“Palanga” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania

55° 55' / 21° 04'

Translation of the “Palanga” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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


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(Pages 491 - 495)

Palanga

In Yiddish, Polangen

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

A small city in the Kretinga district.

Year General
Population
Jews Percentage
1662 .. 40* ..
1765 .. 398 ..
1850 .. 729 ..
1897 2,149 925 43
1920 1,457 454 31
1923 2,039 455 22
1934 2,213 .. ..
1940 2,513 50-70
families
..
1959 5,685 8 0.14

* 24 men, 16 women, not including children and elderly.

Palanga is located in western Lithuania, in the Samogitia province, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, 12 km west of Kretinga, the district's city, and about 25 km north of Klaipeda. The Raze River, which flows into the Baltic Sea, divides the city into two: the northern part, which is the residential and commercial part of the city, and the southern part, which, since the 19th century, has been a resort area with bathhouses, hotels, restaurants, etc.

The residents of Palanga have always engaged in fishing, in collecting and processing the amber which can be found in the sand along the southeastern beaches of the Baltic Sea, and in providing services to vacationers in the area.

Palanga is an old settlement. The main road between St. Petersburg and Berlin passed through Palanga. The settlement did not develop due to various reasons and the number of residents remained basically steady. In 1795, after Poland was divided for a third time, Palanga was annexed to the Duchy of Courland. For about 80 years during the 19th century there was a port in Palanga for small ships, which transported merchandise from Russia to countries along the Baltic Sea. During that time, the city and the lands that surrounded it belonged to the family of Graf Tishkevitz who built a magnificent mansion and a large garden near the city. When the states of Latvia and Lithuania were established, the border between the two countries was set about 20 km north of Palanga and the town remained in the region of Lithuania.

During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Palanga had the status of a city with self rule. Fires broke out in the city every few years and each time the city was rebuilt from its ashes. Such big fires occurred in 1831 and 1938.

The Jewish Settlement Till After World War I

Society and Economy

Jews already settled in Palanga during the 15th century. The old “Hevra Kadisha's” local registry had lists going back to 1487. The first local Jews were border guards and customs' officials who represented Vytautas, the great prince of Lithuania. In 1540, King Zygmunt the First, permitted the Jews of Palanga to build a synagogue and public buildings, to establish a cemetery and to have their herds graze in the surrounding fields. In 1639, Jews received a missive (letter that specifies privileges) from King Vladislav the Fourth, which among other things included a clause that permitted them to engage in labor and to buy land and to cultivate it. 100 years later, in 1742, King August the Third ratified those privileges. In the 19th century, those missives were highly beneficial to the Jews of Palanga during the court hearings with Grafs Oginski and Tishkevitz regarding the ownership of the land.

During the period of Jewish Lithuanian Council, (“Va'ad Medinat Lita” [1623-1764]), the Jewish community of Palanga belonged to the “Kedainiai Galil (district) ”.

The Jews of Palanga engaged mainly in gathering and processing amber. Dozens of workshops with hundreds of workers processed the amber, from which they created all sorts of beads, mouthpieces for cigarettes and pipes, jewelry and other things. Their products were sold mostly in Russia, but also in England and many other countries.

During the 1850's, a Jew by the name of Moshe Becker built a factory in Palanga for processing amber which employed 50 Jewish workers. In order to receive more raw amber, Becker partnered with a German from Klaipeda and began digging sands with digging machines. There were years when they found about 75 tons of raw amber; most of which was processed in Palanga. Due to unclear circumstances, Becker became bankrupt and the company which he established passed over into the hands of the Prussian government. According to the agreement he made with the government, there was a clause which stated that all parties who bought amber from his company would continue to receive the substance from it new owners. According to that agreement, which passed into the hands of the Lithuanian government, and after the annexation of Klaipeda into the hands of Germany, the artisans in Palanga continued to receive all the raw amber throughout the years until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.

Among the Jews of Palanga were land owners who grew vegetables and fruits; others were shop owners. From the middle of the 19th century, Jews from other parts of Lithuania would come in the summer to vacation in Palanga to enjoy its sea and pure air. This became an additional source of livelihood for the city's Jews, who provided various services to the vacationing people. This branch of business provided livelihood for Jewish coachmen and carriage owners who brought the vacationing people from Libau in Latvia to Palanga. Among the people who came to Palanga were Polish estate owners, who were encouraged by Graf Tishkevitz to do so.

The economic situation of the Jews of Palanga was good until WWI. Most of them had beautiful houses with nice gardens. The Jews in the surrounding towns in the Kaunas province were jealous of them.

In August, 1914, when WWI broke out, connections with Russia broke off and there was no longer a market for the amber business; the Russian market was lost, the business trade with Libau also vanished because the new border with Latvia passed between Libau and Palanga, and the countries of Western Europe started levying high taxes on jewelry made from amber. The circumstances noted above, together with the events of the war and the high taxes, severely hurt the city's economy.

Educational and Public Activities

The Jewish children in the city studied at the Talmud Torah and at the district's school for Jewish and Christian children. The school was established on October 1, 1882, through the initiative and funding of Graf Tishkevitz. At first it had 50 students; each one of them paid for tuition a total of 25 rubles per year. The Jewish children were exempt from studying on Saturdays and holidays. The Talmud Torah subsisted on donations and funds.

In 1886, Jewish youth staged during Purim the play “The Selling of Josef”. Graf Tishkevitz arranged for them a theater to use free of charge. The income from the performance was donated to the Talmud Torah. The town had an active youth association by the name of “Pirkhei Shoshanim” (Rose Blossoms).

The language of instruction at the progymnasia, which operated in Palanga since the days of Czar Alexander the First, was German. It was only during the 1870's that the language of instruction was changed to Russian. Quite a few Jewish boys and girls studied in that institution.

Due to Palanga' geopolitical situation, its Jews knew how to “speak”, to a certain extent, seven languages: Polish, Russian, German, Lithuanian, Latvian, and of course, Yiddish and Hebrew.

The great synagogue, which burned down in the 1850's, was rebuilt in 1880 through donations given by the wealthier people in the city and by the amber workers, who donated the beautiful Holy Ark. The synagogue was a tall and wide building and was capable of hosting the city's Jews and the people who vacationed in Palanga during the summers. In 1900, the city also had a Beth Midrash and a “Kloiz” (prayer house).

Among the Rabbis who served in Palanga until WWI were: Rabbi Yehoshua Heler, who in addition to dealing with religious matters also dealt with improving the living conditions of his community and especially the working conditions of the amber workers. Due to his efforts, the workers worked only a half a day on Fridays and on the eves of holidays, yet received a full day's salary. The Jewish workers received a half hour's break at 4 o'clock in order to pray; Rabbi Nakhum Mikhel Kahana; Rabbi Josef Hillel Berman (served during the years 1888-1898); Rabbi Kahim Yitzkhak Korb.

Rabbi Josef Bernstein, who leased Graf Tishkevitz's assets, did outstanding work to help the city's poor. Thus, when Moshe Becker's factory was shut down and dozens of families had nothing to eat, Bernstein provided the unemployed with bread, potatoes and wood for heating, and also collected money from his friends for them.

The Jews of Palanga were already donating for the settling of Eretz-Yisrael during the period of “Khibat Zion”, and also later when Zionism came on the scene. The list of donors which was published in the “HaMelitz” in 1886 notes the names of 24 Jews from Palanga. Among them was also Rabbi G. Robinzon. The names of 41 Jews from Palanga appear in the1898 “List of members for the support of Benei Israel who work the lands in Syria and Eretz-Yisrael”.

The Period of Independent Lithuania

Society and Economy

In accordance with the Lithuanian government law of autonomy for the Jews, a community committee of 9 members was elected in Palanga in 1921. It was represented as follows: 4 from Mizrakhi, 4 nonpartisans, and 1 undefined. The committee was active for a number of years in most areas of Jewish life in the city.

After Palanga received the status of a city, 11 Jews were elected as members of the city council. The mayor and his deputy were also Jews. Subsequently, the number of Jews in the city decreased and in the elections of 1934, only 2 Jews were elected. There was not a single Jew among those who were employed by the city council.

During the period under discussion, many of Palanga's Jews made their living from providing accommodation services and food to the vacationers who flocked to the city during the summer months (in 1938 there were 2,600 vacationers). The amber industry was the second largest business, yet the Jews continued to control that branch of business.

According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Palanga had 54 businesses; 30 of them (55%) were owned by Jews. The division into business branches is shown in the table below:

Branch or Type of Business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 5 4
Butcher shops and cattle traders 7 6
Restaurants and taverns 17 6
Commerce in food products 5 1
Milk and its products 1 0
Clothing, furs and textile products 2 2
Medicine and cosmetics 2 1
Amber products 7 7
Radios and sewing machines 1 1
Work tools and iron products 1 1
Paper, books and writing materials 2 0
Miscellaneous 5 1

According to the same census, Palanga had 17 factories; 9 of them (53%) were owned by Jews. Among them were a power station and 5 workshops for processing amber.

In 1937, there were 29 Jewish artisans in Palanga: 11 amber workers, 6 butchers, 4 tailors, 2 shoemakers, 2 painters, a weaver, a barber, a girdle maker and a tinsmith. In 1925, the city had 2 Jewish doctors, and 2 female Jewish dentists.

From the middle of the 1930's, the Jewish population in the city gradually decreased. The economic crisis that beset Lithuania and the open propaganda of the Lithuanian Union of Merchants (Verslas) against buying from Jews motivated many Jews to seek their future elsewhere. The natural increase among the Jews of Palanga was also negative: between the years 1930-1934 there were 32 weddings, 94 babies were born, 134 people passed away. On the eve of WWII, only 50 Jewish families remained in the city. During those years, about 70% of them received support from their relatives in South Africa, United States, and also in Eretz-Yisrael.

The Jewish popular bank (Folksbank) played an important role in the economic life of the Jews of Palanga. In 1927, it had 77 members. In 1939, there were 66 telephones in the city; 19 of them owned by Jews.

In May, 1938, a fire broke out in the city. Out of the 300 buildings that burned down 120 were residential homes. About half of the latter were owned by Jews. Nearly all of the buildings housing the amber processing workshops, the schools, the Jewish popular bank, the Rabbi's house, the post office and others burned down. The fundraising campaign that was organized among the Jewish communities in Lithuania in order to help the Jews of Palanga created a misunderstanding with Palanga's Lithuanian mayor, who refused to give the city's Jews any government financial aid because of their own fundraising campaign. The resort area and the prayer houses were not damaged by the fire and many Jews came to vacation in Palanga during that year also.

Anti-Semitism was already on the rise in the city a few years before WWII because Palanga was close to Germany. In April, 1939, the Palanga city council banned Jewish slaughtering practices, but this ban was overruled by the district authorities. In May, 1940, the city council ruled that Jews must bathe on a secluded beach. In the summer of 1939, many Jews avoided coming to Palanga because the “Verslas” association had its convention there.

Educational and Cultural Activities

During the period under discussion, about 100 Jewish children studied in 2 “Kheders” and in an elementary school that was part of the “Yavne” network. Religious life in the city concentrated around the synagogue and the Beth Midrash. The Rabbis who served in Palanga were: Rabbi Shemuel Menakhem HaLevi Katz (after WWI until 1940), who emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1940 and served as a Rabbi in Tel Aviv, was a member of the Chief Rabbinate and a member of the Rabbinical court in Tel Aviv. His writings burned down in the big fire of 1938 in Palanga; and the community's last Rabbi, Rabbi Aharon Yitzkhak HaLevi Katz, who was murdered in the Holocaust together with his community.

Most of the traditional Jewish welfare associations that were active in other Jewish communities in Lithuania were also active in Palanga. One of them was “Gemilut Hesed” (Charity), which was founded by L. Gutman.

Many of Palanga's Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. All the Zionist parties were represented in the city. Fundraising campaigns to the national funds in the city were conducted throughout the years. The division of votes to the Zionist Congresses in Palanga during the 1920's and 1930's is shown in the table below:

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
14 1925 54                
15 1927 34 20 8     8     4
16 1929 88 26 8   1 8     9
17 1931 21 21 1 1 2 10     7
18 1933   190 123 6 24   12 25
19 1935   330 200   6 23 11 90

The Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in the city were: “HaShomer HaTzair”, “HeKhalutz” “Benei Akiva” and others. Sports activities were held at the “Maccabi” branch (it had 54 members). The city also had an urban Kibbutz and a convalescent home for members of the “HeKhalutz”.

Among the natives of Palanga were: Rabbi Yekhezkel Feivel (1755-1836), who served in Palanga as a “Magid Mesharim” (“a skilled narrator of Torah and religious stories”) and subsequently in Vilnius for 22 years. He published books (on the subjects of morality and anthropology) which appeared in many editions; Dov-Ber Brutskus (1874-1938), an economist and public activist, member of the “ORT” administration, and subsequently professor of agricultural economics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His book “Agricultural Economics” (Jerusalem, 1941) was published after his death; his brother, Yehuda-Julius Brutskus (1870-1951), was a doctor, a Zionist activist, a historian and a journalist, a member of the Zionist executive committee, a delegate to the Lithuanian Seimas and a minister of Jewish affairs (1922-1923), member of the “ORT“ administration, president of “OZE”, a scholar of the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe and the Korazim Kingdom. He passed away in Tel Aviv; Joel Brutskus (1885-1951), an educator, who from 1923 onwards was a teacher of mathematics and physics at the Hebrew Gymnasia in Kaunas, and was from 1928 until 1940 the principal of that institution. He was a member of the Zionist Central Office and of the “Tarbut” Central Office in Lithuania. In 1940, after the Soviets took control of Lithuania, he was exiled to Siberia where he passed away; Ya'akov Mark (1858-1929), who in 1882 published a new method in the instruction of accounting through correspondence and who had thousands of students, published articles in “Levanon” and other periodicals, was a Zionist activist in Liepaja. He passed away in New York; Yudel Mark (1897-1979), one of the greatest linguists in the Yiddish language. In 1920 he was one of the founders of the Yiddish Gymnasia in Ukmerge and one of its administrative heads, and at the same time served as the secretary of the National Committee of Lithuanian Jewry. From 1930 until 1934 he was the editor of “Folksblat” (The People's Newspaper). He emigrated to the United States in 1936, was active in YIVO, authored a book on Yiddish grammar and was one of the editors of the academic dictionary of the Yiddish language.

During World War II and Afterwards

In 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. The factories in the city and most of the shops, the majority of which belonged to Jews, were nationalized. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded; the Hebrew educational institutions were shut down. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and its standard of living declined more and more.

German soldiers had already entered Palanga on June 22, 1941, the first day of Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. They did not encounter any resistance. A few days later, Gestapo men from Klaipeda, aided by Lithuanian auxiliary police, arrived in Palanga and assembled all of the local Jews in the synagogue. On June 30, 1941, all the Jews were driven out of the synagogue and were taken to the bus station together with the hundreds of Jewish children from all over Lithuania who came to Palanga to the “Pioners” summer camp, (which was the children's replica of the communist youth groups). The men (13 years or older) were separated from the group and were led to a small forest between the dunes near the Birute Mountain, where they, after all their valuables were confiscated from them, were ordered to dig a pit and were all shot to death in groups of 10. Each group was forced to drag into the pit the murdered corpses of the previous group that did not fall into the pit. 111 Jewish men from Palanga were shot on that day.

The women and children were taken from the bus station to the Beth Midrash and were kept there for a few days in the most humiliating conditions. They were not given any food and were forced to urinate and defecate where they were imprisoned. The Lithuanians used to break-in to the Beth Midrash during the nights, would break windows and cast terror amongs the Jews by firing shots in the air. A few days later, all the Jews were taken to an estate located between Palanga and Kretinga. From that place they were taken to work, namely, to transport raw and processed amber from the workshops to the central warehouse. They were given limited food portions and not enough water. At the beginning of September, all the women and children were led to the Kunigiskiai Forest, where they were murdered. The murder site is located about 4 km from Palanga, near the road to Liepaja. In 1991, a memorial was erected in that place, which has an inscription in Yiddish, Hebrew and Lithuanian: “In this place, in 1941, Hitlerite murderers and their local collaborators murdered 200 Jews”.

As to the children who were brought from the “Pioners” camp, the Lithuanian police created lists of their names and added next to each child's name his or her place of residence. A few dozen children from Siauliai were taken out of the Beth Midrash and were transported in a truck to the Siauliai ghetto. Only a few of the other children survived, including those who were evacuated on time into the interior of Russia. After the war, a mass grave with the corpses of 1000 children was discovered near the “Pioners” camp. According to Soviet sources, they were murdered on June 22, 1941.

After the war, Jews returned to live in Palanga. In 1970 there were 31 Jews in the town; in 1979 there were 12 Jews, and in 1989 there were 26 Jews.

In 1991, a memorial was erected where once was the old Jewish cemetery of Palanga's Jewish community. It is engraved with a Menorah and with an inscription in Lithuanian, Hebrew and Yiddish which reads: “The old cemetery”.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-9/43(1); M-33/979; M-35/178; TR-2 reports 1, 14; TR-10/275, 1096.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
Mark, Yudel, “Palanga”, Lite, Vol. 1, pp. 1453-1474.
Dos Vort - (Kaunas) - 10.11.1934, 6.3.1939, 10.5.1939, 23.5.1939, 16.6.1939, 2.7.1939.
Dos Neie Vort - (Kaunas), 12.7.1934.
Di Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] - (Kaunas), 25.4.1938, 11.5.1938, 12.5.1938, 13.5.1938, 17.5.1938, 19.5.1938, 20.5.1938, 27.6.1938, 20.7.1938, 23.4.1939, 21.6.1939, 11.7.1939, 20.5.1940, 29.6.1940.
Der Yiddisher Kooperator [Jewish Cooperator] (Kaunas), # 5-6, 1930.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] - (St. Petersburg), 11.3.1879, 20.4.1880, 15.6.1880, 28.11.1882, 8.1.1884, 5.4.1886, 23.12.1887, 28.2.1888, 29.7.1888.
Folksblat [The People's Newspaper] - (Kaunas), 9.5.1938, 11.5.1938, 19.5.1938.
Folksshtime [The People's Time] (Warsaw), 1.8.1963, 2.9.1965.
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass Murders in Lithuania), Volume 2, p. 369.
Jewish Social Studies, p. 290.

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