"We are under no illusions," said Dovid Katz, an internationally famous scholar of Yiddish linguistics and the institute's director of research. "We cannot recreate Yiddish society as it existed before World War II. What we can do is create a small, happy island of Yiddish culture that will allow scholars to come and study the language in its native heartland."
Katz started visiting Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus in the late 1980s in search of the "last of the Mohecans" - speakers of Yiddish in its original dialects. In small villages and towns, much to his amazement, he starting finding small numbers of Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) who had managed to survive the Holocaust and the cruel Stalinist repression.
"These native speakers are our real treasure," said Katz.
In 1998, Katz started the Vilnius Summer Yiddish Course, bringing a few dozen students in from around the world to learn the language spoken by these few remaining witnesses of the Yiddish-speaking civilization that had flourished for 600 years in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The Yiddish language is an intricate fusion of Germanic, Hebraic and Slavic elements and is well known for its humor, irony and powerful expressiveness. It arose around a thousand years ago in the Germanic speaking lands as the oral complement to the Hebrew and Aramaic written traditions, but it ended up producing one of the major European literatures, culminating with a Nobel prize for literature in 1978 awarded to Isaac Bashevis Singer.
In the wake of the crusades and many other anti-Jewish outbursts in Central Europe, more and more Jews headed eastward, welcomed by the tolerant medieval rulers of Lithuania and Poland.
Vilnius, or Vilna in Yiddish, was known as the Jerusalem of the north because of the many great Yiddish scholars and writers the city produced. Indeed, the Goan of Vilna (Eyliohu ben Shloyme-Zalmen, 1720-1797) is considered the greatest Talmudic genius of the last thousand years.
Although the new institute intends to stay out of politics as much as possible, Katz mentioned one exception. "We intend to lobby the Vilnius municipality to put up plaques around the city commemorating the great writers and scholars of the Yiddish language," he said.
"Right now one sees many plaques commemorating the Holocaust. I don't want visitors to think that Vilnius' Jewish history consists only of this tragedy. There must also be a commemoration of the magnificent civilization that was here prior to that time."
Starting Sep. 1, courses sponsored by the institute are offered for credit to students in any of the university's faculties. Katz's vision for the institute is as inclusive as possible.
"We want to attract Jewish students, Lithuanian students, students from all backgrounds," he said. "In my view, one young person who takes a serious, scholarly interest in Yiddish is infinitely more important than a thousand political speeches about tolerance."
In addition to teaching Yiddish, the institute undertakes expeditions to film and record the dialects and folklore of the few remaining in situ speakers. The aim is to create a digital archive of conversations for the use of future generations of scholars.
"These people are not getting any younger," said Mendy Cahan, the institute's director and chief sponsor.
While Vilnius University has generously provided the Yiddish institute space on the campus grounds under favorable terms, Cahan is looking for sponsors. "With stock markets tumbling," he said, "we're asking people to consider investing in culture."