When visiting Lithuania, discovering Jewish heritage in Kaunas should definitely be included in your schedule. In the late-medieval and early-modern times, Kaunas was one of the most important cities in the region, and the center of Lithuanian’s cultural and economic life. Due to its advantageous geographical position, being nestled between the two longest rivers in the country, Kaunas still holds great significance as the second largest city in Lithuania, casually referred to as the “Temporary capital.”
Importance of Jewish Heritage in Kaunas
The Jewish contributions to the city can´t be overestimated, and it was, in fact, the impact of Jewish heritage on local architecture that resulted in the city of Kaunas being nominated for the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage tentative list in 2017.
The success story of Jewish culture in Kaunas started in the middle of the 19th century. Since 1858, when Jews began moving to the Old Town, the community grew rapidly, and by the beginning of the 20th century, approximately 20 synagogues and many prayer rooms existed. At their highest point, Jewish citizens made up as much as 27% of the population, and in 1923, two high representatives of the city were Jews: Yosef Roginski was elected as vice mayor and Meshulam Volf chaired the municipal council.
Exploration of Jewish Sites in Kaunas
Our Jewish tour of Kaunas starts not too far from the city center on Zamenhoff and Mapu Streets, the traditional parts of the Jewish area. Few remnants of Kaunas’ Jewish infrastructure are left, but amongst them remains the architectural jewel of Choral Synagogue, also called Ohel Yakov Synagogue, built in 1871. A stunning ark, arguably one of the most beautiful in the world, can be found there. We will pay respect to the Children’s Torah, the memorial for the Jewish children who were killed in Lithuania during World War I, and walk on the paths former generations of Jewish citizens have walked.
Other former synagogues in Kaunas are nowadays used for different cultural initiatives – for example, the Butchers Synagogue Building houses parts of the Vilnius Academy of Arts.
On the Jewish Kaunas tour, you will learn about some of the most important Jewish citizens of Kaunas, like the Hebrew writer Leah Goldberg (who was actually born in Königsberg but often identified herself as being from Kaunas) and the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, born as Emmanuelis Levinas in 1906 in Kaunas.
On the outskirts of the city, a Jewish suburb of pre-war Kaunas, called Slobodka, is located. We will visit this neighborhood on our heritage tour, as along with the dreary memorial Ninth Fort, commemorating the site where thousands of Jews from Lithuania, France and Germany were executed by the Nazis during the occupation of Lithuania.
The Old Town of Kaunas is a monumental pedestrian area where one can find all the main institutions of the city, such as the Town Hall, a vast number of stunning churches – for example the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica, with its ornate interior – and the Neo-baroque Presidential Palace, which served as the official residence of the president during the interwar period, during which time Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania.