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Litvaks history – Jewish heritage in Lithuania

November 03, 2022

The Litvaks, or Lithuanian Jews, have descended from the Germanic group of Ashkenazi Jews. During the development of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the 14th century, they were granted political and economic privileges in order to attract their migration to Lithuania and to develop trade and crafts in large cities. This led to the growth of the Jewish community in Lithuania, which in its heyday accounted for up to 10% of the total population of Lithuania.

The etymology of the word “Litvak”

The Slavic name for the Lithuanian state, Lithuania, is the source of the word “Litvak”. Lithuania in most of the Slavic languages is called Litva and the term Litvak simply evolved to mean Lithuanian Jew. Litvaks were Jews who immigrated to the Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

From the initial immigration from different European countries, a large Jewish community with its own customs, traditions and way of life gradually emerged. This community developed distinctive characteristics that are known historically as “Nusakh Liti” (Lithuanian way of life, way, manner). Based on these traits, Jews from Lithuania were referred to be “sheivet litvakes” (from Yiddish: “tribe of Litvaks”).

Common surnames and famous people

A common surname of many Litvak Jews was simply Litvak (or Litvakov). Also, some surnames originated from the names of the cities with large Jewish communities, like: Vilnius – Vilenski, or Kaunas – Kovner. Additionally, some surnames originated from the professions and crafts such as: butcher – Shochet, Glassblower – Glazer.

Bob Dylan is one of the most famous descendants of Litvaks

Among the famous Lithuanian Jews and their descendants are many scientists, writers, artists, political and religious leaders, Nobel Prize winners. Everyone knows the names of Leonard Cohen – singer-songwriter, poet and novelist, born in Canada; Bob Dylan – one of the greatest songwriters of all time, USA born; David Suchet – who plays the role of Hercule Poirot in the popular series based on the works of Agatha Christie, and was born in England.

The resettlement of Litvaks

During the 18th century, a growing number of Jews spread to all territory of Lithuania, where they became a significant force in developing the country’s economy, trade, and crafts, which naturally aided in the expansion and development of both ancient and new cities and towns.

During that period the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vilnius, gradually replaced Brest as the location of the Litvaks’ spiritual center. Vilnius’ Jewish population expanded, together with the number of religious experts living there. Jewish communities were given a considerable degree of political autonomy since achieved similar status to monks, burghers, and peasants in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a whole.

They had legal rights for residing among the Christians in their neighborhood and a separate code of laws “Jewish law” was used as the basis for their own self-government. The Jewish communities were allowed to form a national administration.

Lithuania was completely annexed by the Russian Empire beginning at the end of the 18th century (1792–1795). The loss of Lithuanian independence also adversely affected Litvak communities. The Russian Empire decided to restrict the migration of Jews and their settlements were limited only to the provinces of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, the so-called “strip of settlement”.

This area, which had a high density of Jewish residents compared to other parts of the Russian empire (and many European countries), was sometimes known as “Yiddishland” (“Land of the Jews”).

Jewish community before WW2

During the WW1 most of the territory of Lithuania was the battlefield between the Russian and German Empires. After Russia excited the war and civil war broke out Vilnius was successively captured by Polish and Soviet-Russian forces numerous times in 1919–1920. Polish and Soviet Russian armies alternately controlled Vilnius on several occasions, while the emerging Lithuanian Republic was also trying to establish control over its historical capital.

However, Lithuania’s success was short-lived and Vilnius was forcibly integrated into Poland in 1922. During this period of fighting between Germany, Russia, Poland and, eventually, Lithuania the Jewish community suffered.

The Lithuanian Jewish community, whose center was in Kaunas, the country’s temporary capital, and its numerous leaders actively participated in the creation, development, and armed defense of the Lithuanian state as well as in diplomatic efforts to have it recognized internationally. Jews made up more than 500 of the volunteers who fought for Lithuania’s freedom during this period.

The Republic of Lithuania’s 1922 Constitution included a clause stating that all people were treated equally in the eyes of the law. According to a separate provision titled “Rights of National Minorities,” minorities were given a certain degree of autonomy in managing matters related to their national culture, education, charity, and mutual aid, to the amount that was permitted by the law. To run their affairs, communities elected their representative bodies.

The so-called “honeymoon period”

The “honeymoon period” is referred to in the historiography of Lithuanian Jews as a short period of 1919–1922. Jews had ¬ministers as well as ¬representatives in Seimas. The Jewish Kahals (Jewish communities) received extensive privileges under the 1920 law to manage religious affairs, charitable work, social assistance, public education, and the preservation of civil status certificates.

Jewish organizations were very successful in accommodating thousands of Jews who had fled Soviet Russia during the period of the civil war there. Lithuanian Jews helped many to settle and find work, and to establish a vast network of educational, medical, charitable, social-assistance, and cultural institutions.

Unfortunately, the influence of Lithuanian liberal-democratic political forces was waning while right-wing parties were growing stronger like in most other European countries. The state’s recognition of Jewish national autonomy, which included all of its organs, was progressively reduced until it was abolished.

This also impacted how Jews were portrayed in Seimas and the usage of Yiddish in government institutions. The Minister for Jewish Affairs left the government in 1924. The Jewish National Council’s operations were outlawed. The Jewish communal Kahals were disbanded in March 1926. The rabbis were given control over civil registration duties.

Some numbers

  • In 1923, a population census was conducted in Lithuania, according to which 2.03 million people lived in the country. Of these, 154 thousand people were Jews. Litvaks lived in almost every town and many larger villages.
  • By 1939, the number of Jews in Lithuania had reached its peak of 210,000 due to immigration and the natural growth of the population.
  • From 91% to 95% of the Jews remaining at that time in the country (about 195 000 people) were killed during the Second World War. This figure is the highest Jewish loss of any nation during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, some Lithuanians influenced by Nazi propaganda also participated in these events. While at the same time some others were risking their lives by hiding and saving the victims.
  • Less than 25,000 Lithuanian Jews, were counted in the Soviet census of 1959 after the Shoah. The amount had decreased to 6,000 or less by 1993 mostly due to emigration to the USA and Israel. The community decreased further and as of 2011 had only about 3050 people.

Where do Litvaks live now?

The majority of Litvaks immigrated to the US, but 15,000 did so once gold and diamonds were discovered in South Africa. Although they were frequently listed as “miners” upon admission, they were mostly traders in items needed by miners.

Up to 75,000 Lithuanian Jews now live in South Africa. South African Litvaks are migrating into the primarily Anglophone countries.

There were 576 South African-born Jews living in Australia according to the Australian census of 2001; during the next five years, that number had increased by 2% yearly and reached 637. After 2006 immigration to Australia from South Africa increased significantly and according to the 2016 Australian census 12,092 persons identified as South African Jews.

Now the descendants of the emigrated Litvaks can get dual European citizenship

Many Litvaks living abroad have a right to restore the citizenship of their ancestors. In accordance with the Lithuanian Citizenship Law, the descendants of Lithuanian citizens before June 15, 1940, and who left the country before March 11, 1990, can acquire second citizenship without renouncing the main citizenship in their country of residence. This opens up a number of prospects and benefits for the holder of an EU passport.

Single Lithuanian citizenship is available to those whose ancestors left to the USSR unless they were deported (in which case they also can have dual citizenship).

If your family history allows you to apply for the status of a Lithuanian citizen, send an application and our managers and lawyers will explain to you in detail the process of obtaining second European citizenship.

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