“Kuliai” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania

55° 48' / 21° 39'

Translation of the “Kuliai” 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 559-561)

Kuliai

In Yiddish, Kul

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shimon Joffe

A county town in the Kretinga district.

Year General
Population
Jews %
1897 615 181 29
1923 556 142 25
1940 .. ~20
families
..

Kuliai lies in the Samogitia district in the north eastern part of Lithuania, on the banks of the Alantas River, 28 km. south east of the district capital Kretinga. Kuliai, its beginnings are in the second half of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century. Due to its position in forests and distance from trade routes, it was slow in developing. During the period of Russian rule (1795-1915), it belonged to the Vilnius province, and from 1843 – to the Kaunas province. From the middle of the nineteenth century the number of merchants and artisans increased and large cattle markets and fairs were held. During the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940), Kuliai was a county center.

The Jewish community until the Second World War

It appears that the Jews settled in Kuliai around the second half of the eighteenth century. They were mostly shopkeepers, tavern owners and timber merchants. Each family had a cow, a vegetable garden and a well.

At the beginning of the 1920's, after the declaration of Jewish autonomy in Lithuania, the ministry assisted in the setting up of a modern democratic council in Kuliai. The council consisted of 5 members, 3 general Zionists, one from the Achdut list, (Religious list), and one independent. The council was active in most aspects of Jewish life in the town.

According to a survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1931, Kuliai had 10 shops and businesses all belonging to Jews. The division by sectors is given in the table below:

Sector Total Jewish
Owned
Groceries22
Flax and Grains11
Butcheries and trade In cattle33
Restaurants and Taverns22
Clothing, furs and textiles22

The survey also showed a timber mill, Jewish owned.

In 1937 Kuliai had 8 Jewish artisans, 3 butchers, 2 shoemakers, one baker and one potter.

The economic crises of the 1930's which affected Lithuania and the agitation on the part of the Lithuanian traders association Verslas, against buying from Jews, forced many of the Kuliai Jews to emigrate to the USA, to South Africa or to Eretz Yisrael. In 1939 Kuliai had 11 telephone owners, all non Jewish.

Kuliai had a small synagogue, with both a Rabbi and a Shochet. As the town did not have a cemetery the dead were buried in nearby Plunge.

Among the rabbis who had served the community were; Rabbi Moshe Yom-Tov Vachtfogel (died in 1951). He had officiated for 20 years and then moved to serve in Montreal. His coffin was brought and buried in Jerusalem in 1953.Rabbi David-Gershon Rubinstein, the last rabbi in Kuliai, died in the Shoah together with his flock.

Kuliai did not have a Jewish school and the Jewish children were educated in the local Lithuanian school. The boys learned Hebrew in the afternoons. Many of the youths borrowed books from the library in Plunge, named after I.L.Peretz.

Only a few of the Kuliai Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. They bought Shekels and voted in the elections to the nineteenth congress as seen in the accompanying table:

Congress
No
Year No. of
Shekels
Total
Votes
Labor
No
Revis-
ionist
General
Zionists
State
Party
Mizrachi
Z S Zts. A B
15 1927 2 - - - - - - - -
16 1929 5 - - - - - - - -
19 1935 .. 10 9 - - - - 1

Out of all the Zionist youth movements, only a Betar cell was active

Two well known rabbis were born in Kuliai; Rabbi Levi Spitz (1887-1941), counted among the important rabbis of the last generation, died with his Taurage community in the Shoah. Rabbi Josef-Shlomo Kahaneman(1887-1976), Rabbi of Panevezys, founded a Yeshiva in the town, a Talmud Torah and high school for girls, was a delegate to the Lithuanian Seimas, immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1940 and founded a Yeshiva in Bnei Brak named The Ponevezh Yeshiva, and was a member of the council of Torah sages of Agudat Yisrael.

During the Second World War and afterwards

With the annexation of Lithuania to the Soviet Union and the subsequent change to a Soviet republic in 1940, the timber mill and most of the shops owned by Jews, were nationalized. All Zionist activity was forbidden. The study of Hebrew too was made illegal.

On June 22, 1941, war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union. The very next day the German army entered Kuliai. Lithuanian hooligans immediately concentrated the Jews in a large building, torn the clothes off them and kept them imprisoned, partly dressed, without food or drink. At the same time, the Lithuanians were busy plundering the Jewish homes.

On June22, 1941, the Jews were told that Plunge was burning and they were to assist in the fire fighting. With this excuse they were transported a distance of 5 km. to Rietavas and there, they were all shot. Not a single Jew remained alive in Kuliai. Of the 15 Jews who managed to escape from Kuliai to the Soviet Union 6 remained alive, the others fell in the war while serving in the red army.

After the war a mass grave was found near the village of Vistuvenai on the Oka hill, 13 km. from Plunge. This grave held 82 corpses of men, women and children. It may be assumed that these are the corpses of Kuliai Jews.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-33/979; O-3/5243; O-41/4.3.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 920-921.
Dos Vort - daily newspaper in Yiddish of the Z"S party, Kaunas -8.5.1939, 30.6.1939.
Folksblat [The People's Newspaper] – (Kaunas), 30.12.1935.
HaAvar,
Booklet 13 (1965).

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