By Dr. Samuel Greenhaus [Shmuel Grinhoyz]
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund At the time of Lithuanian independence, Klaipeda was the second largest Lithuanian city and fourth in the number of Jews. Klaipeda Jewry had a distinct face and was different from the remaining Lithuanian Jews. Great Lithuania was for centuries a part of Russia and Lithuanian Jews found themselves under the influence of general Jewish Eastern European culture. Lithuania Minor (the Klaipeda region) was for centuries a part of Germany and the Klaipeida Jews were influenced by West European (German) culture.
Klaipeda was for centuries a political part of Germany. However, its economic hinterland was Russia and, mainly, Lithuania. The port of Memel attracted exports and imports from Lithuania. During the German period many Lithuanian Jewish merchants settled here. The German Jewish merchants were more involved with Lithuanian customers than with Germans. In the second half of the 19th Century, Memel, a mixed Jewish East-West community, grew. And shortly before the First World War more Jews were born in Eastern Europe than in Germany.
From the early years, there were two synagogues in Memel. There was the German shul [synagogue] on Kervider Strasse, where praying was in the Western European style with a cantor, a rabbi, a religious teacher, a preacher, and where one wore a black top hat and spoke High German. The second shul was the beis-midrash [house of prayer] on Bader Strasse with a hazan and a rov [East European style cantor and rabbi] with juicy melodies and hair-splitting gemara [Talmud] discussions. Memel always had two rabbisone a German rabbi, a Doctor of Philosophy, and one a rov in a black kapote [long, black coat worn by East European observant Jews] and round hat, versed in the Talmud and in the post-Talmudic commentaries.
In the city between Koenigsberg [now Kaliningrad] and Laibiaisurrounded by the ocean and green forests, at the crossroads of brutal German detachment, Scandinavian calm, Eastern cheerlessness, misnagdishe [opposed to Hasidism] speculation, German-Jewish intellectualism, and Hasidic ecstasya type of Jew developed who took an honored place in the economic and cultural life of Lithuanian Jewry in the years 1923-1939.
The history of the Jews of Memel began in the 15th or 16th century. The first document about the Jews of Memel dates from the 20th of April 1567. This is the order of Prince Albert the Elder (who founded the Albertina University in Koenigsburg and brought the Reformation to Prussia), according to which the members of Jewish origin in Memel had to leave the city within 21 weeks.
The second document, from the year 1613, is an order that no Memel citizen or merchant may carry on commerce with Jews, or he will be fined 100 Hungarian gulden. In a document of 1643, it is said that the Memel merchants had not conformed to the ban and had a large trade with Polish Jews (in this period, this is how the Jews of Memel were referred to, along with the Lithuanian and Russian Jews as well). Therefore, the Jewish merchants who come from Poland to Memel and who cannotparticularly on a short winter Fridayend their business and depart before Shabbos, remain overnight in Memel until Monday.
In the second half of the 17th century, times change. The Grosser Kurfurst [Great Elector] of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm, fortifies his power over all of East Prussia, begins to rule with an iron hand, arrests the anti-Semitic burgermeister [mayor] Rade of Koenigsburg and his city council, and brings Jewish merchants to Memel in order to widen trade with Poland and Russia, that is, Lithuania.
In 1664 Friedrich Wilhelm brought from Holland a Jewish family, Moshe Yakobson the younger, a brilliant merchant and worldly man. Yakobson organized shipping lines and ship building yards and made Memel a center of trade in salt, wood and furs. In 1674 the Elector increased Yabobson's privileges. He received the right to build a synagogue for himself and his personnel, to bring a hazan, a shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], a teacher. However, Yakobson did not remain in Memel. After his salt business turned bad and he had to declare bankruptcy, he and all his personnel returned to Holland.
In the course of the 18th century, Jews were not permitted to live in Memel; however, hundreds of Jews from Lithuania would come here to trade, i.e. to sell Russian goods and to buy German goods. The entire intermediary trade was concentrated in Jewish hands in Memel. At the large market, hundreds of Jewish merchants sold Russian goodsfurs, food, raw materialand bought German factory products.
A particularly interesting article of trade was Hebrew, especially Talmudic and rabbinical, books. The German Jews already were assimilated and they did not use them any longer. Basketfuls of books were sold in Memel and the Lithuanian Jews would take them and bring them to Russia.
After the Napoleonic Wars, the Stein-Hardenburg Reform laws repealed all of the restrictions for Jews in Prussia and, consequently, the ban against Jews living in Memel. However, it lasted longer, until the first German Jews came to Memel. The city was situated too far from the Jewish centers in Germany, so the first Jews who came to Memel were Lithuanian, or as the Germans would call them at the time, Russian Jews. The first Jewish name that we found in the City Chronicles was Ber Kon and his three sonsJosif, Ahron and Shmuel. They came from Tverech. In the City Chronicles of 1830 a shoykhet is found in Memel with the name Josif Wald. He, too, came from Tverech. His children later were significant flour and wood merchants in Memel (the last of the WaldsArtur Waldleft in 1939 for Kovno together with the Memel Jews, was in the Kovno Ghetto, and perished in 1943 in Kazet in Estonia). In the City Chronicles of 1842, we read about the Mosaic ritual slaughterer, Yeshaye Waldgermit, a son-in-law of Josif Wald. He was already a German Jew. He later became a rabbi in Lubeck and died in 1895 in Hamburg. In the years 1820-1859, the majority of the Memel Jews were not local, but Lithuanian or Russian Jews, who would come here for trade in wood and would live here from August to January. And because they would spend the Days of Awe here, they also arranged some minyonim [prayer groups].
The first regular shul was built by the Polish Jews in about 1847. The shul was small and the first gabaim [assistants to the rabbi] of the shul were named Wasbudzky and Lipshitz. The shul (Walstrasse) existed until the Hitler times and always carried the name, Polish shul. In the later years the number of German Jews who came here from various cities in East Prussia increased. The German synagogue is first mentioned in 1854. The first president of the synagogue was the merchant, Meir Levi. The largest group according to their number was at that time the Russian Jews, that is, the Jews from Kovno gubernia. Their shul (called a beis-midrash) was built in the fifties. In 1875, a better place was found for the beis-midrash and a splendid shul (Baderstrasse) was built that was the center of Jewish scholarship in Memel until the Hitler years.
The Jewish cemetery was established in 1850. Until then there were few deaths because the population was young, and arrived as immigrants. In the Jewish metrical [registry] books of 1856, which were kept separately for Jews until the general German civil state law of 1875, we find only one Jewish case of death, while there were 11 births (9 boys and 2 girls). In 1857 there were already 3 cases of death and 16 births (7 boys and 9 girls). Until the creation of its own cemetery, Jewish corpses had to be buried in Gumbinnen or Insterburg, or even transported across the border.
The Memel Jewish cemetery was the most beautiful in the entire Baltic region. Located on the border of Memel, Shmelts and Janiszki, it later, with the growth of Memel, was within the city limits. It was surrounded by wonderful trees and planted with colorful flowers. Specially educated cemetery gardeners would be brought from Berlin and other German cities in order to improve and beautify the cemetery. The cemetery was the first joint institution for all three groups of JewsLithuanian, Polish and German. The second joint institution was the khevrah khedishe [burial society] that was organized in 1857. After the unity that was created in death, unity came to the living. On the 9th of May 1862, the royal governor from Koenigburg approved the statutes of the Israelite Synagogue Gemeinde [Community] of Memel. Synagogue gemeinde is the technical expression for Jewish kehilla [community] according to the Prussian law of 1847. According to this law, all Jews who lived in the city automatically were members of the kehilla, which was a public administrative body and had the right to establish compulsory taxes. The managing committee was chosen by the taxpayers. Later came the liberal laws of 1875 and 1919 that determined that one could leave the kehilla, but only on account of religious principles (not because of economic or political matters) and after giving a judicial or notarized statement. In this way, a uniform kehilla was created in Memel that united the German Jews, who constituted only 20 percent of the Jewish population, with the Lithuanian and Polish Jews. However, the managing committee of the kehilla was almost exclusively German because one had to be a German citizen in order to be a member of it. The first members of the kehilla managing committee were: Reb Lazar, Sh. Glazer and Meir Levi. The heads of the kehilla from 1862 to 1920 were Dr. Lazer, Julius Hirsh, Dr. Firszt, Julius Liliental, S. Barkhart, Moritz Kon, Julius Abelman and Commercial Councilor Aleksander.
We have the first exact number for the Jewish population in Memel for 1867. According to the census of the 3rd of December 1867, 887 Jews lived in Memel. In 1875 there were 1,040; in 18801,214; in 1885903; in 1890861; in 1895936; in 19001,210; and in 1910 over 2,000.
The reason the number of Jews decreased in the years 1880-1890 is as follows: an order was issued in 1880 that the Russian Jews who were not German citizens must leave Memel. They comprised 80 percent of the Jews. The Prussian Interior Minister Von Puttkamer justified the order with the fact that the foreign Jews enjoyed all rights but did not bear the duties, that is, they did not enter the military. Rabbi Dr. Rilf created an aid organization for Russian Jews in Berlin that made a strong effort to bring about the repeal of the edict and even reached Bismarck himself. The order was then changed in the sense that those Jews who were recognized by the Chamber of Commerce as being useful merchants for foreign trade could remain. In the years 1880-1890, 700 Jews had to depart from Germany. These were artisans, workers and small businessmen. The people did not return to Lithuania and Russia for various reasonsmainly, because they did not want to present themselves for service in the Russian armyand they lost their Russian citizenship. The aid organization arranged a collection of money throughout Germany and sent the people to America and Africa.
From 1890 a new immigration of German Jews from Eastern Prussia to Memel began. The number of Jews began to rise until the beginning of the First World War.
In 1914 the Russian Army quickly occupied Memel. At that time a number of Jews left for Russia and remained there because of the war. After the defeat of Germany, Memel was severed from Germany. Until 1920, the Memel region was under the authority of the Allies, under the rule of the French High Commissioner. At that time Memel became a free city. In a short time the area became a lively center of trade between Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Scandinavia and England. Jews began arriving from various countries. Lithuania took over this area in 1923. In 1924 the Allies accepted a charter under which the Memel region became an autonomous area of the Lithuanian state, with its own parliament and a Lithuanian governor. The Lithuanian state controlled foreign relationsborder patrols, military management, political police, customs and the management of the railways. All of the remaining management branches, such as the courts, police, taxes, etc., remained in the hands of the Germans.
The land was united economically with Lithuania, and Memel was the only Lithuanian port. The area began vigorous economic development. New factories, new businesses appeared; the population began to grow. Memel became the most important business center in Lithuania. The number of Jews increased from year to year. All of the doctors with German state diplomas moved here. All of the Jewish jurists from the area itself became judges and prosecutors because the German citizens had to leave the area. There were 7 Jewish judges out of 21, and 1 Jewish prosecutor.
This area bloomed economically and with it the Jewish settlement. In 1928 there were already 4,500 Jews in Memel, and in 19386,000, i.e. almost 12 percent of the population. In the entire area, the number of Jews was also consistently rising.
Over a short time, large factories that could serve larger states developed. The Memel textile factory (Feinberg), the Israelit textile factory and the Baltic and Bavarian textile factories dominated the whole market. The entire Lithuanian wood industry developed and was concentrated in Memel. The port was the center of wholesale trade, and in addition, Memel became the economic capital of all of Western Lithuania. Every summer, the wondrous nature of the region would bring thousands of Jews to the day spas in Memel.
The Memel Jews were rich. A collection for Zionist, religious or cultural purposes would often bring in more money from the 5,000 Memel Jews than from the 30 thousand Jews of Kovno.
Jews became skilled workers in the Memel factories. There was no greater percentage of skilled workers in any other Jewish community as there were in Memel.
The Memel Jews were known for their national [i.e. Zionist] attitudes. Three political groups clashed in the political area. The largest was the progressive Zionist group, which in the last kehilla election received 75 percent of the votes; the orthodox groupabout 25 percent; the extreme leftist group did not offer any candidates for the kehilla.
The second most important Jewish institution, after the kehilla, was the Yiddish club, where one could be found with a glass of coffee, with a book or with a round of chess. The Jewish hospital also occupied an honored place.
An important organization was the Talmud Society that united the orthodox groups that later stood in opposition to the kehilla management.
A leftist organization also existed, but it was illegal.
The sports organization Bar Kokhba played a great part in the cultural life of Memel.
There was actually no Jewish school system in Memel. Jewish children mainly looked for German schools and in limited numbers Lithuanian. The Israelite Religious School was a purely Jewish school, a supplementary school for the children who studied in the general schools. This religious school had existed since 1879. A Talmud Torah existed from 1927. A purely Jewish people's school was founded first in 1936 when the German Hitlerist spirit began to dominate the German schools in Memel.
Memel provided two giants of Israel who served as a symbol for the entire kehilla in Memel, which was a synthesis between east and west. Of them, one became a western man and the other an eastern man. Rabbi Rilf was one of the greatest German educated rabbis as well as one of the pillars in the Society for Jewish Learning. The largest German cities, Breslau and Bonn, Hamburg and Frankfurt would invite him for scholarly lectures. He was one of Herzl's first supporters and Herzl respected him. Dr. Rilf was a delegate to the first and the subsequent Zionist Congresses and a member of the stock share's committee. He was the rabbi in Memel from 1865, the 16th of October until the 1st of April 1898, when he retired and left for southern GermanyBonnbecause of his health. Dr. Rilf played a large role in the aid committee for Kovno Jews during the years of hunger, from 1868-1869 (see the article by G. Aronson, Kovno Conference in 1868).
A second famous Jew produced by Memel was Leon Sheinhaus.
Leon Sheinhaus was a maskhil [follower of the enlightenment] from the good old days. He came to Memel from Vilna gubernia [province] with his brother as a timber merchant. However, the commercial work was mainly done by his brother; he himself was occupied by Yiddish literature and bibliography. He had a phenomenal knowledge of the old and medieval Jewish literature and published many articles about them. He was known throughout Germany. Rabbis and students would ask him questions about various literary works. He was a living encyclopedia of Jewish literature. He would frequently recite the Moreh Nevukhim [Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides], a poem by Emanuel haRomi, a quotation from Leon of Modena and a chapter of Al Poroshes-Drokhis [At the Crossroads] by Akhad haAm [pen name of Asher Ginsburg].
Commercial Councilor Aleksander and Asher Hurwitch played the greatest communal role as community leaders in Memel, the last two community leaders of the kehilla. The first was a typical representative of the German Jewish financial aristocracy; the seconda typical representative of the old immigrant and German assimilated Lithuanian Jew. Aleksander died in Germany, leaving a great part of his fortune for the Jewish hospital in Memel. Asher Hurwitch, who escaped from Hitler in 1939 with all of the Memel Jews, settled in the Lithuanian shtetl Kretingen and perished as a martyr with all of the Jews of Kretingen.
The last non-Orthodox Memel rabbi, Dr. Shlesinger, was a very interesting personality. He came from Austria, a son of a famous Jewish bookseller Shlesinger in Vienna. He studied in Hungary, Carpathian-Russia and Bohemia. He was proficient in Talmud, Jewish history and literature, a phenomenal linguist, a great Hebraist and a man of high moral qualities. He was a leading personage in the intellectual life of Memel during the last years. In 1939 he left for Jerusalem and there he is a professor in a teacher's seminary. His wife, Paula Shlesinger née Simon, who came from a distinguished Frankfurt Orthodox family and was herself a Doctor of Philosophy, was a distinguished leader in the women's organizations. I remember what a strong impression her reports on Christianity and Rambam made.
Memel's last Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Rabinowitch, a son of the famous Salanter rabbi and brother of the Bulgarian Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Dr. Rabin, escaped to Lithuania in 1939 with all of the Memel Jews. He perished as a martyr with the Jews of Keidan. The survivors from the family are Rabbi Rafal Rabinowitch, former director of the Tarbut teacher's seminary in Kovno and now a lawyer in Tel Aviv, and Dr. Pesakh Rabinowitch, a doctor in Memel who escaped to Russia during the war, returned in 1946 and in 1947 went to Eretz-Yisroel.
Community leaders to be remembered:
Leo Rostowskychairman of the hospital, a grandson of Commercial Councilor Aleksander, perished in Kovno Ghetto.
Consul Natan Naftalmember of the kehilla managing committee, Portuguese consul, chairman of the Memel ORT, later in Kovno Ghetto, perished in Dachau Concentration Camp.
Feiwel Yavshitzmember of the kehilla council, chairman of the Zionist organization, major lumber merchant. Died in France.
Tobias Israelitfor many years leader of the sports organization in Memel, now in the Soviet Union.
Dr. Moritz Hanemanleader of the Worker's Zionist wing, arrested by the Germans and murdered in prison.
Yehoshua RubinZionist leader and member of the kehilla managing committee, now in Israel.
Dr. YakobsonZionist leader and member of the kehilla managing committee, now in South Africa.
Yeshaye Hanemanhead of the Orthodox Jews. Perished as a martyr with the Jews of Telz.
The destruction of the Memel Jews began immediately as Hitler began his march through Europe. When Hitler took Austria (March 1938), the Memel Jews understood that heavy clouds were gathering over them and that a fateful time was coming.
On March 20, 1939 Hitler gave Lithuania an ultimatum, requiring its departure from Memel within 24 hours.
The same day Lithuania bowed to the ultimatum. The entire city was covered with Hitler flags and Hitler's photograph. 40,000 Memel Germans went out into the streets and with wild enthusiasm celebrated the world murderer. In one night, 7,000 Jews escaped from the area. The rest had left earlier or would leave later.
In all of Memel, 7 Jews remained, mostly old people who owned houses in Koenigsburg or Berlin and hoped to live from [the income from] the houses. The departure of the Jews from Memel was horrible. The streets were filled with Germans from sidewalk to sidewalk. The buses did not take Jews. Jews dragged themselves on foot to the railway. The masses on the streets shadowed them with abuse. Along the sidewalks stood Germans. Choruses shouted: Jews out! Go to Palestine! I never want to see you again! Hands behind the head!
On the 22nd of March 1939, Adolf Hitler himself arrived in Memel on a battleship. Memel was Yudn rein [free of Jews]. The Germans with discipline legally looted Jewish personal effects, and the Memel Jews were scattered and spread over the cities and shtetlekh of Lithuania. The largest number went to Kovno, a smaller number to Shavli, Kretingen, Plunge, Tverech, Telz and Drobyany.
Their situation was difficult; the Lithuanian government did not acknowledge them as Lithuanian citizens. They did not understand any Lithuanian or Russian. The Memel social institutions, such as the People's Bank and the Memel kehilla, functioned for a time and tried to help. The Soviet Army arrived in Lithuania on the 15th of June 1940. They frowned upon the Memel Jews. On the 22nd of June 1941, the Memel Jews with the rest of the Lithuanian Jews perished as martyrs. They fell in the mass slaughters of the shtetlekh. They perished in the aktzias [liquidations] in the ghettos of Kovno and Shavli. They died of hunger and illness; they burned in Auschwitz; they perished in Dachau.
Honor Their Memory!
By Rabbi Hyim Karlinsky
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Because the highway from Riga to Prussia cut through Kelme, a large portion of the Jewish population was engaged with trade in grains, timber, fur pelts and pig hair several of them on a very large scale. The remainder worked in small businesses and in various trades and derived their main income from the Lithuanians in the neighboring villages.
Outwardly, Kelme excelled in nothing. A large market in the center of the shtetl, a main street and a number of small crooked alleys. A shul courtyard with an old shul, two prayer houses, a house of study, a talmud torah [Jewish elementary school] and also a bathhouse with a mikva [ritual bathhouse]. Actually it was a regular Jewish shtetl, but it also possessed something of an unusual characteristican extraordinary piety and erudition. Not only the distinguished middle class, but also many of the Kelme common men and proletariat knew how to study a page of gemara [part of the talmud] with commentaries. Even the least learned were considerably knowledgeable, and each, according to his level, belonged to a study group, such as: mishnayos [verses of the mishnah], ein yakov [Jakob's Well], menoyres hamoer [The Lighter of the Light] and khai odem [The Life of Man].
It was not beneath the dignity of the middle class Jews, however, to have a rivalry with the masses about erudition and they devised various boorish jokes, crediting them to the account of the common people. And here are several of them:
A Jewish balagole [wagon driver] from Kelme was caught eating pork. When he was asked, How is this possible? Is it possible? How does a pious Jew eat pork? his answer was: My shmeiser [horse-whipper], a non-Jew, by mistake switched our packs of food that lay in the wagons, and he ate my dinner. Nu, there is a well known din [rabbinic ruling] in the gemara: to'es goy muter (a non-Jew is permitted to make a mistake), therefore I eat his dinner.
During khol-hamoed [the intermediate days between Passover and Sukkot], a blacksmith of Jewish Kelme forged horseshoes for a horse. To the question: How does a pious Jew presume to work during khol-hamoed? came his naïve answer: There is a law in khai odem, as you know, that a dover-habud [something that is lost] may be replaced during khol-hamoed and the horse, as you know, lost his shoes
The Kelme Jews were, in fact, very haughty and looked with distain on the ordinary Jews from the surrounding shtetlekh. The others, for their part, took revenge on the haughty ones. They ridiculed them at every opportunity and gave them the nickname Kelmer sleepers. Why such a nickname? This is explained with the following legendary episode:
One year there was a great lack of esrogim [citrons]. An esrog was a rarity then and the price that was paid, even for one that was not very fine, was enormous. Kelme was then still a small shtetele and her Jews were not able to buy an esrog for themselves. They got together with the Jews from the adjacent Ruseyny and bought an esrog in partnership. The Ruseyny Jews came earlier than others and prayed very early, literally at daybreak, so that the Kelme Jews would be able to have the esrog for the saying of hallel [psalms of praise said on sukkot and other holidays]. And right after the prayers, the esrog was sent to Kelme with a non-Jew.
On the way, the non-Jewish messenger passed a shenk [tavern] and, as is his manner, went in to have a drink. One drink became several drinks, until he fell asleep and slept the entire day. He arrived in Kelme very late at night when the city was sunk in a deep sleep. Not knowing what to do, he returned to Ruseyny with the esrog and said, In Kelme, they are asleep.
During khol-hamoed the Kelmer Jews came to the Jews of Ruseyny with a complaint for not holding to the agreement. Their answer was: In Kelme, they are asleep and from then on the nickname, Kelmer sleepers was conferred upon the Kelme Jews.
There is another explanation for the Kelme nickname: it was about 120 years ago, when the famous gaon [genius] and khokhem [sage], Eliezer Gutman, sat on God's throne [was the rabbi] in Kelme. Then the old shul was still in a corner of the shtetl and the folk legend was very widespread that after midnight the dead daven [pray] in the shul. The following once happened: it was already well past midnight when a strong cry of prayer woke the shul's nearest neighbor from his sleep. The shul, from which the voice had come, was brightly lit as on yom-tov. In just a few minutes the Jews of Kelme were awake. Young and old, mothers carrying sleeping babies, ran in the direction of the rabbi's house asking for protection from the corpses.
The rabbi, who could not convince the Kelmer Jews that the story of the praying corpses was worthless, ordered the khevra-kadishe [burial society] to go into the shul to see what was happening there and warned them that they should not leave the shul until they drove the corpses back into their graves.
Whispering the verse for His angels shall He command to guard you in all your paths, the khevra-kadishe Jews entered the vestibule of the shul discreetly and when with shaking hands, the head gabay unlocked the door and opened the interior door, everyone stood frozen from great fear.
All of the candles in the chandelier were burning. The doors of the oren-koydesh [holy ark containing the Torah] were wide open and a corpse dressed in a shroud had its head between the Torah scrolls and was crying mournfully. The head gabay took heart and quietly on the tips of his toes went to the oren-koydesh, quickly placed his hand in the belt of the corpse's shroud, and cried out: Go to your rest (a folk remedy to subdue corpses).
And wonder of wonders! The corpse trembled all over, quickly pulled its head from the oren-koydesh and it was only the town crazy woman, who had poured out her bitter heart to the Creator of the world over her sad fate Taking her shroud, which she had previously prepared for herself when she still had clear judgment, she had sneaked into the shul when the congregation was praying the evening service and hid there. After midnight she lit all of the candles in the shul, dressed herself in her death clothes and lamented to God, why do people call her crazy
The following shabbos, the rabbi gave a fiery sermon, chastising the congregation for their superstitions and scorn for the Torah, and ending his sermon with the words: In all of the towns the Jews stay awake the entire night studying Torah in the synagogues and houses of prayer. Therefore, the corpses sleep in their graves. However, because 'in Kelme, they are asleep,' at night the corpses come to shul
Fathers have told their sons by oral tradition that the shul is over three hundred years old and that it was built by the Polish landowner Graszewski, on whose property Kelme existed and who lived in a large and beautiful castle not far from the shtetl.
Graszewski came from a very grand family whose pedigree was linked to the Polish King Zigmund. He was rich and powerful, and as all Polish princes at that timea very considerable enemy of the Jews. However, one thing embittered his profligate and carefree life his wife gave him only daughters and no sons. The thought that at his death, the name Graszewski would die, too, gave him no rest.
When his wife gave birth to the fifth daughter, he fell into a melancholy and in great desperation sent a letter to the Vatican, in which he begged for mercy and that an illegal son of a young lover should be recognized as the heir of his aristocratic name.
When the Vatican refused his request, he was provoked to madness. Riding on his best horse, he galloped over his settlements and fields and with a thick whip beat everyone who came under his hand with murderous blows. Understand that the Kelme Jews were not spared by the wild prince and they were given a sample of the taste of the princely fists.
In one of those panic-filled days for the Kelme Jews, the prince invited five of the most respected businessmen to his castle and ordered them to bring a Torah with them. The sudden invitation from the prince threw a fear of death into the Kelme Jews and they all immediately assembled in prayer groupsat that time, there was no shul in Kelmeto say Psalms and slikhos [penitential prayers] for the five Jews who went to the prince with a Torah scroll and a beautiful present.
When the Jews arrived at the castle deathly afraid, a pleasant surprise awaited themthe prince waited for them at the entrance to the palace and heartily greeted them. Then he invited them into a private room and, after he closed the door, he remained standing with a downcast head near the Torah and broke out in quiet crying. The Jews looked at him perplexed and in no way could they understand what had happened to the prince.
The prince stood up straight and said to the Jews: You are wondering why I cry in your presence? This is because I have strongly sinned against the Jews and your God punishes me. You have won! From today and ever after, I will be good to you. However, ask God to forgive me for the past and putting both arms around the Torah, he promised: I swear to you by your holy Torah that if my wife gives birth to a son, I will build a great and beautiful shul for the Kelme Jews at my expense, and for a period of three years they will be free of all taxes He also returned the gift that they had brought and sent his guests back to Kelme in his royal coach pulled by four horses in tandem
When the happy news reached the troubled Kelme Jews who were still assembled in the prayer groups, their grief was transformed into great joy. They immediately delivered praise and confessions for the great miracle and in a holiday mood prayed that God not turn his mercy from them.
And wonder of wonders! A year later, the landowner's wife delivered a son. The landowner did indeed keep his word. For three years, the Kelme Jews were free of all taxes and, at his expense, one of the biggest and most beautiful synagogues in the area was built. The shul was very tall and seemed even taller inside. At the request of the Jews, ten deep steps led to the entrance of the shul, to fulfill From the depths I call out to you, oh Lord. The Jews of Kelme took great pride in their shul that a repentant enemy of the Jews had built for them, and they made every effort that the exterior would not be shamed by the interior.
After the shul had stood for nearly a hundred and twenty years, the high walls began to bend and there was a danger that the shul might collapse. When the then landowner Graszewskia great grandson of the shul builderlearned of this, at his own expense, he strengthened the shul on the inside by laying long and thick oak beams from the north to south.
At that time, there were already several well-to-do Jews in Kelme and they grieved that they had overlooked such a great mitzvah [good deed]. In order to atone for their great sin, they contributed a new oren-koydesh for the shul that was carved from white wood and stood the entire height of the shul. For two whole years, the artist, Jakov son of Shlomo of Ramien, worked with only a hand knife on this oren-koydesh and finished it in 1775. The carving depicted a glorious panorama of trees and flowers with various animals and birds and was truly a remarkable, distinctively Jewish artwork that produced great amazement even from famous non-Jewish artists many years later.
In fifty-five years, the shul was made more beautiful with a great artistic menorah that was placed on the north side near the oren-koydesh and was reinforced with chains to the rafters of the shul. This menorah was made in Vilna, according to a design drawn by the artist who had designed the oren-koydesh, and around the central pipe wound forty-nine tubes in various forms. However, the menorah was not the spiritual property of any one person, but of all the Kelme Jews. For a period of several years, there was a tzedakah pushke [box for coins for charity] where Jews of various means threw in their saved groshen and kopecks for this menorah.
In order to bring the menorah from Vilna, a special large wagon was built and all of the Kelme Jews went a distance from the shtetl in order to welcome the menorah. There, the horses were unhitched from the wagon, the most distinguished men took their place and carried the menorah to Kelme with great pageantry. That day was remembered by the Jews of Kelme for many years; the pinkas records [Jewish community registers] even recorded this event as the groise simkhah [great celebration]. This happened in 1820.
When the Kelme Jewish population increased, a beis-midrash [prayer house] was built near the old shul and it was used by scholars and distinguished residents. An extraordinary, ingenious clock that had been made by one of the Kelme rabbis, Rabbi Yehezkeil, stood in the beis-midrash. The clock, set in a narrow, tall cabinet, decorated with various carvings, was very big. In addition to the hours and minutes, the day of the month and the day with the selection of the Torah read after morning prayers were on the dial, and three separate hands that were moved by special springs recorded their events separately.
Years later another beis-midrash was built that was smaller than the first one and it was actually called the kleiner beis-midrash [small prayer house]. The large court of these three buildings was enclosed by a wooden fence, which had a large gate and small doors on three sides. The large gate was only open on shabbos and yom-tov and during the week, one could go into the shul courtyard only through the small doors.
When Kelme became an important Jewish population center, about eighty years later, a house of study, as well as a house for the interest free loan society, was built on the southwest side of the shul courtyard. In the great fire of sixty-five years ago, three-quarters of the Jewish houses were burned. All of the houses around the shul courtyard were burned, too. However, the buildings in the shul courtyard were not even damaged. The Kelmer Jews saw this as the hand of God and when they started to rebuild their burned houses, they built a beautiful house for the rabbi in the shul courtyard.
The name of the first Kelme rabbi whom we know was Rebbe Eliezer Gutman, a great grandson of the Linisker [Lysyanka] Rebbe in Kiev gubernia, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh, who perished as a martyr at the hands of the Gonta Haidamacks [Cossacks under the command of Ivan Gonta] in 1768. After that bloody slaughter in which several thousand Jews were murdered, the family of the Linisker Rabbi emigrated from Ukraine to Lithuania and settled in the shtetl Plunge, where Rebbe Eliezer Gutman was born in 1772.
As a child Reb Eliezer Gutman studied in Shavel and later in Vilna as a Talmud student of the famous gaon, Rebbe Shaul Katzenelenbogen. Several years later, Rebbe Eliezer settled in Kelme, together with his wife, who drew their livelihood from a canteen. He led a withdrawn life; no one in the shtetl knew of his greatness and he would have remained unknown if not for the following incident:
Kelme was looking for a rabbi and one of its distinguished businessmen, Josef Eliash, was sent to the gaon Rebbe Tzvi Hirsh Broida in the shtetl Alsiad [Alsedziai] (he was later rabbi in Salant [Salantai] and world famous), who was asked to recommend a rabbi for Kelme. The Alsiader Rebbe listened to the request of the Kelmer representative and recommended Reb Eliezer as rabbi.
Josef Eliash immediately returned to Kelme and several days later, Leizer Gutman until then unknown, took the Kelmer rabbinical seat. This was in about 1810.
Although Rebbe Eliezer Gutman was a great gaon and sage and famous in the entire area, he lived a humble, quiet life and mixed very little in communal affairs. But he carried out his rabbinate with pride and honor and he was strict when someone declined to follow his judgment. He died six days into the month of nisan, 1831, at the age of 59.
After his death, Rebbe Yekhezkiel became rabbi in Kelme. Because of his goodness and courtesy everyone called him Rebbe Khatzkele [the affectionate dimunitive form of his name]. He died in 1855 and the Kelmer rabbinical seat was then taken by Rebbe Elyokim Getsel haLevi Hurwicz, who knew by heart the four parts of the shulkhan orekh [code of Jewish ritual laws] and was known throughout Lithuania by the name der shulkhan orekh. In his time, there already was a dayen [religious judge], Rebbe Yitzhak Grob, in Kelme, who also did the daily lesson in Talmud with the students of the yeshiva in the old beis-midrash. Rebbe Elyokim Getsel died in 1873, and after his death a great feud broke out in Kelme between the multitudes and the elite over the question of a rabbi.
Rebbe Yitzhak Hurwicz, the son-in-law and relative of Rebbe Elyokim Getsel, was then receiving room and board while he studied Torah. The son-in-law was truly a young man of great accomplishment and, in addition to being a scholar and a preacher, was also very friendly and personable. He did not act self-important with his knowledge of Torah, was friendly to everyone, and showed a special friendship with the simple people, comforting and encouraging them. When Rebbe Elyokin Getsel died, the multitudes requested of the business leaders that Rebbe Yitzhak Hurwicz take the rabbinical seat as a replacement for his father-in-law. The distinguished businessmen of the city were strongly against the candidate of the people.
The local Reb Leibele Hasid joined in the feud together with the intervention of Reb Israel Salanter and succeeded in reconciling the sides. According to the peace agreement, Rebbe Yitzhak Hurwicz did remain rabbi in Kelmebut not as the replacement for his father-in-law, only as rabbi.
Chosen to take the Kelme rabbinical seat was the thirty-three year old Rebbe Eliezer Gordon, who was the rosh [head] of the yeshiva of the famous kibbutz [study group] in the Noveizer synagogue of Kovno, and for whom this was his first rabbinical appointment.
Six days into the month of nisan, 1874, Rebbi Eliezer Gordon took over the Kelme rabbinical seat and was the rabbi there for nine years, until in 1883, he was accepted as the rabbi in Telz [Telsiai] and became world famous.
Rebbe Tzvi Yakov Oppenheim became rabbi in Kelme after Rebbe Eliezer Gordon. Rabbi Oppenheim was born in 1854 in the shtetl Yakubowe. He showed extraordinary talents from his earliest youth and at age nine he could already study a page of gemara with commentaries on his own. He was then an orphan and his relatives sent him to Trishik [Tryskiai] where he studied with the local young rabbi and gaon Rebbe Lev Szpiro, a son of the famous gaon Rebbe Leibele Kovner. From Trishik he traveled to the kibbutz of the Telzer Rabbi, Rebbe Josef Rozin. He was already famous in Telz as a great scholar and shrewd person, and while he was still a very young man Rebbe Simkhah Zisl Ziv Broida chose him as the head of his modern muser [ethical teachings] yeshiva. After spending several years as the head of that yeshiva, he returned to Telz and there taught Talmud to the students in the kibbutz in which he himself had once studied. And when Rebbe Eliezer Gordon relinquished the Kelme rabbinate in 1882 and became the rabbi in Telz, through his intercession the twenty-nine year old Rebbe Tzvi Yakov Oppenheim became the Kelmer rabbi. He served as the rabbi in Kelme for forty-three years and died on the 27th of sh'vat, 1926, at the age of seventy-two.
After the death of Rabbi Oppenheim, his son-in-law Rebbe Kalman Beineszowic, who came from a distinguished family in the shtetl Zezmer, occupied the Kelme rabbinical seat. Rabbi Beineszowic was not only a great scholar, but a just and perfect man and in his boyish years, the name Kalman Zezmer was renowned in all of the Lithuanian yeshivas.
He remained in Kelme even after the Germans occupied Lithuania and shared the fate of all of the Jews of Kelme, who, with few exceptions, perished as martyrs, and the chapter of the Kelme holy community and its rabbinical seat came to an end.
He possessed a poetic soul with a fiery temperament and was a very talented speaker with great descriptive power. With his strong voice he thundered his hearty reproof for the fully packed synagogues and mercilessly reproached the congregation not only about sins between man and God, but also for sins between man and his neighbor. He did not spare the great influential people, did not even treat the rabbis with partiality and, above all, carried on stubborn mitzvah wars [considering it a mitzvah to conduct such wars] against the maskilim [enlightened followers of the haskalah movement to spread modern European culture among Jews] and their heavenly daughter, as they described the haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment]. He turned his strongest cannons on the haskalah, giving its leader the title the Unclean Forefather and calling the movement's four Hebrew publications ha-kharamel, ha-tzfire, ha-magid and ha-melitz the Four Images of the Plagues.
The multitudes followed him and swallowed his talk with enthusiasm and fear. The maskilim, however, hated and persecuted him. As a fanatical zealot, however, he did not fear any mortal man and even the police and prison did not hold him back from communicating his ideas in public. He was always satirically sharp and lashed the offenders with fiery whippings. And because of one of his sermons, he was expelled from Kelme by the police.
In Kelme at that time, there was an important rich man, an influential person named Sholem (Meshulam) Liberman. A close friend of the Kelme landowner Graszewski, he himself acted as a tyrant and, with his hard heartedness and arrogance, made the life of the poor Jews of Kelme even more bitter. The Kelme magid [preacher], who could not tolerate any injustices, took the grievances of his suffering brothers upon himself and very often Sholem Liberman was the target of the magid's sermons.
One shabbos, the Kelmer preacher very strongly assaulted this influential person in his sermon. He commented on the verse, [Yakov's] ladder rises from the earth up to heaven, as follows: Sholem stands on the ground and his head reaches up to heaven. Sholem stands on the ground with one foot already in the grave (the Zameter Jews pronounce sh as an s) and his head in its wickedness (a pun on the Hebrew words for head and wickedness, which differ by only one letter) reaches up to heaven
This harsh sermon sealed the fate of the Kelme magid. The wealthy man intervened with the Polish landowner Graszewski, and the police immediately drove the magid from the city. The folk legend describes this event this way:
The landowner Graszewski, who said that the magid should be driven from Kelme, was the ninth generation of the landowner Graszewski who built the first Kelme shul. Leaving Kelme, the magid wished the landowner that he, too, should be driven from Kelme. And he recited the verse a rich generation will not arise herethe tenth generation would not arise here. And both curses were actually fulfilled. That same year, his only son, who studied in Warsaw, was killed riding on a horse. And a few years later, after the great Polish rebellion in 1863, the Russian government drove the landowner Graszewski out of Kelme.
A very rare and original Kelme type was Rebbe Leib Tsigler, famous as Rebbe Leib Hasid. He was in fact only a small, slim little Jew, but he possessed a very great mind with a very warm Jewish heart. His spiritual, illuminated face always had a smile. And his good eyes looked with love on everyone. Together with his extraordinary goodness, his boundless piousness was literally limitless. He spent entire days and nights in Torah and worship.
His father was a simple Jew, who had a mill in Virpyan [Verpena], a village near Kelme, and Rebbe Leib, in his early youth, had to bear the yoke of earning money and helping his father in his difficult work. Understand that under such circumstances, the child Leib did not have the opportunity to devote himself to Torah study. Once married, however, he gave up his work in the mill and began to study Torah and ethics with great diligence and in a very short time he reached a high level of learning. He studied Torah for the love of it. Even then, when he was already famous as a great scholar and well-versed in the Talmud and post-Talmudic commentaries, he remained a simple Kelmer resident.
He was a rare modest person. When someone called him rebbe, he protested and thoughtfully said: My name is Leib Tsigler and I am not a rabbi. When Kelme Jews actually did call him rebbe and honored him in shul with tributes appropriate to a rabbi, he completely stopped going to shul, with the exceptions of rosh hashanah and yom kippur, public reading of the Torah, yizkor [prayers for the dead] and Purim.
As already said, he was a great scholar, but much greater than his erudition was his goodness, his reverence to God, ethics and habits. Non-Jews literally idolized him and blessed him, and during his lifetime he became a legendary figure in the entire area. Even the great men of the generation of that time recognized him as a just and perfect man.
Even the maskilim had great respect for him. In the obituaries in talpiot in 1895 and in luah ahi'asaf in 1896, he is described as a symbol of truth and goodness, piety and wisdom. He died at the age of seventy on the 21st of tammuz 5654 [25th of July 1894] in a dacha [country house] in the shtetl Tzitavian [Tytuvenai]. Four thousand people, among them twelve rabbis, from all of the surrounding cities and shtetlekh, accompanied him to his eternal rest.
Among the thousands of mourners could be seen his regular doctor, a Christian. After all the eulogies by the rabbis, the Christian doctor went over to the grave and made a vow that in memory of the Hasid's soul he would heal all the poor sick Jews and non-Jews without cost for an entire year.
An interesting and very witty type was Rebbe Simkhah Zisl Ziv Broida, who came from a distinguished longtime Kelme family. Many legends and interesting little stories would be told in Kelme about his grandfather, Rebbe Nahum Broida.
But a very different type was his son Rebbe Yisroel Broida, the father of Rebbe Simkhah Zisl Ziv. He was a great teacher and would teach a page in the Talmud study group of the old house of study. However, he was already a modern person according to the concept of that time. His dress was Europeaninstead of boots, he wore shoes that were always shiny, and he was affected somewhat by the haskalah. He raised his son, Simkhah Zisl, who while still young showed extraordinary capabilities, in the same modern spirit. Along with a course of gemara, he hired a rabbi to teach him tanakh and Hebrew grammar as well as a German language teacher.
When he grew older, his father sent him away to study in Kovno [Kaunas] and, thanks to this chance happening, he later became famous. At that time, the famous gaon and righteous man, Rebbe Israel Salanter, who founded the muser [ethical studies] school, was in Kovno. Young Simkhah became acquainted with this school and was entirely conquered and enchanted by it.
After a year under the influence of Rebbe Israel, he became an outstanding student and his spiritual follower. He returned to his birthplace, Kelme, where he came out in public with his muser sermons.
With the help of several rich muser supporters, he then built a beautiful house in Kelme, with many rooms and there founded a muser yeshiva, where besides the study of gemara, much time was dedicated to studying ethics and morality and also to instructing the students to pray with ecstasy and to isolate themselves for meditation. At the same time, he also remained devoted to his modernism and hired a teacher to study Russian with the students, and not in hats, but in yarmulkes [skullcaps].
His yeshiva grew very quickly and many prosperous parents from the entire region sent their children to this yeshiva. But the new course of study together with Rebbe Simkhah Zisl's modern conduct produced a storm of protest on the part of many Lithuanian rabbis, and Rebbe Simkhah Zisl was forced to move his yeshiva from Kelme to Grobin [Grobina], a small shtetl near Libava [Liepaja].
In Grobin, he modernized his yeshiva still more and, in addition to Russian, German was also studied there and gymnastics were done every day. As paradoxical as it sounds, it is, however, a fact that the first yeshiva with secular education was founded eighty years ago by Rebbe Israel Salanter's spiritual heir, and, none other than in the frum [devout] city Kelme.
However, the modern muser yeshiva did not have a long existence in Grobin. Rebbe Simkhah Zisl returned to Kelme where he was satisfied with a limited kibbutz [study group] of adult students called the big talmud torah [ordinarily a talmud torah was a free school for poor children]. His failure with the yeshiva strongly grieved him and, disappointed, he died in 5658 .
For over a hundred years, Kelme was a city of Torah and ethics. Even in the last years, Kelme was counted as one of the most pious cities in Lithuania, although no longer as pious as it once was.
Now no memory remains of the famous holy city Kelme. There are no longer scholars in the synagogues and houses of study, no longer muserniks with their yeshiva. The
Nazi devils annihilated all of them and erased the Kelmer Torah and morality and humanity.
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