holocaust remains heavily debated by the country’s historians to this day. While, as elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, many anti-Semitic attitudes persist, it’s to the country’s great credit that in addition to offering an apology for the genocide, it has established and supported a State Jewish Museum. Not only is such recognition of this historic community (which today numbers 6,500, of whom 5,000 live in Vilnius) welcome, but the candor with which the exhibition deals with the attempts of Lithuanians to both collaborate with the Nazis and save the country’s Jews is also particularly striking.
No summary of Vilnius’ multiethnic past and present would be complete without reference to the Russian influence on the city, although it is far less noticeable than in either of the other Baltic capitals. Large-scale Russian immigration began after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Tsarist Empire in 1795, and a century later, Russians constituted approximately a fifth of the city’s population, as they do today. The main testament to the period of Russian rule (1795-1919) are the city’s many Orthodox churches, although the most famous, the Church of the Holy Spirit, predates it. While the city’s outskirts bear the unmistakeable mark of Soviet architecture, and certain churches retain the scars of atheist reappropriation, central Vilnius seems less marked by this period than any other large city in the Baltics.