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The Jewish Community of Gargzdai

Gargzdai

A small town in the Kretinga district, in north west Lithuania.

Gargzdai is situated on the river Minija near the town of Memel (Kalpeda in Lithuanian). The Jewish community of Gargzdai was one of the first in Lithuania. In the Jewish cemetery there are tombstones from the 16th century. At that time the Jews of the town were responsible for the custom revenue at the frontier. In 1639 the Jews received a charter of rights from Wladislaw IV, King of Poland. In 1827 there were 648 Jews in the town and in 1897, 1,455, 60% of the general population. During the reign of the tsar, when there was danger of a pogrom the Jews of Gargzdai used to cross the frontier into Germany (East Prussia) and return to their homes when the danger had passed. During World War I the Jew also crossed into Germany and returned when the Germans too the town. The town was barely touched by the war and during the German conquest good earnings were to be had. In 1921, 1,148 Jews lived in Gargzdai.

There was a synagogue and a prayer house in the town and line of officiating rabbis. Rabbi Meir Levin the last rabbi perished in the Holocaust.

The community had the usual charity institutions and was helped by contributions from former members of the community who had emigrated to the USA. There was a Talmud torah school, a Hebrew elementary school and a Yiddish elementary school, also two libraries, a Yiddish one and a Hebrew one.

The Jews made a living mainly from selling wood to Germany the wood was transported mostly by way of the river and many Jews were working on the river rafts on the Minija river many Jews were well-to-do.

The branch of the Jewish bank had 269 members in 1929.

There were branches of all the Zionist organizations in the town, there was also a training center for young people going on Aliyah to Eretz Israel.

Religious youth had its own Tifereth Bahurim organization and the others were in youth movements and the Maccabi sport organization literary soirees were frequently held there, often initiate by the youth movements.

In 1939 there were about 1,000 Jews in Gargzdai.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939) an 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.

A few hundred Jewish refugees from Memel which was annexed to Germany came to Gargzdai and became part of the community.

The German army reached the town on the first day of it attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941). There was heavy fighting with the Soviet garrison troops, for the town an the bridge over the river Minija; many of the inhabitants of Gargzdai, among them Jews, fell in the fighting.

Gargzdai was situated in the 25 km belt where the German decided to murder all the Jews and the communists. Already on the next day, June 23, in the morning members of the gestapo from Memel arrived in the town. Helped by local Lithuanian they arrested all the Jews and communists. Jews who had been working for the Soviet regime were cruelly beaten; the Jewish physician Dr. Ochsmann who worked as the district physician was brutally murdered. 200 Jewish men were taken to the German border.

The men were exposed to the brutality of the Germans and their Lithuanian henchmen; they were ordered to dig trench against tanks. On the next day, June 24, 1941 all the Jewish men were shot into the trenches by members of the Gestapo.

The Lithuanians took the women and children to the western shore of the river and confined them in barns. Many of the children were murdered on the way. The women were taken day after day for forced labor and denied food.

On September 14, 1941 young women were taken to the next village and murdered in the forest of Vizaietai. On September 16 the remaining women and children, about 300 souls, were taken to the same forest and killed with spades and metal bars by the Lithuanian henchmen of the Germans.

A young woman who hid herself in a pit among the corpses or the victims managed to reach the village of Vizaistai and was saved by the Lithuanian teacher of the village Gratius.

Place Type:
Town
ID Number:
261223
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Nearby places:

Related items:
The Market Place in Gargzdai,
Lithuania, c.1930
postcard
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
David Kamzon Collection, Israel)
View of the town Gargzdai, Lithuania, 1939
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
David Kamzon Collection, Israel)

Klaipeda

In German: Memel.  The Jews adopted the German name Memel, former Memelburg.

A port on the Baltic sea where the Dange river flows into the Kury bay, western Lithuania.

The city was founded in the middle of the 13th century by the Teutonic knights and was part of Prussia. From its beginnings until the 15th century it was frequently attacked by its neighbors the Poles and the Lithuanians. In the first half of the 17th century the city was under Swedish rule for a short period. Twice it was occupied by the Russians in 1757 during the seven year war and in 1813 during Napoleon's retreat from Russia.

After World War I, Memel was separated from Germany and in 1919 placed under a French mandate from the League of Nations. A Lithuanian uprising in 1923 forced the French to leave. In 1924 "Status Memel" was approved according to which the city was annexed to Lithuania and recognized as the capital of an autonomous region.

Jews were residents of Memel as early as the 15th century and the city archives contain documents of "Jew-taxes". The community was dissolved in 1567 when the Jews were ordered to leave the city within five months. For almost a hundred years Jews were not allowed to enter Memel except once a week for business reasons and even then they were not allowed to sleep there. Only in 1643 Jews who had come to Memel for business on Friday especially during the short winter days, were allowed to stay in the city on the Sabbath.

After 20 years, in 1664 the Jew Moshe Jacobson de Yonge came from Amsterdam with his family at the invitation of prince Frederick Wilhelm of Brandenburg. De Yonge contributed greatly to the development of commerce and shipping and initiated the salt trade. He brought with him a cantor, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and teacher. He established a synagogue for himself and his assistants. During a short period there was a renewal of the Jewish community in the city. But after 20 years de Yonge left Memel and once again there were no Jews there.

Each year the authorities published an edict forbidding the entrance of Jewish peddlers into the city. The announcements were posted on the walls of the town hall. Only at the yearly trade fair were Jews allowed to come with their merchandise. Documents in the city archives show that in 1798 a Jewish merchant rented 14 stalls. Jewish merchants from Lithuania and Russia brought agricultural produce and expensive furs. They bought merchandise from the west to sell it in turn in their countries. Hebrew books both religious and secular were sold at the fair, sometimes whole libraries of assimilated Jews from Germany whose interest in Hebrew literature had lapsed. These books were much in demand in Eastern Europe where Hebrew presses were scarce. The edict forbidding Jews except for a few court Jews to settle in Memel was in force during all the 18th century. When the philosopher Moses Mendelsohn, the "father of Jewish enlightenment" and a friend of many German men of letters came to Memel on business, he was not allowed to spend the night there.

The limitations on Jewish settlement in Memel were lifted in 1812 as a result of the emancipation granted to the Jews of Prussia that year. The Jewish community was renewed and according to the census of 1831 there were 600 Jews there in addition to the Jews who traveled to Memel for business reasons and stayed for a short time.

In 1823 the Jewish cemetery was consecrated. It was the first Jewish religious institution in Memel. Before that the Jews of Memel were buried in cemeteries in Lithuania. Licenses to cross the borders were difficult to obtain, witness the story of a corpse which was brought in a wagon with his pipe still in his mouth.

There were two groups in the Jewish community in Memel which established its character; the Jews who came from Germany and the polish and Lithuanian Jews. Although they kept their separate identities, it did not prevent them from living side by side cooperating fully and without tensions.

In the forties of the 19th century the first synagogue and ritual baths were built by the timber merchants from Poland and Russia who lived in Memel during the autumn. It was called the Polish shul. Later in the middle of the 19th century a study house was established by the Lithuanian Jews who also used it for prayer services. In the middle of the century the German Jews founded their own synagogue.

In 1847 the established Jewish communities of Germany and Eastern Europe gained autonomy and every Jew was obliged to belong to the congregation and pay taxes. The edict of the authorities demanding the union of the different congregations did not arouse opposition and in 1862 a united community was founded. It was organized with the help of outside experts who founded the necessary communal institutions. In 1860 rabbi Israel Salanter came to Memel. He had founded the Musar (ethics) movement in 1843 in an effort to strengthen Judaism vis-a-vis the various ideological movements that flourished in the 19th century. His purpose was to disseminate his message in the cities of Germany as a shield against assimilation. His stay in the city left its mark on the community. His home was the centre for Jewish intellectuals who came to hear his sermons. He also published 12 issues of the weekly "Hatvuna" which printed torah commentaries of the great scholars of the time. He helped the consolidation of the community institutions and in 1862 together with rabbi Yitzchak Ruelf organized the burial society which was recognized by the authorities. This event was the foundation of the organized Jewish community. Rabbi Salanter organized several groups among them "Chevrat Lomdei Gemara" and "Chevrat Shas" (study groups) and gained many adherents and followers for his movement.

In 1865 rabbi Yitzchak Ruelf of German background was appointed rabbi of the community and officiated at this post for 33 years. The rabbi who had an extensive secular education was active in many fields. He edited the newspaper "Memeler Dampfboote", published five volumes on philosophy and also published works concerning Jews like "The Defense of Jews" the "Jews of Russia" and others. He was one of the founders of the synagogue of German Jews. He took part in almost all the social and cultural activities in the city. He was called "Dr. Hilf" (help). During the years 1867-69 there was a famine in Lithuania and in 1868 a cholera epidemic. The Lithuanian Jews in Memel organized an aid committee and Dr. Ruelf was chosen as executive secretary. In 1869 the year the committee functioned the German Jews and "the alliance" organized groups to receive the many immigrants from Lithuania at the German Russian border and aid them. During the eighties Dr. Ruelf was one of the founders and leaders of the "committee for aid to Russian Jews" which collected donations from Jews of the Diaspora for Jewish victims of the pogroms in southern Russia. As a result of the pogroms, many refugees passed through Memel on their way to the west and overseas.

In 1894 rabbi Ruelf founded a free loan society and in 1897 a charitable society for the aid of the needy. With the help of donations from German Jews and the lumber merchants of Russia rabbi Ruelf organized a hospital where poor Lithuanian Jews could also receive treatment. With the passing of time the original building proved to be too small and with the aid of donations a new building surrounded by gardens was erected on a hill overlooking the beautiful countryside. The building dedicated in 1896, was built on a plot purchased by the banker Leopold Alexander who bequeathed his fortune to the hospital. His brother-in- law Leon Rostowski, a wealthy educated man donated much of his wealth to the hospital and erected a large new wing.

In 1880 an elementary school "Israelitische Religions Schule" was established where Torah studies, Hebrew and German were taught. A year later there were 86 pupils in the school. The young people studied in the government schools and attended Jewish schools in the afternoon. The tolerance prevalent in the community was the reason that even the Haskala (enlightenment) movement did not meet the harsh opposition so typical of many communities in Lithuania. The community in Memel was able to absorb new ideas without undue friction. In 1896 "Chevrat Kiryat Sefer" was established and its purpose was to acquaint German Jews with Jewish history and literature.

In 1886 after an edict to deport Russian citizens from Memel, the number of Jews in Memel decreased. Rabbi Ruelf saw to it that each deported family received some compensation according to the size of the family. Only 100 Jewish families remained in the city. They earned their livelihood from the trade with Russia which was concentrated in their hands. They were under strict supervision of the authorities.

The threat of deportation was real during World War I but not implemented against most of the Jews because of the help of local groups who were ready to testify to the loyalty of the Jews.

After World War I Jews from different places came to Memel because of the ease with which the French authorities granted Jews citizenship and the commercial opportunities in the port city. After the annexation of Memel to Lithuania in 1924 the Lithuanians who were interested in reducing the percentage of Germans in the area encouraged the movement of Jews to the city and in the period between the two world wars the number of Jews tripled. A Talmud Torah was added to the Jewish school network in 1927. In 1936 the first Jewish elementary school was founded.

As a result of the edict of 1812 granting emancipation to the Jews of Prussia, many Jews from Poland and Lithuania came to the city. They were the leading merchants in the trade of lumber, grains and linens. The lumber trade was almost completely in the hands of Jews. With the development of the city, the economy became more varied and Jews became clerks and doctors.

With the annexation of the district to Lithuania after World War I, the Jewish community grew and its economic and social structure changed. Like many Lithuanian Jews, the Jews of Memel invested their money in real estate in the city and countryside. There were Jewish estate owners and farmers.

In the middle of the twenties of the 20th century, a Jewish community bank was founded. There were also private Jewish banks. The local authorities encouraged the development of industry. The Jews opened factories and employed Jewish workers who came from the small towns of Lithuania among them graduates of the O.R.T. Schools. They took the place of the textile experts from Czechoslovakia. The workers and artisans were 40% of the Jewish breadwinners.

At the beginning of the 30s, 25% of the shops in the city and 20% of the factories were owned by Jews. On the eve of World War II 330 factories were owned by Jews, flour mills, wood processing plants, textiles, tobacco, chocolate and others. 70% of the German workers were employed there.

Until 1880, 80% of the Jews in Memel were of east European origin and had strong ties with their brethren in Lithuania and with the Zionist movement. Prominent Jews in the community were nationalist and had great influence. Dr. Ruelf was the first western rabbi who was against the "dissenting rabbis" an expression coined by Herzl to describe the German rabbis who prevented the convening of the first Zionist congress in Munich. He also influenced Dr. Wolfsohn who in his youth had spent some time in Memel and was to succeed Herzl as the head of the Zionist movement.

The annexation of Memel to Lithuania increased the influence of Zionism. The changes in the structure of the Jewish population strenghtenend nationalism and resulted in a Zionist majority in the Jewish community council. The rabbi of Memel in the period between the two world wars, rabbi Eleazer Yehuda Rabinowitz was famed for his researches. He was a member of the mizrahi movement in Lithuania. Many of his articles were published in the Zionist periodical "Die Yiddische Shtimme" which appeared in kovno and encouraged immigration to Eretz Israel.

Among the Jewish workers were many pioneers who wanted to prepare themselves for the new life in Eretz Israel. Those who could not emigrate remained in Memel. Which was a port city and industrial centre and so had favorable conditions for "Hachshara" groups. In 1919, during the period of French rule, an emissary from Kovno arrived who with the help of local groups organized a branch of "Hechalutz" the largest in Lithuania. The pioneers lived as a community (one of which was scheduled to join the Gdud Ha-Avoda in Eretz Israel) and worked in different places even in non-Jewish firms, in agriculture, fishing and industry. Many did their agricultural training on German farms and competed successfully with the German and Lithuanian workers. They also worked in the port and even on shipbuilding. A "Beth Hechalutz" (pioneers' home) of three stories was built with the aid of donations; it became a meeting place and cultural centre for the thousands of pioneers who passed through Memel and for the Zionists in the area. There was also a small hospital and rest home for the pioneers. Many pioneers succeeded in leaving Soviet Russia illegally due to the good relations between the Jewish merchants of Memel and the captains of the freighters most of whom were German. The pioneers were brought to Germany and from there they emigrated to Eretz Israel.

Most of the Zionist parties were active in Memel also Zionist pioneer youth movements. "HaShomer Hazair", Betar, Hanoar Hazioni and others. There were 400 members in the sport groups, Bar-Kochba and Maccabi. The nationalist spirit penetrated social societies like "Yiddishe Kultur Bund" (Jewish cultural society) or the Jewish history and literature club. The editor of the "Memeler Dampfboote" Arye Sheinhaus organized a Hebrew-speaking circle and through their initiative a Hebrew kindergarten was organized. There was also a women's Zionist organization.

In 1938 there were 6,000 Jews in Memel 12,5% of the total population.


The Holocaust Period

When the Nazis attained power in Germany in 1933, anti-Semitic propaganda increased and there were demands to return Memel to Germany. In 1937 the veto of the Lithuanian government prevented the adoption of a law passed by the local parliament forbidding Jewish artisans to work in Memel. The Nazis continued their agitation, smashed windows of synagogues. In 1937 they attacked Jewish summer campers. In 1938 they demanded the adoption of the Nuremberg laws. In the summer of 1938 there was a serious decline in the situation of the Memel Jews. The local authorities acted according to orders from Berlin. Terror was applied, particularly against Jewish doctors. Many Jews in Memel left their businesses. After the Munich pact in 1938, the Jews began to leave the city. During that year about 50% left. At the end of 1938 the Nazis held 26 out of 29 seats in the local parliament and in practice they ruled the city.

After the ultimatum Germany gave Lithuania in March 1939 the German army occupied Memel. The last Jews in Memel went to kovno and other places in Lithuania. The ORT network opened vocational courses for adults and the ort school in Kovno absorbed the young refugee students. When the war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out in June 1941 all of Lithuania was occupied by the Germans. The fate of the Memel refugees was like that of their Jewish brethren in their new homes.

In January 1945 Memel was liberated by the Soviet army and annexed to the Lithuanian republic of the Soviet Union.

In 1967 there were 1,000 Jews in Memel but there was no Jewish organization there.

Kretinga

Yiddish: קרעטינגע, Kretinge; Russian: Кретинген, Kretingen; 

A city in Lithuania

 

21ST CENTURY

The Jewish cemetery has remained partially preserved. A memorial is located in the Kveciai forest near Kretinga at the location of the mass shooting that took place there.



HISTORY

Jews settled in Kretinga during the first half of the 17th century, when the city became a trade center and received the Magdeburg Privileges, which entitled it to self-rule.

The community grew steadily, and the census of 1847 indicates that by then the Jewish population had reached 1,738. As Kretinga’s economy declined, however, this number decreased, and at the end of the 19th century there were 1,200 Jews in Kretinga (35% of the general population).

The local Jewish community had a synagogue, a prayer house, and a kloyz (private house of study); the three buildings burned down in 1889 when a fire raged through the town and were subsequently rebuilt. There were also a number of charitable organizations. Children studied at a traditional cheder.

Most Jews worked in trade, and traded with markets across the border until the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). Later, during the interwar period when Lithuania was independent, there were fewer markets, but the Jews were still able to make a living from workshops, where local Jews produced amber jewelry and souvenirs for tourists and summer visitors to the neighboring summer resort town of Palanga.

Community institutions during the interwar period included a Tarbut Hebrew school and a private library. In 1932 the Jewish bank had 233 members.

Zionist activities in Kretinga flourished between the two World Wars. Most of the local Jews were Zionists and supported raising funds for Palestine. Zionist youth movements became centers of social and cultural activities in the community.

In 1921 there were about 1,000 Jews living in Kretinga. On the eve of World War II (1939-1945) there were about 800 Jews in Kretinga. The last rabbi to officiate in Kretinga was Rabbi Benjamin Persky.

Notable figures from Kretinga include the merchant and colonel in the Polish Army, Berek Joselewicz (Dow Baer Joselewicz, 1764-1809).


THE HOLOCAUST

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939), Lithuania came under Soviet rule and was annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of the summer of 1940. In September 1939 the Jewish community of Kretinga absorbed Jewish refugees from regions occupied by the Nazis; as a result, the number of Jews living in Kretinga rose to 1,000.

The Germans occupied the city on the first day of their attack on Soviet Russia (June 22, 1941). Kretinga was inside the 15.5-mile (25 km) belt along the Lithuanian border where the Germans determined that the Jews would be immediately killed. Upon entering the city, the Germans appointed nationalist Lithuanians in key positions in Kretinga and the surrounding area, headed by a Lithuanian who escaped when the Soviets took over Lithuania and who served in the Gestapo.

On the first day that the Germans took control of Kretinga, the Jewish men were ordered to assemble in the marketplace, where they were subject to physical violence and abuse until the evening. That night, they were imprisoned in the synagogue. After four days, 180 men were taken from the synagogue and were joined by another 30 men who were found during home searches. The group was driven to a farm near Palanga, where they were shot by Germans and Lithuanian policemen into trenches that they had been forced to dig themselves.

After the men were killed, the women and children were taken to the same farm. 63 Jews were taken from the farm on June 28 and killed, on the pretext that the Jews had started a fire in the synagogue, which then spread and burned several houses. After a number of days, another 15 Jews were taken and shot; their families were subsequently killed in the middle of August. Meanwhile, about 20 Jews from Kretinga and the surrounding area were being held in the local prison, where they were subject to abuse by the Lithuanian wardens.

Another mass killing took place in the middle of July, 1941 when 120 Jewish men were shot in the Jewish cemetery by German soldiers. Ultimately, during the summer of 1941, the Germans and Lithuanians killed approximately 1,050 Jewish men, women, and children in Kretinga and the surrounding area.

The Jewish community of Kretinga was liquidated at the beginning of September 1941. The women, children, and elderly people remaining at the farm were killed by drunken Lithuanian policemen armed with bayonets, knives, and iron bars. The last people to remain alive were shot. The Gestapo men photographed the massacre.

 

POSTWAR

The Jewish community was not renewed after the war.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of trials took place against some of those who carried out the killing of Kretinga’s Jews.

A small memorial stone was erected in the Jewish cemetery in the 1990s, in memory of the Jews who were killed there.

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 Gargzdai

Gargzdai

A small town in the Kretinga district, in north west Lithuania.

Gargzdai is situated on the river Minija near the town of Memel (Kalpeda in Lithuanian). The Jewish community of Gargzdai was one of the first in Lithuania. In the Jewish cemetery there are tombstones from the 16th century. At that time the Jews of the town were responsible for the custom revenue at the frontier. In 1639 the Jews received a charter of rights from Wladislaw IV, King of Poland. In 1827 there were 648 Jews in the town and in 1897, 1,455, 60% of the general population. During the reign of the tsar, when there was danger of a pogrom the Jews of Gargzdai used to cross the frontier into Germany (East Prussia) and return to their homes when the danger had passed. During World War I the Jew also crossed into Germany and returned when the Germans too the town. The town was barely touched by the war and during the German conquest good earnings were to be had. In 1921, 1,148 Jews lived in Gargzdai.

There was a synagogue and a prayer house in the town and line of officiating rabbis. Rabbi Meir Levin the last rabbi perished in the Holocaust.

The community had the usual charity institutions and was helped by contributions from former members of the community who had emigrated to the USA. There was a Talmud torah school, a Hebrew elementary school and a Yiddish elementary school, also two libraries, a Yiddish one and a Hebrew one.

The Jews made a living mainly from selling wood to Germany the wood was transported mostly by way of the river and many Jews were working on the river rafts on the Minija river many Jews were well-to-do.

The branch of the Jewish bank had 269 members in 1929.

There were branches of all the Zionist organizations in the town, there was also a training center for young people going on Aliyah to Eretz Israel.

Religious youth had its own Tifereth Bahurim organization and the others were in youth movements and the Maccabi sport organization literary soirees were frequently held there, often initiate by the youth movements.

In 1939 there were about 1,000 Jews in Gargzdai.


The Holocaust Period

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939) an 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.

A few hundred Jewish refugees from Memel which was annexed to Germany came to Gargzdai and became part of the community.

The German army reached the town on the first day of it attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941). There was heavy fighting with the Soviet garrison troops, for the town an the bridge over the river Minija; many of the inhabitants of Gargzdai, among them Jews, fell in the fighting.

Gargzdai was situated in the 25 km belt where the German decided to murder all the Jews and the communists. Already on the next day, June 23, in the morning members of the gestapo from Memel arrived in the town. Helped by local Lithuanian they arrested all the Jews and communists. Jews who had been working for the Soviet regime were cruelly beaten; the Jewish physician Dr. Ochsmann who worked as the district physician was brutally murdered. 200 Jewish men were taken to the German border.

The men were exposed to the brutality of the Germans and their Lithuanian henchmen; they were ordered to dig trench against tanks. On the next day, June 24, 1941 all the Jewish men were shot into the trenches by members of the Gestapo.

The Lithuanians took the women and children to the western shore of the river and confined them in barns. Many of the children were murdered on the way. The women were taken day after day for forced labor and denied food.

On September 14, 1941 young women were taken to the next village and murdered in the forest of Vizaietai. On September 16 the remaining women and children, about 300 souls, were taken to the same forest and killed with spades and metal bars by the Lithuanian henchmen of the Germans.

A young woman who hid herself in a pit among the corpses or the victims managed to reach the village of Vizaistai and was saved by the Lithuanian teacher of the village Gratius.

Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
The Market Place in Gargzdai, Lithuania, 1930s. Postcard
The Market Place in Gargzdai,
Lithuania, c.1930
postcard
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
David Kamzon Collection, Israel)
View of the town Gargzdai, Lithuania, 1939
View of the town Gargzdai, Lithuania, 1939
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
David Kamzon Collection, Israel)

Klaipeda

Klaipeda

In German: Memel.  The Jews adopted the German name Memel, former Memelburg.

A port on the Baltic sea where the Dange river flows into the Kury bay, western Lithuania.

The city was founded in the middle of the 13th century by the Teutonic knights and was part of Prussia. From its beginnings until the 15th century it was frequently attacked by its neighbors the Poles and the Lithuanians. In the first half of the 17th century the city was under Swedish rule for a short period. Twice it was occupied by the Russians in 1757 during the seven year war and in 1813 during Napoleon's retreat from Russia.

After World War I, Memel was separated from Germany and in 1919 placed under a French mandate from the League of Nations. A Lithuanian uprising in 1923 forced the French to leave. In 1924 "Status Memel" was approved according to which the city was annexed to Lithuania and recognized as the capital of an autonomous region.

Jews were residents of Memel as early as the 15th century and the city archives contain documents of "Jew-taxes". The community was dissolved in 1567 when the Jews were ordered to leave the city within five months. For almost a hundred years Jews were not allowed to enter Memel except once a week for business reasons and even then they were not allowed to sleep there. Only in 1643 Jews who had come to Memel for business on Friday especially during the short winter days, were allowed to stay in the city on the Sabbath.

After 20 years, in 1664 the Jew Moshe Jacobson de Yonge came from Amsterdam with his family at the invitation of prince Frederick Wilhelm of Brandenburg. De Yonge contributed greatly to the development of commerce and shipping and initiated the salt trade. He brought with him a cantor, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and teacher. He established a synagogue for himself and his assistants. During a short period there was a renewal of the Jewish community in the city. But after 20 years de Yonge left Memel and once again there were no Jews there.

Each year the authorities published an edict forbidding the entrance of Jewish peddlers into the city. The announcements were posted on the walls of the town hall. Only at the yearly trade fair were Jews allowed to come with their merchandise. Documents in the city archives show that in 1798 a Jewish merchant rented 14 stalls. Jewish merchants from Lithuania and Russia brought agricultural produce and expensive furs. They bought merchandise from the west to sell it in turn in their countries. Hebrew books both religious and secular were sold at the fair, sometimes whole libraries of assimilated Jews from Germany whose interest in Hebrew literature had lapsed. These books were much in demand in Eastern Europe where Hebrew presses were scarce. The edict forbidding Jews except for a few court Jews to settle in Memel was in force during all the 18th century. When the philosopher Moses Mendelsohn, the "father of Jewish enlightenment" and a friend of many German men of letters came to Memel on business, he was not allowed to spend the night there.

The limitations on Jewish settlement in Memel were lifted in 1812 as a result of the emancipation granted to the Jews of Prussia that year. The Jewish community was renewed and according to the census of 1831 there were 600 Jews there in addition to the Jews who traveled to Memel for business reasons and stayed for a short time.

In 1823 the Jewish cemetery was consecrated. It was the first Jewish religious institution in Memel. Before that the Jews of Memel were buried in cemeteries in Lithuania. Licenses to cross the borders were difficult to obtain, witness the story of a corpse which was brought in a wagon with his pipe still in his mouth.

There were two groups in the Jewish community in Memel which established its character; the Jews who came from Germany and the polish and Lithuanian Jews. Although they kept their separate identities, it did not prevent them from living side by side cooperating fully and without tensions.

In the forties of the 19th century the first synagogue and ritual baths were built by the timber merchants from Poland and Russia who lived in Memel during the autumn. It was called the Polish shul. Later in the middle of the 19th century a study house was established by the Lithuanian Jews who also used it for prayer services. In the middle of the century the German Jews founded their own synagogue.

In 1847 the established Jewish communities of Germany and Eastern Europe gained autonomy and every Jew was obliged to belong to the congregation and pay taxes. The edict of the authorities demanding the union of the different congregations did not arouse opposition and in 1862 a united community was founded. It was organized with the help of outside experts who founded the necessary communal institutions. In 1860 rabbi Israel Salanter came to Memel. He had founded the Musar (ethics) movement in 1843 in an effort to strengthen Judaism vis-a-vis the various ideological movements that flourished in the 19th century. His purpose was to disseminate his message in the cities of Germany as a shield against assimilation. His stay in the city left its mark on the community. His home was the centre for Jewish intellectuals who came to hear his sermons. He also published 12 issues of the weekly "Hatvuna" which printed torah commentaries of the great scholars of the time. He helped the consolidation of the community institutions and in 1862 together with rabbi Yitzchak Ruelf organized the burial society which was recognized by the authorities. This event was the foundation of the organized Jewish community. Rabbi Salanter organized several groups among them "Chevrat Lomdei Gemara" and "Chevrat Shas" (study groups) and gained many adherents and followers for his movement.

In 1865 rabbi Yitzchak Ruelf of German background was appointed rabbi of the community and officiated at this post for 33 years. The rabbi who had an extensive secular education was active in many fields. He edited the newspaper "Memeler Dampfboote", published five volumes on philosophy and also published works concerning Jews like "The Defense of Jews" the "Jews of Russia" and others. He was one of the founders of the synagogue of German Jews. He took part in almost all the social and cultural activities in the city. He was called "Dr. Hilf" (help). During the years 1867-69 there was a famine in Lithuania and in 1868 a cholera epidemic. The Lithuanian Jews in Memel organized an aid committee and Dr. Ruelf was chosen as executive secretary. In 1869 the year the committee functioned the German Jews and "the alliance" organized groups to receive the many immigrants from Lithuania at the German Russian border and aid them. During the eighties Dr. Ruelf was one of the founders and leaders of the "committee for aid to Russian Jews" which collected donations from Jews of the Diaspora for Jewish victims of the pogroms in southern Russia. As a result of the pogroms, many refugees passed through Memel on their way to the west and overseas.

In 1894 rabbi Ruelf founded a free loan society and in 1897 a charitable society for the aid of the needy. With the help of donations from German Jews and the lumber merchants of Russia rabbi Ruelf organized a hospital where poor Lithuanian Jews could also receive treatment. With the passing of time the original building proved to be too small and with the aid of donations a new building surrounded by gardens was erected on a hill overlooking the beautiful countryside. The building dedicated in 1896, was built on a plot purchased by the banker Leopold Alexander who bequeathed his fortune to the hospital. His brother-in- law Leon Rostowski, a wealthy educated man donated much of his wealth to the hospital and erected a large new wing.

In 1880 an elementary school "Israelitische Religions Schule" was established where Torah studies, Hebrew and German were taught. A year later there were 86 pupils in the school. The young people studied in the government schools and attended Jewish schools in the afternoon. The tolerance prevalent in the community was the reason that even the Haskala (enlightenment) movement did not meet the harsh opposition so typical of many communities in Lithuania. The community in Memel was able to absorb new ideas without undue friction. In 1896 "Chevrat Kiryat Sefer" was established and its purpose was to acquaint German Jews with Jewish history and literature.

In 1886 after an edict to deport Russian citizens from Memel, the number of Jews in Memel decreased. Rabbi Ruelf saw to it that each deported family received some compensation according to the size of the family. Only 100 Jewish families remained in the city. They earned their livelihood from the trade with Russia which was concentrated in their hands. They were under strict supervision of the authorities.

The threat of deportation was real during World War I but not implemented against most of the Jews because of the help of local groups who were ready to testify to the loyalty of the Jews.

After World War I Jews from different places came to Memel because of the ease with which the French authorities granted Jews citizenship and the commercial opportunities in the port city. After the annexation of Memel to Lithuania in 1924 the Lithuanians who were interested in reducing the percentage of Germans in the area encouraged the movement of Jews to the city and in the period between the two world wars the number of Jews tripled. A Talmud Torah was added to the Jewish school network in 1927. In 1936 the first Jewish elementary school was founded.

As a result of the edict of 1812 granting emancipation to the Jews of Prussia, many Jews from Poland and Lithuania came to the city. They were the leading merchants in the trade of lumber, grains and linens. The lumber trade was almost completely in the hands of Jews. With the development of the city, the economy became more varied and Jews became clerks and doctors.

With the annexation of the district to Lithuania after World War I, the Jewish community grew and its economic and social structure changed. Like many Lithuanian Jews, the Jews of Memel invested their money in real estate in the city and countryside. There were Jewish estate owners and farmers.

In the middle of the twenties of the 20th century, a Jewish community bank was founded. There were also private Jewish banks. The local authorities encouraged the development of industry. The Jews opened factories and employed Jewish workers who came from the small towns of Lithuania among them graduates of the O.R.T. Schools. They took the place of the textile experts from Czechoslovakia. The workers and artisans were 40% of the Jewish breadwinners.

At the beginning of the 30s, 25% of the shops in the city and 20% of the factories were owned by Jews. On the eve of World War II 330 factories were owned by Jews, flour mills, wood processing plants, textiles, tobacco, chocolate and others. 70% of the German workers were employed there.

Until 1880, 80% of the Jews in Memel were of east European origin and had strong ties with their brethren in Lithuania and with the Zionist movement. Prominent Jews in the community were nationalist and had great influence. Dr. Ruelf was the first western rabbi who was against the "dissenting rabbis" an expression coined by Herzl to describe the German rabbis who prevented the convening of the first Zionist congress in Munich. He also influenced Dr. Wolfsohn who in his youth had spent some time in Memel and was to succeed Herzl as the head of the Zionist movement.

The annexation of Memel to Lithuania increased the influence of Zionism. The changes in the structure of the Jewish population strenghtenend nationalism and resulted in a Zionist majority in the Jewish community council. The rabbi of Memel in the period between the two world wars, rabbi Eleazer Yehuda Rabinowitz was famed for his researches. He was a member of the mizrahi movement in Lithuania. Many of his articles were published in the Zionist periodical "Die Yiddische Shtimme" which appeared in kovno and encouraged immigration to Eretz Israel.

Among the Jewish workers were many pioneers who wanted to prepare themselves for the new life in Eretz Israel. Those who could not emigrate remained in Memel. Which was a port city and industrial centre and so had favorable conditions for "Hachshara" groups. In 1919, during the period of French rule, an emissary from Kovno arrived who with the help of local groups organized a branch of "Hechalutz" the largest in Lithuania. The pioneers lived as a community (one of which was scheduled to join the Gdud Ha-Avoda in Eretz Israel) and worked in different places even in non-Jewish firms, in agriculture, fishing and industry. Many did their agricultural training on German farms and competed successfully with the German and Lithuanian workers. They also worked in the port and even on shipbuilding. A "Beth Hechalutz" (pioneers' home) of three stories was built with the aid of donations; it became a meeting place and cultural centre for the thousands of pioneers who passed through Memel and for the Zionists in the area. There was also a small hospital and rest home for the pioneers. Many pioneers succeeded in leaving Soviet Russia illegally due to the good relations between the Jewish merchants of Memel and the captains of the freighters most of whom were German. The pioneers were brought to Germany and from there they emigrated to Eretz Israel.

Most of the Zionist parties were active in Memel also Zionist pioneer youth movements. "HaShomer Hazair", Betar, Hanoar Hazioni and others. There were 400 members in the sport groups, Bar-Kochba and Maccabi. The nationalist spirit penetrated social societies like "Yiddishe Kultur Bund" (Jewish cultural society) or the Jewish history and literature club. The editor of the "Memeler Dampfboote" Arye Sheinhaus organized a Hebrew-speaking circle and through their initiative a Hebrew kindergarten was organized. There was also a women's Zionist organization.

In 1938 there were 6,000 Jews in Memel 12,5% of the total population.


The Holocaust Period

When the Nazis attained power in Germany in 1933, anti-Semitic propaganda increased and there were demands to return Memel to Germany. In 1937 the veto of the Lithuanian government prevented the adoption of a law passed by the local parliament forbidding Jewish artisans to work in Memel. The Nazis continued their agitation, smashed windows of synagogues. In 1937 they attacked Jewish summer campers. In 1938 they demanded the adoption of the Nuremberg laws. In the summer of 1938 there was a serious decline in the situation of the Memel Jews. The local authorities acted according to orders from Berlin. Terror was applied, particularly against Jewish doctors. Many Jews in Memel left their businesses. After the Munich pact in 1938, the Jews began to leave the city. During that year about 50% left. At the end of 1938 the Nazis held 26 out of 29 seats in the local parliament and in practice they ruled the city.

After the ultimatum Germany gave Lithuania in March 1939 the German army occupied Memel. The last Jews in Memel went to kovno and other places in Lithuania. The ORT network opened vocational courses for adults and the ort school in Kovno absorbed the young refugee students. When the war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out in June 1941 all of Lithuania was occupied by the Germans. The fate of the Memel refugees was like that of their Jewish brethren in their new homes.

In January 1945 Memel was liberated by the Soviet army and annexed to the Lithuanian republic of the Soviet Union.

In 1967 there were 1,000 Jews in Memel but there was no Jewish organization there.

Kretinga

Kretinga

Yiddish: קרעטינגע, Kretinge; Russian: Кретинген, Kretingen; 

A city in Lithuania

 

21ST CENTURY

The Jewish cemetery has remained partially preserved. A memorial is located in the Kveciai forest near Kretinga at the location of the mass shooting that took place there.



HISTORY

Jews settled in Kretinga during the first half of the 17th century, when the city became a trade center and received the Magdeburg Privileges, which entitled it to self-rule.

The community grew steadily, and the census of 1847 indicates that by then the Jewish population had reached 1,738. As Kretinga’s economy declined, however, this number decreased, and at the end of the 19th century there were 1,200 Jews in Kretinga (35% of the general population).

The local Jewish community had a synagogue, a prayer house, and a kloyz (private house of study); the three buildings burned down in 1889 when a fire raged through the town and were subsequently rebuilt. There were also a number of charitable organizations. Children studied at a traditional cheder.

Most Jews worked in trade, and traded with markets across the border until the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). Later, during the interwar period when Lithuania was independent, there were fewer markets, but the Jews were still able to make a living from workshops, where local Jews produced amber jewelry and souvenirs for tourists and summer visitors to the neighboring summer resort town of Palanga.

Community institutions during the interwar period included a Tarbut Hebrew school and a private library. In 1932 the Jewish bank had 233 members.

Zionist activities in Kretinga flourished between the two World Wars. Most of the local Jews were Zionists and supported raising funds for Palestine. Zionist youth movements became centers of social and cultural activities in the community.

In 1921 there were about 1,000 Jews living in Kretinga. On the eve of World War II (1939-1945) there were about 800 Jews in Kretinga. The last rabbi to officiate in Kretinga was Rabbi Benjamin Persky.

Notable figures from Kretinga include the merchant and colonel in the Polish Army, Berek Joselewicz (Dow Baer Joselewicz, 1764-1809).


THE HOLOCAUST

After the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939), Lithuania came under Soviet rule and was annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of the summer of 1940. In September 1939 the Jewish community of Kretinga absorbed Jewish refugees from regions occupied by the Nazis; as a result, the number of Jews living in Kretinga rose to 1,000.

The Germans occupied the city on the first day of their attack on Soviet Russia (June 22, 1941). Kretinga was inside the 15.5-mile (25 km) belt along the Lithuanian border where the Germans determined that the Jews would be immediately killed. Upon entering the city, the Germans appointed nationalist Lithuanians in key positions in Kretinga and the surrounding area, headed by a Lithuanian who escaped when the Soviets took over Lithuania and who served in the Gestapo.

On the first day that the Germans took control of Kretinga, the Jewish men were ordered to assemble in the marketplace, where they were subject to physical violence and abuse until the evening. That night, they were imprisoned in the synagogue. After four days, 180 men were taken from the synagogue and were joined by another 30 men who were found during home searches. The group was driven to a farm near Palanga, where they were shot by Germans and Lithuanian policemen into trenches that they had been forced to dig themselves.

After the men were killed, the women and children were taken to the same farm. 63 Jews were taken from the farm on June 28 and killed, on the pretext that the Jews had started a fire in the synagogue, which then spread and burned several houses. After a number of days, another 15 Jews were taken and shot; their families were subsequently killed in the middle of August. Meanwhile, about 20 Jews from Kretinga and the surrounding area were being held in the local prison, where they were subject to abuse by the Lithuanian wardens.

Another mass killing took place in the middle of July, 1941 when 120 Jewish men were shot in the Jewish cemetery by German soldiers. Ultimately, during the summer of 1941, the Germans and Lithuanians killed approximately 1,050 Jewish men, women, and children in Kretinga and the surrounding area.

The Jewish community of Kretinga was liquidated at the beginning of September 1941. The women, children, and elderly people remaining at the farm were killed by drunken Lithuanian policemen armed with bayonets, knives, and iron bars. The last people to remain alive were shot. The Gestapo men photographed the massacre.

 

POSTWAR

The Jewish community was not renewed after the war.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of trials took place against some of those who carried out the killing of Kretinga’s Jews.

A small memorial stone was erected in the Jewish cemetery in the 1990s, in memory of the Jews who were killed there.

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.