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International Centre for Litvak Photography

Putting Litvak history back in the picture

Litvak (lit-vak). Noun. A Litvak is a Lithuanian Jew. The word almost certainly originates from the old Polish vernacular litwak, meaning a person from Lithuania. To a traditional, Yiddish-speaking Litvak, Lithuania—known in Yiddish as Líte—refers to the large geographical area located more or less within the borders of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, once the largest country in Europe and the region where Litvak life and culture originally evolved some seven centuries or so ago. Thus for example the artists Mark Rothko and Marc Chagall were both Litvaks, as indeed was Simonas Rozenbaumas, the Pinsk-born politician who represented a newly independent Lithuania at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and who served as the Lithuanian Minister for Jewish Affairs between 1923 and 1924. Almost completely annihilated across the length and breadth of their native land during the Holocaust, the majority of today’s Litvaks live abroad with barely 2,000 living in Lithuania today. Historically, Lithuania’s Jews were made up of two distinct groups, the ‘fun-loving’ Hasidim who famously liked to dance and the more erudite and austere Misnagdim, of which the latter still often refuse to acknowledge that the former are Litvaks at all.