What is a Litvak?
A Litvak is a Jewish person with roots in the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and parts of Poland, Russia, and Ukraine).
The Lithuanian Community of British Columbia (LCBC) welcomes all who consider themselves Lithuanian by birth, descent, or loyalty. Members of LCBC include Litvaks, some of whom have served on our Board of Directors.
A Brief History of Jews in Lithuania
Jews have lived in Lithuania since the early 1300s, when they were invited by the Grand Duke Gediminas as artisans and merchants. In 1388, they were granted a charter by Vytautas the Great. As free subjects with the ability to run their own affairs in their own communities, they were active in crafts, trade, commerce, and banking, though restricted from land ownership and farming.
In 1495, Jews were expelled from Lithuania by Alexander Jagiellon, but were allowed to return in 1503. The Khmelnytsky Uprising in the mid-1600s greatly damaged existing Lithuanian Jewish institutions, though the population continued to grow. At the end of the 18th century, Lithuania became subject to the Russian Empire, and the rights of Jewish Lithuanians were further limited. During this time, there were periods of antisemitism and anti-Jewish policies, culminating in three years of pogroms after the Russian government blamed the Jews for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
For a short period after Lithuania regained its independence in 1918, until the eve of World War II and the Holocaust, Lithuanian Jewish culture thrived. Although the Jewish population was relatively small (160,000 in 1939, or 7% of the total population), it was largely concentrated in towns and cities, which had, on average, Jewish populations of 30 to 40%. Jews contributed greatly to Lithuanian trade, commerce, publishing, and the arts. Until the 1930s, when a depressed economy, fueled by Nazi propaganda, gave rise to bitter competition, Lithuanian Jews and non-Jews got together reasonably well – living as close neighbours, doing business together, and often attending the same schools and universities.
Tragically, this more or less peaceful coexistence came to an end after June 1941, with the Nazi occupation of Lithuania and the murder, over the next few years, of 90% of Lithuania’s Jewish population by Nazis and a relatively small number (estimated at several thousand people) of local Lithuanian collaborators. While active participation of some Lithuanians in genocide is deplorable, we should not forget that other Lithuanians, at great risk to themselves and their families, were saviours. As of 2022, 924 Lithuanians have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – probably only a fraction of Lithuanians who came to the rescue of their Jewish neighbours.
The Jewish population of Lithuania today is about 2200. Some Litvaks living outside Lithuania have restored their Lithuanian citizenship by applying to the Lithuanian government.