Jews had lived in the area now known as Lithuania since the fourteenth century. Between 1569 and 1792, when it came under Russian control, Lithuania was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the largest empires in history. Within the empire and afterward, Lithuanian Jews remained a distinct group known as Litvaks. The vast territory where they lived included areas of northeastern Poland and areas of Belarus, Latvia, and Prussia.
In the nineteenth century, much of the region was under Russian control. Antisemitism and official anti-Jewish policies often interrupted the growth of the Jewish community. Tensions escalated when the Russian government blamed the Jews for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. As a result, three years of anti-Jewish riots—known as pogroms—ensued. These and other antisemitic outbursts in the Russian Empire dealt a massive blow to Jewish communities in the region. Many Jews were killed and their homes were plundered; in response, thousands of Jews looked to leave Lithuania, with many emigrating to South Africa and the United States. Their goal was freedom and economic security. More ideologically driven younger Jews emigrated to Palestine, spurred by the dream of establishing a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland.
Before Alexander II’s assassination, Jews in the region had experienced years of intellectual growth and a thriving culture. Lithuania had been a center of Jewish learning and religious study during the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Vilna in particular was called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Many Jewish religious movements were vibrantly represented in Lithuania; examples include the legendary Orthodox Mir Yeshiva, whose members were later rescued by the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. In the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius (or Vilna), Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (also known as the Vilna Gaon, or the Genius of Vilna), who lived from 1720 to 1797, established a school of thought that attracted some of the brightest minds and scholars in the Jewish world. One of his students, Rabbi Hayim of the Volozhin Yeshiva, became the leader of an influential movement called the Mitnagdim, which is Hebrew for “opposition.” (For more background, see the “Misnagdim” entry in the Yivo Encyclopedia.)
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jewish culture in Lithuania thrived, despite outbreaks of antisemitic violence spurred by the growth of multiple secular movements, including Zionist, socialist, Bundist, and communist organizations.
After World War I, Lithuania became an independent state again. However, the capital and the city with the largest Jewish population, Vilna, had been incorporated into Poland. The remaining Jews living in Lithuania were emancipated—their rights were mostly recognized—but by the early 1930s, the economic crisis known as the Great Depression and rampant antisemitism among ultranationalist groups were having an effect on the Jewish community. On the eve of World War II, despite the earlier loss of Vilna, 160,000 Jews lived in Lithuania—about 7% of the overall population.