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Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History
Vilniaus Gaono Žydų Istorijos Muziejus


Museum's Collections


                                                Museum’s origins and collections

The history of the collections of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History, which commemorated its 30th anniversary on 2019 year, dates back to the interwar period, when Jews in Vilnius and Kaunas began collecting, researching and preserving artefacts testifying to the history of Lithuanian Jews.
In the 19th century, with the onset of the Spring of Nations, national states appeared on the map of Europe. This encouraged nations to take an interest in their history and culture, and to research folklore, and create literature and art in their mother tongue. Interest in Jewish history and culture led Vilnius residents to establish the Society of Lovers of Jewish Antiquities in 1913, and a year and a half later a museum. The collection and exhibits were badly damaged during World War I. Part of the collection was sent to Moscow for security reasons. After the war, through the efforts of writer and ethnographer S. An-sky (real name Shloyme Rappoport, (1863–1920)), the society was revived, and the museum was restored. After the ethnographer died in 1920, the museum was named after him.
The S. An-sky Museum housed collections of religious and secular art, the personal belongings of famous Jews, and important historical documents, including the privileges granted to Jews by the dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which were presented as particularly valuable historical exhibits. Based on the museum's collections, the society published compilations of written and musical folklore and historical articles. Before World War II, the S. An-sky Museum owned over 3,000 exhibits, another 6,000 books and other valuables. Today, the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History houses exhibits from the collections of S. An-sky’s museum, including the exhibits of the Society of Jewish History and Ethnography in Lithuania (hereinafter – ŽIEDL) which was located in Kaunas in 1922–1941. In 1931, the society, which had been operating intermittently in Kaunas for some time, established a museum. Both societies, the one that operated in Vilnius region, which back then belonged to Poland, and the one that operated in the interwar Kaunas, which was part of Lithuania, devoted themselves to collecting historical material and archives until World War II broke out.
In the interwar period, one of the most important institutions that studied the life of Eastern European Jews was the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; it was established in 1925 in Berlin and operated in Vilnius. One of YIVO’s most important goals was to build collections in a variety of fields to help researchers conduct research. Ethnographic and historical material including sociological and economic data were collected. YIVO organized various exhibitions of items from its collections. The institute housed the Museum of Jewish Theatre.
The operations of all of these societies, museums and organizations were disrupted by World War II. In 1940, during the first Soviet occupation, all institutions were nationalized, and their collections were handed over to the Soviet authorities. However, an even more terrible fate befell these collections during the years of Nazi occupation.
The purpose of the Rosenberg Task Force (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (hereinafter – ERR)), established by Nazi Germany in 1940, was to rob cultural valuables from Nazi-occupied territories in Europe. Particular attention was paid to Judaic artefacts, which the Nazis were preparing to exhibit at the Jewish research institute which was to be established in Frankfurt after the war was over. After the occupation of Vilnius by the Nazi German army in the summer of 1941, the ERR discovered an unusually abundant treasure of Judaica, which consisted mainly of the collections of the Strashun Library, the S. An-sky Museum, and the YIVO collection.
In 1942, the Paper Brigade (Yiddish: di papir brigade) was formed. The Paper Brigade was composed of intellectuals imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto and they were required to select the valuables to be preserved. The appointed head of the Paper Brigade was head of the ghetto library Herman Kruk (1897–1944); one of the YIVO directors, Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885–1944), was appointed his deputy. Realizing the danger that had arisen for Judaic valuables and trying to save as many of them as possible from destruction, the members of the Paper Brigade finally decided that it would be safest to keep the valuables in Vilnius. What was not hidden in Vilnius was taken by the Nazis to Offenbach, Germany. Paradoxically, however, a large part of the documents and books of the YIVO institute and the Strashun Library survived particularly in Offenbach, a warehouse of valuables abducted by the Nazis. The surviving collection was transferred to the YIVO institute in New York after the war. Lithuanian Jewish valuables were torn away from their genius loci.
After the Red Army entered Vilnius in 1944 and the Nazis began fleeing to the West, the Jews who had survived the Holocaust returned to the city. A handful of people, including several members of the former Paper Brigade, began the search for rescued, hidden and scattered valuables. Unique fragments of Jewish heritage – documents, photographs, manuscripts, and other artefacts – retrieved from numerous hideouts from all around the city and the ruins of the ghetto testified to the pre-war life. On 25 July 1944, Juozas Banaitis (1908–1967), head of the Art Affairs Board, granted permission for the transfer of the rescued valuables that were recovered from hideouts to the apartment which Avrom Sutzkever (1913–2010) and Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908–1954) then shared in house No. 15 on Gedimino Avenue. With more and more rescued valuables discovered, the apartment quickly began to run out of space. It was necessary to find premises where the valuables could be properly stored and researched. The surviving buildings that housed Jewish cultural institutions before the war were already being used for other purposes and the only vacant space was the former ghetto library. The goal of the initiators who founded the Jewish Museum in this building in the autumn of 1944 was to restore a YIVO-like institute that would not only accumulate cultural valuables, but also conduct research and organize exhibitions. Staff collected the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, including their essays on life in the ghetto. They ensured that the massacre sites were commemorated and that the Great Synagogue was included in the heritage register. However, in June 1949, at the height of the anti-Semitic campaign initiated by Josef Stalin, the museum, which was the only operating Jewish museum in the whole of the Soviet Union, was closed. The established collections and exhibits were distributed to Lithuanian museums and archives, some of them spread around the world. Jewish history, culture, and traditions were not publicly discussed for 40 years.
Due to favourable political and historical circumstances, the revival of Lithuanian Jewish culture began at the end of the 1980s. After the restoration of the statehood of democratic Lithuania, there was an opportunity to talk publicly about the destroyed Jewish culture and to enable the reunion of the Jewish community. Enthusiasts and volunteers changed their profession, learned new skills and devoted their efforts to the restoration of Lithuanian Jewish culture. On 6 September 1989, the re-established Jewish Museum became the custodian of the remnants of Lithuanian Jewish cultural valuables which were scattered throughout various institutions. In 1997, on the 200th anniversary of the death of the Vilna Gaon, the museum was named after him. Since April 2020, it has been called the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History (hereinafter – VGMJH).
For 30 years the restored museum has been enriching its collections with new exhibits through cooperation with Lithuanian Jewish researchers, artists, families of the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Lithuania and their descendants, and Lithuanian and world collectors. This is how material exhibits and works of Raphael Chwoles, paintings by Samuel Bak, Yehoshua Kovarsky, Augustinas Savickas and the Savickas dynasty of artists, including Rhona Gorvy’s graphic art, became part of the art collection of the museum. A valuable collection of lithographs and drawings by Cornelia Gurlitt was donated to the museum by Dr. Hubert Portz, and the memorial collection of the family of Jacques Lipchitz, Berta Kitroser-Lipchitz and Andrejus Šimkevičius was handed over to the museum by the artist’s relatives. Eventually, in addition to the collections of photography, written works, documents, art, and material exhibits, an archaeological collection was complied. It has been annually enriched with artefacts found on the archaeological research site of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius located on Vokiečių Street, which has been researched by scientists since 2011.
Today, there are over 40,000 exhibits in the VGMJH collections. The exhibits that wandered in time and space, as well as the objects collected by the museum after the restoration of the museum in 1989, remember and testify to different historical epochs and realities.
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