Before World War II, Vilnius was one of the most important centres of Jewish life in eastern Europe. The Jews – first invited to settle in 1410 by Grand Duke Vytautas – made up around a third of the city’s population, mainly concentrated in the eastern fringes of the Old Town around present-day Vokiečių gatvė, Zydų gatvė and Antokolskio gatvė. Massacres of the Jewish population began soon after the Germans occupied Vilnius on June 24, 1941, and those who survived the initial killings found themselves herded into two ghettos. The smaller of these ghettos centred on the streets of Zydų, Antokolskio, Stiklių and Gaono, and was liquidated in October 1941, while the larger occupied an area between Pylimo, Vokiečių, Lydos, Mikalojaus, Karmelitų and Arklių streets, and was liquidated in September 1943. Most of Vilnius’s 80,000 Jewish residents perished in Paneriai forest, 10km southwest of the city.

Today the Jewish population of Vilnius numbers only five thousand. The city’s one surviving synagogue is a Moorish-style structure built in 1903 to serve a congregation that belonged to the Haskalah (“Enlightenment”) tradition – a nineteenth-century movement that aimed to bring Judaism into line with modern secularism. Originally known as Choral Synagogue, owing to the (then innovation) use of a boys’ choir during services, it was a popular place of worship for wealthier, westernized Jews pre-World War II, and now serves the whole of Vilnius’s remaining Jewish community.

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