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The Jewish Community of Kybartai

Kybartai

A small town in the province of Mariampole, south western Lithuania.

The town is situated next to the town of Virbalis, on the banks of the Lipone river which until World War I (1914-1918) was the border between Lithuania and Germany (east Prussia). The town was a center for trade between Lithuania and Germany and the hub of the textile trade in Lithuania.

Before World War I there were 200 Jewish families in Kybartai. The town was burned down by the Russians during the war and the Jews banished. They returned after the war and in 1923 numbered 1,253, about 20% of the population. There was a Hebrew school of the tarbut (culture) network and a Hebrew kindergarten. The last rabbi to serve the kehilla was Rabbi M. Rabinowitz. The painter, Yitchak Leviton was a native of Kybartai.

The economic conditions of the Jews were stable. Most of them were merchants, some were estate owners and many had small auxiliary farms. Two factories that produced building blocks were owned by Jews. In 1929, the Jewish bank had 150 members.

On the eve of World War II there were 1,300 Jews in the town.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II September 1, 1939 and the conquest of Poland by Germany, Lithuania was under Soviet administration and annexed to the Soviet Union at the end of the summer of 1940.

The Germans entered the town a few hours after the German attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941.) Nationalistic Lithuanians, among them some who had been imprisoned by the previous Soviet administration, placed themselves at the service of the Germans in imposing order in the town. During the first days of the occupation, the Lithuanians organized revenge actions against the sympathizers of the Soviet regime, especially the Jews whom they assaulted and whose property they looted. Paradoxically it was the Germans who intervened in favor of the Jews after they had complained to them.

In accordance with the edicts of the occupying power, the Jews were dismissed from their jobs in the public sector. A night curfew was imposed, relations with the Christian population forbidden. The Jews were forced to wear an identity badge, first a yellow band and then the Star of David. Jews suspected of sympathies for the previous Soviet regime were sent to forced labor camps.

Kybartai was in the 25 kilometer strip close to the German border where the gestapo had ordered the early extermination of the Jews. On July 9, 1941 all the Jewish males over the age of 16 were imprisoned together with the men of Virbalis in an estate north of the town. On July 10, 1941 they were all murdered in the anti-tank trenches that had been dug during the Soviet regime and buried in mass graves.

The women and children were brought to the ghetto in Virbalis and sent to forced labor in the area. At the end of July or the beginning of August 1941 all the women who could not work were murdered. On September 11, 1941 the rest of the women and children were murdered in the trenches and buried there.


After the war memorial monuments were erected on the graves. Joseph Rosen, a native of Kybartai who had been a partisan in the forests of Lithuania and Belarussia was one of the first immigrants to Israel after the war. He wrote a memorial volume for the community of Kybartai.

Place Type:
Town
ID Number:
221027
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Nearby places:

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Painter

He was born in Kybartai, Lithuania, and while he was still a boy his family moved to Moscow where he studied at the Art School. In 1889 Levitan visited Paris where he was deeply influenced by the prevailing mood in art, including impressionism. He became the major interpreter of Russian landscape in art and has been called the father of Russian landscape painting. In 1896 he was appointed professor of landscape painting at the Art Academy in Moscow. Among his great admirers was the writer, Anton Chekhov. He is known to have produced over a thousand paintings and studies, most of them in the decade 1887-1897.
"Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzahir" camp.
near Kybartai, Lithuania, 1928.
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
Courtesy of Israel Sperling, Israel)
Novelist and journalist

He was born in Budzanow and attended the University of Vienna. During World War I, he served in the Austro-Hungarian army. Drawn to the theater, Morgenstern was an assistant to Max Reinhardt and a drama critic. From 1928 to 1933 he was the cultural correspondent in Vienna for the Frankfurter Zeitung. In 1938 he fled to Paris and in 1941 escaped to the United States. Morgenstern was the author of novels and the subject of his trilogy, Sparks in the Abyss, is the vanished Jewish life in rural Eastern Europe. His The Third Pillar is set in the same milieu in the Holocaust period.
Rabbi

Born in Suceava, he was ordained at the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary and got his doctorate at the University of Wurzburg. He worked as a rabbi in Berlin until 1940 when he went to the US and, after serving for two years in Muskogee Oklahoma, in 1942 was appointed rabbi of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California. Nussbaum was a nationally known leader, holding the positions of president of the Zionist Organization of America, chairman of the American section of the World Jewish Congress, vice-president of the American Jewish Congress, and chairman of the American Zionist Council. He wrote a number of books including a study of Yehuda Halevi's philosophy of nationalism.
Industrialist

A native of Kishinev, he moved to the US when he was 14. He worked as a banana peddler in Alabama and soon prospered. He became co-owner of two tramp steamers, bought land in Honduras and by 1930 was the largest stockholder in the United Fruit Company, of which he was elected president in 1938. He was known as the 'Banana King'. During World War II Zemurray was adviser to the Board of Economic Welfare, He inaugurated many enlightened projects in Latin America including clinics, housing projects, and schools. A friend of Chaim Weizmann, he donated generously to Zionist causes.
Hebrew and Yiddish author and communal worker

He was born in Bohorodczany and went to the US in 1902. Legally trained, he occupied a number of positions in Jewish public life: secretary of the New York kehillah (1917-18), administrative secretary of the Jewish Education Association ( 1923-26); executive secretary of the Brooklyn Jewish Community Council (1940-44); and executive staff member of the Joint Distribution Committee (1945-55). He wrote stories, novels and plays, taking his themes from Jewish history - ranging from the patriarch Abraham to the plight of the immigrant in the US.
Haber, Samuel L. (1903-1984), economist, born in Harlau, Romania, he was taken to the US in 1911. From 1925 to 1943 he worked as a researcher on labor and economic problems and was a US government economist and statistician. He served in the US Army 1943-46, with rank of major. In 1947 headed the Joint Distribution Committee for Germany, in charge of a vast program for the rehabilitation of displaced persons. Then in 1954-58 he organized a welfare program for Jews in Morocco, Tangiers and Algeria. From 1958 he was assistant director-general of the Joint, stationed in Geneva and later in New York. When the JDC executive vice-chairman, Charles Jordan, was murdered in Prague in 1967, Haber was appointed to succeed him.

Virbalis

A small town in the Vilkoviskis district, south eastern Lithuania.

Virbaln is situated on the railway lines Berlin-St. Petersburg near the small town of Kibart (Kybartai) near the former German border, the region on the Baltic coast which was east Prussia until the end of World War II.
 

The Jewish community of Virbaln was known for its sages. Hebrew was the language spoken there. In the newspaper Hamelitz from 1884 Hebrew Virbaln is mentioned.

In 1897 there were 1,719 Jews in Virbaln. Already before World War I there existed a heder metukan, a modern heder and a Talmud torah for the poor, also an elementary school of the tarbuth network and a Hebrew kindergarten.

Virbaln's closeness to Prussia brought it under the influence of the western movement of enlightenment, and it was the first Lithuanian community to have Jewish-national activities. Although the authorities forbade it there were signs in Hebrew over the shops.

During World War I many Jewish refugees came to Virblan and immediately a Committee for the Refugees was formed; it sheltered them and found work for them according to their profession. The refugees integrated into the community and stayed in Virblan after the war. The writer S. L. Gordon worked as a teacher in Virbaln to the pride of its Jewish inhabitants. The last officiating rabbi was Rabbi Yizhak-Isik Hirshovitz; he perished with his community during the Holocaust. There were the usual charitable institutions in the community.

During the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940) a Hebrew high school (gymnasium) was founded in Virbaln and became famous in all of Lithuania; it became the model for similar educational institutions where a Hebrew speaking, Eretz Israel oriented generation was shaped.

Until World War I the economic situation of the Virbaln Jews was steady. The greatest number of them made a living from trade with Germany and in services connected with the frontier. After the war when Lithuania was severed from Russia and became independent (1918-1940), Virbaln dwindled into a small border town; its trade and number of inhabitants decreased. In 1921 there were 1,223 Jews in Virbaln, 30% of the general population.

Virbaln's trade with Germany was based mainly on export of agricultural produce and import of industrial goods (tissue, machines, chemicals etc.) Jews also made a living from agriculture; they leased orchards and dealt in wheat. The women kept shops or taverns. Jacov Filipovsky had a modern nursery which was famous all over the country. Eliahu Kosciovsky brought the chicory plant to Lithuania and built a factory for its drying. All the local industry was in Jewish hands. The local Jewish bank had 342 members.

Between the two world wars there was a busy public life in Virbaln, revolving around Zionism. There were branches of all the Zionist parties in the town as well as youth movements and sport organizations, also a library and drama circle. The Jewish agricultural farms served as training camps (hachshara) for pioneers before their Aliyah to Eretz Israel. Near the town a training farm was erected and it was named kibbush (conquest).

In 1939 there were about 2,000 Jews in Virbaln.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939) and the conquest of Poland by the Germans, Lithuania came under Soviet rule and at the end of summer 1940 was annexed by the Soviet Union.

On the morrow of the German attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1940) the Germans entered Virbaln and were welcomed with flowers by the Lithuanians. The Germans liberated all the prisoners who had been accused of anti-communist activities. Immediately the local nationalistic Lithuanians organized, led by the physician Zobritzkas from Kibart who had been in a Soviet prison; they banded together in order to avenge themselves on communist sympathizers and Jews and to help the Germans to keep order in the town.

During the first days of the conquest the German army ruled the town and behaved decently towards the Jews, even helping them to recover belonging looted by the nationalistic Lithuanians.

After a few days civilian rule was established and edicts their public functions, ordered to deliver their arms and radios; a curfew was imposed upon them, they were forbidden to communicate with the local population and had to wear a yellow patch. The patch was later changed to a yellow star of David in all Lithuania.

At this time Jews still worked in German services and Jewish women served as interpreters.

Virbaln was situated in the 25 km belt along the German border, where the gestapo had ordered a systematic extermination of all the Jewish population.

In the night of July 7, 1941 armed Lithuanians evacuated all Jewish men from the age of 16 and up from their houses and imprisoned them in a cellar north of the town. On July 9 the men of Kibart were brought there too and on July 10, 1941 all were murdered in a field north of Virbaln after they had been forced to deepen trenches against tanks which the Russians had built. Their bodies were buried in them.

Later a ghetto was designated in a number of streets without inhabitants; the women and children were taken there together with the women and children from the Kibart community. At their head stood the dentist Dr. Sheine Foijinsky. She was the only dentist in the town and had good relations with the local Lithuanian government. One single food shop served all the ghetto, thanks to an honest Lithuanian food merchant.

Young women and youth aged 12-16 went out to work in the town and its vicinity. A work exchange was instituted where the Lithuanians chose their Jewish workers day by day. There were Lithuanians who maltreated their Jewish workers but others treated the Jews with kindness and some even hid them till the end of the war.

At the end of July 1941, during the night, all the Jews who were not on the working force were taken out of the ghetto. The Germans and their Lithuanian henchmen brought them to the anti-tank trenches, murdered and buried them there.

During the following week the Lithuanians spread rumors that the Jews remaining still in the ghetto would join those members of their families who had been taken away. Lithuanians ostensibly brought greetings and took food and other things for the absent ones and in this way got hold of all the food and belongings the Jews had prepared for their imagined transfer.

On September 11, 1941 Lithuanians with carts entered the ghetto and took all the woman and children to the field of the trenches where they murdered and buried them.


Of the Virbaln community only those few Jews survived who had found shelter with the Lithuanians. Memorials were built over the three mass graves; they had inscriptions in Russian and Lithuanian and a Magen David.

 

Mariampole

A district town in south western Lithuania.

Mariampole is situated on the bank of the river Sesupe, among hilly woods; it is a railway junction and crossroads on the way between Germany and Russia.

A small town called Mariampole was founded on the site of a large village and in 1792 received the rights of a town. When Poland was partitioned in 1795 the regions fell under Prussian rule and later came under the sovereignty of the Warsaw principality. After the Congress of Vienna (1815) the region belonged to Russia and between the two world wars to independent Lithuania.

In the middle of the eighteenth century most of the population of Mariampole was Jewish. After the great conflagration of 1866 they rebuilt the town in stone and it was considered one of the most beautiful and modern towns in Lithuania. Prior to World War I (1914-1918) Mariampole was in the Suwalk area and 5000 Jews lived there. During the war the front came close to the town. A number of Jews left but returned when the town was occupied by the Germans (1915). During the same period of Lithuania's independence Jews from other small towns came to settle in Mariampole. During the period of Lithuania's independence 2,545 Jews were in Mariampole, only 21% of the total population, but most of the local trade was in their hands.

During the 19th century, when Mariampole was under Russian czarist rule, a Russian high school was founded and became a cultural center. Under the numerus clausus only 10% of the rule of pupils could be Jewish; but anyone was allowed to take the examinations of the high school; so that many Jewish young people from Mariampole were able to continue their studies at the universities in Europe. There existed also a Russian high school for girls where many Jewish girls studied, among them the writer Dvora Baron.

At the beginning of the 20th century a heder metukan, in which lay subjects were also taught, opened in Mariampole and before World War I, it developed into a modern Hebrew school. In 1919 the first Hebrew high school in Lithuania was founded in the town and two elementary schools, one of the tarbuth (culture) network, the other one of the religious yavneh network. Later Ort organized the teaching of trades. There was a Hebrew kindergarten, two libraries and a drama circle.

The charitable institutions of the Mariampole Jewish community served as an example for other communities. They included among others an old age home, an orphanage and financial help for the needy.

Synagogue, a prayer chamber and a kloiz (small prayer house). The local rabbis were famous for their learning. The last officiating rabbi was Rabbi Shlomo Butnitzky.

Mariampole's geographical position, its situation on a crossroad, its closeness to the German border and its relation with Russia, caused a fast economic development of the town in which the local Jews played an important part. Most of them were traders, mainly of corn, flax, poultry and fruit, trading both locally and exporting mostly to Germany and England.

During the period of Lithuania's independence the local Jews owned three flour mills, a sawmill, an electric power station and a few workshops. Jews also worked in agriculture, some had small farms near their homes, and a few owned estates. The Jewish bank had 524 members in 1929.

During the Russian Revolution of 1905 young Jews from Mariampole took part; a number of them were arrested and put on trial after the failure of the revolution; they were sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia. There were branches of the Bund and the Small Bund in the town.

The Zionist organization started its activities in Mariampole early in the twentieth century and the local Halutzim went to Eretz Israel even before World War I. After the war the Zionist activities were resumed, branches of the Zionist parties opened in the town; the young people were members of Hehalutz, Maccabi, Hapoel, Hashomer Hazair or Betar. Zionist women's organization were also active in the town.

On the agricultural estate of the Zakrisky family there was a training center for pioneers preparing them for Aliyah to Eretz Israel. Many of the members of the community knew Hebrew; Hebrew newspapers and Hebrew books had a big circulation.

Prior to World War II Mariampole had a total population of 10,000. More than a third were Jews.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939) and the occupation of Poland by the Germans, Lithuania came under Soviet rule and at the end of summer 1940 was annexed by the Soviet Union.

When Germany attacked Soviet Russia (June 22, 1941) Mariampole was bombed from the air. Entire streets were destroyed and the whole town was enveloped in flames. Dozens of people were killed. Many Jews fled east. The next day the Germans entered the town and blocked all roads east. Only a few Jews succeeded in escaping to the Soviet Union; most of them had to return to Mariampole. Many of them were murdered by Lithuanians who ambushed them near the town.

Already during the first days of the occupation a number of Jews were murdered under different pretexts. Under German orders the Jews had to report for work every morning and were sent to work on public works or for the German army. Their overseers were Lithuanians and a group of Jews were to look for avaders. A number of young Jews revolted and refused to work for the German enemy; they were executed.

On July 15 orders were published imposing restrictions on the Jews. They were forbidden to use the sidewalks and public amusement places, to use non-Jewish services; they could buy food only from special shops and only in the late afternoon, after the general population had finished their shopping; they had to wear a yellow patch in the form of a Magen David.

The Germans assembled a great number of Jews in the yard of the great synagogue and ordered them to burn the torah scrolls and other holy books of the synagogue. Already in July the Jews were evicted from their homes and transferred to the prayer houses in the yard of the synagogue and to some houses nearby; this was designated as a ghetto. From there the Jews were taken for forced labor; young women were taken at night and young men were ostensibly taken for work and murdered by Germans outside the town.

In August 1941 the young people were sent to dig pits near the army barracks, outside town near the river. The use for the pits was clear and the notables of the community tried to avert the disaster. At the end of August the Jews were ordered to pack their belongings and prepare for a journey. They were promised survival in a spacious ghetto outside of town, arable lands to cultivate and total autonomy. When they reached the assembly place the rabbi, the hazzan and the old men of the community were tied to the tails of horses and dragged on the road; the Jews who had to follow them understood that this was their last way. In the barracks the men were put in the stables and kept under harsh conditions while the Lithuanian guards harassed them. Until the end of August Jews from other small towns were also taken there. On September 1, 1941 the Jews were brought in groups to the pits, shot to death by the nationalistic Lithuanians who served the Germans, and buried in a mass grave. Many were buried alive.


After the war the survivors of the Mariampole community set a memorial stone on the site of the mass grave.

Lithuania

Lietuva / Lietuvos Respublika - Republic of Lithuania

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 2,500 out of 2,800,000 (0.08%). Main Jewish organization:

The Jewish Community of Lithuania
Phone: +370 52 613 003
Fax: +370 52 127 195
Email: info@lzb.tl
Website: http://www.lzb.lt/en/

HISTORY

The Jews of Lithuania

Even before the unification of Poland and Lithuania (in 1569) the condition of the Jews of Lithuania, who had settled in the first half of the 14th century, was more or less identical to that of their brethren in Poland, moving pendulum-like from receiving charters of rights from the local princes to expulsions and local anti-Semitic outbursts – a result of Christian religious incitement and jealousy at their financial success (although most Jews were poor, living hand to mouth).
The prolific cooperation between the Jewish communities, their near-universal literacy rates and their financial skills gave them a relative edge over the locals and led many nobles to invite them to manage their estates. Thus it was that alongside the traditional “Jewish” occupations such as being a tailor, butcher, a religious scribe and others, a new “Jewish” occupation developed: leasing the lands and managing the estates of the nobles.
Upon the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795) and the rise in the power of the noble class in Lithuania, the position of the Jews leasing the nobles' land improved, expanding their business to saloons and taverns as well, especially in the countryside. In those years, the body that negotiated with the authorities on behalf of the Jews was the Council of Four Lands (Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Lithuania and Russia-Volhynia) which gathered hundreds of Jewish communities under its jurisdiction and mediated between them and the powers that be.
The Jews lived with themselves, amongst themselves. They spoke their own unique language – Yiddish – established educational institutions and internal tribunals and managed the community's affairs in all aspects of life, down to the last detail. Proof of the solidarity between Jews can be found in the response of the Jews of Lithuania to the Khmelnitsky pogroms (1648) which devastated their brethren in Poland. Immediately following the massacres the “Lithuania State Council” collected large amounts of money from its member communities to ransom Jews held captive by the Tartars, and announced a period of mourning throughout the country. As a symbol of solidarity, the Jews of Lithuania were forbidden to wear opulent clothing or jewelry for three years.

The annexation of Lithuania to Russia marked the beginning of the attempts to integrate the Jews into the Czarist Empire. The Russians couldn't abide the state of affairs in which the Jews were secluded amongst themselves from the rest of the Russian subjects, and imposed obligatory general education upon them (“Laws Concerning the Jews”, 1804) as well as conscription to the Czar's army (“The Cantonists' Edict”, 1825). The Jews also suffered economic hardship, upon the decline in the power of the nobles and the commensurate reduction in income from leasing.
The ideas of the Enlightenment that seeped into the Jewish sphere, which until then ended at the edge of the shtetl, caused a cultural earthquake. Young boys read foreign literature in secret, girls began to study at the traditional “cheder” and the traditional beard was replaced by clean-shaven faces and fashionable pince-nez spectacles. These changes led to a crisis in the institution of the family. Sons left the home in search of an education and the divorce rate grew. A common witticism of the time among the Jews of Poland and Lithuania held that if you visit a house with two grown daughters living in it, you don't ask if one of them has divorced, but when the second one did. Furthermore, in the second half of the 19th century a mass migration of Jews took place from the small towns of the countryside into the large cities of Vilnius, Kaunas and Siauliai. Jewish society became a “traveling society” and old occupations such as cobbling and carpentry were pushed aside in favor of free professions such as banking and clerking.
The Jews of Lithuania also have a special connection to the Land of Israel which dates to 1809, when a large number of the disciples of The Gaon of Vilna, (aka the Gr”a), made aliyah and settled in Safed and in Jerusalem. These immigrants founded the “Bikur Cholim” hospital in Jerusalem and also took part in the establishment of the colonies of Gey Onni (now known as Rosh Pina), Petah Tikva and Motza.

1850 | Jerusalem of Lithuania

In the mid-19th century a large Jewish community began to form in the city of Vilnius. By 1850, for example, there were 40,000 Jews living in the city. Vilnius, known to Jews as Vilna, received the honorary title of “Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its status as a leading Jewish spiritual center. It was in this city that the prototypical figure of the “Litvak scholar” took shape, with its founding role model being Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman (aka The Gaon of Vilna, or the Gr”a, 1720-1797).
The Gaon of Vilna was considered a prodigy from a very early age, and it was said of him that “all the words of the Torah were laid out in his memory as though in a box”, and legend has it that he began delivering sermons at the synagogue at the age of ten. The Gaon of Vilna was perhaps most famous for the relentless campaign he waged against the Hasidic movement. He himself lived frugally, if not ascetically, in a small house. He never held an official public position and subsisted on a meager stipend from the Jewish community. Not content with encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and exegesis, the Gaon of Vilna was also well-versed in mathematics, astronomy, Hebrew grammar and more.
Many scholars believe that one of the reasons that the Haskala movement (the Jewish version of the Enlightenment) flourished among Lithuanian Jews was the fact that many of the Jewish intellectuals began their studies at various yeshivas, where their intellectual skills were honed and refined due to the ethos of the “studious one”, crafted in the image of the Gaon of Vilna.
The printing press also played a significant part in spreading the Haskala throughout the Jewish world of Lithuania. In 1796 a Hebrew printing press was founded in Vilnius, and in 1799 Rabbi Baruch Romm moved his own printing press from a small town near Grodno to Vilnius. This press was where the Babylonian Talmud was later printed. In 1892 the Strashun library was opened, and soon became one of the largest Jewish libraries in Europe.
In the second half of the 19th century Hebrew literature began to flourish in Vilnius. “Jerusalem of Lithuania” was the crucible that gave birth to some of the founding fathers of Hebrew prose and poetry, including Abraham Dob Lebensohn (aka Ada”m HaCohen), Micah Yosef (aka Miche”l), Rabbi Mordechai Aharon Ginzburg and Judah Leib Gordon (aka Yele”g) who combined the old world and the new in their works and opened windows onto knowledge and enlightenment for their readers.

1880 | Exile Yourself to a Place of Torah

The image of the Lithuanian scholar was a reflection of the general Jewish-Lithuanian profile, who was “by nature a man of the mind, of reason, modest and humble, who worships God out of an understanding that this is the way. He does not believe that the Rabbi can perform wonders outside of nature” (from “In the Paths of Jewish Lithuania” by Akiva Sela, 2007, p. 11)
The founder of the world of Lithuanian yeshivas was Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a pupil of the Gaon of Vilna. Rabbi Chaim gathered all the small yeshivas that were scattered throughout the length and breadth of Lithuania and united them under one roof in the city of Volozhin. The Volozhin Yeshiva operated until 1892, and on a smaller scale until 1939, becoming a success story. Rabbi Chaim branded it from the start as an elitist institution, leading thousands of young men from all over Eastern Europe to compete for enrollment, thus upholding the Mishnaic injunction to “Exile yourself to a place of Torah”.
Rabbi Chaim adopted the pedagogic approach of the Gaon of Vilna, who disapproved of “pilpul” (hair-splitting) for its own sake, and instead instituted a systematic study of the Talmud. This was at odds with the method of the great yeshivas of Poland, which practiced the “hair-splitting” dialogue approach to study.
In 1850 a new religious school of thought began to appear in Lithuania, the Musar ("moralist”) school, which many scholars see as a reaction to the rationalist, cerebral atmosphere of Volozhin. The founder of this school was Rabbi Israel Salanter, who came from a town in northwestern Lithuania. According to the Musar movement, which was somewhat similar to Catholic Christian precepts, man is born a sinner and must constantly examine and correct himself through study. The space in which this correction took place was the yeshiva, which dedicated several hours a day to the reading of morals books, chief among which was “Mesilat Yesharim” by the Ramcha”l (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto).
In 1881 the Slobodka Yeshiva was founded in a suburb of Kaunas, becoming the first and most typical yeshiva of the morals school. Later on additional moralist yeshivas were founded in Lithuania, among them those in the towns of Novardok (Nowogrodek) and Kelme.

1903 | Bund-ing

Following the pogroms against the Jews of the southwestern Russian Empire in the years 1881-1882 (the “Storms in the South” massacres) tens of thousands of Jews fled Lithuania to the west, mostly to the United States, to South Africa and to Palestine, where they kick-started the First Aliyah. In those days there were many fervent adherents of Zionism among the Jews of Lithuania. Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl foresaw that the Zionist movement would spread far wider among the Jews of Eastern Europe than among their brethren to the west, many of whom had lost much connection to their identity. And indeed, when Herzl visited Lithuania in 1903, he was received like royalty by the masses.
Later on in the early 20th century, the youth movements of Hashomer Hatzair, HeHalutz, Beitar and the Mizrachi Youth played a part in fueling the growing sympathy among the Jews of Lithuania towards the Zionist endeavor. The Hebrew language also flourished during this time, due to the operation of school networks such as Tarbut, the Hebrew Realgymnasium, theaters, and Hebrew newspapers, the most popular of which was “HaCarmel”, published in Vilnius.
But Lithuania was not just a hotbed for eager Zionists, but also the home of the Zionist movement's nemesis, the Bund movement, which stood for socialist universalism and the Yiddish language. The Bund, established in an attic in Vilnius in 1897 (the same year as the First Zionist Congress) is almost forgotten from the collective Jewish memory; but in those days of the early 20th century, when socialism was winning hearts throughout Europe and among Jews in particular, the movement was highly popular. One sign of its power was its May Day demonstration in 1900, attended by no less than 50,000 people.

1914 | Expulsion and Assimilation

Shortly after WW1 broke out a libel spread in Lithuania claiming that a handful of Jews from a small village near the city of Siauliai were aiding the German enemy by signaling information regarding the Czar's army. The libel gave the Russian authorities an excuse to deport tens of thousands of Jews from their homes. The expelled spread throughout southern Russia. Form many of them, especially the young, it was their first time outside the Lithuanian part of the Pale of Settlement. Many of them, particularly young yeshiva lads, quickly took to the boisterous, dazzling life of the cosmopolitan cities of southern Russia and drifted away from their family traditions. The Jews who remained in Lithuania were forced to live under the rule of Imperial Germany, which enforced a severe military regime and forced them to hard labor, even on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays. On the other hand, the German authorities allowed the Jews to compete for jobs in the public services, the municipalities, the post and the railroad – fields hitherto closed to them. The Germans even allowed the Jews to establish schools, libraries, clubs and theaters in Yiddish. In so doing the German occupation provided much needed oxygen to Jewish culture in Lithuania, which had been hard-hit early in the war.
At the end of the war, as the eastern front fell and peace was signed between Soviet Russia and Germany, the independent state of Lithuania rose once again. Some 100,000 Jews returned in organized groups from Russia to Lithuania and joined the 60,000 who had returned earlier or managed to avoid the expulsion.

1921 | The Golden Age

The period immediately following WW1 is considered the golden age for Jews in Lithuania. Upon the establishment of free Lithuania the Jews, who fought valiantly in the Lithuanian war of independence, helping hold Vilnius against the Polish invaders, were granted autonomy and fully equal rights, as well as representation in the first Lithuanian legislative council (the “Tariba”) - even though a large number of the significant Jewish-Lithuanian communities, including that of Vilnius, remained outside the borders of independent Lithuania.
The Jewish population of Lithuania consisted of over 80 organized communities, whose leaders were freely elected. The world of the great yeshivas – Panevezys, Slobodka, Telsiai – returned to its glory days. The press and literature flourished, and Yiddish and Hebrew reigned supreme.
Like everywhere else in the Jewish world, Lithuania too boasted vibrant national activity. Youth movements and training camps of all sorts raised a generation of pioneering Jewish youth. Alongside them worked the national parties, including the socialist Bund, the national-religious Mizrachi movement, whose representatives were active in the highest levels of Zionist politics, the Revisionists and Hashomer Hatzair. Hundreds of kindergartens operated in Lithuania alongside the Tarbut Hebrew school network and the Hebrew Gymnasium organization, which operated 13 schools throughout the country.
However, the rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and that of fascist movements, made its mark on Lithuania as well. In 1926 Lithuania's nationalists staged a fascist coup. The democratic parties were dissolved and most went underground. Two years later, in 1928, the last remnants of Jewish autonomy were abolished and the government handed the local cooperatives many of the trade and industry fields, such as the export of grain and flax, which had hitherto been the main sources of livelihood for many Jews. Throughout the 1930's anti-Semitic expressions and violent outbursts became more and more common.

1941 | In the Name of the Father

In August 1939, following the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Lithuania lost its independence. The pie of Eastern Europe was cut into thin slices, and Lithuania, with all its various populations, was swallowed by the Soviet behemoth.
Although Jews were among the hard core of the Communist Party, they received no significant positions in the new administration in Lithuania. Despite this, they were identified by the local Lithuanians with the Soviet occupation, which further increased their hostility. Concurrently, the Zionist movement was outlawed, and all the Hebrew-language schools were forced to teach in Yiddish.
In 1941, as the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty was violated by Germany and Lithuania conquered by the Nazis, the Einsatzgruppen units were tasked with the extermination of the Jews. Starting on July 3rd, 1941, these units executed a methodical plan of annihilation, which was carried out on a precise schedule. Many of the stages of extermination – locating the victims, guarding them, leading them to the killing plots and sometimes the killing itself – was done by Lithuanian auxiliaries, including military and police personnel. The mass slaughter was mostly conducted in the forests surrounding the cities and towns, on the edge of large pits dug by conscripted farmers, Soviet prisoners of war and sometimes the Jews themselves. Later on, the Jews remaining in small towns were transferred to ghettos created in nearby large cities.
A glorious chapter in the annals of the Jews of Lithuania during the Holocaust is reserved for the partisan resistance movement. The banner of rebellion was raised by partisan Abba Kovner, whose name literally means “father” and who coined the phrase “let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!” and who, along with his friends Josef Glazman and Yitzchak Wittenberg, established the Unified Partisan Organization (FPO), which operated in the woods.
The organization succeeded in obtaining ammunition, published an underground newspaper and carried out many acts of sabotage, but its main achievement was to instill a spirit of pride and self-respect among the Jews of Lithuania.
By the end of WW2 some 206,800 people – 94% of Lithuania's Jews – were annihilated.

2000 | A Homeland No Longer

After the end of WW2 Lithuania once again became a Soviet republic. Most of the Jewish community were not allowed to immigrate to Israel, and in accordance with the Communist ideology were also banned from any national or religious activity. Despite this, under international pressure, the authorities permitted the establishment of a Yiddish theater.
A census from 1959 shows that 24,672 Jews lived in Lithuania at the time, most of them in Vilnius and some in Kaunas. In the early 1970's a massive migration of Jews began from Lithuania to Israel, increasing further after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
In the year 2000 the Jewish community of Lithuania numbered only about 3.600 Jews, about 0.1% of the population.
In 1995 the President of the newly independent Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, visited Israel and asked the Jewish people for forgiveness from the Knesset dais. The level of anti-Semitism in Lithuania in the past two decades (as of 2016) is considered one of the lowest in Europe.

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The Jewish Community of Kybartai

Kybartai

A small town in the province of Mariampole, south western Lithuania.

The town is situated next to the town of Virbalis, on the banks of the Lipone river which until World War I (1914-1918) was the border between Lithuania and Germany (east Prussia). The town was a center for trade between Lithuania and Germany and the hub of the textile trade in Lithuania.

Before World War I there were 200 Jewish families in Kybartai. The town was burned down by the Russians during the war and the Jews banished. They returned after the war and in 1923 numbered 1,253, about 20% of the population. There was a Hebrew school of the tarbut (culture) network and a Hebrew kindergarten. The last rabbi to serve the kehilla was Rabbi M. Rabinowitz. The painter, Yitchak Leviton was a native of Kybartai.

The economic conditions of the Jews were stable. Most of them were merchants, some were estate owners and many had small auxiliary farms. Two factories that produced building blocks were owned by Jews. In 1929, the Jewish bank had 150 members.

On the eve of World War II there were 1,300 Jews in the town.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II September 1, 1939 and the conquest of Poland by Germany, Lithuania was under Soviet administration and annexed to the Soviet Union at the end of the summer of 1940.

The Germans entered the town a few hours after the German attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941.) Nationalistic Lithuanians, among them some who had been imprisoned by the previous Soviet administration, placed themselves at the service of the Germans in imposing order in the town. During the first days of the occupation, the Lithuanians organized revenge actions against the sympathizers of the Soviet regime, especially the Jews whom they assaulted and whose property they looted. Paradoxically it was the Germans who intervened in favor of the Jews after they had complained to them.

In accordance with the edicts of the occupying power, the Jews were dismissed from their jobs in the public sector. A night curfew was imposed, relations with the Christian population forbidden. The Jews were forced to wear an identity badge, first a yellow band and then the Star of David. Jews suspected of sympathies for the previous Soviet regime were sent to forced labor camps.

Kybartai was in the 25 kilometer strip close to the German border where the gestapo had ordered the early extermination of the Jews. On July 9, 1941 all the Jewish males over the age of 16 were imprisoned together with the men of Virbalis in an estate north of the town. On July 10, 1941 they were all murdered in the anti-tank trenches that had been dug during the Soviet regime and buried in mass graves.

The women and children were brought to the ghetto in Virbalis and sent to forced labor in the area. At the end of July or the beginning of August 1941 all the women who could not work were murdered. On September 11, 1941 the rest of the women and children were murdered in the trenches and buried there.


After the war memorial monuments were erected on the graves. Joseph Rosen, a native of Kybartai who had been a partisan in the forests of Lithuania and Belarussia was one of the first immigrants to Israel after the war. He wrote a memorial volume for the community of Kybartai.

Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Levitan, Isaac
Painter

He was born in Kybartai, Lithuania, and while he was still a boy his family moved to Moscow where he studied at the Art School. In 1889 Levitan visited Paris where he was deeply influenced by the prevailing mood in art, including impressionism. He became the major interpreter of Russian landscape in art and has been called the father of Russian landscape painting. In 1896 he was appointed professor of landscape painting at the Art Academy in Moscow. Among his great admirers was the writer, Anton Chekhov. He is known to have produced over a thousand paintings and studies, most of them in the decade 1887-1897.
"Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzahir" Camp. near Kybartai, Lithuania 1928
"Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzahir" camp.
near Kybartai, Lithuania, 1928.
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
Courtesy of Israel Sperling, Israel)
Morgenstern, Soma
Novelist and journalist

He was born in Budzanow and attended the University of Vienna. During World War I, he served in the Austro-Hungarian army. Drawn to the theater, Morgenstern was an assistant to Max Reinhardt and a drama critic. From 1928 to 1933 he was the cultural correspondent in Vienna for the Frankfurter Zeitung. In 1938 he fled to Paris and in 1941 escaped to the United States. Morgenstern was the author of novels and the subject of his trilogy, Sparks in the Abyss, is the vanished Jewish life in rural Eastern Europe. His The Third Pillar is set in the same milieu in the Holocaust period.
Nussbaum, Max
Rabbi

Born in Suceava, he was ordained at the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary and got his doctorate at the University of Wurzburg. He worked as a rabbi in Berlin until 1940 when he went to the US and, after serving for two years in Muskogee Oklahoma, in 1942 was appointed rabbi of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California. Nussbaum was a nationally known leader, holding the positions of president of the Zionist Organization of America, chairman of the American section of the World Jewish Congress, vice-president of the American Jewish Congress, and chairman of the American Zionist Council. He wrote a number of books including a study of Yehuda Halevi's philosophy of nationalism.
Zemurray, Samuel
Industrialist

A native of Kishinev, he moved to the US when he was 14. He worked as a banana peddler in Alabama and soon prospered. He became co-owner of two tramp steamers, bought land in Honduras and by 1930 was the largest stockholder in the United Fruit Company, of which he was elected president in 1938. He was known as the 'Banana King'. During World War II Zemurray was adviser to the Board of Economic Welfare, He inaugurated many enlightened projects in Latin America including clinics, housing projects, and schools. A friend of Chaim Weizmann, he donated generously to Zionist causes.
Sackler, Harry
Hebrew and Yiddish author and communal worker

He was born in Bohorodczany and went to the US in 1902. Legally trained, he occupied a number of positions in Jewish public life: secretary of the New York kehillah (1917-18), administrative secretary of the Jewish Education Association ( 1923-26); executive secretary of the Brooklyn Jewish Community Council (1940-44); and executive staff member of the Joint Distribution Committee (1945-55). He wrote stories, novels and plays, taking his themes from Jewish history - ranging from the patriarch Abraham to the plight of the immigrant in the US.
Haber, Samuel L.
Haber, Samuel L. (1903-1984), economist, born in Harlau, Romania, he was taken to the US in 1911. From 1925 to 1943 he worked as a researcher on labor and economic problems and was a US government economist and statistician. He served in the US Army 1943-46, with rank of major. In 1947 headed the Joint Distribution Committee for Germany, in charge of a vast program for the rehabilitation of displaced persons. Then in 1954-58 he organized a welfare program for Jews in Morocco, Tangiers and Algeria. From 1958 he was assistant director-general of the Joint, stationed in Geneva and later in New York. When the JDC executive vice-chairman, Charles Jordan, was murdered in Prague in 1967, Haber was appointed to succeed him.

Virbalis

Virbalis

A small town in the Vilkoviskis district, south eastern Lithuania.

Virbaln is situated on the railway lines Berlin-St. Petersburg near the small town of Kibart (Kybartai) near the former German border, the region on the Baltic coast which was east Prussia until the end of World War II.
 

The Jewish community of Virbaln was known for its sages. Hebrew was the language spoken there. In the newspaper Hamelitz from 1884 Hebrew Virbaln is mentioned.

In 1897 there were 1,719 Jews in Virbaln. Already before World War I there existed a heder metukan, a modern heder and a Talmud torah for the poor, also an elementary school of the tarbuth network and a Hebrew kindergarten.

Virbaln's closeness to Prussia brought it under the influence of the western movement of enlightenment, and it was the first Lithuanian community to have Jewish-national activities. Although the authorities forbade it there were signs in Hebrew over the shops.

During World War I many Jewish refugees came to Virblan and immediately a Committee for the Refugees was formed; it sheltered them and found work for them according to their profession. The refugees integrated into the community and stayed in Virblan after the war. The writer S. L. Gordon worked as a teacher in Virbaln to the pride of its Jewish inhabitants. The last officiating rabbi was Rabbi Yizhak-Isik Hirshovitz; he perished with his community during the Holocaust. There were the usual charitable institutions in the community.

During the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940) a Hebrew high school (gymnasium) was founded in Virbaln and became famous in all of Lithuania; it became the model for similar educational institutions where a Hebrew speaking, Eretz Israel oriented generation was shaped.

Until World War I the economic situation of the Virbaln Jews was steady. The greatest number of them made a living from trade with Germany and in services connected with the frontier. After the war when Lithuania was severed from Russia and became independent (1918-1940), Virbaln dwindled into a small border town; its trade and number of inhabitants decreased. In 1921 there were 1,223 Jews in Virbaln, 30% of the general population.

Virbaln's trade with Germany was based mainly on export of agricultural produce and import of industrial goods (tissue, machines, chemicals etc.) Jews also made a living from agriculture; they leased orchards and dealt in wheat. The women kept shops or taverns. Jacov Filipovsky had a modern nursery which was famous all over the country. Eliahu Kosciovsky brought the chicory plant to Lithuania and built a factory for its drying. All the local industry was in Jewish hands. The local Jewish bank had 342 members.

Between the two world wars there was a busy public life in Virbaln, revolving around Zionism. There were branches of all the Zionist parties in the town as well as youth movements and sport organizations, also a library and drama circle. The Jewish agricultural farms served as training camps (hachshara) for pioneers before their Aliyah to Eretz Israel. Near the town a training farm was erected and it was named kibbush (conquest).

In 1939 there were about 2,000 Jews in Virbaln.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939) and the conquest of Poland by the Germans, Lithuania came under Soviet rule and at the end of summer 1940 was annexed by the Soviet Union.

On the morrow of the German attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1940) the Germans entered Virbaln and were welcomed with flowers by the Lithuanians. The Germans liberated all the prisoners who had been accused of anti-communist activities. Immediately the local nationalistic Lithuanians organized, led by the physician Zobritzkas from Kibart who had been in a Soviet prison; they banded together in order to avenge themselves on communist sympathizers and Jews and to help the Germans to keep order in the town.

During the first days of the conquest the German army ruled the town and behaved decently towards the Jews, even helping them to recover belonging looted by the nationalistic Lithuanians.

After a few days civilian rule was established and edicts their public functions, ordered to deliver their arms and radios; a curfew was imposed upon them, they were forbidden to communicate with the local population and had to wear a yellow patch. The patch was later changed to a yellow star of David in all Lithuania.

At this time Jews still worked in German services and Jewish women served as interpreters.

Virbaln was situated in the 25 km belt along the German border, where the gestapo had ordered a systematic extermination of all the Jewish population.

In the night of July 7, 1941 armed Lithuanians evacuated all Jewish men from the age of 16 and up from their houses and imprisoned them in a cellar north of the town. On July 9 the men of Kibart were brought there too and on July 10, 1941 all were murdered in a field north of Virbaln after they had been forced to deepen trenches against tanks which the Russians had built. Their bodies were buried in them.

Later a ghetto was designated in a number of streets without inhabitants; the women and children were taken there together with the women and children from the Kibart community. At their head stood the dentist Dr. Sheine Foijinsky. She was the only dentist in the town and had good relations with the local Lithuanian government. One single food shop served all the ghetto, thanks to an honest Lithuanian food merchant.

Young women and youth aged 12-16 went out to work in the town and its vicinity. A work exchange was instituted where the Lithuanians chose their Jewish workers day by day. There were Lithuanians who maltreated their Jewish workers but others treated the Jews with kindness and some even hid them till the end of the war.

At the end of July 1941, during the night, all the Jews who were not on the working force were taken out of the ghetto. The Germans and their Lithuanian henchmen brought them to the anti-tank trenches, murdered and buried them there.

During the following week the Lithuanians spread rumors that the Jews remaining still in the ghetto would join those members of their families who had been taken away. Lithuanians ostensibly brought greetings and took food and other things for the absent ones and in this way got hold of all the food and belongings the Jews had prepared for their imagined transfer.

On September 11, 1941 Lithuanians with carts entered the ghetto and took all the woman and children to the field of the trenches where they murdered and buried them.


Of the Virbaln community only those few Jews survived who had found shelter with the Lithuanians. Memorials were built over the three mass graves; they had inscriptions in Russian and Lithuanian and a Magen David.

 

Mariampole

Mariampole

A district town in south western Lithuania.

Mariampole is situated on the bank of the river Sesupe, among hilly woods; it is a railway junction and crossroads on the way between Germany and Russia.

A small town called Mariampole was founded on the site of a large village and in 1792 received the rights of a town. When Poland was partitioned in 1795 the regions fell under Prussian rule and later came under the sovereignty of the Warsaw principality. After the Congress of Vienna (1815) the region belonged to Russia and between the two world wars to independent Lithuania.

In the middle of the eighteenth century most of the population of Mariampole was Jewish. After the great conflagration of 1866 they rebuilt the town in stone and it was considered one of the most beautiful and modern towns in Lithuania. Prior to World War I (1914-1918) Mariampole was in the Suwalk area and 5000 Jews lived there. During the war the front came close to the town. A number of Jews left but returned when the town was occupied by the Germans (1915). During the same period of Lithuania's independence Jews from other small towns came to settle in Mariampole. During the period of Lithuania's independence 2,545 Jews were in Mariampole, only 21% of the total population, but most of the local trade was in their hands.

During the 19th century, when Mariampole was under Russian czarist rule, a Russian high school was founded and became a cultural center. Under the numerus clausus only 10% of the rule of pupils could be Jewish; but anyone was allowed to take the examinations of the high school; so that many Jewish young people from Mariampole were able to continue their studies at the universities in Europe. There existed also a Russian high school for girls where many Jewish girls studied, among them the writer Dvora Baron.

At the beginning of the 20th century a heder metukan, in which lay subjects were also taught, opened in Mariampole and before World War I, it developed into a modern Hebrew school. In 1919 the first Hebrew high school in Lithuania was founded in the town and two elementary schools, one of the tarbuth (culture) network, the other one of the religious yavneh network. Later Ort organized the teaching of trades. There was a Hebrew kindergarten, two libraries and a drama circle.

The charitable institutions of the Mariampole Jewish community served as an example for other communities. They included among others an old age home, an orphanage and financial help for the needy.

Synagogue, a prayer chamber and a kloiz (small prayer house). The local rabbis were famous for their learning. The last officiating rabbi was Rabbi Shlomo Butnitzky.

Mariampole's geographical position, its situation on a crossroad, its closeness to the German border and its relation with Russia, caused a fast economic development of the town in which the local Jews played an important part. Most of them were traders, mainly of corn, flax, poultry and fruit, trading both locally and exporting mostly to Germany and England.

During the period of Lithuania's independence the local Jews owned three flour mills, a sawmill, an electric power station and a few workshops. Jews also worked in agriculture, some had small farms near their homes, and a few owned estates. The Jewish bank had 524 members in 1929.

During the Russian Revolution of 1905 young Jews from Mariampole took part; a number of them were arrested and put on trial after the failure of the revolution; they were sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia. There were branches of the Bund and the Small Bund in the town.

The Zionist organization started its activities in Mariampole early in the twentieth century and the local Halutzim went to Eretz Israel even before World War I. After the war the Zionist activities were resumed, branches of the Zionist parties opened in the town; the young people were members of Hehalutz, Maccabi, Hapoel, Hashomer Hazair or Betar. Zionist women's organization were also active in the town.

On the agricultural estate of the Zakrisky family there was a training center for pioneers preparing them for Aliyah to Eretz Israel. Many of the members of the community knew Hebrew; Hebrew newspapers and Hebrew books had a big circulation.

Prior to World War II Mariampole had a total population of 10,000. More than a third were Jews.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939) and the occupation of Poland by the Germans, Lithuania came under Soviet rule and at the end of summer 1940 was annexed by the Soviet Union.

When Germany attacked Soviet Russia (June 22, 1941) Mariampole was bombed from the air. Entire streets were destroyed and the whole town was enveloped in flames. Dozens of people were killed. Many Jews fled east. The next day the Germans entered the town and blocked all roads east. Only a few Jews succeeded in escaping to the Soviet Union; most of them had to return to Mariampole. Many of them were murdered by Lithuanians who ambushed them near the town.

Already during the first days of the occupation a number of Jews were murdered under different pretexts. Under German orders the Jews had to report for work every morning and were sent to work on public works or for the German army. Their overseers were Lithuanians and a group of Jews were to look for avaders. A number of young Jews revolted and refused to work for the German enemy; they were executed.

On July 15 orders were published imposing restrictions on the Jews. They were forbidden to use the sidewalks and public amusement places, to use non-Jewish services; they could buy food only from special shops and only in the late afternoon, after the general population had finished their shopping; they had to wear a yellow patch in the form of a Magen David.

The Germans assembled a great number of Jews in the yard of the great synagogue and ordered them to burn the torah scrolls and other holy books of the synagogue. Already in July the Jews were evicted from their homes and transferred to the prayer houses in the yard of the synagogue and to some houses nearby; this was designated as a ghetto. From there the Jews were taken for forced labor; young women were taken at night and young men were ostensibly taken for work and murdered by Germans outside the town.

In August 1941 the young people were sent to dig pits near the army barracks, outside town near the river. The use for the pits was clear and the notables of the community tried to avert the disaster. At the end of August the Jews were ordered to pack their belongings and prepare for a journey. They were promised survival in a spacious ghetto outside of town, arable lands to cultivate and total autonomy. When they reached the assembly place the rabbi, the hazzan and the old men of the community were tied to the tails of horses and dragged on the road; the Jews who had to follow them understood that this was their last way. In the barracks the men were put in the stables and kept under harsh conditions while the Lithuanian guards harassed them. Until the end of August Jews from other small towns were also taken there. On September 1, 1941 the Jews were brought in groups to the pits, shot to death by the nationalistic Lithuanians who served the Germans, and buried in a mass grave. Many were buried alive.


After the war the survivors of the Mariampole community set a memorial stone on the site of the mass grave.

Lithuania

Lithuania

Lietuva / Lietuvos Respublika - Republic of Lithuania

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 2,500 out of 2,800,000 (0.08%). Main Jewish organization:

The Jewish Community of Lithuania
Phone: +370 52 613 003
Fax: +370 52 127 195
Email: info@lzb.tl
Website: http://www.lzb.lt/en/

HISTORY

The Jews of Lithuania

Even before the unification of Poland and Lithuania (in 1569) the condition of the Jews of Lithuania, who had settled in the first half of the 14th century, was more or less identical to that of their brethren in Poland, moving pendulum-like from receiving charters of rights from the local princes to expulsions and local anti-Semitic outbursts – a result of Christian religious incitement and jealousy at their financial success (although most Jews were poor, living hand to mouth).
The prolific cooperation between the Jewish communities, their near-universal literacy rates and their financial skills gave them a relative edge over the locals and led many nobles to invite them to manage their estates. Thus it was that alongside the traditional “Jewish” occupations such as being a tailor, butcher, a religious scribe and others, a new “Jewish” occupation developed: leasing the lands and managing the estates of the nobles.
Upon the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795) and the rise in the power of the noble class in Lithuania, the position of the Jews leasing the nobles' land improved, expanding their business to saloons and taverns as well, especially in the countryside. In those years, the body that negotiated with the authorities on behalf of the Jews was the Council of Four Lands (Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Lithuania and Russia-Volhynia) which gathered hundreds of Jewish communities under its jurisdiction and mediated between them and the powers that be.
The Jews lived with themselves, amongst themselves. They spoke their own unique language – Yiddish – established educational institutions and internal tribunals and managed the community's affairs in all aspects of life, down to the last detail. Proof of the solidarity between Jews can be found in the response of the Jews of Lithuania to the Khmelnitsky pogroms (1648) which devastated their brethren in Poland. Immediately following the massacres the “Lithuania State Council” collected large amounts of money from its member communities to ransom Jews held captive by the Tartars, and announced a period of mourning throughout the country. As a symbol of solidarity, the Jews of Lithuania were forbidden to wear opulent clothing or jewelry for three years.

The annexation of Lithuania to Russia marked the beginning of the attempts to integrate the Jews into the Czarist Empire. The Russians couldn't abide the state of affairs in which the Jews were secluded amongst themselves from the rest of the Russian subjects, and imposed obligatory general education upon them (“Laws Concerning the Jews”, 1804) as well as conscription to the Czar's army (“The Cantonists' Edict”, 1825). The Jews also suffered economic hardship, upon the decline in the power of the nobles and the commensurate reduction in income from leasing.
The ideas of the Enlightenment that seeped into the Jewish sphere, which until then ended at the edge of the shtetl, caused a cultural earthquake. Young boys read foreign literature in secret, girls began to study at the traditional “cheder” and the traditional beard was replaced by clean-shaven faces and fashionable pince-nez spectacles. These changes led to a crisis in the institution of the family. Sons left the home in search of an education and the divorce rate grew. A common witticism of the time among the Jews of Poland and Lithuania held that if you visit a house with two grown daughters living in it, you don't ask if one of them has divorced, but when the second one did. Furthermore, in the second half of the 19th century a mass migration of Jews took place from the small towns of the countryside into the large cities of Vilnius, Kaunas and Siauliai. Jewish society became a “traveling society” and old occupations such as cobbling and carpentry were pushed aside in favor of free professions such as banking and clerking.
The Jews of Lithuania also have a special connection to the Land of Israel which dates to 1809, when a large number of the disciples of The Gaon of Vilna, (aka the Gr”a), made aliyah and settled in Safed and in Jerusalem. These immigrants founded the “Bikur Cholim” hospital in Jerusalem and also took part in the establishment of the colonies of Gey Onni (now known as Rosh Pina), Petah Tikva and Motza.

1850 | Jerusalem of Lithuania

In the mid-19th century a large Jewish community began to form in the city of Vilnius. By 1850, for example, there were 40,000 Jews living in the city. Vilnius, known to Jews as Vilna, received the honorary title of “Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its status as a leading Jewish spiritual center. It was in this city that the prototypical figure of the “Litvak scholar” took shape, with its founding role model being Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman (aka The Gaon of Vilna, or the Gr”a, 1720-1797).
The Gaon of Vilna was considered a prodigy from a very early age, and it was said of him that “all the words of the Torah were laid out in his memory as though in a box”, and legend has it that he began delivering sermons at the synagogue at the age of ten. The Gaon of Vilna was perhaps most famous for the relentless campaign he waged against the Hasidic movement. He himself lived frugally, if not ascetically, in a small house. He never held an official public position and subsisted on a meager stipend from the Jewish community. Not content with encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and exegesis, the Gaon of Vilna was also well-versed in mathematics, astronomy, Hebrew grammar and more.
Many scholars believe that one of the reasons that the Haskala movement (the Jewish version of the Enlightenment) flourished among Lithuanian Jews was the fact that many of the Jewish intellectuals began their studies at various yeshivas, where their intellectual skills were honed and refined due to the ethos of the “studious one”, crafted in the image of the Gaon of Vilna.
The printing press also played a significant part in spreading the Haskala throughout the Jewish world of Lithuania. In 1796 a Hebrew printing press was founded in Vilnius, and in 1799 Rabbi Baruch Romm moved his own printing press from a small town near Grodno to Vilnius. This press was where the Babylonian Talmud was later printed. In 1892 the Strashun library was opened, and soon became one of the largest Jewish libraries in Europe.
In the second half of the 19th century Hebrew literature began to flourish in Vilnius. “Jerusalem of Lithuania” was the crucible that gave birth to some of the founding fathers of Hebrew prose and poetry, including Abraham Dob Lebensohn (aka Ada”m HaCohen), Micah Yosef (aka Miche”l), Rabbi Mordechai Aharon Ginzburg and Judah Leib Gordon (aka Yele”g) who combined the old world and the new in their works and opened windows onto knowledge and enlightenment for their readers.

1880 | Exile Yourself to a Place of Torah

The image of the Lithuanian scholar was a reflection of the general Jewish-Lithuanian profile, who was “by nature a man of the mind, of reason, modest and humble, who worships God out of an understanding that this is the way. He does not believe that the Rabbi can perform wonders outside of nature” (from “In the Paths of Jewish Lithuania” by Akiva Sela, 2007, p. 11)
The founder of the world of Lithuanian yeshivas was Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a pupil of the Gaon of Vilna. Rabbi Chaim gathered all the small yeshivas that were scattered throughout the length and breadth of Lithuania and united them under one roof in the city of Volozhin. The Volozhin Yeshiva operated until 1892, and on a smaller scale until 1939, becoming a success story. Rabbi Chaim branded it from the start as an elitist institution, leading thousands of young men from all over Eastern Europe to compete for enrollment, thus upholding the Mishnaic injunction to “Exile yourself to a place of Torah”.
Rabbi Chaim adopted the pedagogic approach of the Gaon of Vilna, who disapproved of “pilpul” (hair-splitting) for its own sake, and instead instituted a systematic study of the Talmud. This was at odds with the method of the great yeshivas of Poland, which practiced the “hair-splitting” dialogue approach to study.
In 1850 a new religious school of thought began to appear in Lithuania, the Musar ("moralist”) school, which many scholars see as a reaction to the rationalist, cerebral atmosphere of Volozhin. The founder of this school was Rabbi Israel Salanter, who came from a town in northwestern Lithuania. According to the Musar movement, which was somewhat similar to Catholic Christian precepts, man is born a sinner and must constantly examine and correct himself through study. The space in which this correction took place was the yeshiva, which dedicated several hours a day to the reading of morals books, chief among which was “Mesilat Yesharim” by the Ramcha”l (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto).
In 1881 the Slobodka Yeshiva was founded in a suburb of Kaunas, becoming the first and most typical yeshiva of the morals school. Later on additional moralist yeshivas were founded in Lithuania, among them those in the towns of Novardok (Nowogrodek) and Kelme.

1903 | Bund-ing

Following the pogroms against the Jews of the southwestern Russian Empire in the years 1881-1882 (the “Storms in the South” massacres) tens of thousands of Jews fled Lithuania to the west, mostly to the United States, to South Africa and to Palestine, where they kick-started the First Aliyah. In those days there were many fervent adherents of Zionism among the Jews of Lithuania. Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl foresaw that the Zionist movement would spread far wider among the Jews of Eastern Europe than among their brethren to the west, many of whom had lost much connection to their identity. And indeed, when Herzl visited Lithuania in 1903, he was received like royalty by the masses.
Later on in the early 20th century, the youth movements of Hashomer Hatzair, HeHalutz, Beitar and the Mizrachi Youth played a part in fueling the growing sympathy among the Jews of Lithuania towards the Zionist endeavor. The Hebrew language also flourished during this time, due to the operation of school networks such as Tarbut, the Hebrew Realgymnasium, theaters, and Hebrew newspapers, the most popular of which was “HaCarmel”, published in Vilnius.
But Lithuania was not just a hotbed for eager Zionists, but also the home of the Zionist movement's nemesis, the Bund movement, which stood for socialist universalism and the Yiddish language. The Bund, established in an attic in Vilnius in 1897 (the same year as the First Zionist Congress) is almost forgotten from the collective Jewish memory; but in those days of the early 20th century, when socialism was winning hearts throughout Europe and among Jews in particular, the movement was highly popular. One sign of its power was its May Day demonstration in 1900, attended by no less than 50,000 people.

1914 | Expulsion and Assimilation

Shortly after WW1 broke out a libel spread in Lithuania claiming that a handful of Jews from a small village near the city of Siauliai were aiding the German enemy by signaling information regarding the Czar's army. The libel gave the Russian authorities an excuse to deport tens of thousands of Jews from their homes. The expelled spread throughout southern Russia. Form many of them, especially the young, it was their first time outside the Lithuanian part of the Pale of Settlement. Many of them, particularly young yeshiva lads, quickly took to the boisterous, dazzling life of the cosmopolitan cities of southern Russia and drifted away from their family traditions. The Jews who remained in Lithuania were forced to live under the rule of Imperial Germany, which enforced a severe military regime and forced them to hard labor, even on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays. On the other hand, the German authorities allowed the Jews to compete for jobs in the public services, the municipalities, the post and the railroad – fields hitherto closed to them. The Germans even allowed the Jews to establish schools, libraries, clubs and theaters in Yiddish. In so doing the German occupation provided much needed oxygen to Jewish culture in Lithuania, which had been hard-hit early in the war.
At the end of the war, as the eastern front fell and peace was signed between Soviet Russia and Germany, the independent state of Lithuania rose once again. Some 100,000 Jews returned in organized groups from Russia to Lithuania and joined the 60,000 who had returned earlier or managed to avoid the expulsion.

1921 | The Golden Age

The period immediately following WW1 is considered the golden age for Jews in Lithuania. Upon the establishment of free Lithuania the Jews, who fought valiantly in the Lithuanian war of independence, helping hold Vilnius against the Polish invaders, were granted autonomy and fully equal rights, as well as representation in the first Lithuanian legislative council (the “Tariba”) - even though a large number of the significant Jewish-Lithuanian communities, including that of Vilnius, remained outside the borders of independent Lithuania.
The Jewish population of Lithuania consisted of over 80 organized communities, whose leaders were freely elected. The world of the great yeshivas – Panevezys, Slobodka, Telsiai – returned to its glory days. The press and literature flourished, and Yiddish and Hebrew reigned supreme.
Like everywhere else in the Jewish world, Lithuania too boasted vibrant national activity. Youth movements and training camps of all sorts raised a generation of pioneering Jewish youth. Alongside them worked the national parties, including the socialist Bund, the national-religious Mizrachi movement, whose representatives were active in the highest levels of Zionist politics, the Revisionists and Hashomer Hatzair. Hundreds of kindergartens operated in Lithuania alongside the Tarbut Hebrew school network and the Hebrew Gymnasium organization, which operated 13 schools throughout the country.
However, the rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and that of fascist movements, made its mark on Lithuania as well. In 1926 Lithuania's nationalists staged a fascist coup. The democratic parties were dissolved and most went underground. Two years later, in 1928, the last remnants of Jewish autonomy were abolished and the government handed the local cooperatives many of the trade and industry fields, such as the export of grain and flax, which had hitherto been the main sources of livelihood for many Jews. Throughout the 1930's anti-Semitic expressions and violent outbursts became more and more common.

1941 | In the Name of the Father

In August 1939, following the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Lithuania lost its independence. The pie of Eastern Europe was cut into thin slices, and Lithuania, with all its various populations, was swallowed by the Soviet behemoth.
Although Jews were among the hard core of the Communist Party, they received no significant positions in the new administration in Lithuania. Despite this, they were identified by the local Lithuanians with the Soviet occupation, which further increased their hostility. Concurrently, the Zionist movement was outlawed, and all the Hebrew-language schools were forced to teach in Yiddish.
In 1941, as the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty was violated by Germany and Lithuania conquered by the Nazis, the Einsatzgruppen units were tasked with the extermination of the Jews. Starting on July 3rd, 1941, these units executed a methodical plan of annihilation, which was carried out on a precise schedule. Many of the stages of extermination – locating the victims, guarding them, leading them to the killing plots and sometimes the killing itself – was done by Lithuanian auxiliaries, including military and police personnel. The mass slaughter was mostly conducted in the forests surrounding the cities and towns, on the edge of large pits dug by conscripted farmers, Soviet prisoners of war and sometimes the Jews themselves. Later on, the Jews remaining in small towns were transferred to ghettos created in nearby large cities.
A glorious chapter in the annals of the Jews of Lithuania during the Holocaust is reserved for the partisan resistance movement. The banner of rebellion was raised by partisan Abba Kovner, whose name literally means “father” and who coined the phrase “let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!” and who, along with his friends Josef Glazman and Yitzchak Wittenberg, established the Unified Partisan Organization (FPO), which operated in the woods.
The organization succeeded in obtaining ammunition, published an underground newspaper and carried out many acts of sabotage, but its main achievement was to instill a spirit of pride and self-respect among the Jews of Lithuania.
By the end of WW2 some 206,800 people – 94% of Lithuania's Jews – were annihilated.

2000 | A Homeland No Longer

After the end of WW2 Lithuania once again became a Soviet republic. Most of the Jewish community were not allowed to immigrate to Israel, and in accordance with the Communist ideology were also banned from any national or religious activity. Despite this, under international pressure, the authorities permitted the establishment of a Yiddish theater.
A census from 1959 shows that 24,672 Jews lived in Lithuania at the time, most of them in Vilnius and some in Kaunas. In the early 1970's a massive migration of Jews began from Lithuania to Israel, increasing further after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
In the year 2000 the Jewish community of Lithuania numbered only about 3.600 Jews, about 0.1% of the population.
In 1995 the President of the newly independent Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, visited Israel and asked the Jewish people for forgiveness from the Knesset dais. The level of anti-Semitism in Lithuania in the past two decades (as of 2016) is considered one of the lowest in Europe.