Remembering and Forgetting: Creating a Soviet Lithuanian Capital, Vilnius 1944-1949

Theodore R Weeks. Journal of Baltic Studies. Volume 39, Issue 4. December 2008.

Ernest Renan remarked in his famous essay ‘What is a Nation?’ that while remembering was crucial in forming national identity and consciousness, no less important was forgetting. Indeed, the writing of history as a patriotic enterprise proves this statement time and again, with the patriot-historian emphasizing the glorious and admirable deeds of his (nearly always ‘his’) nation and passing less agreeable—or more complex—realities unmentioned.

One may observe the same phenomenon of selective memory in certain policies of the Lithuanian communist leadership in the post-World War II period. While men such as long-time party leader Antanas Sniečkus were certainly communist believers (and loyal Stalinists), they were also Lithuanians. More importantly, they needed to rule a mainly hostile Lithuanian population that regarded communism as a foreign import. While they certainly did not shrink from terror and intimidation to push through their unpopular programs, at the same time they also did not shy away from using Lithuanian national symbols—lieux de mémoire—giving them, one might say, a rosy hue. They also attempted to re-define ‘Lithuanian’ by stressing the secular, cultural and linguistic aspects and downplaying the religious.

In this essay I would like to look at rhetoric, policies and city building (sometimes the three elements coincide) used by the Lithuanian communists in establishing Vilnius as the ‘Soviet Lithuanian Capital’ in the years immediately after World War II. The communists held one very important trump card: the Red Army had seized Vilnius from the Poles in 1939 and it was from Stalin’s hands that the Lithuanians received the city some weeks thereafter. Ironically this long-desired goal of the ‘nationalist’ and ‘bourgeois’ interwar governments (to use Soviet rhetoric) was only realized by the Lithuanian communists. Another long-standing goal of Lithuanian patriots was to lithuanize (or, to use their rhetoric, ‘re-lithuanize’) the city. When the city was taken by the Red Army in July 1944, very few members of Vilnius’ large and distinguished Jewish community remained alive. The communists encouraged (to put it mildly) the exodus of Poles so that by 1949 the city, while very far from purely Lithuanian, had a larger percentage of ethnic Lithuanian inhabitants than for many previous generations. And the city would grow steadily more Lithuanian throughout the Soviet years.

The Lithuanian communists also attempted a full-scale redefining of Lithuanian identity by stressing a new and modern interpretation, based on ‘progressive’ political views, a growing industrial working class, high culture (schools, university, Academy of Sciences, publishing), and friendship with the other nations of the USSR. While most Lithuanians would, no doubt, have interpreted the closing of churches in Vilnius as an anti-Lithuanian policy, communists dismissed such claims either by pointing to Polish influences among Catholic clergy or by simply dismissing religion as a personal (and rather retrograde) matter.

At the same time, forgetting was very important for creating a Soviet Lithuanian capital (and republic). More generally, Lithuanians were called on to remember the interwar republic in entirely negative terms as bourgeois and nationalist, ineffective in defending and expanding Lithuanian culture. In Vilnius, the city’s multiethnic past was actively forgotten, both rhetorically (e.g., by obliging Polish publications to use the term ‘Wilnius’ instead of the normal ‘Wilno’ to refer to the city) and physically (most egregiously, by the express ‘erasing’ of Jewish sites such as the old Jewish cemetery in Snipiškės and what remained of the Jewish quarter, including the damaged, but still standing in 1944, Old Synagogue). Another policy of forgetting was more general: a very selective memory of World War II which condemned a narrow stratum of Lithuanians as collaborators and ‘bourgeois nationalists’ while remaining silent on Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust.

Multiethnic Vilna-Wilno-Vilnius to 1944

Throughout its modern history, the population of Vilnius has been made up of a variety of ethnicities. Looking at the city’s Christian population in the second half of the seventeenth century, David Frick has remarked on the presence of Calvinists, Eastern Orthodox and Uniates among the majority Catholics in the city (Frick, pp. 23-59). Aside from Christians, among the town’s inhabitants one could find Muslim Tatars, Karaites (a sect of Judaism), and of course Jews. Jews had resided in Vilnius since the fifteenth century, but the Jewish community gained importance (and underwent various attacks, expulsions and returns to the city) during the sixteenth century (Klausner, pp. 3-6). The Great Synagogue in the Jewish quarter dates from the final years of the sixteenth century; it was destroyed during anti-Jewish riots in 1592 but thereafter reconstructed (Jankevičienė).

When the Russians extended their power over Vilnius in 1795, the bulk of the town’s population consisted of Poles and Jews, with significant Lithuanian, Belarusian and Russian minorities. The population of Vilna before 1897—when the first scientific census of the Russian Empire was carried out—can only be estimated. Around 1800 the population was said to be around 20,000. This figure was challenged, however, as too low by Michał Baliński in the most detailed statistical work on Vilna of this period. Using more precise official statistics of the early 1830s, Baliński set the city’s population at a minimum of 35,922 (and a maximum of 50,000). By ‘estate’ (stan) Jews formed the majority—nearly two thirds—of the city’s population. The second largest estate, remarkably, was not townspeople (mieszczanie, ca. 5,000) but nobles (szlachta), numbering nearly 6,600. Over 700 persons in Vilna belonged to the clerical caste and around 300 serfs made the city their home. The exact figures were: clericals 523 men and 188 women, szlachta 3,289 and 3,369, mieszczanie 2,424 and 2,506, serfs 152 and 167, Jews 10,040 and 10,606 (Baliński, pp. 59-61, 153). Even among the non-Jewish minority, Vilnius was a religiously and ethnically diverse city. To be sure, the majority (nearly two-thirds) of the city’s Christians were Roman Catholics, but almost 3,000 Orthodox believers lived in Vilna, along with Uniates, Lutherans, Calvinists and almost certainly a few Muslims and Karaites who do not, however, appear among Baliński’s figures (Baliński, p. 64).

It is exceedingly difficult to state with any precision just how many Lithuanians resided in Vilnius before the twentieth century. During the nineteenth century Lithuanians were a mainly peasant people, the Lithuanian nobles of earlier centuries having been thoroughly Polonized, in most cases for several generations before 1800. According to the census of 1897, Lithuanians made up only 2.1% of the total population (3,238 of 154,532) but many commentators at the time and later pointed out that this figure is almost certainly too low (Jurginis 1968, p. 304). As Catholics, Lithuanians tended to be counted with Poles; as servants, peasants and manual workers they were not always particularly interested in pressing the issue of national identification with census workers. In any case, however, it is clear that the Lithuanian minority in Vilnius before 1914 was small, almost certainly between one-tenth and one-twentieth of the city’s inhabitants.

After the First World War Vilnius was fought over by Polish, Soviet and Lithuanian troops, with the Poles finally capturing the city in October 1920 and holding it until the Soviet invasion of September 1939 (Senn; Łossowski). The Lithuanians, however, refused to concede the city to Poland, proclaiming it their capital and Kaunas only the ‘provisional capital’. This intransigence over the Polish occupation (from their point of view) of Vilnius translated into a total lack of diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Poland throughout nearly the entire interwar period.

In the late 1930s Vilnius was a provincial city with a university in the extreme northeast of the Polish republic with a population of just over 200,000. According to the late pre-war figures we have on nationalities in the city (1931), Poles made up 66% of the total city population, followed by Jews (28%), Russians (nearly 4%), and Lithuanians (under 1%). To be sure, the Polish authorities tended to do what they could to exaggerate the percentage of Poles among this region’s population, but these figures seem at least roughly correct. These official statistics almost certainly underestimated the number of Lithuanians in the city but their numbers were probably at most a few thousand (though no doubt higher than the 1579 total officially counted).

The Red Army entered Vilnius on 19 September 1939, having invaded Poland from the east two days earlier in accordance with the secret provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Soviet occupation lasted just over a month and on 28 October the Red Army relinquished control of the city to the Lithuanian authorities (Manelis & Samavičius, pp. 434-450). Thus, the later Lithuanian communist leadership could boast plausibly that without the help of the Soviet Union, Lithuania would never have achieved its goal of regaining its capital city.

Vilnius in 1944

The period 1939-1944 was an immensely painful one for all inhabitants of Vilnius. To be sure, Poles and Jews suffered more than Lithuanians, and Jews suffered far more than anyone else. When the Red Army once again entered the city in mid-July 1944, many of the city’s buildings were in ruins and nearly all of its Jewish inhabitants were dead (Arad; Lewandowska; Weeks). The only Jews left in the city emerged from hiding in the next few days, and as concentration camps were liberated further west some hundreds made their way back to the city in the next few months (Bak, pp. 362-381). Few Jews remained in the city, especially as local Soviet authorities were increasingly hostile to Jewish memories of the war, as the destruction in 1952 of the first Ponary (Lith.: Paneriai) monument (where thousands of Vilnius Jews had been murdered) showed. According to NKVD figures, at the end of 1944 84,990 Poles and 7,958 Lithuanians lived in the city (which had a total population of 106,500—less than half its population in 1939) (Lewandowska, p. 326).

While the percentage of Lithuanians in the city had increased during the war, Vilnius remained in 1944 a mainly Polish city by ethnicity—and this was a major problem and challenge for the new Lithuanian Soviet regime. It was, to say the least, problematic to have a Polish majority in the city which had been proclaimed the capital of Soviet Lithuania. A solution was rapidly found. On 22 September 1944 an agreement was reached between representatives of the Lithuanian SSR and the Polish Committee of National Salvation (the so-called ‘Lublin Poles’, a pro-communist government formed under Stalin’s auspices) for the voluntary evacuation of Poles from the LSSR and Lithuanians from Poland. According to this agreement, transportation would be provided for anyone wishing to leave, and the evacuations would take place from December 1944 to June 1945. Evacuees would be allowed to take personal effects with them, with some exceptions (no automobiles, motorcycles or furniture). Peasants could take tools, small livestock and the like, and would have land restored to them on the other side.

Immediately upon the arrival of the Red Army, Poles were given many indications that their days in Vilnius were numbered. One such ‘hint’ was the spelling of the city in the Polish-language communist newspaper, Prawda Wileńska, in its first issue on 17 July 1944—the paper wrote of ‘Wilnius’ (a form never used in Polish, simply the transliteration of the Lithuanian form) and greeted the liberation of the city and spoke of fraternal relations with the Lithuanians (Gazeta Wileńska, 17 July 1944). The subtext could not have been clearer: Poles were now tolerated by the benevolence of the new masters, the Lithuanians, and could continue to live in ‘Wilnius’, the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR) only under those terms. Only with the signing of the 22 September 1944 accord was it made clear that the Poles were expected to leave their native town and evacuate to Poland.

The first mention of the signing of the accord was published in Prawda Wileńska on 26 September with a short informational notice. Over a week later a longer article interpreted and evaluated the agreement in entirely positive terms, calling it a ‘new historical phase’ that would help wipe out ‘any kind of misunderstandings between Lithuanians and Poles’. Rather than living as a minority in the other’s country, now Lithuanians and Poles would join their national brethren in the two nation states. No doubt anticipating an obvious objection and uncomfortable comparison, the article declared that this agreement was ‘the diametrical opposite’ of Hitlerian policies of destroying nations and letting one rule over another. Now, rather, members of each nation would live among their own kind; in this way both the countries and individuals would quickly be able to develop normal and positive relations. As for the practical matter of moving thousands of people (numbers are never mentioned), the ‘extremely favorable conditions for evacuees’ was stressed several times. While the tone of the article was relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, it left no doubt that Poles were expected to leave Vilnius (Gazeta Wileńska, 5 October 1944).

In late 1944 and early 1945 arrests of Poles were also stepped up. To be sure, this was a rather grim period for anyone living in the LSSR but Poles in Vilnius had the additional disability of being considered ‘foreign’, middle-class, and quite possibly connected with the Polish underground that was being rooted out by the NKVD at that time (Niwiński). By the end of 1944, over 2,000 Poles had been arrested in Vilnius, and Polish residents, remembering the previous Soviet occupation of 1940-1941, had reason to fear worse. Different Polish historians cite figures of between 10,000 and 20,000 arrests from July 1944 to early 1945 (Mikłaszewicz, p. 245; Lewandowska, pp. 55-7). Whatever the exact figures, one thing was clear: the end for Polish Vilnius was approaching. Perhaps not realizing that the NKVD would be reading their letters (report [Spetssoobshchenie] of 27 February 1945), Poles expressed their fears that they would soon have to leave home. Anna Anasowicz (Vilnius, ul. Sadovskaia 3-3) wrote sadly, ‘We will have to abandon our beloved Wilno … for Soviet power has given over Wilno to the Lithuanians and we Poles, like it or not, will be forced to leave’. Around the same time Galja Dmitrowicz (Vilnius) wrote ‘they’re giving out new passports, but only Russian and Lithuanians get them, not Poles, so they will be forced to leave for Poland. … We Poles don’t want to leave for Poland’.

Taking into consideration the enormous energy lavished on the evacuation effort by the Soviet authorities, it seems impossible not to agree with a Polish historian’s assessment that ‘the Soviet authorities aimed at the quickest possible, most radical de-polonization of Vilnius’. However, the second part of this same sentence seems quite incorrect: ‘and to give it the character of a Russian city’ (Lewandowska, p. 330). On the contrary, the Soviet authorities wished to give the city a Soviet and Lithuanian character. While Russian specialists did arrive in Vilnius in large numbers after World War II, even larger number of Lithuanians migrated to the city. From the late 1940s to the end of the century, the percentage of Russians among the Vilnius population declined steadily.

Making Vilnius Lithuanian and Soviet

The most pressing single task for the Lithuanian communists upon liberating Vilnius was to rid the town of its Polish population. As we have seen, the 22 September 1944 agreement between the Lithuanian SSR (nota bene: not the USSR) and the Lublin Polish committee cleared the way for just such a population transfer. I do not wish to suggest, of course, that the Lithuanian communists were acting on their own or that the LSSR was a sovereign state. The expulsion of Poles from the LSSR was part of a larger program to expel ethnic Poles from the USSR’s (newly acquired in World War II) western borderlands. What I do wish to stress is that the Lithuanian communists used this all-Soviet program for their own ends, in particular to empty Vilnius of Poles while being much less concerned about Poles living on the countryside. As I have argued in some detail elsewhere, the clearing of Vilnius of its former Polish population was a matter of primary importance for the new Lithuanian rulers (Weeks). Indeed, in a secret letter signed by high Soviet officials A. Vyshinskii and A. Pavlov to Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov the fact that the ‘Lithuanians are primarily interested in evacuating Poles living in Vilnius (Vil’no)’ was noted.

The evacuation was carried out by two separate sets of bureaucrats, Polish and Lithuanian, with frequent stresses and (verbal) clashes between them. The Poles were fundamentally interested in evacuating anyone who wanted to leave; the Lithuanians led by later Minister of Education of the LSSR A. Knyva consistently demanded a closer scrutiny of evacuees’ nationality to prevent Lithuanians from emigrating. Of course nationality was not easy to ascertain in many cases, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the Poles’ more lenient approach. The Lithuanian side also pressed for the evacuation of Vilnius but devoted far less attention to rural areas populated by Poles. In the end, nearly all Poles in Vilnius left for Poland. Of the 171,168 individuals who evacuated from the LSSR to Poland, over half (89,596) were from the Vilnius region (we have no figures for the city proper, but the city made up the bulk of the population in the ‘rajonas‘). The disparity from other regions is even more striking when one compares numbers of those who registered to leave and the actual number of evacuees. In Vilnius region over 80% of those who registered actually left (89,596 of 111,341). In the other regions put together, fewer than one-quarter of those who registered actually evacuated (Srebrakowski, p. 98; Original source: AAN, Akta Gł. Pełnomocnika d/s Ewakuacji …, sygn. 167). In short, the ejection of Poles from the Lithuanian SSR amounted to ‘ethnic cleansing’ only for the city of Vilnius. To be sure, in time many Poles from nearby rural areas would come to Vilnius but their presence did not challenge the primary objective of creating a Soviet Lithuanian city. After 1947 the predominance of Lithuanian culture in Vilnius would never again be challenged by Poles.

A Soviet Lithuanian capital must obviously have appropriately named streets. Street names had already been Lithuanized in late 1939, the Polish names replaced by translated or entirely new designations (e.g., Mickiewicza became Gedimino). During the first Soviet occupation (that is, 1940-1941) efforts were under way to remove inappropriate names (with religious connotations or referring to the interwar Lithuanian Republic). With few exceptions, however, proposed name changes did not feature Russian socialist heroes (the exceptions are predictable enough: Stalin, Lenin, Gorkii, Voroshilov, Sverdlov, Kirov, Maiakovskii). On 9 May 1941 the Vilnius City Executive Committee and the presidium of the LSSR Supreme Soviet approved over 100 name changes of streets and squares. Thus ‘Archangel Way’ was to become ‘The People’s Way’ (Liaudies), Church Street—Citizens Street (Baznyčios—Piliečių), Martyrs Street—Fighters Street (Aukų—Kovotojų), Muhammedan Street—Uzbek Street (Mahometanų—Uzbekų), St. Peter and Paul—Tractorists (Šv. Petro ir Povilo—Traktorininkų), and Good Hope Street was to become Industry Street (Gerosios Vilties—Pramonės). Streets bearing the names of distinguished local Jews (Strašūno, Dr. Šabado, Gaono) were to receive the names of other distinguished non-local Jews (Mendelės, Š. Aleichem, M. Antokolskio). The great men Engels and Marx were also to be honored (Vokiečių and Domininkonų-Šv. Jono-Trakų, respectively).

The German invasion six weeks later probably prevented any of these name changes from being carried out. Discussions in 1944-1947 continued to mention the 1940 names (such as St. Stephen, Gaon, and the like). Lithuanian historian (and later co-author of the most comprehensive city history to this day) Juozas Jurginis addressed a letter to the Vilnius City Committee dated 16 May 1947 urging that a number of local notables be honored by having streets named after them. Among the names Jurginis put forward were the writer Żemaitė, poet Kazys Binkis, Vilnius resident and ‘historian of Lithuania’ Joachim Lelewel (his Polish nationality left unsaid), ‘anti-tsarist Vilnius worker’ [Hirsh] Lekert (his Jewish nationality and obviously Jewish first name left unmentioned), and others. In many cases these recommendations were accepted by the town council. Remarkably, the main downtown street Gedimino retained its Lithuanian name until 1952, when it was—for a few short years—renamed Stalino. Thus street names were to reflect both the international and socialist nature of the city, but also its past (though without specific reference to non-Lithuanian nationality, including the spelling of names in the Lithuanian manner). The city was also to undergo significant reconstruction to make it a suitable site for a capital of a Soviet republic. In the plans for urban transformation, the specific national element is seldom emphasized but could be taken for granted. In early 1941 a detailed report (in Russian) set down basic principles for the transformation of the city. First of all, all institutions of the capital city (many of which continued to function in Kaunas) needed to be brought to Vilnius as one means of sweeping away its present condition as a ‘provincial city of bourgeois Poland [Panskoi Pol’shi] which continues to preserve its half-feudal character and a chaotic building muddle’. The goal was to create a ‘well-built socialist city’. Mincing no words, the report stated baldly that insisting on ‘”conservation” [konservatsiia] of the old city’ was ‘entirely incorrect from the point of view of socialist city planning’.

Denouncing the Polish city planners who apparently planned to circumvent rather than modernize the old town, it was concluded that the old town needed a thorough and radical reconstruction. The idea of leaving the inhabitants of the old town ‘and in particular of the former Jewish “ghetto” [sic]’ in the terrible existing hygienic and transportation circumstances as ‘a peculiar museum exhibit’ was unacceptable in a modern Stalinist world (or, ‘in light of Stalinist concerns’: ‘v svete Stalinskoi zaboty‘). In particular, city traffic should be modernized by the extension of Gedimino across Cathedral Square to the east (which, presumably, would have involved the destruction of the cathedral itself), linking Vilnius Street directly with the Green Bridge to the north and plowing a ‘magistral’ (a favorite word in this report) to the railroad station. The report also bewailed the lack of proper open spaces for demonstrations and called for the opening up of such large squares. All of these plans would have involved a considerable destruction of the Old City and it is interesting that none of these ambitious projects was taken up again after the war.

The most immediate considerations after the war were practical. According to the later city architect of Vilnius, some 40% of living space and 30% of industry in the city had been destroyed under the German occupation (Mikučianis, p. 64). This impression is borne out by photographs and drawings taken of major streets of the city, showing numerous burned out and destroyed buildings. The area of the former Jewish ghettos in the middle of the city had been left in a state of almost total waste after the final liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto in September 1943 (Ran, pp. 515-22). Despite the devastation, the principal monuments of non-Jewish Vilnius still stood (mainly, of course, churches). But the Soviet leadership had grand plans for the city.

According to architect Vladislovas Mikučianis, who came to Vilnius in 1945, three basic principles were followed in drawing up a general city plan: (1) to open up the ‘picturesque Neris river scene’ which previous architectural plans had neglected; (2) ‘retain the rich silhouette of architectural monuments’ found within the Old City; (3) in developing the city, to preserve its natural setting (hills and surrounding forests) (Mikučianis, p. 69). At the same time, Mikučianis and his colleagues wanted to develop the city’s industry further, improve its profile as a Soviet capital with various prestigious architectural projects, and repair housing, infrastructure and communications. One of the earliest Soviet monuments to mark the downtown was the monument to Ivan Cherniakovskii, the Soviet general who had liberated Vilnius and was killed in action shortly thereafter. The general’s remains were interred and topped with a large obelisk in the downtown square that had previously borne Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa’s name (Mikučianis, pp. 75-7). The temporary monument was already in place for the 1 May 1945 holiday. In this way one relic of the Polish past was erased and replaced with a Soviet (though not ethnically Lithuanian) site.

Other major construction projects of the early post-war included the ‘”academicians” house’ (mokslininkų namas) constructed on the banks of the Neris River. This building was to be in a sense Vilnius’ answer to the famous ‘house on the embankment’ in Moscow, but in this case not specifically for party higher-ups but for scientists. The impressive structure, topped with a pompous Stalinist tower, contained 50 apartments of five rooms with 120 square meters each and even including a small room for ‘home workers’ (servants). The completion of this building in 1950 was a major event for Vilnius (Mikučianis, pp. 78-9; Vilnius (2005), G 1). Around the same time, the ‘Green Bridge’ over the Neris River was rebuilt and opened, adorned with four impressive statues representing students, the Red Army, industry and agriculture. The Railroad Station, devastated in World War II, was reconstructed in a pompous neoclassical/Stalinist style, and the ‘Victory’ Cinema in the same style was opened downtown (Vilnius, 2005, G2-G6). These major architectural projects emphasized Vilnius’ status as a republic capital of the USSR, but can hardly be termed ‘Lithuanian’. Rather, their architecture stressed the break with the past and Vilnius’ present status within the USSR.

Vilnius as a Center of Soviet Lithuanian Culture

While new architectural forms did not stress the national side of the Lithuanian Soviet capital, the uses of some new buildings did. For example, the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute (built across the river from the ‘Scientists’ House’ and completed in 1955) considerably expanded the possibilities for young Lithuanians to gain a university education. Vilnius University, too, was built up as a center for Lithuanian learning. Vilnius University had operated under Nazi rule for nearly two years until it was shut down in March 1943 (Naujoji Lietuva, 18 March 1943; Tiesa, 28 October 1944, p. 2). M. Biržiška continued on as rector until that date but—perhaps not surprisingly—ends his university war memoirs with the German invasion, noting that the Germans discovered a (Soviet) list with the names of many university officials (including the rector) who were to be evacuated to the Russian interior (Biržiška, p. 58; Merkys et al., pp. 27-44). During the war years Lithuanian culture had, on the whole, developed normally—at least compared to Polish or Jewish. The Lithuanian press, literature and theater in Vilnius expanded in the early 1940s (Linčiuvienė).

The communists did not, however, emphasize such continuities but preferred instead to dwell on the considerable damage that the Nazis had done to Lithuanian scholarship. The Communist Party daily Tiesa published an article entitled ‘How the Occupiers Destroyed Vilnius State University’ in late October 1944, the week after classes had begun at the newly reopened university. Headed by a Lithuanian rector (Professor Bieliukas), the university was already enrolling several hundred students in fall 1944 (Tiesa, 19 October 1944; 28 October 1944; 11 November 1944). The destruction of the war years, combined with the large numbers of arrests, deaths and emigration since 1940 meant that in many ways the university had to be recreated from scratch. It should also not be forgotten that the Lithuanian Vilnius University had only existed since the end of 1939 when the Polish professors at what was then called Uniwersytet Stefana Batorego (USB) had been unceremoniously fired and replaced by Lithuanians (Łossowski). While many specialists had fled Lithuania from 1940 on, the university was nonetheless reopened with overwhelmingly Lithuanian personnel, the language of instruction was Lithuanian, and the student body was predominantly Lithuanian (Manelis & Samavičius, p. 590). Indeed, Lithuanians were often obliged to come to Vilnius to study (or work) because of the post-war ‘downsizing’ of many faculties at the former Vytautas the Great University in Kaunas (Merkys et al., pp. 45-6).

Re-opening Vilnius University as a Lithuanian institution was extremely important both as a symbolic act and as a means of ensuring the training of proper Soviet Lithuanian specialists and scholars for the future. Equally important as both a matter of prestige and a method of tying the Lithuanian Republic into the Soviet system of research and scholarship was the founding of the Academy of Sciences of the Lithuanian SSR, which began work in October 1944 (Tiesa 31 October 1944). By institutionalizing Lithuanian scholarship within the framework of the multinational USSR, the Academy of Sciences served to strengthen both the Lithuanian and the Soviet elements in Vilnius (Šadžius et al., pp. 268-75). The party organ Tiesa repeatedly made this point by pointing out the flourishing of Lithuanian learning and culture since its liberation by the Red Army and arguing that for a small nation such as Lithuania, the best way for its security and cultural development to be ensured was the guarantee provided by being part of the powerful multinational USSR (Tiesa 17 March 1945, 27 March 1945).


In their attempts to fashion a new Soviet Lithuanian capital in Vilnius, the Lithuanian communists also had to forget—and seek to blot out, at least rhetorically—many aspects of the city’s past and present. The city’s rich religious heritage, for example, was ignored or actively opposed as sites of religious practice or memory were transformed into secular uses, altered in appearance, or simply swept away. In Vilnius, religion and nationality had always gone hand in hand. Now the city’s long multiethnic history (and the relatively small role played in it by ethnic Lithuanians since the eighteenth century at least) was also actively ignored or glossed over. While the friendship of nations within the USSR was trumpeted, mention of the now-absent Polish and Jewish inhabitants of Vilnius might call into question the now unquestioned dominance of ethnic Lithuanians in the Soviet capital. In another attempt to create a kind of new Soviet Lithuanian patriotism, the post-war authorities also fashioned a one-sided and Manichean ‘memory’ of Lithuanians’ experience in World War II.

For centuries, Vilnius had been an outpost of Catholicism in the east. But Catholicism had no role to play in the new Soviet Lithuanian patriotism. Catholic churches were shut down, though seldom actually destroyed. The cathedral became a picture gallery and had statues and its enormous cross removed from its façade (Pšibilskis). The Three Crosses monument, associated with the Polish 1830 Rebellion against Moscow, located on a hill next to the downtown Castle Hill was destroyed in the middle of the night on 30 May 1950. Less dramatically, dozens of other churches were closed in the late 1940s. City architect Mikučianis (who despite his Lithuanian name barely knew Lithuanian and spoke Russian as his native tongue and had only come to Vilnius after the war) recalled that after the ‘repatriation’ of Poles it was argued that there were ‘too many churches’ in the city (ignoring the inconvenient fact that most Lithuanian immigrants were just as Catholic as the Poles had been). Mikučianis also noted that the high Lithuanian communist official E. Ozarskis constantly complained that the church of St. Jacob clashed with the statue of Lenin on Lukiškių Square and should be destroyed (happily the church has outlived the statue) (Mikučianis, pp. 86-8). Following normal Soviet practice, one of these (St. Kazimierz/Kazimieras) was converted into the Museum of Atheism in 1961. Other churches were turned into storehouses, offices and in one case (the former Basilian Monastery near Ostra Brama) into a Technical Institute.

The timing of these repressions of religious ‘monuments’ is interesting. No major church was closed or destroyed (few were, in any case, actually destroyed) before 1948. In other words, the first order of business was to establish Soviet power (including putting the apparatus of repression in place) (Truska et al), expel the Poles (completed by 18 September 1946), and ensure the basic stability of the new Soviet order. It is surely no coincidence that the closing of churches came at the same time as the collectivization of Lithuanian agriculture (1948-1952).

Memory of Vilnius’ multiethnic past was also a victim of the postwar remaking of Soviet Lithuania. Reading any of the three main party newspapers of the LSSR, TiesaPrawda Wileńska or Sovetskaia Litva, in these years, one is struck by the almost complete lack of mention of non-Russian and non-Lithuanians in the city and region. To be sure, Prawda Wileńska did mention the opening of a Jewish museum in the city (at Strašuno 6) by ‘comrades Markelsówna and Sz. Kaczergiński’ (Bagrowska), but the same paper was capable of devoting an article to the ‘cruel past’ of the Vilnius suburb Paneriai (where the majority of Vilnius’ Jews had been murdered)—without mentioning Jews at all (Prawda Wileńska, 25 August 1944). Even in that Polish-language daily, one finds enthusiastic articles extolling the great things being done by the USSR for ‘our Lithuanian nation’ (‘nasz naród litewski‘) and its ‘capital Vilnius’ (using the Lithuanian spelling in Polish) (PW, 10 February1945). In the late 1940s Sovetskaia Litva devoted remarkably little room to anything Lithuanian at all, addressing more frequently the Belarusian population (though using the Russian language). However, one article in March 1949 did breathlessly describe the forward ‘rapid rebuilding of the capital of Soviet Lithuania’, with much about new buildings, landscaping and decisions of the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR, and not a word about the actual inhabitants of the town (Sovetskaia Litva, 20 March 1949).

Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic reports about the new Lithuanian Soviet capital appeared in the Lithuanian-language Tiesa. Here Lithuanian patriotism was inextricably intertwined with enthusiasm for Soviet construction, as in the article ‘Attention! Vilnius Speaking!’ about the opening of radio broadcasts in Lithuanian from the city, already in 1940 and once again in 1944 after the Germans had been defeated (Tiesa, 9 January 1945). A campaign in April 1945 called specifically on Lithuanians to move to Vilnius and repopulate the city, even calling it their patriotic duty (Tiesa, 4 April 1945, 8 April 1945). At the same time the newspaper was full of articles about the ‘eternal friendship’ between the Lithuanian and Russian peoples, enthusiastic subbotniki (sekmadienio talka) to clear rubble and rebuild, and of course on the great benevolence and interest of the USSR in general and Stalin in particular for the prosperity and cultural development of the Lithuanian people.

In the late 1940s Poles are seldom mentioned as inhabitants (past or present) of Vilnius in the Lithuanian Soviet press, except in the context of their ‘repatriation’. Similarly missing from press accounts is any mention of Vilnius’ once large Jewish community. Given the Nazi obsession with Jews and their unspeakable crimes against this nation, one might have expected the Soviets to emphasize these black deeds of their adversaries. In fact, however, the murderous deeds are discussed but often without any mention of the main target of these mass murders. We have already seen an article on Paneriai which failed to mention that over 90% of the tens of thousands of people murdered there were Jews. Perhaps even more egregiously, an article in Prawda Wileńska in early November 1944 mentions the death camp at Auschwitz (Oświęcim) but mentions Jews only in passing, as ‘one of the nationalities’ murdered there (Prawda Wileńska, 1 November 1944). Four months later another article on Auschwitz lacked any mention of Jews whatsoever (Prawda Wileńska, 25 February 1945).

Perhaps a few hundred Vilnius Jews had managed to survive to July 1944 in hiding. Once they emerged, however, they found that neither the general population nor the Soviet leadership had much interest in them or their story. Within weeks of the Soviet liberation of Vilnius, the Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski had founded in their apartment at Gedimino 15a the ‘Museum for Jewish Art and Culture’ and called on all survivors to contribute any documents or artifacts they had that related to Jewish Vilnius (Fishman, pp. 23-31), In a short time they had collected hundreds of documents only a few of which, unfortunately, have come down to us. The two poets who had survived as partisans also wrote their own accounts of the last days of Jewish Vilnius; Sutzkever’s was published first in 1946 in Paris and Moscow (later also in Buenos Aires); Kaczerginski’s appeared in 1947 in New York (Sutzkever; Kaczerginski).

By early 1945 the Jewish Museum had moved to Strašuno 6 (the previous location of the ‘paper brigade’ employed by the Germans in ghetto times to sift through Jewish-language materials) but suffered from the unwillingness of the Lithuanian Soviet authorities to provide it with basic funding, office supplies and furniture. Kaczerginski went to Moscow in March 1945 to complain about this neglect (to use a mild word) and there found out that 30 tons of material from the YIVO-Institute library and archives seized by the Nazi Amt für Müllabfuhr had miraculously survived the war. But despite all of Kaczerginski’s impassioned efforts, the material not destroyed by the Nazis was pulped by the Soviet authorities.

By mid-1945 the Jewish Museum was officially registered with three paid employees and the Moscow Yiddish journal Einikayt published an article on 2 October 1945 praising Kaczerginski and Sutzkever’s efforts. The museum, however, was forbidden to lend out any books without specific permission from Glavlit (censorship). The poets had had enough of the disinterest and even hostility of the Soviet authorities and left Vilnius in July 1946 for Paris. The Jewish Museum survived two more years before being shut down by the KGB in 1949 (Ran, p. 524; Atamukas).

The fate of other Jewish sites in Vilnius was similar. The area of the two Jewish ghettos set up by the Nazis (in the middle of the city) was a site of almost total ruin in 1944. (Agranovskii & Guzenberg, p. 49). The city architect Mikučianis recalled that despite the destruction, the walls of the Great Synagogue were intact and only the roof had been destroyed (Mikučianis, pp. 90-1). The surrounding buildings were damaged, but not gravely, and could have been repaired without enormous expense. In the end, however, the synagogue and surrounding buildings were razed and the entire former Jewish quarter essentially reconstructed, eliminating most of the small alleys which, admittedly, had long presented a problem for hygiene and sanitation. ‘German Street’ (Nemetskaia, Vokiečių) in the middle of the former ghetto area was widened and a small park constructed in the middle of the street (rather like a boulevard, but with the promenade in the middle rather than on the sides). The street was also renamed ‘Muzejaus’ (referring to the former town hall at its southern end, in Soviet times an art museum); ‘Jewish’ street (Žydų, Evreiskaia) was essentially eliminated by considering it merely an extension of Stiklių (Glasier) Street (Agranovskii & Guzenberg, pp. 69-70). In this way the Jewish quarter of Vilnius, now devoid of Jews, also had most of its specifically Jewish character and sites of memory erased.

Perhaps the most egregious destruction of a Jewish site was the paving over of the old Jewish cemetery just across the Neris River from downtown. Amazingly, this cemetery had survived the Nazi occupation almost intact (Ran, vol. II, p. 532). Mikučianis mentions laconically that already before the war the Polish authorities had planned to develop this site (it is, to be sure, a very central location). In 1950 certain historically important graves (such as that of the Vilna Gaon) were transferred to a new Jewish cemetery and the cemetery was razed to make way for a sports complex, pool and athletic fields (Mikučianis, p. 108; and Guzenberg 1992, pp. 64-66). While such facilities may well have been welcomed by the residents of Vilnius, given other available plots in the vicinity it seems clear that the old Jewish cemetery was destroyed not primarily for practical reasons but to blot out an inconvenient memory of a population that no longer existed in the city.

Actions taken by the Soviet leadership in Vilnius at the memorial site of Paneriai, where most of Vilnius’ Jewish population had been murdered, also demonstrate this desire to remove Jewish traces. Soon after liberation a monument was erected at the site which proclaimed in Yiddish and Russian eternal memory for the Jews of Vilnius and elsewhere murdered here. This monument was put up by Jewish survivors in 1945. Seven years later it was dynamited and replaced with a more modest obelisk without any Yiddish inscription and that spoke (in Lithuanian and Russian) only of ‘Victims of Fascism’ (Ran, pp. 533-4). The fact that Jews had been singled out for extermination and indeed had been treated vastly worse by ‘Fascism’ than ethnic Lithuanians was conveniently forgotten.

The Lithuanian communists knew well that they lacked popularity among the Lithuanian people and that they ruled only with the support of Moscow. At the same time, they made special efforts not to antagonize Lithuanian sensibilities. In particular the sensitive issue of Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazi occupiers was portrayed in a highly simplistic manner. Tiesa repeatedly denounced, for example, ‘Lithuanian-German Nationalists’ as the ‘Mortal Enemies of the Lithuanian people’ (Tiesa, 13 January 1945). But by portraying these Lithuanian nationalists as monstrous stooges of the Nazis (and, conveniently, as individuals who had fled to the West and/or had become anti-Soviet partisans), the Soviet Lithuanian officials both justified their brutal crushing of any anti-Soviet resistance and at the same time exculpated the vast majority of the Lithuanian population. Essentially a tacit agreement was reached: we Lithuanian communists will not examine the actual events and perpetrators of 1941-1944 too carefully (unless they were and are explicitly anti-Soviet). Thus even when volumes were published (often first in Russian) on the anti-Jewish massacres of the war period, the impression was given that only a very few despicable ‘Lithuanian-German nationalists’ (to use the above nomenclature) played any part, while the vast majority of the Lithuanian population actively attempted to help their Jewish neighbors (Kaplanas; Masinės žudynės 1965, 1973). In fact, of course, initial mass murders of Lithuanian Jews in summer 1941 were carried out almost entirely by Lithuanians, not Germans, though of course the Germans were quite happy to let the Lithuanians do their dirty work (Eidintas; Kwiet; MacQueen; Stang). The issue of ‘collaboration’ is obviously a painful and complicated one, but it is also a matter of crucial importance for understanding the history of the twentieth century (Tauber).

In the decade after 1944, the Lithuanian communists attempted to create a new Vilnius: the Soviet Lithuanian capital. To do this, they used a variety of means, combining repression, cultural policies and rhetoric. They essentially emptied the city of its Polish population and worked to bring in ethnic Lithuanians. On the rhetorical front, the Lithuanian communists harked back to historical figures (among them, Grand Duke Gediminas) and repressed more recent historical events and memories, in particular of the Polish and Jewish past in the city. They also worked to build up Vilnius as the center of Lithuanian culture and scholarship while making it a modern, industrial Soviet city.

In many respects the Lithuanian communists helped pave the way for the predominantly Lithuanian city of today. We, too, should be wary of ‘partial memory’ and ‘intended forgetting’ as perhaps understandable psychological mechanisms for wiping away uncomfortable and unattractive historical facts. Rather, by honestly and openly facing the multi-faceted and complex past, including Vilnius’ multiethnic population and the not-always-benevolent relations between Lithuanians and others, we fulfill our duty as historians and true patriots.