Call of The North – Lithuania, Vilnius: one Poet, two Palaces, one Cathedral, a big-time Jew, and a couple of Zeppelins

Cathedral Square, Vilnius

The next morning, we walked in a direction opposite the Gate of Dawn to explore a new area in Old Town. Almost immediately we came across a Nobel Prize winner, as in “Josifas Brodskis slept here”. 

“Nobel laureate poet Josifas Brodskis stayed at this house in Vilnius between 1966 and 1971”

Iósif Aleksándrovich Bródskiy [1940 Leningrad – 1996 NYC], whose patrilineal ancestry goes back to 12th-century French exegete Torah scholar and poet (!) Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, was a Russian poet and American essayist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literatur in 1987 and was named Poet Laureate in 1991. Contrary to his illustrious rabbinic forebearer Joseph ben Isaac, Joseph ben Alexander faced anti-semitic persecution throughout his life in the USSR. The name Brodsky seemed vaguely familiar to me as I tried to decipher the commemorative plaque high up on the wall of the house on Liejyklos gatvé 3, the street of the foundries in former times. Later at home, with a google nudge and my own library, the pieces fell into place. In the early 70s, I read the autobiography of Nadézhda Yákovlevna Mandel’shtám, the widow of celebrated Russian Jewish poet Osip Emil’yevich Mandel’shtám, more commonly known as Ossip Mandelstam [1891 – 1938].


Tsarist Russia was no less anti-semitic than the Bolsheviks would prove to be subsequently. So much so, that Ossip felt compelled to convert to the Methodist faith in order to circumvent the imperial laws which forbade Jews to matriculate at universities. Funny, how anti-Semitism turned out to be the one thing the Russian Empire, the Don Cossacks, and the Bolsheviks had in common. Nadezhda Mandelstam published the first volume of her autobiography, which was really a testament to her husband, in 1970 under the title “Hope against Hope”, followed in 1974 by “Hope Abandoned”. The titles were a word-play on her name because Nadezhda means hope in Russian. I read the 1971 German translation called “Century of the Wolves”. Through her book did I first learn of Anna Akhmatova, groundbreaking poetess of Russian literature and the pre- and post-revolutionary circle of Acmeistic literati in the Guild of Poets in St. Petersburg, including founder Nikoláy Gumilyov, Mandelstam, and wonderfully crazy Vladímir Vladímirovich Mayakóvskiy of whom I have four volumes on my shelves. Brodsky, a couple of generations later, was mentored by Akhmatova while he, in turn, championed her and the most tragic of poets, Marína Ivánovna Tsvetáeva who lost one daughter to starvation during the famine of Moskow after WWI, and her husband and her second daughter to the perfidy of the Soviet regime, while her son died in battle in WWII. She, like Mayakóvskiy and so many others, was driven to commit suicide through the relentless harassment of the Bolshevik officials. As it was said in Brodsky’s Library of Congress obituary in the hyperlink above, “Joseph Brodsky was the embodiment of the hopes not only of Anna Akhmatova, the last of the great Petersburg poets from the beginning of the century, but also Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of another great martyred poet. Both of them saw Joseph as part of the guiding light that might someday lead Russia back to her own deep roots.” Neither Akhmatova nor Mandelstam foresaw that Brodsky was forced by the Brezhnev regime to emigrate and never returned to his homeland.

Moving past the Russian poets, we encountered yet another stirring revolutionary spirit in the person of a Lithuanian partisan general.


The memorial to freedom-fighter Jonas “Vytautas” Žemaitis is fittingly positioned in front of the Lithuanian Department of Defense
Partisan and honorary President of Lithuania Jonas Žemaitis aka Vytautas was right, but it took another 36 years before Lithuania gained its freedom from Soviet oppression.

What it doesn’t say in Jonas Žemaitis’ memorial is one especially revolting fact. Žemaitis suffered a paralyzing stroke a couple of years before he was arrested by Soviet agents and transported to the notorious Butyrka prison in Moskow where he was interrogated by the chief of the secret police Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria himself and subsequently murdered. Only a sadistic psychopath like Beria could delight in inflicting pain on an immobilized victim.

A few steps further on, we admired the grand façade of the Offices of the President of the Republic of Lithuania.


Seeing a somberly dressed delegation in the process of entering the left wing of the presidential palace, we decided to forgo a request for an audience. Instead, we walked toward Pilies gatvé through this narrow lane where more than one suspicious character lurked.

Pilies is a very touristy, busy street because it connects the major tourist sites of Cathedral Square and Town Hall Square and the Gate of Dawn in a nearly straight North-South line.

The northern terminus of Pilies gatvé is Cathedral Square with, naturally, the cathedral of Vilnius and a reproduction of the Grand Ducal Palace. All of it is overlooked by the last remaining fortified tower on Castle Hill.

Approaching Cathedral Square past the ever-ubiquitous e-bikes


Clocktower to the left, Cathedral in the center, Ducal Palace on the right, and …
… the monument to Grand Duke Gediminas in the foreground – complete with a roaring Iron Wolf, of course! His son Algirdas and grandson Jogaila are also honored.

Roughly one hundred years before the rule of Grand Duke Gediminas, Mindaugas, the only King of Lithuania, made a deal with the Pope of Rome in which the pope ordered Mindaugas’ coronation in exchange for the construction of a church. This church may have been a forerunner of the current neo-classical Cathedral of Vilnius which went back-and-forth through multiple embodiments as indigenous temple and church in its long history.

Version 2
Vilniaus Šv. Stanislovo ir Šv. Vladislovo arkikatedra bazilika – The Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus

Toward the end of the 18th century, three sculptures by Kazimierz Jelski were mounted above the wide tympanum of the cathedral. The central figure represents St. Helena with the True Cross portrayed as a 9m tall golden cross. In her left hand, the statue holds something else golden. I found no reference to this item anywhere, but considering the legends surrounding the saintly mamá of Constantine the Great, I assume that whatever sparkles up there on the roof symbolizes the nails of the crucifixion. To the left of St. Helena is a statue of the saintly young Prince Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania and Lithuanian youth, while St. Stanislaus the Martyr, patron saint of Poland is positioned on the northern point of the roof. I suppose Polish-born Hungarian King Ladislaus didn’t make the cut.



King Mindaugas only temporarily converted to Christianity for political reasons to get those pesky crusading German soldier-monks off his back. Lithuania was, in fact, the last European country to convert to Christianity. It didn’t formally turn toward the West and the Latin Church till 1387 under the direction of Grand Duke Jogaila who himself only converted to be allowed to marry the very pious 12-year old Jadwiga, Queen Regnant of Poland, thus becoming co-king of Poland as Władysław II Jagiełło while remaining Grand Duke Jogaila in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Through this fortuitous marriage, the House of the Jagiellons formed a personal union with the kingdom of Poland, stabilizing and further enlarging an empire that Gediminas established and which his sons Algirdas and Kęstutis, and their sons, Vytautas and Jogaila respectively, expanded from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Poland was a staunchly Catholic country, whereas Lithuania had a much more laissez-faire attitude toward religion. Since the country included portions of modern-day Ukraine and Belarus, and at times even Georgian and Russian areas, there were people of a variety of Eastern Orthodox faiths living in relative harmony next to Pagans, Catholics and Jews, Crimean Tatars and Karaites, and eventually even Protestants.


One better knows how to whisper very, very softly in that open-plan confessional!
View of the clock tower through the porch columns of the cathedral, although, it looks more like a lighthouse to me 😳 which isn’t that surprising since it started life as a watchtower in the medieval defense wall of Vilnius.
STEBUKLAS – miracle

This special tile in Cathedral Square, created by Gintaras Umbrasas as an elysian wishing-stone, is said to assist with sending your desires into the universe for their miraculous fulfillment. When you step on it and close your eyes while thinking about a fervid wish, it will come true. Eventually. In 1989, the miracle tile acted as the endpoint for the Baltic Chain of Freedom, a nearly 700 Km long human chain composed of up to 2 million people stretching from Tallinn in Estonia, through Riga in Latvia to this very tile here in Vilnius, Lithuania. After 50 years of totalitarian oppression under the Soviet yoke, the people of these three Baltic nations wished for the realization of democratic freedom – which came true less than two years later. It works 🍀 but only in conjunction with great determination and self-sacrifice.

From the cathedral, we walked over to the newly built National Museum-Palace of the Grand Dukes which was formally inaugurated on July 6, 2009, in the presence of many Lithuanian and foreign dignitaries. [even if you don’t care for that much text, do click through the pictures in the hyperlink above, lots of treasures!]

Not much room between the cathedral and the palace, a close relationship!
The gate through which the Grand Dukes made their ceremonial entry into the Court of Honor. Above the gate, a Vytis, the traditional Coat of Arms of Lithuania.

The white knight on his white horse is carrying a shield with the coat of arms of the Jogiellon House, the last branch of the Gediminic Dynasty. Below the Vytis one can barely see a pink granite plaque with a quote by the revered Lithuanian Humanist, and Vogt of Vilnius, Augustinas Rotundas (1520 – 1582):

„Respublica est societas hominum uno Deo, iure, rege ad commune et privatum bonum iunctorum“

A republic is a society of people whose members are united by one God, by one law, by one ruler, and in which all share a common & personal interest.

We didn’t get a chance to visit the museum’s interior, so we just toured the grounds on our own.


The restored tower on Castle Hill above the museum-palace is the only remnant of Gediminas’ 14th-century fortification. I don’t know the significance of the row of “core samples” we saw lined up in a service yard below the tower. They reminded me of Tibetan prayer or mantra drums, but I suppose it’s more likely that they might have been part of former defense structures. Meanwhile, the weather had turned ugly,


so we left quickly for the museum restaurant.


which was unfortunately closed also.


That left us no choice but to gallop not too gracefully through a heavy downpour across Cathedral Square back to Pilies gatvé, where we found shelter at Grey’s restaurant for a most delightful late lunch.

Since lunch included desert, we had to hike around Vilnius quite a bit to walk off the extra calories,

eventually arriving in the area of the former Jewish Ghettos of Vilnius. Two years into WWII there were an estimated 60- to 80 000 Jews living in Vilnius. During the scant three months between the beginning of the Nazi occupation in June of 1941 and the establishments of the two ghettos, already 21 000 Jews had been murdered in mass-execution events just outside the city and opportunistic street killings. A further estimated 40 000-plus souls perished during the two years the ghettos were maintained in Vilnius Old Town by the Reichskommissariat Ostland.

On the other hand, the previous 150 years had been a relatively peaceful, at times even prosperous period for the Jewish population of Lithuania. In the 14th century,  Grand Duke Gediminas invited artisans and merchants, including Jews, to Lithuania. During these tolerant times, the number of Jews in Lithuania rose steadily. “Lithuanian Jews” who became known by their nickname Litvaks, included the Jewish populations of modern-day Lithuania and Latvia, as well as parts of Belarus and Poland, plus border regions of the Ukraine and Russia. As such, it is probably more accurate to define this segment of Judaism in the East European diaspora not in geopolitical terms but through their spiritual practices. Litvak is often understood as another term for Mishnagdim, Ashkenazi who followed traditional rabbinical teachings based on strict, intellectual Talmudic studies. The Mishnagdim, מתנגדים – opponents, rejected the Hasidic lifestyle emerging in the eastern European region which included visions and mysticism. Therefore, the Litvaks were non-Hasidic or even anti-Hasidic Ashkenazim whose spiritual center came to be Vilnius, especially during the lifetime of the Gaon of Vilnius.

Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, Vilna Gaon – [1797-1720] ראליהו בן שלמה זלמן
And what, pray tell, is a Gaon? Gaon, plural Geonim, גאון, גאונים means genius in modern Hebrew. But a little further back, during biblical times around the 10th century BCE, gaon had a negative meaning in archaic Hebrew. It stood for prideful arrogance. Later on, in the olden days of modern times, Gaon was the title for the presidents of the Talmudic Academies in which rabbis discussed, collected and annotated the Talmud, first the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud (circa 400 CE) and then the Babylonian Talmud (circa 600 CE). These two versions of the Talmud form the basis of Rabbinic Judaism. They represent the collective body of Jewish Law and its interpretation. Since then, the honorific Gaon continued to be applied to the most learned Torah scholar of his epoch.
This brings us full circle to just such a scholar in the person of Elijah of Vilnius. The Vilna Gaon was highly regarded among his contemporaries and has been called a genius ever since, for that matter. He ranks uniquely among the most outstanding teachers of Jewish Law both for Sephardic as well as Ashkenazi interpretations. It is said that little Eliyahu, son of Shlomo, knew the TaNaKh by heart at age four. These 24 Books of the Holy Scriptures of Judaism form the basis for the Christian Old Testament and were written entirely in archaic Hebrew, salted with a little biblical Aramaic here and there. Not a bad achievement for a small child! After the age of ten, he had to study on his own because there was nobody left to teach him. Elijah was asked for halakhic rulings [similar to judgments in a constitutional court] by rabbis vastly senior to him in age and experience and his word was respected far and wide. Yet, the Gaon never published his extensive writings himself nor did he accept any official titles or offices. He was a very modest man. Nevertheless, his genius turned Vilnius in a spiritual center for Jews which was at one time called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. Statistics tell us that before WWII 45% of the population of Vilnius was Jewish, with 110 Synagogues and 10 Yeshivot, while the 2005 census counted 2000 Jews in all of Lithuania and there is currently only one synagogue active in Vilnius [Source Wikipedia]. However, the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania has proclaimed 2020, the 300th anniversary of the birth of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman:
The Year of Vilniaus Gaonui Elijahu and
The History of Lithuanian Jewry


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