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[Pages 1453-1474]

Palanga
(Lithuania)

55°55' / 21°03'

By Yudel Mark

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Palanga was a Jewish shtetl in Zamet. The name comes from the Lithuanian po langa, meaning “up to the windows,” that is, the sea reached as far as the windows. It is the Baltic Sea that is being talked about here. The sea here is completely free-flowing, without any bays. Palanga was always a border point, sometimes between the territory that the Germans took from Lithuania and the land that always remained in the hands of the Lithuanians. Later, Palanga was a border between Prussia and the Polish state; in the end, it was a border between Germany and Russia. Palanga is 70 verst [a Russian measure of distance that equals about six-tenths of a mile or 1.06 kilometers] from Liepaja (Liboi, Libova], the nearest large city. Therefore it is only 20 kilometers from Memel, the nearest city to Germany. Palanga is approximately 12 verst from Kretinga and 17 verst from Drobian [Darbenai] and Riteva [Rietavas], Gorzd [Gargzdai], Salant [Salantai], and Plungian [Plunge], with many more shtetlekh of Zamet either closer or farther neighbors to the east and southeast.

Like many, many other shtetlekh, Palanga had two cemeteries – an old and a new. And this concludes the entire similarity to other shtetlekh. The cemeteries themselves were completely unique.

The three solitary tall pines of the new cemetery accompanied me my whole life. They were so tall that they could be seen from very far away. Even when one was several verst from the cemetery, even when one had already crossed to the other side of the border, even when one was at the edge of the sea–one could see the three pines and they indicated the direction. How could they be seen from so far? Because the cemetery itself is on a sand dune, not far from the sea. Among all of the little sand dunes, even the sand dunes that lie along the Baltic Sea for miles and miles–this was the tallest sand dune and the three pines were the tallest pines among thousands of their kind which grew out of the sand so bravely, so proudly straight, so stubborn in their yearning for heaven.

When I was in my birthplace for the last time (in the summer of 1933) and stood by the half fallen ohel [structure built over the grave of a prominent person] of my grandfather Reb Yudl z”l [of blessed memory] and from there looked at the quiet light blue sea, at the crystal-clear golden-blue sand of the dune and at the tops of the dark green pines of the already thinning forest–among my many other thoughts about this place was that the Palanga Jews who chose this place for themselves for eternal rest had pure souls that longed only for beauty and knew where to find it. Then there was naturally the thought: Blessed are those who die peacefully where they were born…

And the cemetery was a very, very old one. It was locked inside the beautiful park of the counts of the Tiszkewicz [Tiskevicius] family. It was as if it was in the captivity of the counts with whom the Jews carried on a quarrel for many generations. Although the Jews never surrendered, they had to relinquish their old cemetery to the Polish counts. The cemetery was compressed, full of headstones that were terribly crowded and pushed together. And the headstones were also narrow and small. The majority of them were wooden. It was possible to recognize colored paintings on only some of them. Hundreds of years of rain, snow and wind erased the pictures that were on the headstones. The intentions of the old masters could only be seen on those that had carved figures; a deer could be seen, a dove, and very often, a ship. And it was said that the ship showed that the deceased had perished on the sea. And there was a dispute: does the deer show that the deceased was named Hirsh or that he thirsts for God's word like a wave thirsts for wells of water.

How old was the old cemetery? Hundreds and hundreds of years. The old cemetery had two layers. On top were two hundred year old headstones, several from the era tov-khet and tov-tet [408 and 409, the years of the Chleminicki massacres, which took place in 5408 and 5409; Hebrew years are abbreviated by omitting the initial letter designating 5,000]. And under them were still several graves from several more hundreds of years.

The khevra kadishe [burial society] had a new pinkhas [registry book]. It began in 1831, because at the end of 1830 (in the year of rebellion) there was a great fire in Palanga (almost every thirty years there would be such a great fire that the entire shtetl needed to be built anew). The old pinkhas of the khevra kadishe was burned then. And the old pinkhas came down from the year 5247–that means, from 1487. And the old Jews of the khevra kadishe who spoke about 5247 with voices of allusion and secrecy were not interested in clarifying anything specific. They only revealed what they had heard from their grandfathers, and their grandfathers from their grandfathers.

It was said from generation to generation that the Jews were in Palanga even earlier than in other holy kehilus [communities] of Zamet. And the first Jews who came to Palanga guarded the borders for the Grand Duke Vytautas, and demanded customs duty from those who brought goods from the other side of the border. Who knows–perhaps letters or other signs of the Jewish border guards will be found in the sands of Palanga, such as those that were found from the border guards in Egypt, brother Jews of several thousand years ago. Perhaps the sands of Palanga have absorbed not only the blood of the present martyrs, but also the evidence of the life of their great great-grandfathers who were here earlier than the Germans and slaves who came here at the same time as the Lithuanians.


Palanga is full of legends. There is Biruta Hill with the legend about the pagan guardian of the sacred eternal fire, the priestess of the god Perkunas. The Grand Duke fell in love with her and wanted to possess her. Contrary to the traditional legend that Biruta was the mother of Vytautas, we were told that she, the guardian of the sacred fire, threw herself into the sea in order to remain a virgin and to guard the fire. The Grand Duke ordered that the spot where she drowned be made into a mountain–Biruta Hill that immortalizes the name of the beautiful priestess. And a constant fire actually burns there–the Catholics have embraced Biruta, placed statues of the holy Mary around her, and also guard the eternal fire in the cave of the mountain.

The old cemetery is a two or three minute walk in distance from Biruta Hill. And Palanga Jews felt very much a part of Palanga–no less than Biruta—and Palanga Jews always had sacred rights and privileges. They had special rights ever since being granted them by the Polish King Zigismund III. And on the basis of the earlier privileges that the Palanga Jews received in 1639, King Wladislaw IV approved their becoming craftsmen and merchants. The Palanga Jews could settle, cultivate the ground and apply directly to the royal court for as many rights as they could obtain. And a hundred years after this, Augustus III (in 1742) approved the privileges granted by Wladislaw IV. The Palanga Jews had to employ these sacred rights in the negotiations with the new Russian regime during the course of the 19th century. The Palanga Jews had to make use of these old documents to advance claims in litigation with the Polish counts, litigation that lasted for decades and took almost a century.

Palanga Jews carried on a war with the dukes of the Oginski family for many years and, later, with the counts of the Tiskevicius family: Who owned the land on which their house and gardens were located? Chiefly, who owned the veid [tract of land], the large open field where the city cows graze? The landowners argued that it was theirs. It is said that they wanted to give the businessmen of Palanga rent booklets and they promised that they would never need to pay any rent. They were ready to pay each one who would take such rent booklets. However, the Palanga Jews would not allow kein speien in der kasha arein [any spitting in the kasha, i.e. stand for any bullying]: No broken coins! No silver half groschen! The land is theirs, theirs from time immemorial, before there were landowners in the world. There was litigation. Finally, when it reached the Senat, the suit was lost, and not for the first time. However, the Jews of Palanga did not pay any rent in any case! And they held the tract of land as theirs, in any case.

When the old Count Tiskevicius told the farm hands to put a fence around the veid, the Jews of Palanga drove the peasants away more than once, until the old count thought of a way to put one over on them. On a light summery Friday night, many peasants were gathered together and quickly began to build a fence around the veid. The thought was: What would the Jews be able to do? They will not desecrate shabbos! However, as soon as the Jews in the great shul became aware in the middle of praying that a fence was being erected around the veid–they left the shul with their talisim [prayer shawls] on their shoulders and went to the end of the shtetl to the veid. The peasants were driven away, the posts were pulled out of the ground, boards from the half-finished fence were broken and, full of victory, they returned to the shul singing, to end their shabbos prayers. And this happened about a hundred years ago.

This was a great victory, even though it was a desecration of the shabbos. It is further related that later the large shul actually burned, and for a number of years, Palanga did not have a large shul. When the construction of a new shul began, it was an even bigger and more beautiful one than previously. And in my years, Palanga had a very big and high, a very spacious and dignified shul that always surprised me–why did Palanga need such a large shul?


In truth, Palanga needed the large shul not only for its own middle class. In sum, there were approximately 200 families at various times during the 19th century. And in addition to the shul, there was a beis-medresh [prayer house], and there was the kloiz [house of study]. This was needed in the summer. Kein ein-hora [may you be spared from the evil eye], so many Jews came together from all of Zamet that they needed a place to pray in comfort. Yes, Palanga had two kinds of life–the entire year and the few summer months when Palanga was full of bathers.

There were Jewish bathers and lehavdil [expression used to separate sacred from profane or Jewish from non-Jewish] non-Jewish. The non-Jews arrived many eras later than the Jews. The non-Jews were brought by the Tiskevicius family, the counts. They attempted to make Palanga more Polish. For an entire year, they did not succeed at all. However, they helped bathers come from Poland. Rich and aristocratic Poles came from all over Poland. There were beautiful villas for them in the forests, between the shtetl and the edge of the sea, actually in the very park of the count and also at the edge of the sea. There was also a Polish theater for them! A good orchestra played in the rest house. Beautiful festivals were prepared a few times during the course of the summer–everything to draw the bathers from distant Poland.

Jews had little to gain from the bathers. Providing them a place to stay, providing them with food–almost everything was in the hands of the above-mentioned count. There were only several large businesses that had the appropriate goods for the aristocratic bathers. These businesses served chiefly only for the summer months and they were almost always empty the rest of the year. The poor market sellers earned a little something from the bathers whose numbers increased in the summer months. Guta's Hila (Hillel), who earlier carried the mail and later had beautiful carriages and coaches to bring the “bath guests” from Lapiai to Palanga, was paid. However, the count begrudged the Jews even this much. In 1906 or 1907, he brought a type of large automobile to Palanga, a primitive kind of bus, and was supposed to provide the transportation for the bathers from Lapiai to Palanga with this vehicle, which was a considerable innovation in the entire area. The Jewish balegoles [drivers] could not bear it. Nails and small pieces of glass were spread on the highway between Palanga and Lapiai and the wheel rims would constantly crack. Finally, the untimely bus had to be abandoned and again they had to use the Jewish drivers. Only years later, after the First World War, when Palanga lost its grandeur, did the bathers begin to provide large portions of income for the poor Jewish community.

Jewish bathers came to Palanga for more than a hundred years before the appearance of the lords with whiskers. From early on, four kinds of Jewish bathers came to Palanga: Firstly, very rich Jews from all around, great merchants and contractors about whom stories were later told of their expansive and wanton life (they swam even on tisha b'av [commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem]! Secondly, the Jewish professional intelligentsia, that is, rabbis, heads of yeshivus, and ordinary yeshiva students, who, in the course of the summer, caught a little fresh air after continuous study. It was always said that the Palanga sea air is the best remedy for sick nerves, against headaches, against various illnesses. In addition, many of the poor people, shlepers [rovers] came. In any case, they were homeless; they traveled around or wandered over the world. They would arrange to be in Palanga longer for the summer months–if the rich indulge themselves, why should not the poor? And fourthly, Jewish women, who far keinem nit gedakht [no one should have the experience] were barren. They had no children. Bathing in the sea was considered the best remedy to conceive a child. There were even separate short tkhine [women's prayers], let us call them. When going under the water of the sea or while waiting for a wave to cover them, the women, the barren women said: “Surf, surf, give me (or bring me) a little child.”

In addition to the bathers, guests constantly came during the summer. Anyone in one of the nearby shtetlekh who had some sort of distant relative or a bit of an in-law among the Palanga Jews could be counted on to have visitors who came for a while during the summer to bathe in the sea. It was joked: “They are coming to our veid [tract of land],” or the same joke with a litvish word: “They are coming to our ganikl [little porch].” The Palanga Jews were nonetheless good natured and hospitable. There were jokes at the expense of the rich and the poor bathers, at the expense of the shlepers and barren women for whom “it actually helps that they come here.”

The Palanga Jews were very proud of their very distinguished bathers. From far and near came people with ringing names in the rabbinical world; dear ordinary “esrogim [citrons] from Corfu” [persons whose observance of Jewish law isn't quite all it should be]; and young prodigies. The Telz rebbe would descend; the Rasein rebbe would come. And even earlier, Palanga was certain to have as a frequent guest, Reb Yisroel Salanter. Reb Yisroel Salanter suffered from terrible headaches his entire life. Bathing in the sea was a good remedy against them. Many stories were told in Palanga about the distinguished guests and very many about Reb Yisroel Salanter.

One particular day in my life I was studying in kheder and on that day I heard a story from the rabbi about how Reb Yisroel Salanter give a drosh [sermon] in the Palanga shul and how he cried because the Palanga Jews sin so much. And my subsequent rabbi for many years and uncle, Reb Yitzhak Mark, told me a story from his childhood several times–Reb Yisroel Salanter did not come to the first minyon [prayer group], as was his habit. All the minyonim [prayer groups] had already finished praying and he was not there. Going to the inn, it was learned: Reb Yisroel Salanter left the inn very early in talis [prayer shawl] and tefilin [phylacteries]! There was a turmoil in the town: What had happened to Reb Yisroel? He was then suffering from severe headaches and was in deep melancholy. What could have happened to him?

All of the older children were sent from the schools to look for Reb Yisroel at the sea coast, among the dunes, or in the little cabins that lined the shore. My father, together with another friend, happened to find Reb Yisroel, as he sat in thought under a dune. He looked at the children with surprise and from them learned that he was being sought; it was already in the middle of the day and the town was in turmoil because of worry about him. Reb Yisroel entered the town with such quick steps that the young men were hardly able to keep up with him.

Often it seemed to me when I climbed barefooted among the dunes and cut my feet on the sharp, dry sand grasses, that appearing before me was the bent seated figure of the tall, blue-eyed Reb Yisroel, sunk in deep thoughts…

In general, Palanga boasted more great rabbis and scholars from among the bathers than from among its own prominent men. Nevertheless Palanga had a large number of rabbis, which is surprising that they would come to such a solitary and small shtetl. Apparently, the greatest rebbe of the Palanga rabbis was Rebbe Yehoshua Heller, of a famous family of rabbis and Torah giants. For ten years (from about 1860 to 1870), Rebbe Yehoshua Heller was rabbi in Palanga. Stories were heard about him in my childhood, about his stately appearance, his beautiful and clean clothing, with a top hat on yom-tov and even on shabbos. Mainly there were stories about his stern behavior and about how he carried out reforms in the shtetl.

Rebbe Yehoshua Heller made sure that the amber manufacturers would not exploit the craftsmen, their workers. He established that on Friday and erev yom-tov [the eve of a holiday] work was only for half a day. He saw to it that after lunch, between four and four-thirty, the craftsmen would have half an hour in which they would be able to daven minkhah [pray the afternoon service]. Later, when minkhah was no longer prayed, the free half hour remained for a fesfer, a sort of snack between lunch and dinner.

Stories are told abut the severity of Rebbe Yehoshua Heller, how he established that on Friday afternoons the shops should be locked on time and when a shopkeeper was furious when he drove customers out of the shop and said a harsh word to the rabbi, the rabbi proscribed the shop–and the shopkeeper had to come and beg his forgiveness. Or it was reported how Rebbe Yehoshua Heller would stand in the middle of the road to Nimerzat (the first little village in Prussia, where one went to drink a glass of beer) in the middle of a shabbos day and sent back the young men and the older people who intended to go there–they would desecrate the shabbos there! Alas, the Palanga Jews groaned that they had such a stern and, moreover, such a respected rabbi that they had to obey him. A saying was created: “If a Palanga Jew wants to sin, he must go to Kretinga.”

However, this was a terrible exaggeration when one thinks of the entire history of Palanga, not just the ten-year regime of Rebbe Yehoshua Heller. Palanga was not a frum [pious] shtetl and there were few in Palanga who were students. Why is this so? Because in Palanga the young men did not have time to study. The young were taken from the kheder early. You didn't sit in a beis-medresh or in a klois [small synagogue] over a page of gemara (other than some exceptional, select individuals)–you sat at a work-table or stood at a turning lathe and worked amber.


Burshtin [amber]–this gave Palanga its special character and also insured that for many generations Palanga would be a completely different shtetl from all of the other Zamet shtetlekh, and not only Zamet.

Amber is a white-yellowish mineral with interesting properties. Amber is available only near the southern banks of the Baltic Sea, and nowhere else. The sea throws out amber after a storm or it is dug out of the sea itself or from sand or from where there was once the sea (and even earlier, the land there was dry). Amber is the hardened resin of a certain type of tree.

Various fields of human knowledge are very interested in amber. There is, first of all, a branch of speculation about the origin of amber and about what kinds of secrets of the history of the earth are revealed by amber. Amber is particularly interesting for inquiries about the ancient world of plants and insects (other kinds of creatures, too), whose remains are often found protected from the eras of the distant past, concealed in a little piece of clear amber. Here, too, are hidden later secrets about the trade methods of the Phoenicians, about how the Greeks and the Romans had amber. We will not go into all of these curious matters. Let us only say that the name elektra [electron] itself is Greek for burshtin [amber], which is characterized by a charge of negative electrons. When a piece of amber is rubbed a little–a paper is drawn to it, or other light things.

However, Palanga did not study amber, only made a living from it. Long generations lived thus. Palanga is almost at the very northern border of that strip of the Baltic Sea where amber is found. From antiquity on, after a gale, pieces and bits of amber that the sea threw up were gathered. As the shores of amber came under the rule of the feudal lords of the Middle Ages, as a result of the German “press to the East,” an iron merciless law was established: amber belonged to the lord of the adjacent land. Later, the Grand Duke received the right to the amber. Gathering amber was permitted, but then it had to be given to the lord, the duke, and he would give a reward according to the quantity and the size of the piece. Amber could not be concealed; it could not be gathered for oneself. For people were hanged! And as a reminder, small gallows were erected along the amber shore. Understand that such a law against the conscience of each peasant or fisherman was not actually carried out. However, there was the fear (and it may be that generations ago there were hangings for concealing amber). But this angry law and the small gallows on the shore, on the small sand dunes, were not in effect across the Prussian border, that is, never in Palanga. The fishermen from the shore of the sea, the nearby peasants, as well as the Jews of the town could gather amber freely. And whoever had more luck could gather more. It is understandable, too, that when amber was illegally gathered on the other side of the border, it could be done without any fear, it could be sold by the Palanga Jews.

What is made from amber? Even in primeval times, various figures were carved out of the large pieces. However, large pieces are very rarely found in their natural form. In addition, amber is fragile. When such a piece was found once in a blue moon, it was worked and who knows how much toil and artistry was put into it–it falls to the floor, it breaks and that is all. Moreover, only a few were able to do such work. Palanga was full of stories about how their or someone else's great-grandfather or grandfather could carve amber; making beads from amber or other jewelry was, in comparison with this, simple work. This, every young man could learn. Certain work was, incidentally, always done by women. A cutter (the one who hewed the piece of amber, made it so that it could be further worked), a driller (the one who made a little hole with a drill in the little piece), turner (the one who made the little piece into a bead, a form of a pearl, on a special turn wheel, a sort of weaver wheel) and still other sorts of workers were always men. However, a sorter (the one who sorted the beads so that the colors would match, so that the size would match), a threader (that is the one who threads the beads onto a string) and still other easier work was in the nimble hands of proficient young girls.

In addition to beads, various kinds of amber jewelry were made: earrings, cufflinks, various bracelets and on and on. Long, long strings of half-finished beads were worked for the faraway Mohammedans that served in the Moslem prayers like the Catholic beads. There were also Jews who made small amber crosses.

Further, amber was manufactured as tips (the part that is put in the mouth) for pipes, for cigars and mainly for cigarettes. There were great numbers of cigarette holder tips on which the necks of the holders were put.

Little by little, the manufacture of amber developed in Palanga. It became more specialized. It went from generation to generation. There were generations of manufacturers and generations of amber workers. Understand, workers often became manufacturers and almost all manufacturers themselves worked with amber for either a part or all of their lives. The majority of the manufacturers were small, with a few or, at most, a dozen workers. Only with the beginning of this century [20th], were there a few larger manufacturers that had several dozen workers (up to approximately forty or fifty). One began to learn the trade in the young years, at thirteen or fourteen, and it continued for several years. Learning particularly difficult specialties took even longer. There were great artists in their trade and there were, it should be understood, several who remained partly or even completely clumsy for their entire lives. Wages were paid according to the kind of work one did and–in part–according to the abilities that were displayed in the trade.

The manufactured goods were sold literally everywhere in the world. In the earlier years the majority went west. There was competition with manufacturers from Danzig; the goods were sold in German cities, in Vienna, in Holland and Belgium, in England (the mouthpieces for pipes were mainly sent there). Later, the trading markets of Russia became more important. Amber products were sent all over Russia. However, the most important trading cities were Petersburg and Moscow. At the end of the previous century [19th] and until the First World War, the most important trading market was the large fair in Nizhniy Novgorod (Nizhne–as it was called in Palanga). Preparations to bring goods to Nizhne went on for months. Then, work was intense during the summer time. Approximately after sukkos, at the end of October or the beginning of November, all of the prepared goods that were taken to Nizhne were finished (earlier they were in Petersburg or Moscow). The fair itself was in full swing in the later winter months. At the beginning of spring the large manufacturers, those in Nizhne, came home. This was the yearly cycle.

A large horse drawn carriage would arrive at the manufacturer's house at dawn. The crates were bound or brought aboard, the crates of manufactured amber. The Nizhne manufacturer sat inside, by himself. The trip to Lapiai on the muddy autumn highway lasted almost the entire day, even though three or four horses were hitched to the large covered, comfortable carriage. The train went from Lapiai to Petersburg-Moscow-Nizhne. Months later, the same horse drawn carriage brought the manufacturer home from Lapiai with empty crates.

How much was sold in Nizhne usually determined whether the craftsmen would have work for the entire year or not, at least in the good years for Palanga–the last two decades of the last and the beginning of this century (until 1914). First, the war led to the end of this established market for amber. After 1914, Palanga amber declined. First, the war, then the revolution, the severance from the large Russian market, the severe customs laws of all of the Europeans between both world wars–little by little, this all caused the decline of amber manufacturing. The manufacturers themselves left, some dispersed to Danzig and some to Lapiai and some even emigrated further away. Other markets were sought, smaller ones. Trade was even attempted with the Far East–until the beginning of the thirties when it became turbulent there. Goods were sent to America, until amber went out of style here. Work was done more than before for the nearby markets, in Lithuania and Latvia proper, even for the peasant who rose during the independent era of the states discussed. However, this was in a much smaller measure than earlier. No large factories remained in Palanga. It was a painful and slow decline of an unusual industry that was entirely in Palanga Jewish hands.

More interesting than the business market for the amber products is the business market for the raw amber. From where did Palanga manufacturers receive the raw materials for their manufacture? The situation changed several times in the history of amber manufacturing. At first, the amber was bought from those who found it by the edge of the sea. Then, attempts were made to fish the amber out of the sea itself. The group of rulers of the Prussian seashore was thus occupied and Palanga tried to copy them. It also happened that a peasant plowing his sandy field found a piece of amber or, digging a hole, would find amber. However, there was no deliberate digging to find amber.

In the 1850s a Jew named Moshe Beker came to Palanga. Where he came from–on this the Palanga Jews could not agree. He very quickly became an almost legendary personality and one can hardly believe in the various exaggerations about his wisdom and his knowledge. However, there is no doubt that Moshe Beker brought a literal fever to the shtetl. He arrived determined that amber could be mined systematically and deliberately. Amber comes from the sea. Palanga is at the very edge of the sea. Each year the sea in Palanga continually yields and more shore is created from the sea. It means that a certain time ago the sea was all over. It happens that each year, gold is literally found in the yard. It only needs to be brought out! Nu, digging began. Digging brought very little in Palanga itself. A few verst [.66 mile] from Palanga, Moshe Beker found amber, but a lot less than he expected.

The enterprising Moshe Beker left for Memel. There he became Moritz Beker. He established a partnership with the German owner of the inn in which he stayed, and created the firm, “Stantien and Beker”; that distressed Prussia. A small sum of money was paid to the government for each kilogram of amber that was received from the digging in the sea itself (or correctly, in the harbor, that is in the almost enclosed bay). The harbor was “requested” and a large amount of amber was actually extracted, so much that such quantities could not earlier be dreamed of–there were years when from 60 to 75 thousand kilograms of amber were extracted. The raw amber was sold in various places–chiefly in Palanga and Danzig. The firm became extremely rich. However, Moritz Beker wanted still more and more. Hundreds of workers were employed, as many new machines as they wanted were installed, and the result was bankruptcy. The entire enterprise went to the Prussian government.

Until the Second World War, this extracted amber lay in the hands of a special branch of the Prussian government that regulated the entire production. Amber was extracted from other areas, not where Beker had. Again, an era arrived–at the beginning of the century [20th]—when more was extracted (later in the twenties and thirties, deliberately or through necessity, a lot less was extracted). All of the Palanga manufacturers were in the hands of the Prussian government, which decided who received the raw material and how much and what kinds. With luck, in the agreement between Moshe Beker and the government, there was a statement that the Palanga manufacturers who had bought amber from him must continue to receive amber from the Prussian government.

Thus, Moshe Beker saved the Palanga amber workers. A form of monopoly was also established. Only the old manufacturers and their inheritors could receive amber. They gave a portion of their purchase to others, although they did so illegally. In that way, new manufacturers could be established. However, no new large firms could develop. Those who, as before, worked only the amber that was accidentally found by the local fisherman and peasants, still had to keep to very restricted production. It is interesting that the Prussian government observed the agreement until the fighting started in August 1914. And even later when Palanga (and Lapiai where a number of the manufacturers moved) was under the Germans, the same Jewish firms sold the raw materials. Thus it was in the time of independent Lithuania. The old agreement was even observed in the days of Hitler, may his name be erased.


Amber established the entire way of life in the shtetl. People in Palanga were much richer than those in the surrounding Zameter shtetlekh. The artisans did very well, according to the standards of the time. In any case, it was a decent life. It was a delight to see the Palanga Jews strolling on a spring shabbos. All were in fine clothing, good shoes and elegant “topcoats” (easy coats) that were usually bought in Memel. People ate well and the apartments looked dressed up. People lived according to the clock. All of Palanga awakened at the same hour and ate the main meal at the same time. The midday meal was exactly at 12 noon. There was an “afternoon snack” exactly at 4. The time of work, eating and rest was not haphazard, as was characteristic of a shtetl where trade was the main source of income. And as long as the amber workers lived well, the storekeepers who had a “stall” (a shop), the butcher, the baker, the wagon driver and so forth, earned, too. The one-story wooden houses in which we lived were very spacious with good floors of painted boards. The houses often had a small garden near them. Jews also had large gardens with vegetables and there were several who had potato fields. A few rich Jews had large orchards with assorted fruits. I remember the surprise of the Jews who came from Drobian (Darbenai): “The Palanga Jews eat meat every day!” In truth, however, we also ate much fish, particularly during the summer months. Mencas [fish found in Latvia], flekshnes (flounders) and small herring dried on long strings on every Palanga farm.

Not only amber, but the fundamental proximity to the sea determined the way of life in the shtetl. The constant babble of the almost motionless sea and the angry roar of the billowing sea served as a musical accompaniment to life. The frequently tempestuous wind did not interrupt the strolling that was a widespread form of amusement for all strata of the population. There was strolling on the path to Prussia and across the count's park and along the edge of the sea. People–and not only the youngsters–loved to walk out on the piers that were built into the sea at the end of the 18th century and rebuilt 100 years later in the hope of making Palanga a proper harbor. The well-behaved youngsters and the adults went only on the part where there was a boardwalk over the stones, while the scamps also danced and jumped dangerously on the unfinished part of the pier, hopping from one stone to another stone, from one wooden beam to another.

During the summer, the entire shtetl went swimming in the sea. The men all running quickly at exactly 12 noon from the factories to the seashore was a beautiful picture. There was a longer time for lunch during the summer to enable swimming in the sea. The other residents swam with the amber workers. On their way, the bathers were already half undressed. The clothes were left on the shore and people waded into the sea. This is how one cooled oneself. Getting wet up to the chest–and we're off into the sea, putting our shoulders under the foam of the spraying waves. If the waves were too strong, hands were joined and together everyone dove under the round backs of the incoming waves that gave a pull toward the shore and, then at their retreat, a pull into the sea. The older ones dried themselves off with towels they had brought with them and the young ones ran around naked in the wind until they were dry. It is curious that the majority of the Palanga Jews could not swim. It was said in Palanga that “a river teaches one to swim; the sea teaches one about life.” However, those who could swim were skilled to an unusual extent.

Swimming was strongly regulated. When the red flag blew in the wind, it was a sign that women were swimming (from 9 to 12, from 3 to 6). When the flag was white–the men swam (from 12 to 3, from 6 to 9). Swimming could only be done in a certain area. The Palanga Jews themselves, therefore, did not mix with the Polish swimmers for whom cabins were built in which to get undressed, or there were cabins on wheels which were taken into the sea by horses. Jokes were made on their account: what do they know about the enjoyment of swimming in the sea! And all of the cabins at the seashore were used by the Palanga Jews in various ways: to rest while strolling, to hide from a sudden rain, and for flirting.

The sad time came later in the autumn with all the mud. The main highway that went through Palanga (from Leipei to Memel), that constituted both Lepeier Street and Memel Street, became a “mirror.” (In addition to the two main streets there was also Kretinger Street, and the rest were alleys; there was even one called ulitsa [Russian: “street”]). That is, the soft mud reflected the cloudy sky above as well as the passerby, who was in danger of losing his galoshes if he had an urge to stop and think about how it looked.

At that time the sidewalk, which was then a wooden one and covered the culverts of water along the highway with wooden boards, could squirt water from underneath right into one's face. When Palanga's economy declined under the Lithuanian regime, a Lithuanian cobblestone pavement was made and a cement sidewalk poured.

During the winter months, little peasant horses passed on the highway through Palanga pulling long cut pines that were made into masts for ships or telegraph poles in Prussia, or they were cut into beams for building.

Rarely was the sea entirely frozen—only by the shore. Then fantastic ice figures were created, the strangest ice fields with hills and caves.


Palanga had another peculiarity–a pro-gymnazie [school that prepares students to enter the gymnazie]. The shtetl was a “center” of “civilization” because of this. The pro-gymnazie had a long history behind it. It apparently originated in the times of Aleksander I, when the language of instruction was German; it didn't change to Russian until the 1870s. A considerable number of Jewish children (young boys–the school was always for boys) studied in the German pro-gymnazie. A number of older adult Jews and also Jewish women could recite Schiller by heart–and not only as a result of enlightened self-education.

We will be spared a whole treatise on the peculiar history of the Enlightenment in Lithuania in general and along the German border, in particular the episode when my own grandfather Reb Yudl, who was known as the greatest scholar that the shtetl produced and who at that time occupied an official office in the shtetl (as dayan [religious judge]), sent his successful first born son—my father, Reb Yakov whom I mentioned earlier—to the pro-gymnazie. (Later my grandfather was a rabbi elsewhere and then was the gemara teacher of the shtetl.) Oh, Jewish students were wanted very much in the universal pro-gymnazie then (this was in the 1860s) and they were excused from attending on shabbos. In this century, when the pro-gymnazie was Russian and a number of teachers were very anti-Semitic and there was no longer the privilege of not attending the pro-gymnazie on shabbos, sending a child there was not particularly daring nor was it an act of separating oneself from one's frume [strictly religious] neighbors (more accurately–half frume). The servant carried the books, the students themselves would not write on shabbos –and the shulkhan orekh [code of Jewish law] was secure.

The Palanga pro-gymnazie was distinguished in the work of creating a Lithuanian intelligentsia. Of those who attended at the same time as I did, one became a diplomat, the second a general, the third–the personal secretary for Smetona [Antanas Smetona, first president of Lithuania from 1919 to 1920 and the last president from 1926 to 1940]. A Palanga Jewish intelligentsia with university degrees also began there. The majority of those who graduated from the pro-gymnazie were accepted by the gymnazie in Lepei. After that, their path led to Dorpat and Petersburg. The pro-gymnazie was in an old and sturdy two-story building near the tall Catholic church, whose spire could be seen from a great distance. The church, like lehavdil [expression used to separate sacred from profane or Jewish from non-Jewish] the shul, was also magnificent, as could be expected. However, here too, thought was given to those who would come to swim in the summer.

The shtetl belonged to Courland since the twenties of the last [19th] century, but it was a decidedly Lithuanian shtetl. Lithuanians, “Zhemeiter” Catholics, lived in the shtetl itself and in the surrounding neighborhoods. The “Kurshenikes” who spoke Latvian lived just 12 verst to the north, on the other side of the Sventoji River (the border between the realm of the Lithuanians and the realm of Latvia, the Latvians) and they were Protestants. The Kurshenikes, who were better fishermen and more experienced sea travelers than the Zhemeiter, occupied the narrow strip near the sea. Both Latvians and the Lithuanians would come every Tuesday and Friday to the market. Everyone in Palanga could more or less communicate with them using a “pidgin” mixture of both languages.

How did Palanga come to belong to Courland, first through a border agreement between Lithuania and Latvia and again in 1919, even though it belonged historically and geographically to Lithuania? Here is a story about how Palanga Jews allowed themselves to be whipped, when Palanga was transferred to Courland, so that they could remain Courlanders. The new governor did not know what to do with the Jews who suddenly became residents outside the czerta osiedlosti [Pale of Settlement], since Courland did not belong to the Pale. He issued an order that Jews should leave the shtetl and that only those who permitted themselves to be whipped could remain. Well, the poor Palanga Jews offered their “beg your pardons” and remained where their ancestors were. However, apparently this crystallized the jealous anger of the surrounding shtetlekh that had been envious of Palanga, and they thought up the not-so-nice nickname for Palanga–“geshmisene [whipped] t… [Translator's note: both the phrase “beg your pardon” and the letter tov [t] refer to tukhis [backside].” Another explanation of the nickname is this: gehinim [hell] burns near Palanga–the Palanga Jews are such non-believers–well, now they are called this name even here on earth.

As a matter of fact, Palanga was awarded to Courland because of the large highway that went through the shtetl from Petersburg to Königsberg (Kunsbarik) and further on to Berlin. There was a lively traffic between the Petersburg imperial court and their relatives, the Prussian kings. When someone from the royal family needed to travel through his gubernia [Russian: “district”], the governor was supposed to accompany them through his domain. Therefore they had to trouble a distant governor who had to come from over fifteen verst away (from between Sventa and the border with Prussia). A better solution was simply to add the small tract of land to the Courland district. Then there are those who say that the entire coast was included in Courland since the sea coast had to be protected against smugglers; they didn't want to mount a separate guard through the short non-Courland strip.

How could the inclusion in Courland not have had an influence on the subsequent way of life of the Palanga Jews? They were free from the competition of the neighboring Jews in Zameter shtetlekh who were forbidden to settle in Palanga. Therefore, Palanga could maintain a higher standard of living. Belonging to Courland isolated the Palanga Jews considerably because other points in Courland were quite far away. Palanga Jews looked down from on high on the Jews in the nearby Zameter shtetlekh, who lived a much poorer life. Palanga Jews, in turn, had the example of the Memel Jews.

Palanga did not feel any sense of exile. Life with the chief of police was not bad; several policemen waited for the coming of the new year to wish the Jews, S novym godom, s novym schastyem [Russian: “Happy New Year”] (as the policemen used to say to mock the Jews), so that they would receive a few rubles. There were no organized fights between the gentiles and the Jews, not even at the yearly fair, unless new recruits occasionally became unruly. However, this did not have any definite anti-Jewish character. The quarrel that the Palanga Jews carried on was with the Polish nobility; usually their hatred was directed against the bathers who were members of the nobility.

Only in 1905-1906 did the situation become a little strained. The smuggling of weapons and literature for revolutionaries went through Palanga. And also, more than one convicted revolutionary saved himself by going abroad through Palanga. The guard was strengthened. However, this was of little help. Palanga Jews themselves were not strongly interested in the revolution, the university-age young people moreso than the tradesmen. The new revolutionary songs were sung, but there were no strikes in the factories. No professional unions were created of the amber workers, who held to the old order of individual agreement with the manufacturers who paid some on a weekly basis and others for piece work. There was a small group of anarchists in Palanga then. A Jewish anarchist was the one who set the large fire at the end of October 1905, when the entire shtetl was consumed in the blaze. One anarchist paid for this with his life; he was caught with many weapons and was hanged for it. The greatest events in the history of Palanga were these fires—the passage of time was calculated according to them. There were countless stories about each of the fires.

Very mournful memories remained from the earlier fires. However, every older resident was able to tell about the large fire of the 19th century. Apparently, there was a large fire in 1820. At that time, Palanga had a very distinguished writer, the maskil [follower of the Enlightenment] Mordekhai Aharon Ginzburg. All of his manuscripts were burned in the great fire. Earlier, we remembered the fire of 1830, during the first Polish Uprising, when the old pinkhas [registry book] was destroyed. In the 1850s, there was a large fire in which the shul burned. Then comes 1905, and finally Palanga burned again in 1937. The large fires occurred in late autumn when the strong winds undid all attempts to localize the fires.

At the end of the 1820s, Palanga had 219 Jewish families. Among them, fifty were manufacturers. The number of families remained more or less around 200 during the course of the century. The count for Palanga in 1897 was given as 925 Jews (among a population of 2,149). Until 1914, the Jewish population rose and reached nearly 250 families. However, then came the decline. When the Second World War began, Palanga did not have more than 70-75 Jewish families. Amber played a secondary role in the era of Lithuanian independence. As a group, Palanga Jews made their living from the summer guests, the bathers. The watering place became democratized. Now every employee in Lithuania who received a two-week vacation wanted to come to Palanga to swim in the sea. Hundreds and hundreds of Lithuanians and Jews came to Palanga every summer. The Lithuanian government was interested in popularizing the watering spot, but there was no longer harmony between the Jews and the Lithuanians. Jews were unable to earn enough from the Lithuanian bathers. Therefore, a considerable number earned their living from other Jews. Palanga Jews ran guesthouses, hotels and small hotels during the course of the summer months. However, life in the shtetl, already poor, became impoverished and was in a worse state than in the other Zameter shtetlekh that had a railroad stop in the period after the First World War. The nearest train stop for Palanga was still at a distance of twelve kilometers. Palanga no longer had a border–the Memel region belonged to Lithuania. The old sea winds now blew in a disturbance. Life became difficult. There was no longer the former glory!

And now, Palanga has become the burial ground for many non-Palanga Jews. Hitler's march on the Soviet Union began when it was already the summer season. Many sick and weak Jewish children came to the Palanga sea and woods with their parents, or were sent to the communal sanatoriums. There were also bathers who in 1941 were in a hurry to arrive before the others. In Palanga and near Palanga they met the khalef [knife used by ritual slaughterer] of the wild Lithuanian Fascists who, at their first chance, went after the Jews, who had been their neighbors for hundreds of years. Palanga and non-Palanga Jews perished together as brothers not far from the clear blue sea, among the tall pines. Their blood was absorbed by the golden bluish sand that is found in every hole in Palanga and also in a mass grave.

It is difficult to end with a grave. Let us, therefore, again remember another strange thing about Palanga–family names. Half of those in the shtetl were Gutmans; that is a ubiquitous name. There were other “-mans”–Zisman, Fridman. However, family names that sound strange and are not encountered elsewhere were typical for Palanga: Klompus, Bruckus (the brothers, Dr. Julius and Ber Brutskus [Bruckus] were Palanga Jews), Salminus–strange family names with “us,” as in Latin, as are often encountered in Northern Europe (Finland and the Scandinavian countries). The origins of these names are not clear in all cases. Klompus is certainly connected with the Lithuanian word klumpe, referring to the wooden shoes of the poor Lithuanian peasants–but the others? If someone in Palanga had a family name ending in “-ik” (Zamoszczik) or “-ski” (Kamenetski), they came from the outside, and were not born and raised in Palanga. Certainly, Palanga had Bernshteyn (the German term for burshtin, i.e. “amber”); certainly, there were ubiquitous Levys or Shokhets and so on. However, Waulf was characteristic, in accordance with the way the Palanga Jews spoke. Bobe, Honor, August–all family names that were rare. We remember this matter because certain shtetlekh had their own family names and Jewish families with unusual family names were for the most part connected with a single place from which the entire family originated.

Palanga – it was difficult to write about my birthplace. Everything here belongs to “was”, to “once.” Perhaps the three pines are still standing on the new cemetery. However, they no longer speak to the mood of any Jewish youth.

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