While there were other printing houses in the city, Widow and Brothers Romm was the largest. In the words of one contemporary writer, “It was almost a national institution. Whenever it was mentioned, nobody thought of it as an enterprise that was run by ordinary people.”
Yet it was. The Romm family first ventured into the field of Hebrew printing in 1789. The company’s founder was Baruch ben Yosef Romm, who established printing presses in both Grodno and Vilna. After he passed away in 1803, his son Menachem Man Romm inherited the business. When Menachem formed a partnership with Simcha Zimmel of Grodno, the two decided to embark on a huge venture – the publication of a new edition of the Talmud. Their goal was to correct many of the printing errors and omissions of previous editions, and they employed the best scholars and proofreaders they could find. The project took almost twenty years. Menachem didn’t live to see it completed, but his son Yosef Reuven did when the Shas was completed in 1854. But the story doesn’t end there.
In the 1880s the company decided to produce a new edition of the Vilna Shas. By then the company was run by Devorah Romm, the widow of Yosef Reuven’s son David, and her two brothers-in-law, Chaim Yaakov and Menachem Gavriel – hence the company’s new name: Widow and Brothers Romm. It is this edition of the Vilna Shas, completed in 1886, which became the model for all later editions.
How that happened is a small miracle. When the Soviets occupied Vilna in 1940, they destroyed the press. Fortunately, the plates for the Shas were removed from the premises beforehand and transferred to both the United States and Eretz Yisrael. Thus, even though this great Jewish printing house is no more, every day somewhere in the world someone is learning Gemara using the Vilna Shas of Widow and Brothers Romm.
By the eve of World War II, Vilna’s Jewish population was somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 souls. There were more than 100 synagogues and smaller minyanim. In the Shulhoyf alone there were approximately a dozen synagogues, including the Great Synagogue, which according to tradition could hold 10,000 people, and the smaller Kloyz (study hall) of the Vilna Gaon. Built in 1800, three years after the Gaon passed away, the Kloyz’s attic contained the Gaon’s study table and candlesticks.
Also housed in the Shulhoyf was the “Old Kloyz” (Beis Medrash), the Strashun Library (at the time, one of the largest Jewish libraries in the world), a bathhouse with a mikveh, a well and fountain where Jews living nearby obtained water, a kosher slaughterhouse, and communal offices, including the courthouse for the Beis Din. The Shulhoyf was thus one of the busiest sites in Vilna, the place where Torah scholars, merchants and laborers met and mingled, exchanging news and words of Torah. All that ended in World War II, when ninety percent of Vilna’s Jews were murdered between the years 1941 and 1943.
Soviet forces liberated Vilna in July 1944. The only synagogue that survived intact was the Choral Taharas HaKodesh, built in 1903, which the Nazis used as a medical store.
Today there are about 5,000 Jews living in Lithuania, mostly in Vilna. While there are glimmerings of Yiddishkeit – Jewish schools, assistance programs for the elderly and needy, and the like – there is very little to see of the old Vilna that was the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Yet, whenever a person studies from a Vilna Shas, or encourages a child to work hard and become a genius, a spark of the Vilna that was a mother city in Israel lives on.