Milwaukee Jewish Federation >> Mission to Vilnius and Berlin
Join the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s mission to Vilnius, Lithuania and Berlin, Germany.
Vilnius used to be a very important Jewish Center in Europe. From the 14th century onwards Jews settled in the city, and by the 18th century, Vilnius had become the world center of traditional Talmudic learning, eventually becoming known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, or more generally the Jerusalem of the North.
The pre-World War II numbers are staggering: Vilnius’ Jewish population was nearly 100,000, about forty-five percent of the city’s total. There were two hundred Jewish communities across the country sustaining the lives and livelihoods of about 240,000 people. Vilnius had 105 synagogues and prayer houses. There were six daily Jewish newspapers. Yiddish was the language of choice.
The post-war numbers are horrifying: Only 24,000 Jews survived, as approximately 90 percent of the Jews had been murdered. Today, Vilnius’ Jewish population is 5,000, a mere five percent of what it once was. The country is home to 6,500 Jews, some 200 of whom are Holocaust survivors. Most of the two hundred pre-war communities were decimated, wiped off the map entirely. There is only one Jewish newspaper. Few people speak Yiddish anymore. Today, only one synagogue remains in Vilnius.
Berlin became the center of Jewish enlightenment as the 18th century drew to a close and came to advocate for Jewish equality and secularism. The Weimer years (1919-1933) were the golden age of the German and Berlin Jewry. By 1933, 160,000 Jews called Berlin home. In the years leading up to the Nazi’s ascendance to power, attacks on Jews increased. Between 1941 and 1943, all the Jews were deported to camps throughout Europe and on June 16, 1943, Berlin was declared “clean of Jews.” By 1945, only 8,000 Jews remained in Berlin and most who survived were in hiding or married to non-Jews.
Germany has confronted its past. Public schools are required to teach about the Holocaust and make mandated visits to former concentration camps. Reparation payments were made to victims, and laws were enacted to make it a crime to deny the Holocaust or to display Nazi symbols. Immigration laws were finally liberalized no longer requiring German blood as a precondition to becoming a citizen.
The Germany of today is a different place, particularly in Berlin, where 45,000 Jewish residents now live. Waves of immigrants have arrived every decade since the war ended. Most recently large numbers of young Israelis are moving to Berlin, attracted by arts, culture, and a more reasonable cost of living. Ironically they live quite peaceably in the same emerging neighborhoods as young Muslim emigres. And for the first time since the war, German-speaking rabbis are being trained in seminaries.
To learn more about the mission, email or call Patti Levy at 414-390-5733.
2015 SHOFAR KRAKOW Mission