Old town section of Vilnius, Lithuania.
A prominent feature of the city before World War II was its Jewish community, for nearly 150 years the centre of eastern European Jewish cultural life. Traceable as far back as 1568, this community comprised 20 percent of the city’s population by the middle of the 17th century. In the 18th century, under the influence of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, it underwent a decisive religious and spiritual growth, becoming renowned for rabbinical studies that between 1799 and 1938 produced texts of the Mishna, Jerusalem Talmud, and other works that are still standard. In the 19th century the community became a centre for the Haskala (Enlightenment) and was the home also of the first Jewish socialists in Russia; by the beginning of the 20th century it had become the focus of the Zionist movement in Russia as well. A flourishing source of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, with numerous newspapers and literary, scientific, and cultural periodicals, it was the birthplace of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (founded 1924). The German occupation during World War II destroyed the community, reducing the city’s Jewish population from 80,000 in 1941 to 6,000 by 1945.
Aerial view of Pilies Street in the old town section of Vilnius, Lithuania.
Many historic buildings survive, representing the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and classical styles of architecture. The ruins of the Castle of Gediminas on Castle Hill dominate the old town, with its narrow, winding streets that climb the wooded slopes surrounding the confluence of the rivers. There are a 16th-century Gothic Church of St. Anne and a dozen 17th-century Baroque churches, notably the Church of SS. Peter and Paul. The cathedral dates originally from 1387, but in its present form from 1801. Around the old town are the newer sectors of the city, with a rectangular street plan, large apartment blocks, administrative buildings, and modern factories. The historic centre of Vilnius was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.
Present-day Vilnius is an important industrial centre, producing machine tools, agricultural machinery, electronic calculators and other electrical and electronic apparatus, textiles, clothing, and foodstuffs. The city is the cultural centre of Lithuania. The V. Kapsukas State University is the successor to the Jesuit academy of 1579, and the Vilnius Civil Engineering Institute was founded in 1969. There are institutes of fine arts and teacher-training schools and several theatres and museums. The art gallery occupies the former town hall, built in the 18th century. Pop. (2021) 546,155.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray.