From That Place and Time

In 1938, Lucy S. Dawidowicz journeyed from New York City to Vilna, then in Poland, to study at the Vilna Scientific Institute (YIVO). In her year there, she befriended both impoverished and wealthy Jews, learned much about the history of Vilna and its Jewish inhabitants, undertook research with other scholars at YIVO, and witnessed examples of brutal Polish anti-Semitism. Dawidowicz places the everyday lives of the Jewish population of Vilna within the context of European anti-Semitism. She shows the constant Polish effort to break down the fabric of Jewish culture, from hooliganism, spontaneous, physical attacks on Jewish males, to forced speaking of Polish rather than Yiddish at council meetings, to boycotts of Jewish shopkeepers. Although there was often disagreement among the Jewish population as to how to fight Polish efforts to destroy their culture, Zionists, Revisionists, Yiddishists, and other groups worked together to exert Jewish influence in the Polish government and to preserve their rights as a race.

When Dawidowicz returned to the United States at the outbreak of the war, she felt terribly guilty that she had been able to flee to safety while her friends were left to an unknown fate. She followed the movement of the war through various newspapers, always searching for details of the condition of Vilna and its Jewish population. After the war, she was able to fill in more of these details as she worked with Jewish survivors in Europe and, to her great joy, began to recover YIVO books and documents. Although nearly all of Vilna’s 60,000 Jews were killed, and the city itself was razed by the Nazis, Dawidowicz preserves a piece of history through the telling of her story.