Before World War II, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was known as “The Jerusalem of the North.”
The city was the center of Jewish scholarship, home to rabbis and radicals, businessmen and artists. The YIVO Yiddish research institute was founded there. The sage known as the Vilna Gaon lived there.
Then came the Holocaust.
Ninety-five percent of Lithuania’s 200,000 Jews were victims of the Final Solution.
Vilnius became a setting of memories and memorials.
Now Vilnius is a venue of Jewish renaissance.
A U.S. Army reconnaissance unit parachutes into Vilna in 1943.
Surrounded by the Nazi and Russian armies, under heavy shelling, the American soldiers rendezvous with a Lithuanian partisan, a bearded hulk of a man named Bear. Stepping out of the rubble, Bear declares "We got package for you, very valuable, very ... breakable."
Maimonides scholarship is thriving. But there has always been a healthy interest in, and veneration of, the life and works of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon — in his Hebrew acronymic, “the Rambam.” Jewish philosopher, jurist and halachist nonpareil, physician, communal leader — Moses Maimonides looms larger than any other figure in Jewish intellectual, social, and religious history.
In a White House ceremony earlier this month, President George W. Bush honored several Jewish intellectuals who are authors of prominent books, and one Jewish New Yorker who helped save thousands and thousands of Jewish books.