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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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Translations by Shimon Joffe

[Page 62]

Part 3: The Jews in independent Lithuania between the two World Wars (cont.)

 

O) Political activity in the Jewish sector

Public activity, which renewed itself with great vigor during the period of Lithuanian independence, was based only partially on the traditional community organizations, which existed before the First World war, when Vilna was the spiritual focus and the center of the manifold organizations. In the new Kovno Lithuanian reality, after the separation from Vilna, a greater influence was felt of public personages and of dynamic youths who had spent time in Russia during the “War” and the “Revolution” and returned with rich experience and new ideas. Together with their enthusiastic merging into the Jewish autonomy activity they also joined influential political ideological groupings that controlled funds, or were active in establishing educational, cultural institutions and newspapers. In time, they constituted the soil from which the branches and affiliates of parties and youth movements grew inmost of the cities and towns of Lithuania, paralleling the Jewish ones existing in Eastern Europe in the period between the two wars. The constant divisions and merging of the Jewish Lithuanian parties and movements reflected the developments in that sphere outside the borders. In Lithuania, as also elsewhere, the parties and movements divided off into three main camps; Zionists, religious and Popular -Communists.

        The Zionist Camp

The Zionists were the largest group, numerically. The Lithuanian Zionist movement was an integral part of the world Zionist organization. The strong link of Lithuanian Jewry to Eretz Israel, which expressed itself in the past by the mass association with the Hibat Zion movement and immigration to Eretz Israel of groups and of individuals, now found concrete expression in spontaneous demonstrations by thousands of Jews in the cities and towns to mark historic events on the path to Zionist realization, such as Balfour Day, the San Remo conference, the opening of the Hebrew University and others. Many joined in the daily activities in the framework of the different parties.

In Lithuania, as also in other countries, the Zionists adopted the Basel program, bought the Zionist Shekel and donated to the national funds, The Keren Kayemet and the Keren Hayesod. The latter and the Eretz Israel Office (that dealt with immigrants to Eretz Israel) were common to all the Zionist camps in Lithuania. Together with the general orientation of this sector that concentrated on everything connected with Eretz Israel and its settlements, the majority of the Zionists were in agreement with the activity to ensure the representation and of the Jewish autonomy, as well as being active in their communities in matters of education, culture, etc, activity which was then defined as “Gegnvart Arbeit” (working for the present). As a result of differences of ideology and tactical approach to social problems this camp divided off into many parties, movements and organizations. Almost all the youth movements conducted their activities in Hebrew.

 

Reception for President of World Zionist Organization,
Nahum Sokolov, Speaker Dr I. Robinson.

 

The conflicts between the organizations over time came to a climax in the propaganda war conducted before the elections to the Zionist Congress, which took place every two years in which the results determined the number of delegates each list would have among the Lithuanian Zionists at the coming Zionist Congress. The results also determined to a large extent the political composition of the Eretz Israel Office in Kovno and the issuance of “certificates” (immigrant visas) to Eretz Israel. This became a serious matter as year by year the number of potential immigrants outnumbered the number of “certificates” allocated to Lithuania. Due to this, fierce struggles took place among the parties constituting the Eretz Israel Office and the parties not represented in it.

Within the framework of the constant connection between the parties and the movements with their centers abroad, many emissaries from Eretz Israel came to Lithuania, who, among their activities, also participated in instructing and in organizing activity.

In terms of political ideology the Zionist parties divided off into four basic camps: (1) General Liberal Zionists, (2) Zionist, (3) Nationalist Zionism, (4) Religious Zionism. Each sector contained a number of parties, youth movements and other organizational frameworks, some of which are detailed below.

(1) General Liberal Zionism. At the time of the founding of the Lithuanian state and the establishment of Jewish autonomy, a considerable number of General Zionists were included among the personae who represented Lithuanian Jewry in the government, particularly Dr I. Wigodski, Dr M. Soloweichik, Dr S. Rosenboim, and Dr I. Brutskus, who filled a ministerial role in the Sejm (for example Dr I. Rabinson, Dr M. Wolf, Dr B. Berger in the various autonomy organs, particularly in education and culture). The most important and most widely distributed Lithuanian Jewish newspaper “Di Yiddishe Shtime” (The Jewish Voice), was the official organ of the General Zionists in Lithuania; the veteran editor, Reuven Rubinstein, stood at the head of the General Zionists for many years.

In 1932 the General Zionists founded the Zionist Youth Movement, and a year later, the General Zionist Halutz (Pioneers) as a framework for the movements' members preparing for immigration as halutzim in Eretz Israel. The first of these halutzim were among the founders of kibbutz Tel Yitzkhak in Eretz Israel. Students belonging to the General Zionists were members of the Herzliah Corporation. Some of the leaders of the General Zionists and many of its activists took a leading role in the biggest sport club in Lithuania-Maccabi. During the twenties it had 82 branches and close to 6,000 members taking part in various sport activities. Later on, a children and youth section was added for sport and cultural activities under the name Maccabi Hatza'ir (Young Maccabi).

Following the split in the General Zionist party in Europe and in Eretz Israel, their compatriots in Lithuania too, split into two political frameworks: General Zionists A and General Zionists B. The first called themselves “The General Zionist Organization” and the latter was named “The General Zionist Alliance.” At the elections to the 15th Zionist Congress (in 1935), they appeared as two separate lists. The same split happened between the Zionist Youth and the General Zionist Halutz groupings. In the elections for the 20th Zionist Congress (in 1937), the General Zionists B joined with the Nationalist Camp into a joint list, together with Mizrachi and the National State'ist (more about these two parties below). The same policy was followed for the 21st Congress (in 1939), which took place just before the outbreak of the Second World War. These elections also saw the participation of a list representing Poalei Zion Smol (Left Zionist Workers), after an interval of 19 years. But at this juncture the Lithuanian government forbade the holding of elections and they were disrupted in many places.

(2) Socialist Zionism: “Eretz Israel Ha'ovedet.” The first organizational framework of the Socialist Zionists in independent Lithuania was the Zionist Youth movement. Their leaders, such as L. Garfunkel, A. Brudni-Bareli, A. Zabarski and others, held positions of importance in the political and economic life of Lithuanian Jewry, in the Tarbut school system and in the central institutions of the Lithuanian Zionist organization such as the Eretz Israel Office, national funds etc. Within the party publication “Erd un Arbet” (soil and work), a sharp conflict developed between some of the members who were not Marxists and belonged to the World Federation of the Hapo'el Hatza'ir against the Zion Youths and others further to the left, who belonged to the World Alliance of the Po'alei Zion. (Z.S.-Zionist Socialists).

In 1923 these split into two separate parties, Tze'irei Zion Federation and the Z. S. The former was the first to publish an organ named “Unzer Wort” (Our Word), and was active mainly among the white-collar workers and encouraged the youth movement “Gordonia”. The latter, published an organ named “Unzer Weg” (Our Road), was very active among the Jewish craftsmen and laborers and showed much sympathy for their Yiddish language and culture. It also managed to create a bond with the Lithuanian Social-Democratic party. They collaborated in particular in matters of the National Health Clinics. After the closing of the Z.S. branches in Lithuania as a result of the Fascist coup of 1926, the name of the organization was changed to “The Educational Society named after Nachman Sirkin”. In spite of persecution by the authorities, the Z.S. grew in influence among Jews and founded a youth movement under the name “Z.S. Youth” and a student federation called “Z.S. Studentn Ferband”. (Z.S. Student Federation).

The collaboration between the two sister parties did not stop despite the sharp ideological tension between them and they continued to collaborate in many fields, particularly in fostering the Halutz movement (which functioned in Lithuania since 1919, see below) in support of the sports organization “Hapo'el”, founded in 1930 and consisted of approx. 1,000 members in dozens of branches, in campaigns to raise money for the “Kupat Po'alei Eretz Israel” (Eretz Israel Workers Fund), the establishing of a joint committee for “Working Eretz Israel” and such like. Yet despite the above, they appeared in two separate lists for the sixteenth (1926) and the seventeenth (1931) congresses.

After the coming together of the two wings in Eretz Israel into a single party MAPAI, their Lithuanian compatriots too joined together into one organization called The United Zionist Socialist Party. This party, with its affiliates, became the dominant factor in the Zionist camp. As of 1933, it participated in the elections to the Zionist congresses in an inclusive list “Eretz Israel Labor Camp”. It included members of He'halutz, youth movements such as Hashomer Hatza'ir, “Gordonia”, “He'halutz Hatza'ir” etc (Further details about these movements follows). In 1932-1934 a weekly paper “Di Zeit” was published by the party and after 1934 a daily “Dos Vort.”

 

Second congress of Zionist Socialist Party, 1924
Second row, from the right: Azriel Walk, Mordekhai Elyashiv (Friedman), Efraim Greenberg, Nathan Goren (Greenblat), Shmuel Elyashiv (Friedman), Aizik Brudni, Efraim Bilogolovski (Khermoni), B. Ulman. In front, right: Meir Kantorowitch, Shlomo Kodesh.

 

(3) Nationalist Zionism. At the beginning of 1925, two years after resigning from the Zionist Executive and becoming the opposition leader in the Zionist Federation, Ze'ev Jabotinsky visited Lithuania and founded a branch of the World Revisionist Zionist Organization. Within a short time central figures in the general Zionist movement joined the WRZO (Dr A. Shwartz, A. Idelson, etc) as well as members of the free professions, members of the middle class, and many student youths. A number of the latter became instructors in 1927 and rank and file members of the Joseph Trumpeldor Alliance, the youth movement Betar, allied to the WRZO. Within a few years the movement had some dozens of branches with over a thousand members. In addition, they had a number of training facilities. By the 1930's Betar had become the second largest youth movement in Lithuania. Some of its members received proper military training in special units and in the course of time a few participated in actions of the local “ETZEL” (the military wing of the WRZO). Among the leaders of the movement in Lithuania were Mordekhai Katz, Yekhezkel Dilion, and finally, Yosef Glasman. A split developed in the WRZA between the supporters of Jabotinsky, who demanded that the movement divorce itself from the Zionist Federation, and the opposing camp led by Meir Grosman, who formed a separate entity called The Jewish State Party.(Yiddenshtatzpartei). As usual, the split took place also in Lithuania. Most of the leadership of the party (Dr A. Dubrowitz, Dr Shmuel Goldberg, Dr Hertzl Rosenblum (who later on became editor of the Yedi'ot Acharonot in Tel Aviv), joined the “State” party. In addition, the student federation Yardenia allied itself to it, which in time gave birth to a sister federation called the Daughter of Yardenia. In 1934 the State party founded a youth movement called Alliance of Zealots which was active in 31 cities and towns in Lithuania and published bulletins “To The Target”, “In the Tents of Barak” etc. Among the other bodies established or initiated by the State Party was the Veteran Jewish Soldiers Union named “Yehuda”, and a number of training places. In the elections to the 18th Congress (1933) and the 19th Congress, the State party ran an independent list, but in the 20th Congress (1935) they participated in a joint list with the “National Bloc.” The leading “State” publication was a periodical named Yidenshtat (Jews State), edited by I. Zherdin and A. Klaus (who later on joined the editorial staff of Ma'ariv).

After the founding of the “New Zionist Organization” by the Revisionists, they stopped their participation in the elections to the Zionist Congresses. Their main activity was Palestine centered, and concentrated in the field of activist-education, and in the gruelling struggle to acquire their right to a fair share of the certificate quota and the search for alternative ways to immigration. In the course of these and other conflicts clashes occurred from time to time with their opponents. Activists in the N.Z.F. devoted much effort in organizing campaigns for the Tel Hai fund, and were very active in the campaign to boycott products of Nazi Germany. But at the same time, they were chary of interfering in the life of the local communities. Among the organizations founded by the Revisionists and which acted according to their spirit were: The Student Corporation “ElAl”, “Arnonia”, “Bat Amiy”, Veteran Soldiers Association “Brit Hechayal”, The Revisionist Women's Organization “Veref”, Religious Revisionist organization headed by the Rabbi Israel Rozenson etc.

 

Betar Leadership 1937
Left to right: Avraham Shtukarewitz (later becoming one of the leaders of the Prisoners of Zion Organization), Yosef Glazman (in time, one of the leaders of the Jewish Underground in the Vilna Ghetto), Betar commander I. Glazer, Yekhezkel Pulerewitz (later among the leaders of the Prisoners of Zion Organization in Yisrael)

 

(4) Religious Zionism. Among the various Zionist organizations that renewed their activities in Lithuania after the First World War was the Mizrachi Federation (Histadrut Hamizrachi), founded within the ethnic borders of the country some twenty years previously, under the slogan “Eretz Israel for the Jewish people according to the Mosaic law.” Among the new founders and activists were many of the old generation who had been raised in a very religious atmosphere and were deeply influenced by the nationalist yearning radiated by the Khibat Zion (The Love for Zion) movement Like the founders of the “Mizrachi” in 1902, the leaders of the movement in the early 1920's were also mostly local rabbis such as R. Israel-Nissan Kark, R. Yokhanan Zupowitz, R. Menakhem Katz and R. Yitzkhak Friedman, who eventually immigrated to Israel. Thanks to the influence of the leaders of the movement and other rabbis officiating in the Lithuanian towns and cities, almost all the synagogues were available to Zionist activity, including the positioning of voting boxes to the Zionist congresses, and sermons were heard by the worshipers asking them to contribute to the national funds. Also, members of the “Mizrachi” supported the “Yavne” school system, demonstrated against the public desecration of the Sabbath etc, and were also active in the day to day activities of the community. Many of the following generation and the yeshiva students who wanted to participate in a realistic manner in the building of the land of Israel joined the new movement which inscribed its flag with “Torah and Labor”, that being also the name of the new movement.

The movement Torah Ve'Avoda (Torah and Labor) was allied to the “Brit Ha'olamit Shel Torah Ve'Avoda”, but simultaneously continued to keep an ideological attachment to its mother movement, “Hamizrachi”, and appeared under its name in joint electoral lists. Its leading activists, led by Zvi Bernstein (who became later on a central figure in the religious party), founded the “Hechalutz Hamizrachi” organization in its training kibbutzim and the youth movement “Bnei Akiva.” The two organizations had many branches in the Lithuanian towns and many of its members immigrated to Eretz Israel and joined kibbutzim and other settlements. During the 1930's, Torah Ve'Avoda published a Yiddish weekly “Dos Yiddishe Wort” (The Jewish Word). and Bnei Akiva published “Our Voice” edited by Meir Hovsha.

(5) The Halutz Federation and the Halutz youth movement. The Halutz Federation or the “General Halutz” was founded in Lithuania, as in other countries, with the aim of sending its members to Eretz Israel, after they have trained themselves to build the country. The founding convention of He'halutz took place at the end of 1919. Even before then, groups of young men and women had organized themselves for that purpose and undertook agricultural training on Jewish and non-Jewish estates and farms. The first group to immigrate to the Land was the “Achva” group (brotherhood), followed by the “Shavli” group. Its members had been part of the “Pirhey Tsion” (Blooms of Zion) association and, after their arrival, they founded the Kibbutzim Ginegar, Sarid and the village Giv'at Khen. Nominally, “He'halutz” Federation was non-aligned, but it had a bent towards the Tze'irei Zion and Z.S. parties, both when they were split and later when they reunited and became the major element in the Eretz Israel Labor bloc. In the early years, the head of the He'halutz was a man esteemed and even venerated by the Jewish public, Moshe Schwabe, who later became the rector of the Hebrew University.

In view of the multiplicity of groups preparing for immigration, the Halutz too established independent training framework such as Kibush (conquest), on the Pladgoni estate (later in Lipoltava), Beit He'halutz (the Halutz Home) in Memel, a carpentry co-operative in Kovno etc. Influenced by the kibbutz movement and its emissaries who frequently visited Lithuania to make converts to their political movements, most of the frameworks were named Training Kibbutz and they learned to live communally and followed an Eretz Israel life style. The number of such kibbutzim naturally increased in view of the increased demand for immigration certificates which exceeded the number allocated for halutzim, as anyone who applied for a certificate was required to live in a training center no less than 12 months.

 

Hehalutz Movement Flag 1920

 

Since the key to the number of certificates allocated to each organization depended on the number of members in the training centers, the organizations competed with each other in setting up as many Training Kibbutzim as possible. As a result Training Kibbutzim sprouted in remote townships where the local inhabitants themselves were in desperate need of work places. The economic existence of these Training Kibbutzim depended mainly on a few members whose skills were in demand.

Within the framework of the biggest and the chief of all the Halutz movements, “The General Halutz”, there was competition and differences of opinions amongst the members often followed internally by power struggles. The majority living on the training kibbutzim were not of any defined ideology and were called “simply halutzim.” In time, they were joined by many graduates of various halutz youth movements: the senior and large youth movement “Hashomer Hatza'ir”, which split into Hashomer Hatza'ir (N.Z.H. Scouts, Youth Halutzim), Young Halutzim, Gordonia, and Yugent (Youths) which eventually turned to the halutz ideology and changed its name to “Dror” (freedom). The movements also differed in their educational methods, in their political affiliation to this or that bloc, in Labor Eretz Israel and in their ideological orientation. Because of organizational and ideological reasons, the movement divided off into two major blocs: one, the general containing the mass of the “simply halutzim”, graduates of the He'halutz Hatza'ir, members of Yugent and members of the Student Federation S.Z. and the other, the “Educational bloc” consisting of Hashomer Hatza'ir, Hashomer Hatza'ir N.Z.H. and Gordonia.

The three movements mentioned above emphasized educational activity but at the same time their ideological and organizational independence. The oldest and leading among them was Hashomer Hatza'ir, founded in 1921 which became within a short time the largest and most widespread Zionist movement among the student and working youths in the cities and towns, under the name “Hebrew Youth Federation Hashomer Hatza'ir.” In spite of its Zionist tendency and left leanings, the authorities permitted it to function openly even after the 1926 coup. Later on, the movement was forced to function under a changed name, “Shomria”, its graduates, many with high school or even further education, were obliged to pass through halutz training centers, and join the Kibbutz Ha'artzi once they reached Eretz Israel. Until then, they were an independent political section within the “Labor Eretz Israel” bloc. But, on the other hand, they insisted on having a separate Training center within the He'halutz. Their central publication, the periodical “Ziv” (Bloom), which appeared regularly, and in before the war was called “Kol Mima'amakim” or “Mima'amakim” (Voice from the Depths).

Following the split in the Hashomer Hatza'ir throughout the world, a section which became eventually the Hashomer Hatza'ir N.Z.H, broke off from the Lithuanian movement in 1930. Most of the branches were in the North-West of Lithuania. The graduates were absorbed mostly in the Kibbutz Hameuchad kibbutzim.

 

Hashomer Hatza'ir Leadership, Lithuania, 1929
Sitting, right to left: Levi Rosentsweig, Ya'akov Amit (Gotlib), Noah Feler.
Standing, right to left: Ginzburg, Leah Feler-Ginzburg, Yehuda Tuvin, Baruch Shalkovski

 

The Gordonia movement, which began its activities in Lithuania in 1925, tended to the “Tze'irei Zion Federation”, and emphasized educational activities with stress placed on work ethics and principles of personal behavior.

The ideological and practical common ground between these movements did not stop the competition between them to enlarge their ranks and to establish additional training centers. Thus it was possible to find, in almost every Lithuanian town, educational frameworks (called nests or branches) belonging to the movements, which made up the He'halutz or functioning outside it. This situation was marked particularly during a period of increased Zionist activity in Lithuania, namely until the mid 1930's. Data on the Zionist youth movements is to be found in table 31.

 

Table 31: Branches and members in Lithuanian Zionist youth movements
(In the years 1929, 1931, and in the mid 1930's)

Youth movement 1929 1931 Mid 1930's
branches members branches members branches members
Hashomer Hatza'ir 12 1,400 93* 4,150* 4,500
He'halutz Hatza'ir 15 700 15 1,000
Betar 19 730 38 1,500 80
Hano'ar Hatzioni 4 155
Maccabi 47 1,880 32 1,120
Gordonia 11 300 28 700
Zealot Alliance 31 1,200

#Includes branches of Hashomer Hatza'ir N.Z.H. which had split from the parent Hashomer Hatza'ir in 1930

 

This tendency of the youth movements to grow, continued, more or less, until 1935. In that year, when immigration to Eretz Israel from Lithuania reached a peak of 1,418 people (835 of them halutzim), there were 55 training centers, mostly situated in the towns, and 2,425 trainees of both sexes. Due to the lengthening of the waiting period in the training centers, despondency set in, and as a result, the number of drop-outs of skilled artisans and others increased. In January 1936 the number of halutzim dropped to 1,835. Their party affiliation was as follows; General Halutz-879; The Mizrachi Halutz-315; General Zionist Halutz E.I -180; Zealot Alliance-141; Orthodox Halutz-122. Table 32 shows the continuation of this trend. This tendency continued and in 1937 a mere 235 halutzim remained in the Lithuanian training centers. Of the above, 20 were to be found in 2 General Zionist Halutz centers and and 215 in 10 centers of the General Halutzim. This organization remained therefore the largest among them and the leader during the whole period of the existence of the Zionist Halutz movement in Lithuania. During this period, over 3,000 halutzim, men and women, immigrated to Eretz Israel through its efforts, graduates of the youth movements and “just halutzim.” Some of them, took part in the establishment and development of dozens of Kibbutzim in Eretz Israel, among them Afikim, Beit-Zera, Giv'at Brenner, Daphna, Tirat-Zvi, Yagur, Kfar Blum, Kfar Masarik, Lehavot-HaBashan, Ma'anit, Mishmarot, Amir, Ramat Hashofet, Shfayim, Sarid, Tel-Yosef, Tel-Yitzkhak etc.

 

Table 32: Halutzim in Training Centers in Lithuania, by Organization (1936)

Organization January 1936 September 1936 November 1936
number % number % number %
Total number 1,816 100 714 100 613 100
General Halutz 879 48 476 68 436 71
Hehalutz Hamizrachi 315 17 99 14 68 12
General Zionist A 180 10 47 6 48 8
General Zionist B 180 10 44 6 45 7
Zealots Org. 140 8 48 6 16 2
Orthodox Halutz 122 3 - - - -

 

The depth to which Zionism was rooted among Lithuanian Jewry between the two World Wars can be judged from the purchase of “Shekels” and the number of voters to the Zionist congresses. Data about these can be seen in Table 33, and this also indicates the influence of the various parties among the Jews. It may be mentioned here that some of the voting booths in the small towns were placed in the Hebrew schools and synagogues.

The elections not only served to illustrate the power and influence of the Zionist camp in Lithuania, but they also enabled the Lithuanian Zionists to participate in, and be partners in fact, in the decisions of the World Zionist Federation and in the discussions at the Congresses. The number of delegates was calculated on the basis of the number of purchases of the Zionist Shekel and other considerations. Data about the number of delegates and their political party affiliations is given in table 34.

Table 33: Results of the voting in Lithuania to the Zionist congresses by lists (1927-1935)

Congress Year Total Labor Eretz Israel Revisionists General Zionists State Mizrach
Shekels Voters Z.S. Z.Z. A B
15 1925 5,267 3,792 809 860 454 1,068 601
16 1929 8,371 6,419 1,718 1,067 1,475 1,443 716
17 1931 17,000 8,894 2,833 1,211 2,699 1,409 741
18 1933 32,500 26,632 16,328 4,350* 2,286 2,137 1,531
19 1935 50,830 44,845 25,915 2,565 4,633 5,332 6,400
20 1937** 31,686
21 1939** 25,600

*The Revisionists participated with two lists, one headed by Jabotinsky and the other by Yosef Shechtman.
**The authorities in Lithuania did not permit elections to take place in these years, and the parties came to an agreement as to their representation in 1937 1939, as shown in table 34.

 

Table 34: Delegates from Lithuania to Zionist congresses, by political parties (1937-1939)

Congress Year Total
Delegates
Labor
Eretz Israel
Revisionists General
Zionists
State Mizrachi
Z S ZZ A B
15 1927 4 1 1 1
16 1929 5 2 1 1
17 1931 6 2 1 2 1
18 1933 11 7 2 1 1
19 1935 17 10 1 2 2 2
  National
front
*
20 1937** 11 5.5 1 4.5
21 1933** 9 1 2

*The National Front included General Zionists B, The State Party and Mizrachi.
**Because the authorities forbade the holding of elections to the congresses, the parties agreed amongst themselves as to the number of delegates each would have and the half delegates were balanced out in the general arrangements at the Congress.

 

        The Religious-Orthodox Camp

After the First World War, even before the return from Russia to Kovno, Lithuania, of the two of the major local personalities in the Agudat Israel – R. Shimon Merkel, and R. David Levin – the new generation already organized themselves under the Leadership of I. Shmuelowich, I. Kopelowich and Sh.Z. Shereshewski and began their activities under the name Tze'irei Israel (Young Israel). The activities were concentrated mainly in the establishment of schools belonging to the Yavne stream, the strengthening of religious institutions in the cities and towns, the publishing of a periodical “Der Yiddisher Lebn” (Jewish Life) in Yiddish, and “Hane'eman” (The Faithful) in Hebrew. Their initiative and activities received the blessings of Torah scholars in Lithuania such as R. Avraham Duber Shapira, The Rabbi of Kovno; R. Yosef-Shlomo Kahaneman, head of the Ponivezh Yeshiva; R. Yosef-Leib Bloch, head of the Telz (Telsiai) Yeshiva and R. Moshe-Mordekhai Epstein, head of the Slobodka yeshiva.

In the elections to the Jewish autonomy and to State institutions, the Tze'irei Israel collaborated with the veteran Agudat Israel in a joint list under the name “Achdut” (Unity). They had relatively high success in the elections to the community committees, approx. 40% of the total votes cast. Their representative, Dr N. Rachmilewich, was appointed deputy chairman of the National Council. But at the same time they boycotted the elections to the national Jewish convention and engaged in political battles with the majority in the Jewish caucus in the Sejm, being accused of having collaborated with the authorities to retain in the hands of the local councils the power to deal with religious matters only. In the elections to the third Sejm (1926), the Achdut members participated in a joint list with the retail merchants organization. Despite the letter of support they received from the Rabbis (99 signed the letter) they failed to win a seat. Nevertheless, they retained positions of power and influence in the community councils, in the National Rabbinical Federation and in the yeshivot which flowered again. They also received from the authorities various reliefs which assisted them in advancing their educational system and they had great influence in choosing the teachers of religion in the state schools. Thanks to the above, the Agudat Israel re-established itself and the number of branches increased.

But the leadership of Agudat Israel could not answer growing demands of the Yavne members and other orthodox youths to immigrate to Eretz Israel. A new framework was therefore established in 1932, under the name “Tze'irei Agudat Israel” (Young Agudat Israel) Under the intitiative of Dr Yitzkhak-Rafael Halevi Holtzberg-Etzion a training center was set up for “He'halutz Hadati” (The Religious Halutz), and in time, they received 6% of the total national allocation of immigration certificates. By the Second World War some 200 halutzim of this movement came to Eretz Israel. The collaboration between this movement and Agudat Israel centerd on the strengthening of religion, “Khevrat Mazhirei Shabbat” (Society for awareness of the Sabbath), in the “Keren Hayishuv” (Community fund) appeal, in support for the yeshivot, the Yavne and Beit Ya'akov institutions, the student federation Moriah, the youth movement Hano'ar Ha'agudati, and the orthodox women's “Batya” and “Beit Ya'akov” etc.

        The Common Peoples Communist Camp

The political and social vacuum created by the disappearance of the Bund from Kovno Lithuania, was filled partially by three parties, mentioned below. Each one supported, for reasons of their own, the use of the Yiddish language in the educational and cultural institutions and opposed, in one way or another, religious and Zionist values, their participation in the community councils and other general institutions of Lithuanian List, Workers List, Faction number 5, Faction Number 7 etc. At times, they conducted sharp battles among themselves. Even when they collaborated on matters which were important to the three parties (as in matters of culture, activities in the Kultur Lige, in the Folksblat newspaper), the friction continued for a short time and ended without serious consequences. As they were suspected of anti-governmental activities, they were each persecuted by the authorities in one manner or another, especially the fascist coup of 1926. Like the other left wing organizations, these too enjoyed some sort of political relief in the middle 1930's, with the establishment of the Popular Front in Europe in a reaction to the rise of Fascism and Nazism.

(1) The National Party (Folkspartei). The National Party came into existence in 1921, under the initiative of a number of people who returned from Russia and had previously been members of different parties and were enthusiasts for Yiddish. In addition to supporting educational institutions and culture in this language through the Kultur Lige, the National Party acted widely to defend the political and economic interests of the masses. In particular, it gave organizational and public political support to artisans and small shopkeepers. Instead of emigration, as advised by the Zionists, the Nationals spread the slogan “Doikait” (Stay Here), which expressed their cry to the Jewish masses to remain here (bleibn do), in other words, in Lithuania. As graduates of the “Autonomist” outlook propounded by Shimon Dubnov, founder of the Folkspartei in Russia, they enthusiastically participated in the building of the autonomous Jewish framework in Lithuania and collaborated in this matter with the Zionists. The leader of the National Party, the lawyer E. Finkelstein, served as deputy president of the first community convention and was elected to the second Sejm as a member of the joint Jewish list. After the fascist coup, the Folklorists actively intervened in the local authority institutions in the field of constructive economic assistance through the Ort enterprises, in the field of Health, through the Oze enterprise, and in the field of education and culture-through the “Association for Jewish Education” mentioned above. Because of the leanings of the graduates of these institutions towards communist ideology, and for other reasons, the Folklorists did not manage to create a youth movement. Moreover, in spite of the fact that the Communists conducted a smear campaign against them and their institutions (see above), the Folklorists were suspected of being supporters of the communist ideology and suffered greatly at the hands of the authorities. Because of this, some leaders of the party immigrated to the USA among them Yudel Mark, who developed the theory of “Stay Here.”

(2) Poalei Zion Smol (Left Zion Workers Party). Under this title operated in Lithuania a group of past members of Poalei Zion who broke with the mother party because of residual adherence to the international communist ideology. For that reason the authorities persecuted them and since 1921 their party activities were conducted underground. But at the same time, they were integrated to some extent and participated in the public activities of the autonomous bodies, in the community committees and in the cultural educational system of the Kultur Lige. Party activists founded co-operatives of manufacturers and workers' restaurants, and supported Ort enterprises. In their public statements and in their publication Arbeter Tzaitung (The Workers Newspaper, which appeared during the years 1920-1922 under the editorship of Moshe Aram, who later became a member of the Israeli Knesset representing Mapam), and in Klorkeit (Clarity, which appeared during the years 1933-1934 under the editorial hand of S. Gutman), they demanded that Yiddish be recognized as an equal to Hebrew in the Jewish schools in Lithuania and in Eretz Israel. Despite the fact that their party members had left the Zionist institutions, the members of their youth movement, Borochov Yugent (Borochov Youths), were allowed into the training centers of He'Halutz as preparation for emigration to Eretz Israel. In 1939, Poalei Zion Smol appeared for the first time as an independent list for elections to the Zionist Congress and succeeded in distributing some 900 Shekels, a large number for such a small party. Their list received a few dozen votes.

(3) The Communists. From its inception in 1918 until 1940 it functioned most of the time underground and the membership hovered between 1,500-2,000. The ratio of Jews among them was 53.8% in 1932 and was reduced to 31% in 1939 (364 Jews out of 1,120 party members). The Jews carried great weight in its sidelines and in the associated organizations such as the Komsomol (Communist Youth Movement), the “Red Assistance” (Welfare Organization assisting political prisoners), “Workers Sports Club”, “Aurora” (Kovno University Students Organization) etc. Although in numbers the Jewish Communists were a negligible factor, in the Jewish public they carried on an endless agitation against Zionism and religion and what they called the Jewish Reaction. In spite of police repression they published a great deal illicitly, in Yiddish, leaflets and pamphlets such as “Arbeter Lebn” (Workers Life), “Di Komunistishe Fon” (The Communist Flag), “Yunger Leninist” (Young Leninist), and others. From time to time they aroused great public interest, for instance when they were brought before a court on charges of illegal political activity, or because of punishment they meted out to people they accused of treachery or being informers. Many of them were condemned and imprisoned for many years. A short time before the Second World War their status rose among the Jewish public, among the intellectuals and the youths among the Zionist youth movements. One of their publications at that time was the fortnightly “Shtraln” (Sun's Rays).

        Associations, Organizations and Sundry Institutes.

After the liquidation of the autonomous institutes and the ending of the legal status of the Jewish Community Councils (in 1926), a vacuum was created in Jewish public life. This vacuum was filled, partially, by bodies such as “Adat Israel” and “Ezra” which were active in Lithuanian towns and cities.

“Adat Israel” which concentrated mainly in providing religious services received most of the properties which had belonged to the Communities, cemeteries and such like, and also cast their influence over the activities previously carried on by most of the communities in the buildings known as “Shulhof “ (Synagogue yard), and that included the synagogues and study centers, the “Kloyz” (synagogue), and other prayer meeting places, the rabbi's house, the “Mikveh” (ritual bath-house), the Heder etc. In the central courtyard of the Shulhof weddings were conducted, as well as funeral orations.

In the corner of the Beth Hamidrash (study house), or in one of the side prayer rooms the Hevra (study group) conducted study of the Holy Works. Beginning with the “Regular” Hevra who studied “Chayei Adam”,“Menorat Hama'or”, “Ein Ya'akov”,“Midrash”, and ending with the Hevra of brilliant students who studied the “Shas” (The six books of the Mishna). These buildings also housed the members of the religious organization “Tiferet Bachurim”, of which there were some fifty branches scattered throughout Lithuania.

In the small towns, the local rabbi, the synagogue beadle or other functionaries attended to religious needs, as did also the Hevra Kadisha (funeral society). In places where there was no cemetery, the deceased were transported for burial in a neighboring cemetery. In several towns the rabbi also served as a teacher of religion in the school and delivered lectures in the local “small” yeshiva. The rabbis of communities such as Telsiai, Panevzys, and Kelme, which had famous yeshivot, enjoyed a higher status. In some towns, the rabbi held the position of local rabbi as well as the dean of the yeshiva. Rabbis who were held in high esteem were members of the Council of the Rabbinical Association and were among the speakers at the conventions of the Agudat Israel etc. The founder of the Rabbis' Association was in Lithuania, and its president during the whole period of its existence was the chief rabbi of Kovno, R. Avraham Duber Shapira.

While Adat Israel and the Rabbinical Council concentrated on matters of religion and such like, including communication with the authorities in these matters, other organizations, like Ezra, provided and took care and responsibility for local welfare institutions, such as Old Age Homes and others, which had remained without public assistance. As the amount of the financial contribution of the local authorities was insignificant, and did not satisfy even the minimal needs, these institutions were forced to rely on donations by members and sympathizers of the diminishing Jewish community.

Simultaneously, though not always coordinated, many voluntary additional bodies functioned in Kovno and the county towns, among them Women's leagues, synagogue beadles and such like, and each one took care of a particular sector or group of the needy. Some of them (like Tsedaka Gdola-large charity, Ma'ot Hitim - money for Pesakh, Lehem Aniyim - bread for the poor) etc became an integral part of the Jewish public body in Lithuania and its communities. Generally, the public responded well to their charity drives. In many places, organizations like “Gmilut Chasadim” (loan societies), “Matan Baseter” (secret aid), and associations for extending assistance to sick patients, like “Linat Tzedek” (hospice for the poor), Refu'a Shleima (complete recovery), functioned. To the above, should be added the local mutual aid societies, which had functioned before the war and now renewed their activities.

 

Supreme Rabbinical Council in Lithuania, 1930
Under the edge of the right flag: the Kovno chief rabbi R. Avraham Dov-Ber Shapira.

 

Of great importance to the health of Lithuanian Jewry was the OZE society. In addition to their Bet Bri'ut (House of Health) in Kovno, they operated a network of clinics, health centers in schools and holiday camps in 16 cities and towns. In the creation of the institute framework and the running budget the “Joint” participated most generously.

For various reasons, Lithuanian Jewry also operated an independent hospitalization program. There were some 600 beds in the 8 hospitals and recuperation homes. They mostly served the Lithuanian Jewish public. These institutions employed 40 doctors and 60 nurses and first aid staff. The annual budget stood at close to one million Lit. (Approx. one hundred thousand Dollars). The largest one, “Bikur Holim” in Kovno, which did not receive any governmental subsidy, extended a discount to Jewish patients from 45 towns in Lithuania, for medical charges after receiving a single annual donation in the amount of 13,000 Lit.

As in the case of ordinary education, in welfare to the aged (old age homes), and medical care, the Jews preferred their own independent institutional framework. That was true also for institutional care of hundreds of orphans, homeless children and children requiring special education. All the above were cared for in 7 well run institutions or by foster families. By the end of the 1930's a national society began to care for the mentally ill and their families.

A whole slate of organizations, the chief one being HIAS-IKA (Jewish emigration society), assisted financially and legally and in many other ways, thousands of Jews, single and families (including refugees from Nazi Germany), who were about to emigrate to countries overseas.

Because of an outbreak of fires in the towns, which caused great damage, the Jewish public became very active in the local fire brigades. In a number of places, the fire brigades consisted entirely of Jews. Being organized and having force, the Jewish fire brigades participated on occasions in parrying attacks by anti-Semitic elements on the Jewish population.

The largest trade unions among the Jews active from the founding of the state until its end was the Jewish Hand Workers Association. (Yiddisher Handwerker Farein). In 1939, it had 30 branches and over 3,000 members working in 35 different crafts. In addition to professional literature, explanatory material and the like the association published a fortnightly paper called “Yiddisher Hantwerker” (Jewish Craftsman). Officially, the association was non political, but nevertheless its leadership tended towards the popular Yiddish camp.

A further organization, which can be added to the above, is the “Association of Jewish Soldiers who participated in the struggle for Lithuanian Independence” (in Yiddish: Farband fun di Yiddishe Frontkemfer - The Jewish Battlefield Veterans Association). Publicly they were called “the Fighters on the Front”. In 1939, six years after its founding the Alliance had 2,096 registered members in 43 chapters. During the independence and other national celebrations the members participated with their own flags in the parades as a show of identity. During the years 1935-1940 it published a weekly in Lithuanian (the only one of its kind in all Lithuania) under the name Apzvalga (Review).

In addition to dealing with the realization of the national rights of its members, the Association worked hard to foster the patriotic sentiments of the Lithuanian Jewry on the one hand, and fought to safeguard the interests of the Jewish population on the other hand. In particular, it carried on a consistent struggle against anti-Semitic activities and those who encouraged them. Rich material on this subject filled the pages of the weekly “Apzvalga” and it carried on vigorous polemics against the anti-Semitic publication “Verslas”, printed during 1935-1940 in a 5,000 copy editions. A. Lifshitz edited the weekly. Half of the printed copies were distributed free to governmental offices, to the police and non-Jewish public personalities. Thanks to the good relations enjoyed by the leaders of the Association (such as Ya'akov Goldberg and others), with governmental establishment, the national political influence of the Association grew among the Jews in Lithuania.

In general, the public activities in the spheres mentioned above involved hundreds of organizations, companies, Associations and institutes. The number of such bodies registered with the Home Office added up to 215 (28% of the national number), among them were 78 associations for mutual aid, 45 for culture, 43 for welfare, and 16 for economic matters. Although, in spite of the numbers of bodies which pointed to varied and widespread activities, Lithuanian Jewry did not possess a single official representative body as in the past, beginning with the Council of the Land of Lithuania and ending with the National Community Council, still remembered by many.

With the inception of the new Sejm in Lithuania in 1936, the Jewish faction suggested two Jewish candidates for the Kovno city administration: Reuven Rubinstein, editor of the daily Di Yiddishe Shtime (The Jewish Voice), and Ya'akov Goldberg, a leading member of the “Alliance of Jewish Front Combatants.” But, because of the system of majority voting in the elections the two did not gather enough votes to take seats in the council.

A further attempt by the Association of Battlefield Veterans failed in 1937 to revive the framework of the local community committees and to renew the national representation of all the Lithuanian communities. The negotiations continued, intermittently, for two years but were not successful. Mainly because of the different ideologies and mutual suspicions between the various secular groups and the ultra orthodox headed by the representatives of the Rabbinic Alliance. Due to the events preceding the Second World War, which affected greatly Lithuanian Jewry, these attempts were not repeated.

 

Sitting, right to left: S. Subotzki, M. Bergstein (chairman, Kovno Branch), Solicitor I. Goldberg (Chairman, National Organization, Dr A. Alpern, I. Lifshitz.
Upper row, right to left: A. Kopelov, D. Tamshe, I. Liberman, D. Khasman, P. Padison, V. Refes, I. Olkenitzki

 

16) The Downgrade - the gradual ebbing in the condition of the Jews after the middle of the 1930“s

A short while after the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany, Lithuania suffered a military coup. The participants were militants and anti-Semites of the right spectrum, led by general P. Kubiliunas. Most of the rebels belonged to the extreme fascist organization, “Gelezinis Vilkas” (The Iron Wolf), and followers of the nationalist leader Voldemaras. As to their ideology and identification with the Nazi regime, it can be seen from the fact that among others, immediately after the Nazi conquest of Lithuania in 1941, most of them were appointed to positions in the “Independent National Authority” acting within the Nazi administration (see following chapter 14). Despite the failure of the coup, the fascist and Nazi influence grew and the violence against Jews increased.

An important factor in the growth of Nazi influence in Lithuania was the large German minority, over one hundred thousand (concentrated mostly in the Memel district - Klaipeida), where they had lived for hundreds of years. Together with establishing themselves economically, militarily and administratively, they safeguarded their distinct national and cultural character and retained their attachment to the historic homeland. With the rise of Hitler to power, many joined the various Nazi parties in demanding the strengthening of political and economic relations with Germany to the point of being annexed to it. These Germans were also active in the propagation of the race theory and anti-Semitic propaganda and became therefore, with the connivance of the state, the active element in the growing anti-Jewish campaign in the economic and social life.

In the mid-thirties, the neighboring German radio stations and newspapers participated in the campaign. The local press, including the ones which were the mouthpieces of the establishment (such as Lietuvos Aidas and of course Verslas), raised suggestions to take anti-Jewish steps on openly racist grounds, such as forbidding them to employ non-Jewish servants, to forbid entry into holiday resorts, to delimit a special area for them on the sea side for swimming etc. A growing number of anti-Semitic incidents took place in cities and towns, such as desecration of cemeteries, destruction of signs written in Yiddish or Hebrew, the breaking of windows in Jewish homes and public buildings, including synagogues. In addition, physical assaults on individual and groups of Jews increased because of blood libels and other false accusations. The reaction of the authorities was usually mild or non existent. Only when there was a danger that the disturbances would develop into mass riots, or when the world press reacted strongly, then did authorities see a need to react. But in such cases too, the Lithuanian authorities published calming announcements, even as they announced, occasionally, condemnation of antisemitism and racism.

Single voices were occasionally raised by intellectuals and the left wing opposition condemning the oppression of the Jews and the denial of their rights “Our antisemitism is of the worst kind”, wrote the daily Lietuvos Zinios, in an editorial on June, 13th 1933, “because it is brought to us from abroad, and has a special purpose... Hitlerism discovered the Lithuanians and has adapted efficient anti-Semitic methods for them.”

The Jewish public reacted to the Nazi violence with determination, still fighting to retain the remnants of cultural autonomy remaining from the Golden Period, at the beginning of the 1920's. Among the organized protests by wide sections of the public, mention should be made of the demonstrations against the persecution of the German Jewry, which took place in almost all communities, including the smallest and remotest ones. Also, an economic boycott on German goods, services and culture was practiced, and the imports from Germany went down miraculously. The effectiveness of the boycott can be judged from the strong protests Germany delivered secretly to the Lithuanian authorities. Jewish personalities and organizations, the leadership of the Battlefront Veterans among them, set up permanent public bodies and initiated the publishing of materials in Lithuanian to fight both antisemitism and Nazism effectively. In view of the atmosphere the Nazis created in the German language schools, Jewish parents withdrew their children from them. As a result, many of the schools had to close because of the shortage of students.

The Lithuanian establishment did not look favorably at the struggle of the Jewish minority against Nazism. They also feared entanglement with their threatening and frightening neighbor-Germany. Yet, in the upcoming elections for the Landtag (local parliament for the Memel district), where the Germans were in a majority, the Lithuanian institutions courted the Jewish community and begged them to vote for the Lithuanian candidates competing against the German Volkspartei (national party). Moreover, the Jews were permitted to publish leaflets in Yiddish and German condemning the atrocities committed by the Hitler gangs, who desecrated cemeteries in Germany, maltreated Jewish merchants etc.

But at the same time, the nationalist Lithuanian establishment, through administrative trickery, prevented Jews being elected to the re-established Sejm in 1936. With the publishing of the new constitution for Lithuania in January 1938, the Jews discovered that two basic sections had not been included (73 and 74) which had given the minorities the right to deal autonomously with education, culture, welfare, mutual help and to impose internal taxes for that purpose. For the Jews that was an indication of the ending, finally and formally, of the remnants of the autonomy they had but a while ago. Nevertheless, even now, two institutions remained from the autonomy, the chain of popular banks and the educational system, although, as for the Jewish schools, the education authorities exercised increasing pressure for Lithuanization. The Jewish press became very limited in the reporting of anti-Semitic outrages, which happened at an escalating rate. Also, the press and the Jewish organizations were forced to transcribe into Lithuanian place names – Kaunas instead of Kovno etc. The agreement with Poland, forced upon Lithuania in March 1938, and its unwilling cession of Vilna, brought in its wake a further reduction in the status of the Jewish minority as a political factor of weight, used by Lithuania for many years past in its struggle for independence.

The situation of Lithuanian Jewry became particularly bad after March 22nd1939, when the Memel district was, after heavy sustained pressure, annexed to Germany. Almost all the 9,000 Jews and many Lithuanians escaped at the last moment. The efforts of the Jewish refugees to rebuild their economic lives in the neighboring towns and cities came under pressure from the Lithuanian nationalist organizations led by Verslas on the government to further reduce the economic activity of the Jews. Indeed, the government took some legal fiscal steps, which affected the Jews in particular.

The anti-Jewish agitation was accompanied by violent attacks on them, which increased in extent and frequency unknown until then in Lithuania. The fact that one sort of attack, namely window breaking, occurred simultaneously in a number of towns proves that these were co-ordinated on a national level. It may also be assumed that the wave of fires that broke out in Jewish towns were not accidental. Because of the limitations placed upon entry of Jews into the faculties of medicine, agriculture and engineering, and particularly the closing of employment avenues to the graduates, there was a consistent decline in the number of Jews studying at the Kovno university.

This situation plus the continuing economic downturn, which left its imprint on the Jewish public, brought about a strengthening of Communist and extreme left wing influence on the Jewish public. They succeeded in taking over the daily “Folksblat”. Alongside these signs there came a clear decline of the Zionist movement. This tendency did not miss out the Zionist youth movements. Membership in the training centers of the He'halutz movement, where young people waited for three, five years or more for the possibility of emigrating to Eretz Israel, thinned out. The previous possibilities of emigrating to other countries, like Southern Africa, the USA, or Southern America, these too became limited.

In the absence of a central representative Jewish office, which would advise and assist them in their distress, a secret limited body assumed the role of a sort of political committee headed by known personalities with rich public and political experience, such as Dr Ya'akov Robinson, Reuven Rubinstein and jurist Ya'akov Goldberg. Thanks to their efforts and connections with the Lithuanian establishment, the heads of government published on many occasions statements, which were meant to calm the Jewish citizens on the one hand, and condemn the extreme anti-Semitic elements on the other. Nevertheless the violence, incitement and defamation in the press did not stop. A full detailed report on these activities was sent by the committee to Jewish organizations abroad such as The World Jewish Congress and others. Through them, the Jewish News Agency the JTA published the information throughout the world. This too did not stop the political situation in Lithuania from continuing to worsen.

In the difficult atmosphere and frustration which developed in Lithuania after the loss of Vilna and Memel, the adherents of Valdemaras began to reorganize under a new name, Aktyvistai (Activists), as the basis of a new local national socialist party oriented towards Germany. At the same time, the Activists requested from Germany assistance in arms and money in order to organize pogroms in Lithuania. They assumed that the struggle against the Jews would bring in its wake a flight of Jewish capital and as a result Lithuania would become more dependent on the German market. From documents of the German Foreign Office, it transpires that indeed, the Activists received sum of money, but no arms. The German opinion was that the organization should act more or less legally and over time increase its political influence. Forcing decisions by force of arms might complicate matters greatly...

A year after these words were written the Red Army marched into Lithuania and almost all the local Germans moved to the area of the Third Reich. A year later, after the German army conquered Lithuania, some of them, encouraged by the army of conquest, returned and filled various posts in the civilian administration having the enthusiastic collaboration of the various Activists, many of whom willingly participated in the organized murder of the Jews.

 

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