The Glass Quarter of Vilnius: a historic Jewish neighborhood

Monika Grinevičiūtė | Live the World

November 23, 2022

When the first morning sunshine reaches the red and green Vilnius Old Town roofs, the Glass Quarter of Vilnius fills with the morning glory. The old buildings look like they squeeze next to each other, the small courtyards hide from strangers' eyes, the narrow streets like veins wind up around the quarter's corners. At first sight, the Glass Quarter looks like any other district of the Vilnius Old Town. But, gazing more deeply, you will notice the house with the year 1661 written on the wall, or the building with the Gothic arches, or even a hidden palace ensemble. Its time to explore the Glass Quarter of Vilnius in the broad daylight, as this more than 600-year-old historical Jewish neighborhood once was full of sounds of the glassblowers and goldsmiths. This historic neighborhood has many stories to tell. 

© iStock/RomanBabakin

Dating back to the 15th century

The Glass Quarter in Vilnius,  dating back to the 15th century with the Goldsmiths Guild, was established in this Vilnius district during the times of Grand Duchy. The history of Jewish in the Glass Quarter dating back to the 17th-century when a king Ladislaus IV Vasa gave the rights for the Jewish community to create its quarter in Vilnius. In the 19th century, the quarter was named after the name Glass, "Stikliai" in Lithuanian, because of the three streets (Glass St.1; Glass St. 2; and Glass St.3) established there which were full of glassblowers' workshops.  Coming back to the 17th century, the district was probably the most vivid quarter in Vilnius - full of merchants, craftspeople, jewelers, and financiers. Thus, according to all historical sources, the Glass Quarter was the business and trade district in Vilnius at that time.

© iStock/Liubov_Chuiko

The Jewish cultural hub

Besides the crafts and trade business of this district, the Glass Quarter was also a Vilnius Jewish cultural hub - full of synagogues, shops, taverns, and inns. After the Jewish community created this quarter, the streets were appended with The Great Synagogue and Judaistic Library. Sadly, The Great Synagogue, which at that time was able to host about 3 000 believers, did not survive until today. The Glass Quarter is also famous for the people who once lived there - as the Talmudist Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as Vilna Gaon. In Hebrew he was commonly referred to as ha-Gaon he-Chasid mi-Vilna, "the pious genius from Vilnius." However, the district also has its tragic side - during the Second World War, the quarter served as a small ghetto.

© Wikimedia Commons/Ber Zalkind

The Glass Quarter nowadays

The times have passed, historical spins changed the Glass Quarter appearance, but on the inside, the aura of the quarter persists the same. Even though this Jewish neighborhood is nowadays reborn, the remains of the past are visible not only on the building's facades or courtyards but also in the whole quarter atmosphere. The artist and jewelers' workshops still create crafts, the symbols of the Jewish culture and the Glass Quarter are alive in their art; the restaurants offer cuisines with the traces of Judaism. The art galleries are inspired by this religion. The street and store names prompt about the past of this district. The quarter nowadays is also full of trade life - the main street of the area is one of the best shopping streets in Vilnius. The quarter is also famous for its hidden courtyards. Some courtyards are now turned into the hotel receptions or summer terraces; other ones are well-hidden. Even graffiti on the walls of the quarter, created by the street artists, look like stolen moments of the previous lives that were running decades ago. 

© iStock/Birute

While exploring the Glass Quarter of Vilnius, take your time and explore its buildings and courtyards. You will be amazed by this historic Jewish neighborhood and how the past of this quarter remains alive in the houses, galleries, and glass workshops.

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