Disasters and resurrection of the city

1. Fires that changed the face of the city

Great fires left many of the city’s inhabitants homeless, without workshops and churches. They disrupted the rhythm of daily life and the development of Vilnius. The flames took away the old architecture and documents testifying to the city’s past. However, it was the fires (e.g., in 1610 and 1748) that noticeably changed the face of Vilnius. Piles of rubble and soot on the walls of churches, palaces and houses gradually took on new shapes that are easily recognisable today and bloomed in unseen colours.

2. Death in Vilnius: Epidemics

For a long time, generations of Vilnius residents faced recurring epidemics – the city was repeatedly devastated by the plague and there were as many as eight cholera outbreaks in the 19th century. Epidemics claimed the lives of many residents of Vilnius and disrupted the city’s development for a long time. Many decades later, Vilnius faced an insidious virus again. For a few weeks, the usually lively streets were empty and public life died. But, as experience has shown, epidemics pass and the city rises again with a renewed joy for life.

3. Flood: The Loss and Recapture of Vilnius

Moscow’s soldiers occupied Vilnius after an unsuccessful battle of the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the Green Bridge on 8 August 1655. The first days of the occupation were devastating – the remaining inhabitants were killed; churches, monasteries, palaces and houses were looted; and ornate coffins were even taken from funeral crypts. The city’s archives perished in flames. The occupation lasted for more than six years, but eventually the Lithuanians managed to retake the city and life gradually returned to normal.

4. Vilnius – on the road of armies

Since the middle of the 16th century, Vilnius has been a convenient stop for marching foreign armies. The interests of East and West clashed most brutally here. In 1812, the city saw the undefeatable Emperor Napoleon and his Grande Armée and later closely watched as tragedy struck this army. In 1915, Vilnius felt the horror of the unprecedented World War: Russia quickly evacuated the city and the Germans occupied it. The war in Vilnius and for Vilnius lasted until 1920. In 1939, the city became one of the first victims of the war started by the Soviets and Nazis. The Soviets occupied the city in September, the Nazis occupied it in 1941, and then the Soviets came back in 1944. The occupier’s armed forces only left Vilnius in 1993.

5. For our freedom and yours: Attempts to cast off the yoke

In 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, uprisings erupted against the yoke of the Russian Empire in the former Republic of the Two Nations. Vilnius became an important centre for the fighters. In 1830-1831, the rebellion committee secretly operated in the city and many inhabitants and students joined the rebels. However, when the rebels attempted to liberate Vilnius from the outside, it ended in the defeat at the Paneriai Hills. Vilnius University, the city’s most important centre of culture, science and freedom, was closed. In the uprising of 1863-1864, the inhabitants of Vilnius fought in the squadrons of the legendary Ludwik Narbutt. Secret resistance organisations operated in the city. After their defeat, the commanders Zigmantas Sierakauskas and Konstantinas Kalinauskas were captured and killed in Vilnius, and their bodies were hidden. However, the city returned its heroes – after one-and-a-half centuries the commanders were found, solemnly honoured and buried. The legendary slogan of the rebels spread in Vilnius again: “For our freedom and yours.”

6. Vilnius Ghetto: Losses like scars in the history of the city

The Nazis established a ghetto in the very heart of Vilnius in 1941-1943. Jews from the city and its suburbs were imprisoned there. The Old Town, divided into Small and Large Ghettos, was both a Jewish prison and a place of Jewish spiritual and physical resistance to the macabre politics of the Nazis. The ghetto’s so-called paper brigade, led by the poets Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, rescued and hid Jewish cultural treasures. The ghetto library run by Hermann Kruk became a refuge, giving hope to hungry and fearful ghetto prisoners. The ghetto theatre was an oasis for short-term joy in an environment of ignorance. Although unsuccessful, the armed resistance of the ghetto served as a reminder of the Jewish spirit of Vilnius until the liquidation of the ghettos – it did not give in to the horrors of the totalitarian regime. Today, this memory is ingrained in the Paneriai Memorial Museum far away from the territory of the former ghetto. Paneriai was a massacre place of the Jews from the Vilnius Ghettos during the Holocaust.

7. Post-War Vilnius

The city is more than just a collection of buildings; it is also the people. During the post-war period, Vilnius lost a great number of both. Buildings were demolished indiscriminately, without too much regard to condition, value or history. It was necessary to free up space for the wide boulevards and squares typical of a socialist city. People were chosen more carefully – those who were not politically or ideologically-aligned were sent to Siberia. Vilnius, the city that lost a significant part of its population during the war, had to say goodbye to many local Poles who were evicted to communist Poland. One of them was Jan Bułhak, a photographer from Vilnius. Without him, the morning fog hanging over Vilnius’ valley was no longer the same.

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