Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania
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Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania

Opened October 30, 2017

Vilna, the Yiddish name for the present capital city of Lithuania [Vilnius in Lithuanian] is the name of the exhibition. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who is said to have gazed upon the Great Synagogue of Vilna during his stay there in June 1812 and announced that this was indeed the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”  Our work in Vilnius, Lithuania involves not only the Great Synagogue but other important institutions of the Vilnius and indeed other parts of Lithuania. The Jews were in Lithuania from the 15th century onward and in many cases made up significant parts of the population of the cities from north to south. They established synagogues, bathhouses, cemeteries, libraries, study houses, yeshivot, and schools for every age group and of every different religious and even secular background as well as Yiddish theaters, concert halls, literary and labor union halls, and a host of Jewish restaurants, businesses, and sports and cultural institutions. In short, in many ways, it was like the Jerusalem of old, a fully functioning religious and civic society whose Jewish creativity and productivity rivaled the great Jewish societies of the past in Israel, Babylonia, Egypt, and Spain.

Vilna’s name invokes a whole series of the greatest leaders, artists, and writers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Beyond the most famous religious leaders that began with the Vilna Gaon, Eliyahu ben Solomon, in the 18th century, Chaim Berlin, Israel Meir HaKohen, Chaim Soleveitchick, Eliezer ben Yehuda (credited with reviving the Hebrew language), and Abraham Mapu, (one of the founders of modern Hebrew literature), were all from Vilna.  The city was a center of Jewish publishing (the famous Romm Printing House was the most important Jewish publishing establishment in Europe in the 19th century), and the city was a base for major Jewish newspapers, as well. Some of the most famous Israeli prime ministers’ families (Levi Eshkol, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu all trace their roots to Lithuania), Jewish Nobel prize winners, Abraham Cahan, editor of the famed Yiddish newspaper, Forverts (The Forward) for 50 years, performers like Al Jolson, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan all have family ties to Lithuania, and some of the greatest thinkers and artists, including Jascha Heifetz, widely regarded as the greatest violinist of the 20th Century, Emanuel Levinas, philosopher, and Ben Shahn, the graphic artist, as well as the renowned Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade, are all from Vilna. The Bund, the general union of Jewish Workers, was founded in Vilna in 1897, and the city was the home of YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, established in Vilna in 1925. What was it about this Eastern European town that made this genius and creativity possible? Can we rediscover the magic, which made it great by uncovering its hidden material culture secrets?

The University of Hartford Research group has taken on the challenge of working together with international researchers in an effort to reveal these secrets through systematic and rigorous geoscience and archaeology. The University of Hartford group is a collaborative team of archaeologists, historians, geoscientists, and has included cooperating allied scientists from the United States, Canada, Israel, Lithuania, France, and the United Kingdom, that have been working together on non-invasive forensic geoscience projects in support of archaeology for the past 20 years. A group of students from our universities accompany us every summer to participate in the research and be mentored at a site by our faculty and staff we are joined by students from the USA, Israel, Canada, Lithuania and elsewhere and they are involved in uncovering some of the most important discoveries of the world of pre-war Vilna. This University of Hartford exhibition includes sites that we worked on in the Greater Vilnius area, including: the Great Synagogue, the HKP labor camp, Rasu Prison, and the Ponar Extermination site and in the north, including:  the Nazi Prisoner of War Cemetery of Silute, the Jewish Cemetery of Kaunas, and the killings sites of Fort IX, VII and IV.