“Kretinga” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Lithuania)

55° 53' / 21° 15'

Translation of the “Kretinga” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Josef Rosin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.


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(Pages 617-621)

Kretinga

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

In Yiddish, Kretinge; in Russian, Kretingen; in Polish, Kretynga

A district city in the northwest of Lithuania.

YearGeneral
Population
JewsPercentage
1662..3*..
1847..1,738..
18651,616....
18973,4181,20235
19232,53290436
19304,401....
19344,569~80017
1940..~1000..
19599,690150.15

* 2 men, one woman, not including children.

Kretinga is located in the Zemaitija region, about 12 km from the Baltic Sea and about 20 km from Memel (Klaipeda). The city is spread out on both sides of Akmena River. Kretinga is one the most ancient settlements in Lithuania. From 1572 until 1630 the Katkewitz aristocratic family managed the city. During this period the city was called Karolstadt, in honor of the military leader Yohan Karol Katkevitz. In 1607 warehouses for storing goods imported from Prussia were built in the city and Kretinga became the commercial center for northern Lithuania. Yohan Karol Katkevitz obtained the “Magdenburg rights” for Kretinga and he also supervised the planning of the city and the building of its roads. Control of the city passed into the hands of the Sapiega family due to marital connections, then to the Masalski family and later to the Potoski family. When the Russians conquered Lithuania, the city passed into the hands of Graf (count) Zubov, who sold the city and its surrounding land to the aristocrat Tishkewitz. During the period of Independent Lithuania there was still a large estate that was owned by this family.

During the period of Russian rule (1795 – 1915) Kretinga was the district's city. First it was part of the Vilnius Gubernia (region) and after 1843 it became part of the Kaunas Gubernia.

The Jewish Settlements Till After World War I

In the beginning of the 17th century Kretinga had few Jews. Many Jews settled in this area in the middle of the 18th century, after the kings of Poland granted rights (privileges) to the Zemaitija region in general and to Kretinga in particular. In 1723 a Jew by the name of Behr, who came from Danzig, settled in Kretinga. He was called Drucker (printer), in accordance with his profession. He later changed his surname to Behrman. A few years later his brother, Moshe, came to Kretinga, and he was called Danziger, named after the city he came from. The Behrman family was very successful in trading with Germany (the Memel region). During the period of Russian rule, Wolf Behrman was the official representative of the Jews of Kretinga and its surrounding areas in dealing with the Russian authorities. Many of the family's descendents immigrated to England (Sunderland and other places), to South Africa, and to the United States. The mayor of Sunderland during the 50's of the 20th century was A. Jack Cohen, whose grandfather, “Chazche” (Yecheskel), came to Sunderland from Kretinga in 1888. In 1767 Berek Yoselevitch was born in Kretinga. He was the commander of the Jewish regiment during the Polish uprising in 1794. His father maintained a public bath in Kretinga, which he leased from Prince Masalski.

The social life at that time centered around the prayer houses that were on the small “Shul” street. The Beit Midrash was open almost 24 hours a day because the “Gemara Society” was active there. The “Shul” was open on Saturdays and during the holidays. The “Mishna Society” was active in the “Old Kloiz” and in the “Tehilim Society” in the “Small Kloiz”, whose members were mostly artisans.

During 1869 – 1871, when Lithuania was beset by hunger, the richer Jews in Kretinga donated to the Memel Community Relief Fund for the hungry in Lithuania. A list of donators from 1871 appears in “Hamagid”. The delegate was Shabi Shapira.

In 1855 a fire broke out in Kretinga and the synagogue burned down. It was rebuilt in 1860. During Shavuot of 1889 a big fire broke out in the city and hundreds of Jewish families became impoverished. This fire burned down the magnificent synagogue, the Beit Midrash and the “Kloiz”. On June 16, 1889, a call for help was published in “Hamelitz” to aid the stricken. It was signed by Rabbi Yoseph Hillel Behrman, the local Rabbi, and other Rabbis from the area. The homes and the prayer houses were rebuilt in the after years. Many of the new buildings were built as Beit Khoma buildings. Among the donators were Kretinga descendents in Sunderland, England, (Kretingen Relief Fund) who arrived there during 1870 – 1880, a time when many Jews from Kretinga immigrated to England.

In 1908 a fire broke out again in the town. 150 houses, including the Beit Midrash and the two prayer houses (“Kloiz”) burned down.

Most of the Jews of Kretinga made their living from doing business on both sides of the border and from custom commission fees. There were Jewish shopkeepers and artisans who processed amber, selling their products throughout Russia and in other European countries.

All of the Jewish children studied in “Hadarim”. In 1860 there was a Hebrew school in the city that taught not only Judaism but also mathematics, Russian and German. The teacher was Ariye-Leib Shapira. In 1902 a “Heder Metukan” (progressive) was opened in the town. In 1910 a Jewish private school was established. It had 2 classes.

The Zionist idea prospered in Kretinga even before the first Zionist Congresses. The 1896 list of donators for settling Eretz-Yisrael mention the names of many Jews from Kretinga. Towards the fifth Zionist Congress in 1902, 200 Shekalim (tokens of membership in the Zionist organization) were sold in the city.

The Rabbis who served in Kretinga were: Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who came from Prague in 1648; Rabbi Aharon (died in 1842), author of the book “Tosafot Aharon” (Koenigsberg, 1857); Rabbi Shlomo-Zalman Zacks (died in 1876); Rabbi Aryeh-Leib Lipkin, nephew of Rabbi Israel Salanter (served 1878 – 1902), author of the books “Divrei Yedidya” (Vilnius, 1894), “Or Hayom” (Vilnius, 1904) amongst others; Rabbi Zvi-Hirsch Shor (from 1903); a colorful figure in Kretinga was the “Rebelle”, the Rabbinical judge Rabbi Shemuel Yitzhak Horwitz. At the end of the 19th century he emigrated to Sunderland, England, and from there he used to send “Maot” (money) he collected in his community to the impoverished in Kretinga.

Quite a few of Kretinga's Jews were members of “Agudat Yisrael”. The 1913 list of donators to the “Aguda Fund” mentions 27 names.

In the beginning of WWI the Germans set the center of the city on fire. During the German occupation, which lasted until 1918, the city was used as a transition point for hundreds of trains and convoys of trucks on their way to the Russian front. The city had large warehouses for various materials and foodstuff that provided livelihood for the city's inhabitants. Hundreds of merchants from different places in Lithuania would come to Kretinga to buy merchandise, which was difficult to find in other occupied regions.

As the war was coming to an end, a joint committee of Lithuanians and Jews was organized in Kretinga. This committee was to assume control of the city after the retreat of the occupying German army.

The Period of Independent Lithuania

Society and Economy

The Kretinga community organized itself even before the new government of Lithuania declared autonomy for the Jews and established the Ministry for Jewish Affairs. It was one of the first communities in Lithuania to take such measures. Later, a ruling committee of 15 members was voted for in Kretinga: 6 from the General Zionists, 3 from Tzeirei Zion, 3 from the Labor party, and 3 independent. The committee was active in most areas of Jewish life in the town from June 1919 until the end of 1925. For a whole year, the community's committee was the institution that issued certified passes to the Memel region, which at the time was controlled by a French garrison that represented the allied forces from WWI. The French acknowledged these certificates and it was a source of great income to the community's committee. When Independent Lithuanian rule was organized, this arrangement was nullified.

In the 1924 elections for the city council in Kretinga, 15 elected council members were elected. 5 of them were Jews. In accordance with the agreement between the national and social-democratic parties, these elected Jews received seats in the district council, as well as the function of the vice mayor of the city, and the function of treasurer. All of the comptroller committee members were also Jewish. In the elections that were held a few years later, of the 13 elected council members, 5 were Jews. In the 1931 elections for the city council, of 9 elected council members, one was a Jew. He received the vice mayor's office. In 1934, of the 8 elected council members, 2 were Jewish.

Relations with the Lithuanians were usually good, yet from time to time there were incidents of anti-Semitism. As Lithuanian nationalism gained force, anti-Semitism strengthened. In the winter of 1928, tar was smeared on the Yiddish and Hebrew signs of Jewish shops. In 1936 there was a blood libel in Kretinga and Jews were injured. The authorities suppressed the events forcibly and punished the rioters. The situation worsened after the Nazis came to power in Germany, and especially during the beginning of 1939 after Memel was annexed to Germany. In July 1939, a wicked rumor was spread that Jews murdered a Christian girl, and a group of 50 women from the Memel region wanted to cross the border in order to participate in her funeral. In the summer of 1939 a sign was posted at the entrance to the monastery's garden with the words: “Entrance to strangers, and especially to Jews, is forbidden”.

The Jews of Kretinga during this period made their living mainly from commerce and light industry. In 1925 the community had a doctor and 3 dentists. According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census there were 77 stores in Kretinga, 64 of them (83%) owned by Jews. The division into business branches is shown in the table below:

Branch or Type of BusinessTotalOwned by Jews
Groceries1111
Crops and flax22
Butcher shops and cattle1413
Restaurants and taverns30
Commerce in foodstuff1212
Milk and its products10
Clothing, furs and textiles55
Leather and shoes44
Medicine and cosmetics32
Watches and jewelry made of amber22
Radios, bicycles and sewing machines21
Tools and iron products44
Heating materials11
Paper, books and writing materials20
Miscellaneous11

According to the same census there were 26 factories in Kretinga, 18 of them owned by Jews (69%), including a power station and 2 workshops for processing amber.

Branch or Type of BusinessTotalOwned by Jews
Metal works, power stations22
Headstones, bricks, cement products21
Chemical industry: ethanol, soap, oil21
Textile: wool, spinning mill, coloring11
Wood industry, tar32
Food industry: mills, bakeries108
Clothing, footwear, hats41
Others: Barber shops, hog bristles, amber22

During the 20's “Ort” established and funded a cooperative for the production of brushes.

In 1937 there were 32 Jewish artisans in Kretinga: 13 butchers, 3 bakers, 3 tailors, 3 barbers, 2 hat makers, 2 tinsmiths, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a smith, a shoemaker, a watchmaker, and a seamstress.

The Jewish national bank (Folksbank) was established in Kretinga in 1920. In 1927 it had 293 members and in 1928 it acquired a building that in addition to the bank itself also included a Hebrew Elementary School, a kindergaten, a “Maccabi” hall, “Wizo”, a library and more. This building, which had a blue and white sign on its entrance and an inscription in Lithuanian, Yiddish and Hebrew, was for many years the economic and cultural center of the Jews of Kretinga. In the 30's the bank had 240 members: 25% of them were artisans, 30% were merchants and shop owners, and the rest were clerks and laborers.

From the middle of the 30's the Jewish population in the city did not increase. The economic crisis that beset Lithuania and the open propaganda of the Lithuanian Union of Merchants (Verslas) against buying from Jews motivated many Jews to seek their future elsewhere. As a result, in 1935 the bank was forced to sell the building it occupied. In 1939 there were 106 telephones in Kretinga, 26 of them were owned by Jews.

Educational and Public Activities

During the 20's there were in the city a school that taught in Yiddish and a pre-gimnasia (middle school) of the “Yavne” network (from 1923), but they where shut down after being active for only a few years. The Hebrew Elementary School of the “Tarbut” network, which as noted above, was located in the “Folksbank” building, functioned until 1940, when Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union. The city had a library with books in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Many of Kretinga's Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. All of the Zionist parties were represented in the city. Fundraising campaigns for the national funds were held throughout the years. The division of votes to the Zionist Congresses in Kretinga in the 20's and 30's was as shown in the table below:

Congress
Nr.
YearTotal
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
RevisionistsGeneral
Zionists
GrosmanistsMizrachi
Z”SZ”ZAB
14192540        
15192792467 828  3
1619292249714 1751   15
181933..2481313440 538
191935439370176 7522133

The Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in the city were: “Hashomer Hatzair”, “Hechalutz”, “Beytar”, “Bnei-Akiva” and others. Sport activities were held in the “Maccabi” branch, (which had 30 members).

Some of the Jewish teenagers were affiliated with the communist underground. In 1935 there was a military court martial in Kretinga. Among the tried were: Behr Perski, the son of the local Rabbi, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for hiding the party pamphlets in the Beit Midrash; Leib Gilis, who was sentenced to 8 years; and a young woman by the name of Sher, who was sentenced to 4 years.

The synagogue, the Beit Midrash and the “Kloiz”, all of which were rebuilt after the 1889 fire, were the centers of religious life in the city. Rabbi Binyamin Perski, who served during this period, was also the last Rabbi of the Kretinga community. He was murdered in the Holocaust together with him congregation.

“Tiferet Bachurim” (literally “Company of Splendid Young Men”) and the children's association “Pirchei Shoshanim” (literally “Rose Blossoms”) were active in the city. Their members used to collect books for the synagogues.

The traditional welfare organizations that were active in other Jewish communities in Lithuania, such as, “Gemilut Hesed” (Charity) and “Bikur Cholim” (Visiting the Sick) were also active in Kretinga. On March 1939, after Memel was annexed to Nazi Germany, refugees from Memel came to settle in Kretinga. The Kretinga community received the refugees and helped them to be absorbed in the town.

Among the distinguished personalities who were born in Kretinga were: Berek Yoselevitch who was mentioned above; Eliyahu Levinson, known as Rabbi Elinka Kretinger (1822 – 1888), a man of morals and a disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter, and a famous banker in his time. During the riots in Russia, Eliyahu Levinson, together with Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Rielf from Memel, organized activities in order to arouse public opinion in Europe against Russia's actions; Eliezer Shulman (1937 – 1904), a Yeshiva student and a scholar who became famous for his studies in the history of Yiddish literature and for his book on Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Berne; Israel Drobin (1857 – 1923), devoted to “Bilu” (Beit Yakov Lechu Unelcha - “House of Jacob, let us go [up]”), who emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1882 and was a member of the council of Moshava Rishon LeZion; Shemuel Yoseph (born in 1881), a sociologist, a lecturer in Columbia University and later a professor and the head of the sociology department in City College in New York.

During World War II and Afterwards

In 1940 Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. The factories in the city, most of which belonged to Jews, and the shops were nationalized. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded. The Hebrew educational institutions were closed. The supply of goods decreased and as a result prices skyrocketed. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and its standard of living declined gradually. At least 7 Jews who were considered by the authorities as “untrustworthy elements” were exiled to Siberia in June 1941. Some of the Jewish youth received the new regime with open arms and played a role in its institutions. The children of the Jewish school and its parents' association participated in the celebrations of October 1940.

On the first day of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, the German army entered Kretinga. It did not meet any resistance. Groups of security services and police from Memel and Tilsit arrived together with the Germans. All of the men in the town were ordered to assemble in the market square already on the first day; the Jews were allotted there a separate corner. The Jews were ordered to kneel on their knees, then to run around the square, while the Germans and the Lithuanian auxiliary police, who fell in line immediately, beat them indiscriminately. As evening approached, the Jews were placed in the synagogue.

On June 26, 1941 (1 Elul, 5701), 180 Jewish men were taken out of the synagogue. They were grouped together with 30 other Jews who were taken out of their homes. All of them were loaded on trucks and were transferred along the road that led to Palanga, to a place not far from a ranch by the name of Prismantai, that had anti-tank defense trenches previously prepared by the Soviets. The Jews were forced to undress at the foot of the trenches while the guards urged them on with shouts and beatings. Then the Jews were led in groups of ten and were ordered to stand on top of the ramp as they faced the firing squat, which included 20 policemen and soldiers. The corpses of the massacred fell into the trench. If any corpses remained on the ramp, the next group was forced to throw them into the trench. That night more than 200 Jews and 20 Lithuanians, who were accused of being sympathetic to the communists or affiliated with them in some manner, were massacred. One of the Jews had on his body an Iron Cross 1st Class that he received for his service as an officer in the German army in WWI. He was pulled out of the line and taken to Memel. His fate is unknown.

On the same day, the women and children were taken from the synagogue and were led to the Prismantai ranch. On the night between the 26th and the 27th of June 1941, a fire broke out in the synagogue. The fire spread and burned the adjacent houses. The Jews were accused of arson, and on June 28 an additional 63 people were massacred in Prismantai. A few days later another 15 men were shot. Their families, 20 women and children, were shot in the middle of August. Between July 11 and 18, 120 men were shot in the Jewish cemetery.

In the beginning of August 1941, during a meeting with police commanders and the Lithuanian security police in the office of the Lithuanian regional governor, the Gestapo representative urged the Lithuanians to kill the Jewish women and children because it was worthless to feed them. Sure enough, they were murdered at the beginning of September. All the women, children and elderly were assembled in a barn. The women were told that they would be allowed to reunite with their husbands who were in a different camp, but prior to that they must undergo a medical examination. The women were ordered to undress in the barn and go outside one by one. The Lithuanian auxiliary police waited for them outside, drunk and eager to kill. They attacked every woman that came out, beat her with iron rods and slashed her with knives and lances. Throughout this time, Gestapo men stood and filmed the spectacle. After completing the allotted time for filming, all the women were shot and exterminated. The names of the German and Lithuanian murderers are kept in the Yad Vashem Archives.

According to Soviet sources, two mass graves were discovered after the war: one at the Jewish cemetery in Kretinga with 356 corpses; and the other at the Kveciai grove, on the right side of the road that leads from Kretinga to Palanga, with the corpses of 700 men, women and children.

The number of Jews who lived in Kretinga after the war decreased with the years. In 1970 there were 7 Jews, in 1979, 5, and in 1989 only 3 Jews.

Bibliography:

Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, 43(1), M-19/15(6); M-33/979; M-35/80; TR-2 reports 1, 14, 19; TR-10/83, 275, 1096; 0-4/1.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 1039-1074, pages 46540-48763.
Dos Vort - daily newspaper in Yiddish of the Z”S party, Kovno -17.12.1935, 2.6.1939.
Davar (Tel Aviv), 16.9.1945.
Di Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] – (Kovno), 2.4.1922, 12.1.1923, 29.10.1924, 20.9.1928, 7.11.1928, 11.11.1928, 4.7.1930, 26.6.1931, 6.7.1931, 30.10.1934, 28.10.1935, 20.7.1936, 21.7.1936, 22.7.1936, 15.3.1937, 11.5.1937, 25.4.1938, 30.3.1939, 18.7.1939.
Dar Yiddisher Kaparater [Jewish Cooperation] (Kovno), # 2-3, 1930.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), 16.4.1889.
Hazofe (Tel Aviv), 31.10.1943.
Folksblatt [The People's Newspaper] – (Kovno), 9.1.1935, 30.5.1939, 17.11.1940.
Fakten und Meinungen (New York) June 1942, July 1942, February 1944.
Levy, Arnold, The Behr Tree (1683-19490), Taunton 1949.

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