YANKEV VIGODSKI (JAKUB WYGODZKI) (April 3, 1856-July 1941)
He was born in Bobruisk, Byelorussia. He studied in religious elementary school and yeshiva, and early on turned his attention to secular subjects; at age fourteen he entered the fifth class of high school in Marianpol, later studied at the medical-surgical academy in St. Petersburg, received his diploma in 1882 as a doctor of medicine, and in 1883 settled in Vilna where he rapidly became one of the most favored and popular doctors and a prominent community leader. During the years of WWI, when Vilna was occupied by the German army, Vigodski was an important member of the representatives of the Jewish population before the occupying authorities. The Germans interned him for his protestation against imposed contributions in Match 1917 in a camp for prisoners of war. Returning in April 1918 to Vilna, Vigodski joined the Zionist organization and was sent by it to be a minister in the first Vilna government, when in 1919 Vilna was for a short time independent. He was selected in 1922 to be a deputy from the Vilna region in the Polish Sejm. He served as a member of the education committee of the Sejm and energetically spoke out for the rights of Hebrew and Yiddish schools. He was later selected to be chair of the Vilna democratic Jewish community. He was also one of the principal supporters of the Vilna Troupe (1920), later a founder and chair of the Jewish Theatrical Society in Vilna.
Vigodski began to write soon after taking up his medical practice. Over the course of several years, he published in Russian and German popular science articles on medicine and hygiene. He began writing in Yiddish when interned in the POW camp. In the first years after WWI, he published his articles in: Di yidishe tsaytung (The Jewish newspaper), Unzer fraynd (Our friend), Di tsayt (The time), Tog (Day), and Di vokh (The week)—in Vilna; and Haynt (Today), Moment (Moment), and Unzer lebn (Our life)—in Warsaw. He also contributed to the Vilna Pinkes (Records), edited by Zalmen Reyzen, among other publications. In all the newspapers he wrote about Jewish and general politics in Poland, about Zionist issues, and also about medicine. His books include: In shturm, zikhroynes fun di okupatsye-tsaytn (In the storm, memoirs from the era of the occupation) (Vilna, 1926), 286 pp.; In gehenem, zikhroynes fun di daytshe tfises beshas der velt-milkhome (In hell, memoirs from the German prisons during the world war) (Vilna, 1927), 114 pp.; In sambatyen, zikhroynes fun tsveytn seym, 1922-1927 (In the Sambation, memoirs of the Second Sejm, 1922-1927) (Vilna, 1931), 161 pp. He edited (with Y. Yafe): Di yidishe tsaytung, a daily newspaper in Vilna (1919); and Vilner togblat (Vilna daily newspaper) (1919-1920). In 1940 when the Red Army took possession of Vilna, Vigodski called upon them with an appeal to Stalin that the Soviet Union should not close the Yiddish and Hebrew schools in the newly occupied regions of Poland and Lithuania. When the Nazis seized Vilna in 1941, Vigodski—an old man of eighty-five—was severely ill. Stirred from the habit of many years’ duration, masses of Jews flowed to his home and sought his help in this time of emergency. As sick as he was, barely able to get up from his sickbed, Vigodski dressed in his finest state garb, with the yellow patch only recently sown on, and—in the hope of getting them to repeal something of their harsh decrees—he went shaking to speak on behalf of Jewish affairs. The Nazi official wiped his hands with a handkerchief and had the sick and elderly man thrown down the steps. Bloodied all over, Vigodski barely was able to make his way home. When a bit later Gestapo agents came to arrest him, the old man refused to go with them. Battered and bruised, he was taken by them to the Lukishker Prison. Others who were with him in the same cell later reported that the entire time he was in jail, he held himself with a rare pride and tried to encourage his fellow arrestees. His condition in prison deteriorated. Without the least medical help, on a stone floor, the Vilna Jewish leader of many years died in one of the last days of July 1941.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 1; Pinkes yekopo (Records of Yekopo [Jewish Assistance Committee for the Victims]) (Vilna, 1931); E. Y. Goldshmidt, in Vilna anthology, edited by Y. Yeshurin (New York, 1935); A. Sutskever, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (January 1945); Sh. Katsherginski, in Tsukunft (New York) (September 1946); Katsherginski, Khurbn vilne (The Holocaust in Vilna) (New York, 1947); A. Tsintsinatus, in Bleter vegn vilne, zamlbukh (Pages about Vilna, a collection) (Lodz, 1947); Shmuel Niger, Kidesh hashem (Sanctification of the name) (New York, 1947); Mark Dvorzhetski, Yerusholaim delite in kamf un umkum (The Jerusalem of Lithuania in struggle and death) (Paris, 1948); D. Tsharni, (Daniel Charney), Vilne (Vilna) (Buenos Aires, 1951); Y. Grinboym, Pene hador (Faces of the generation) (Jerusalem, 1857/1958), pp. 396-99; H. Abramovitsh, Farshvundene geshtaltn (Images gone) (Buenos Aires, 1958), pp. 56-63.