Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Lithuanians Celebrate Goan's Legacy

Lithuanians Celebrate Gaon's Legacy & Lubavitch Opens New Center in Vilna

A week long conference commemorating the legacy of the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Soloman Zalman), sponsored by the Lithuanian government on the 200th anniversary of the Gaon's death, took place in September, 1997, despite protests and calls for boycott from several Jewish organizations, including the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The boycott was urged to protest Lithuania's inaction concerning the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. A number of internationally prominent scholars attended the conference, and many of the related events in Lithuania.

At the concurrent opening session of the Lithuanian Parliament, speeches were made praising the Gaon. Vytautus Landsbergis, chairman of Parliament, said: "The sage Gaon, revered by Jews throughout the world, was part of Vilnius's age of enlightenment." Many scholars and commentators have seen the recent government enthusiasm as an effort to appropriate the Gaon as a Lithuanian hero - rather than as a specifically Jewish figure, much as Czechs have transformed Rabbi Lowe into a national cultural icon (and substantially misrepresented historic truth in the process). Similarly, many Polish cultural figures active in Vilnius and elsewhere have been given new Lithuanian status.
Writing in The Forward (Sept., 26, 1997), Jay Harris described the academic part of the conference as "disappointing." He wrote: "beyond the invited scholars, few were interested. We spoke to each other, with virtually no Lithuanian scholars, politicians or lay people showing interest. The more publicly oriented events, by contrast, were a huge success, even as they seemed surreal."

A week after Lithuania's Jews commemorated the passing of the Gaon, the Chasidic Lubavitch organization opened a new Jewish center in Vilnius - a somewhat ironic event given that the Vilna Gaon, renowned commentator on the Talmud and the Torah, adamantly opposed the burgeoning Chasidic movement during the late 18th century. The Lubavitch movement established its first yeshiva in Vilna in the 1920s. Like other Jewish institutions that served the pre-war Vilna community of 60,000, it was destroyed during the Holocaust.

Representatives of the Jewish community and the Lithuanian government participated in the ceremonies marking the opening of the 10,000 square-foot facility in the city once referred to as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." The premises boast a library, children's game room, a dining room, and a computer room that will have a direct Internet connection. Formerly a run-down apartment house, the building was purchased by the Lubavitch movement through the bequest of philanthropist Joseph Rohr of Nice, France, in whose memory the building was dedicated. -SG

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Updated: 23-Jul-98