When Germany and the USSR occupied Poland and partitioned the country at the beginning of World War II, tens of thousands of Jews became refugees and began to seek a way out of Europe. Many migrated to the east, specifically to Vilna, which had been assigned to neutral Lithuania. Among the refugees who reached this city in an organized manner, Zionist leaders and activists stood out from the very first, as did much of Polish Jewry’s economic and intellectual elite. The refugees’ intention in Lithuania was not to settle there but to use it as a transit country only.
In June 1940, the USSR invaded Vilna and offered its citizenship to all the refugees. In a benign interval that lasted several months, the Soviets even allowed several hundred Jews to emigrate to the United States or Palestine via Vladivostok, Japan, and China (where some remained until the end of the war). Farther on, some of the Jewish refugees were exiled to the Soviet hinterland. All were lucky compared with those who remained in Vilna; the Germans invaded the town in June 1941 and doomed the Jews there to the fate of their comrades wherever Nazi occupation took root. This part of the exhibition presents a small selection of letters sent by refugees who had fled to the East, either while on the way or from the destinations of their migrations.