VILNA tells the story of Motke Zeidel and Yudi Farber, from the ages of 11 through 28, as they grow up in Vilna during its degradation in the Interwar years and its complete destruction by the Nazis during World War 2. Their encounters with historical people and situations chronicles the heroic perseverance of the Jewish community under extraordinary circumstances.
The play takes place in the remarkable city of Vilna, a highly evolved center of civilization where Jews lived since the tenth century. In the 18th century Vilna was the center of Jewish learning in Europe. Napoleon called it the “Jerusalem of the North”. In 1916, of 148,000 inhabitants, 61,000 were Jews, over 41% of the population! Never, before or since, has there been any place in the diaspora world with this Jewish demographic density.
Beyond this unique Jewish demographic, Vilna was further distinguished by being a highly evolved center of economic, cultural, educational, and charitable activity. Vilna was the antithesis of the stereotypical shtetl enclaves of Eastern Europe. During the 19th century innovative Jewish industrialists and merchants manufactured and traded contemporary products such as ready-made clothing and gloves. Vilna was the home to beer, tobacco, and sugar plants as well as mills, printers and tanneries. The civil infrastructure of the city was second to none in the world: It was the railroad transit hub for merchandise traveling between Russia and Germany. it had a telegraph system in 1838 and a telephone network by 1886. A municipal sewage system was built in 1899 (consider that London built its renowned sewer system in 1870). An electric power-generating station and wiring grid were in place by 1901.
By the late 1800s Vilna had dozens of synagogues, libraries, schools, theaters, museums, medical facilities, scientific institutions, newspapers, periodicals, journals and book publishing houses. The YIVO Institute was founded in Vilna in 1925. Renowned scientists, teachers, writers, sculptors, and musicians made their homes there. Yiddish was its lingua franca. At the beginning of the 20th century, Vilna had hundreds of Jewish educational institutions in which 13,000 children studied.
Vilna was renamed Wilno in 1921 when Poland was reconstituted, at which time the Jewish community fell into decline. The Nazis completely eradicated the Vilna Jews between 1941 and 1944, and the city was renamed Vilnius after World War Two when it became part of Lithuania.