From the 10th century on Jews lived continuously in Vilna and by the 19th century they were the city’s largest minority, driving its economic, cultural, educational and civic activities. From 1791 through 1917 Vilna was occupied by Russia in what was known as the Pale of Settlement, the region that is presently Poland and Lithuania. Czarist Russia was oppressive to Jews but nonetheless they propagated and thrived in Vilna. Directly after World War One, between 1918 and 1920, Vilna was successively occupied by Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and finally the newly reconstituted state of Poland, where it remained until 1938.
VILNA take place between 1922 and 1943. During this period both the Polish government and Catholic church made a concerted effort to undermine, impoverish, and suppress the Jewish community in Poland. The subsequent Nazi eradication of Jews in Eastern Europe was carried out with the ready assistance of the Poles and Lithuanians.
The chronology of the scenes in the play dramatizes the insidious and corrosive manifestations of antisemitism and the efforts by the Vilna Jews to transcend their circumstances and survive genocide. During the 1920’s:
- The newly reconstituted Poland immediately adopted rules and procedures to prevent Jews from serving in the civil service or as Officers in the military.
- Military Officers and enlisted men regularly engaged in violence against Jews.
- Jewish school systems were deprived of funding and Jews were not allowed to teach in Polish schools.
- Trade restrictions, tariffs and rules were specifically designed and deployed to hobble Jewish manufacturers.
- Quotas were implemented in Polish Universities to suppress Jewish enrollment.
The efforts to crush the Jewish community in Poland were further compounded during the 1930’s:
- The Catholic church, at all levels, regularly preached and published propaganda demonizing Jews.
- Manufacturing licensing laws were designed to take business ownership away from Jews or put them out of business entirely.
- Jewish students were segregated and forced to sit on “Jewish Benches” in University classes. Thugs were invited on campus by Administration officials to harass and attack Jewish students.
- Slander laws were passed to fine and imprison Jews who verbally responded to physical attacks.
- Kosher slaughter houses were outlawed.
- National boycotts and local marches against Jewish merchants were staged regularly.
- Russia, followed by Lithuania and then Russia again, occupied Vilna between 1938 and 1940. During these successive occupations Jewish commercial and civic organizations were ransacked, looted and closed.
During the World War Two years:
- The Nazis deliberately recruited Lithuanians to execute their eradication program in order to obscure their own role in organized genocide. Great efforts were made to capture and murder Jews in secrecy to instill doubt and ambiguity about what was taking place.
- Between June and September of 1941 over 30,000 Vilna Jews were murdered in Vilna. The remaining 30,000 Jews were herded into a five square block ghetto.
- The Nazis installed Jewish Councils, known as Judenrats to supply skilled Jewish labor to support the war effort. The Vilna Judenrat was notably distinguished by its effective sustenance of civic institutions and functions in the ghetto even as it was being systematically destroyed.
- Under extremely adverse living conditions, Jewish health professionals prevented outbreaks of Cholera,Typhus and other diseases in the ghetto by implementing rigorously enforced health and hygiene procedures. These procedures are cited today as best practices for preventing the outbreak of disease in disastrous situations: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318312/.
- Organized Jewish resistance groups were formed and were effective in sabotaging Nazi transport and supply chains in and around Vilna. These activities however jeopardized innocent people and created internal conflict in the ghetto.
- Between 1941 and 1944 80,000 Jews and others were shot and their bodies piled into storage pits in the Ponar forest outside of Vilna. To keep this killing activity secret the bodies were not burned.
- Towards the end of the war approximately 80 Jews were forced to exhume and burn these bodies to hide the evidence of genocide. A dozen Jews escaped by digging a tunnel out of one of the pits.
- Proof of this heroic escape could not be corroborated until 2016 when a team of international researchers used Electric Resistivity Tomography to detect and excavate the tunnel: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/science/holocaust-ponar-tunnel-lithuania.html. A documentary about this discovery was made and aired by PBS in 2016.