The Jewish community in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) was a world center for Jewish learning and orthodox study of Torah. The city once boasted over 100 synagogues, only one of which survived the Holocaust.

German troops captured Vilnius in late June 1941 and over the next few months killed more than 21,000 Jews, about one-third of the city’s total Jewish population of 60,000.  Lithuanian police took an active part in the murders. 

A presumably staged sniper attack on August 31, 1941, resulted in great violence against the Jews. Between September 1 and 3, 1941, five thousand Jews were arrested and then murdered in nearby Ponary Forest.  The remaining 20,000 Jews were herded into two ghettos and another 3,700 were killed in the process.

By the end of 1941, all of the inhabitants of the smaller ghetto had been murdered, and just 12,000 Jews would be permitted to remain in the larger ghetto to be used as slave laborers. 

As in many ghettos, the Jews of Vilna engaged in spiritual as well as armed resistance activities. Although opposed by some, such as the diarist Hermann Kruk, on the grounds that  “You don’t make a theater in a graveyard,” concerts, dramatic and literary events were a common occurrence.  Every Sunday, six to seven events took place with as many as 2,000 participants.  In this way, Jews raised their morale in the face of an increasingly bleak future.

With the motto penned by poet Abba Kovner -- “We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter” -- the armed resistance carried out acts of self-defense.  The ghetto leadership, however, following the will of the majority of the population, turned over the resistance leader Yitzhak Wittenberg to the Gestapo in 1943 in a futile attempt to avoid further Nazi atrocities. Afterwards, the resistance concentrated on cooperating with partisans in the nearby forest who used guerilla tactics against the Nazis in anticipation of the advance of the Soviet Army.

In August and September 1943, on the orders of Heinrich Himmler and Bruno Kittel, the surviving members of the Vilna Ghetto were deported to Estonia, killed in the Ponary forest or sent to death camps in Poland.  One of the victims was the poet Hirsh Glik, who penned the words to the famous partisan hymn Zog nit keynmol, du gehst dem letstn veg (Never say that you have reached the final road).  Only a few hundred Jews from Vilna survived the Holocaust.