The Jewish Museum, as an institution concerned with Jewish culture and traditions, has a long tradition in Lithuania . The first Jewish museum was established in Vilnius (then Vilna) in 1913 through the efforts of the Society of Lovers of Jewish Antiquity. The activities of this society and museum were interrupted with the outbreak of the First World War. In 1919, noted Jewish writer Sholom Zanvil Rapoport (better known under the pseudonym of Sh. An-sky) revived the society, renamed the Lithuanian-Belorussian Society for Jewish History and Ethnography. The Jewish Museum was re-established in 1920 and named posthumously after Sh. An-sky.
When Vilnius was occupied by Polish troops that same year, the Jewish History and Ethnography Society continued its work in Kaunas, the interim Lithuanian Capital. In 1931, the Society finally established a Jewish museum, similar to its predecessor in Vilnius. On the eve of the Second World War, the Museum housed over 3000 objects and 6000 books, as well as other valuable items, such as letters, memoirs, and pinkasim (Jewish Community’s chronicles). In addition, there were more than a hundred thousand documents, photographs, newspaper issues, etc. Original texts of the privileges (charters) granted to Jews by the Grand Dukes the late Middle Ages, were considered the most valuable museum item.
With the annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union in 1940, the museum was placed under the supervision of the People's Commissariat (Ministry) of Education and lost its independent status. In May 1941 the museum was handed over to the Soviet Lithuanian Academy of Science.
Another Jewish museum was established in Polish Wilno (as Vilnius was then called) in 1925. It was known as the Theater Museum of the Institute for Jewish Research, or YIVO. Uma Olkienicka was the director of the museum. The collection was centered around the personal archives of well-known actress Esther Rochl Kaminski. The researchers of YIVO continued to collect material and planned to establish various Jewish museums dedicated to education, art, ethnography, sports and literature.
With the establishment in 1940 of the Soviet regime in Lithuania many Jewish institutions were abolished. The country’s Jewish communities and Hebrew-language institutions ceased to exist. Most periodicals were shut down. The YIVO Institute, the Sh.An-sky Museum and the Jewish History and Ethnography Museum in Kaunas fell under the jurisdiction of the People's Commissariat of Education. Many staff workers and some directors of these institutions were arrested and dismissed. Remaining staff were forced to re-orientate their activities. Even in an atmosphere of repression and under strict control by the authorities, these institutions continued their creative work. In 1941, just prior to the Nazi invasion, YIVO successfully inaugurated a large exposition dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the birth of Jewish writer Itzhak Leybush Peretz.
Historical and cultural work did not stop even with the outbreak of the war. The ghetto intellectuals strived to save the Jewish nation s cultural and historical heritage. They urged other inmates to preserve items of historical and cultural value, even in the difficult ghetto conditions. A museum was established in Vilnius to preserve such items. German and Lithuanian documents were collected. These included orders and regulations issued on the Jewish question, and eyewitness accounts, especially those of mass murders, and other Nazi cruelties.
In September 1941, the Nazis established the Vilnius and Kaunas divisions of the Alfred Rosenberg Headquarters. The goal of these units was to collect Lithuania’s Jewish artistic and cultural valuables, which amounted to the plundering and destruction of a large portion of Lithuanian Jewry’s cultural heritage. The Strashun, Balosher, and YIVO libraries, the Sh. An-sky Museum and the Kaunas Society of History and Ethnography were ransacked. A group of approximately twenty inmates from the Vilnius ghetto were forced to assist the Rosenberg Headquarters in this infamous work. Those Jewish intellectuals risked their lives to save the valuable items. The brigade of the twenty included Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerl Kaczerginski, future founders of the post-war Vilnius Jewish museum. Some Lithuanian non-Jewish intellectuals, such as Assistant Professor M. Abramowicz, Vilnius University librarian Ona Šimaitė, and writer Kazys Boruta, helped the Jews in their endeavors. In the ghetto, special hiding places were prepared to store the rescued items.
In the summer of 1944, while the Second World War still raged, a Jewish museum, the only one in the Soviet Union, was established in Vilnius. Jewish survivors who returned to the city founded the museum shortly after the withdrawal of Nazi troops. Soviet authorities could not understand the need for such an institution. Nevertheless in late August of that year a committee for collecting material under the aegis of the Ministry of Education was established, although it was not until the end of 1944 that the Jewish Museum was officially registered under the authority of the Soviet Lithuanian Ministry of Culture. Writer Shmerl Kaczerginski became director. His apartment was chosen as the first site for the museum which in the beginning had no other premises. The activities of that institution were not typical of a museum. Apart from collecting and preserving the Jewish cultural heritage, they also listed the addresses of returning Jewish survivors. The museum received numerous letters from across the Soviet Union and abroad with inquiries about people's relatives and acquaintances, the majority of whom were victims of WWII. The museum became the spiritual and cultural center for Vilnius Jews where all current problems facing the community were discussed. The museum leadership dealt with the highest echelons of power as a representative of the Jewish people. The museum ultimately found a home in the former ghetto library and jail buildings at 6 Strashun (now Žemaitijos) street. Surviving Jewish cultural treasures were brought to this location from numerous hiding places. The museum undertook a number of tasks. These included the preservation of what remained of the Jewish cultural heritage, collection historical material, preparation of expositions and preservation of mass murder sites and other important Jewish sites.
Each item pertaining to Jewish heritage that could still be found, and had not been destroyed by the Nazis, was brought to the Jewish Museum. These included books, manuscripts, periodicals, archives of Jewish pre-war institutions and societies, archives of the YIVO and the Jewish Community, as well as Judaic ceremonial objects. Among the surviving objects were the works of 47 Jewish sculptors, as well as a collection of paintings by Mane Katz, Max Band, Feferman and Mergoszilski . A lot of material, especially archive documents, was discovered in cellars, attics, and various other hiding places. The most serious obstacle was the difficulty involved in physically bringing the numerous items to the museum site. Since Soviet authorities could not fully appreciate the value of the surviving Jewish artifacts, most of the items were doomed to destruction, and were removed to paper-recycling factories.
The first museum exhibition was titled "The Brutal Destruction of the Jews during the German Occupation". This reflected the most relevant Jewish theme for those days. Exhibitions on the Vilnius and Kaunas ghettos, the Paneriai murder site, and Jewish literature were soon added.
A resolution dated June 10, 1949, passed by the Council of Ministers of Soviet Lithuania, ostensibly meant to reorganize the Jewish Museum into the Vilnius Local History Museum, in fact meant the museum's abolition. Their rich collection was sent to various institutions. The resolution allowed the transfer of ethnographic material to the Local History Museum, exhibits for revolutionary events to the State History and Revolution Museum, and objects of artistic value to the Art Affairs Board. The books were passed to Soviet Lithuania‘s Book Chamber. All remaining inventory was handed over to the Librarians Training College. Archive materials were placed in storage in the Lithuanian Central State Archives. Lastly, the museum building was handed over to the Committee for Cultural and Educational Institutions.
The new Local History Museum and its expositions, such as The Achievements of Vilnius Industry through the Post-War, Stalin's Five-year Term and the Cultural Heritage of the City of Vilnius in the Post-War period had nothing to do with the Jewish theme and could not meet the needs of Lithuanian Jews.
Throughout the Soviet period, the existence of a Jewish museum or any Jewish institution in Soviet Lithuania was impossible. Only the Paneriai and Kaunas 9th Fort memorials made vague reference to the Jews, as victims of the Holocaust. Jewish history and heritage seemed doomed to total obliteration.
The situation suddenly changed with the Perestroyka reforms in the late 1980s. On September 6, 1989, the Government of Soviet Lithuania passed Resolution No. 177p. This resolution permitted the re-opening of the Jewish Museum after 50 years of non-existence. Governmental Resolution No. 56p, dated February 13, 1991, authorized the return of most of the stored artifacts from the post-war Jewish Museum to the re-established Jewish State Museum of Lithuania. The same year, the M. K. Čiurlionis Art Gallery in Kaunas donated the surviving objects it had in storage from the Kaunas Society of History and Ethnography to the new Jewish institution. These treasures became the basis for the Jewish Museum's collection. In 1997, on the 200th anniversary of the death of renowned Torah scholar the Gaon of Vilna, our institution was renamed the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.