Henri Minczeles, Vilna, Wilno, Vilnius (1993)

It’s been ages since I delved into a serious history book. Not an essay, or a light historical sociology study on things I had already some idea of. No, a whole new reference book with dates, figures, facts etc. After visiting the Baltic countries during summer, I set about to really understand what we had seen there. A whole chapter of European history was missing: we were constantly confused by changes of frontiers, of language, and we were shown in various museums different versions of history. So I had to get back to the facts and try to make sense of them. 

This book is about the complex history of Vilnius, which is (now) the capital of Lithuania. But it wasn’t always so. It once was a large Polish city (the capital of Lithuania was then elsewhere), a provincial Russian town, but also a very important center of Jewish life in North-Eastern Europe: it was even called the “Northern Jerusalem”. Each community even had a different name for this place: it was Vilnius for Lithuanians, Wilno for Poles, Vilnè/Wilnè for Jews and Vilna for Germans and Russians. And it was not a peaceful, mixed coexistence at all. Each people also had its own language and its religion: Catholic for Poles, Orthodox for Russians, Judaism, Protestant for Germans, etc. Each people claimed the place as its own, and after centuries of invasions, jealousy, hatred, prejudices ran high. 

What is striking when you visit Vilnius is that the place asserts itself as Lituanian and European, but doesn’t really acknowledge the other sides of its complex identity. The Lituanian identity asserts itself against the Soviet occupation and through the peaceful liberation to get full independence, but this national pride is ambiguous too: 

In Minczeles’ book, I learnt that before WWII, more than half of the local population was Polish; the second largest group was Jewish (more than 33%), then came Byelorussians, Russians, Germans, Karaites (a small community from Crimea), Muslims (there was a mosque). Lituanians (defined by their mother tongue) only made for a few %. 

Minczeles’ book brings back to life the Jewish community of Vilnè before WWII, a community that disappeared almost totally during the Shoah. The nazi extermination was exceptionally efficient in Lituania, because anti-Semitism was common in the rest of the population and people didn’t mingle much. Vilnius didn’t seem to be a cosmopolitan city, but just a place where communities lived side by side without knowing each other. In the war context, this became of course all the more tragic for Jews who had no outside support. 

Although quite thick (I wish I could say that I read every page, but I mostly browsed through all the chapters), this book gave me a lot to think on Lituania, on the bygone Jewish European world, but more broadly on the borders of Europe and on what defines a city’s identity.

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2 thoughts on “Henri Minczeles, Vilna, Wilno, Vilnius (1993)

  1. European history is so interesting. I don’t read many books like this history books, but I really should. Borders changed so much throughout history–it had to be hard for the people who lived there–once you were Polish and then Lithuanian. I supose even now there must be people who might associate culturally more with people across their own border than with the people on their own side. I suppose it is not too surprising that history has been as messy as it’s been.

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