In early July the words “Hitler was right” were painted in Russian on the memorial stone to the 72,000 Jews who were murdered at the Ponary Forest near Vilnius in Lithuania. On another monument close by, a vulgar reference was made to the compensation the Lithuanian government has made to the descendants of murdered Jews. No one seems to have noticed.

Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, was known for centuries as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” because of its centrality to medieval and early modern Jewish thought and politics. In the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews settled in Vilnius in considerable numbers from both west and east. Over centuries, Jews prospered under a regime that permitted them local autonomy. During the waning of the commonwealth in the 18th century, Vilnius was home to scholars such as Elijah ben Solomon, the “Gaon of Vilne”, the great opponent of the Hasidic movement.

In the 19th century Vilnius was home to the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, in the Russian Empire. After the first world war, the city was incorporated by Poland, though it was claimed by Lithuania as its capital. There were far more Poles than Lithuanians in the city, but there were about as many Jews as Poles, roughly 80,000 each in the 1920s. In interwar Vilnius, tensions between Poles and Jews and between Poles and Lithuanians were high, but relations between Lithuanians and Jews were relatively peaceful.