by J. Lestschinsky
Translated by Rae Meltzer
The Jews live under very crowded conditions. Often several families live in one small room. Uncleanliness inside and outside is the sign of great poverty. Their financial resources are very small. In the morning they eat radishes, onions, garlic, or herring with bread. Those who are a little better off drink tea. Midday they may have soup, fish, or meat and in the evening the same menu. There are workers whose families fast all day until the family wage earner comes home and brings his earnings. (Written Kovno Gubernia (region), St. Petersburg, 1861 page 582.)These dreadful descriptions are not an exaggeration and can be confirmed in the writing of the Hebrew writer Popernow, who wrote about the Lithuanian shtetl at the same time as the above quote. (Perezhitoya, Vol. II, page 39). The following is a quote from his writing:
The workers and merchants operated with 50 or 100 rubles, barely earning a bitter livelihood. Not finding any opportunity in the shtetl for their skills and professional training, many shtetl dwellers left for unknown places to try to find work. They left their families to the protection of God and to the soft hearts of their neighbors. They were laughed at in the Ukraine and called Litvaks with their small stomachs and taunted with the song, Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, and so on.Lithuanian Jews were very poor, but they did not make peace with their bitter fate and went out in the world to search for ways to earn a living. In the better-off Ukraine, one would meet Lithuanian Jews who were teachers and skilled workers. Lithuanian Jews went far afield to find a livelihood. We know about Litvisheh young people who left for South Africa as early as 1865 and opened the way for thousands of Litvisheh Jews. In the collected books Budzhtzenost (1900) we find a very interesting description of the first immigrants from Kovner gubernia. We quote from that source:
The first two Jews from Lithuania, to come to South Africa were two brothers, Shmuel and Elijah. Their family name was Max, from Nyshtot" (New Town), Kovno Gubernia. Their father was a tailor in a little hamlet and extremely poor. The two boys decided to leave their birthplace and find someplace where they could earn a livelihood. They came to London, where for a time they were tailors, but they decided to look for a better livelihood. They came to London in 1865-66. A London Jew took pity on them and gave them a recommendation to a wholesale business and asked the wholesalers to give them merchandise on credit to be repaid later. They were peddlers, and in two years they learned to speak English well and pass as Englishmen. They heard from friends that in Africa one can make a good living. They went to Cape Town, South Africa, again without a penny. Here they suffered hunger and they did what they did in London, peddled and dragged merchandise on their backs from farm to farm. During this period diamond mines were discovered in Kimberley. Immigrants traveled to Kimberley and the brothers decided to go there. They bought shares in the diamond mine for a low price and soon earned several thousand dollars on their investment. The brothers began speculating with capital, and they made a big financial fortune. They wrote to their brother-in-law in London, whose name was Lewis, and founded the firm of Max and Lewis (or Louy).I do not know if this firm still exists. Perhaps in Johannesburg they are more informed about it than I am here in New York. I am interested in describing how Lithuanian Jews were and are still energetic in using their initiative to pursue opportunities. Lithuanian Jews continued to initiate immigration to other places. In the Report of the Yiddisher (Sys portion of the Second Lithuanian Sys, 1923-1926) Kovno, 1926, page 63, it states that it is a solid fact that the economic condition of the Jews in Lithuania is much worse than before World War I. I cannot cite here all the data. It is compelling to note that the fearful urge to immigrate pulled entire families to such unknown and far-off lands as Paraguay and Uruguay.
As is well known, the Uruguay Jewish community (about 38,000 souls) is one of the best known, most active, and best organized. One can conclude from reading their newspapers that the leaders in the cultural activities of the community are the Jews from Lithuania. They can be proud of their well-organized, democratic community, and their good network of Yiddish schools. Most of the immigration from Lithuania was from the provinces, from the small shtetlach whose poverty was described in the references mentioned above. We will later document this with statistics.
Until the 1920's, the immigration did not carry a massive character, which is understandable. Not everyone can be as successful as the Max brothers described above. To immigrate one must have financial resources. In the Lithuanian shtetlach, one married young and had many children. In the census of 1897, for the Kovno region, the percentage of children under the age of nine was much higher among Jews than Christians. Especially in the provinces, those with children were very hesitant to immigrate when they had no relatives to go to. When the peasants were given their freedom in 1861, the situation in Russia and in the Kovno region improved somewhat, but there was still severe poverty.
Research carried out in the Lithuanian shtetlach in 1886 gives us important information about the dire situation of the Jews living there, and what a toiling mass of humanity they were. The research was done by the Kovno region committee under A. Dedelov. He writes:
The situation of the workers is a very tragic one. They work from 4-5 in the morning until 9-10 at night. And for all this toil they have only some dry bread and cramped living quarters. They can afford only a bit of meat on the Sabbath and eggs only on holidays, because the prices are very high (16-23¢ per lb.) Even on the Sabbath he can afford only a very limited amount, just barely one half pound for a family of seven souls. ( Atcheri Pa Vaproses Economishsheskoi Yovreiev (Jewish) Russia,” S.P. Terburg, 1913, page 30.)
|Jews of Rokiskis at the marketplace|
The same author describes the dreadful situation of the Jewish horse and wagon drivers, and the Jewish peddlers in the Kovno region. The poor peddlers, who do not have an open stall in the market, go a mile or more from the shtetl, waiting for the peasants who are on their way to the market. They stop these peasants, barter with them, and buy their farm produce. Then they try to sell this farm produce to the families living in the shtetl. Their profit is a miserable 5-10%. That is why the hunger and poverty in their families is so great. They live in dirty and crowded rooms. They have no clothes, only rags on their bodies, and they live a lamentable life.
The situation of the small shop-keeper is not much better. The same author writes:
The life of the small shopkeeper is not one to be envied. He sits all day in the dirty and crowded shop, from dawn to dark, wearing old, worn clothes and searching with his weary eyes for customers.Of course, there were one or two rich families and about 10 families who were middle-class merchants or owned a business, and made a living. But the majority of peddlers and small storekeepers lived in miserable poverty as described above by the quoted author.
A crisis occurred due either to a poor crop or a fallen market in exporting farm produce. Exports played a major role in the economy of the people and especially so in the livelihoods of the Jewish people who were dependent on trade. In these crises there was widespread hunger in the shtetlach and in the small hamlets where the Jewish people lived. All suffered from hunger. The Russian government took care of the Russian peasants, but did nothing for the starving Jewish people; they were left without resources and had to find a way to take care of themselves. Everything was disorganized.
The catastrophic year of starvation occurred in 1880. In many Jewish communities in the cities and shtetlach the starving Jewish masses, being desperate, accused the community leaders and merchants of causing the widespread hunger. There was a report in the Voschod in the year 1880 on pages 1048-1059 by A. Margolis that in the shtetl of Koidanov in Kovno region:
There was a dreadful hunger. The poor class gathered in a sizable mass near the synagogue and attacked those who owned the export businesses. All day and late into the night the starving people roamed the streets, breaking windows and screaming that they will break the bones of the wealthy if they will not take care of their families and prevent their death from starvation. (A. Margolis, Yiddisher Folk Masses in their Struggle Against their Oppressors, Moscow, 1940, p.86.)
The Intensive Growth of the Jewish People in the Shtetlach
In spite of the bitter situation of the Jewish people in the shtetlach in the Kovno region, the Jewish population grew significantly. This was due to several factors. The economic situation of some groups of the Jewish population did improve in the latter half of the 1900's. Germany, the closest neighbor to Kovno, became increasingly industrialized and needed more agricultural produce. The exports from the Kovno region grew. After the peasants gained their freedom, their situation improved. The people in the countryside began to buy more goods from the city and shtetlach. In the shtetl, the shopkeeper's economic situation improved and he was able to hire salespersons and other helpers. A class of skilled craftsmen developed and they employed and trained others. In some of the shtetlach, craft industries developed.
|The extended Davidovitch(itz) family in Rokiskis
[no individual names appear]
The growth of the cultural life of the Jewish community had an influence on the shtetl. The Jewish people of the shtetl rubbed their eyes they came awake, longing for a better life, a richer cultural life, and more freedom. They began receiving letters from America and South Africa with funds and with information about living conditions there. American newspapers managed to get by the censors and were read avidly. People in Kasrilevke" (shtetlach) began to stir away from the traditional nest and started looking for their luck in the big cities of Russia and in the distant lands across the oceans.
All these developments led to a major decrease in deaths in the Jewish population. The Jewish birthrate was still quite high until World War I. The death rate dropped significantly in the last quarter of the 1800's. The Jewish population in the big cities grew impressively.
A comparison of the Jewish population in several shtetlach, for which
there is data for the year 1847 and 1897 demonstrates the remarkable growth
of the Jewish population.
|Shtetl||1847||1897 (%)||1897 (number)|
The Jewish population in the Kovno region more than doubled. No doubt this is related to the intensive industrialization of the region during the last quarter of the 1800's. Under the reign of King Alexander III, who was crowned in 1881, persecution of the Jews in the hamlets (dorf) increased, which forced the Jews to stream to the shtetlach and larger cities. In some shtetlach the growth of the Jewish population was notably high. In Zarasai (Novo-Alexandrovsk) the Jewish population increased seven-fold, in Rakishok three-fold, and in Dusiat more than two-fold.
To consider the total Jewish population of the aforementioned shtetlach, one cannot arrive at a firm number because no data exists on the total Jewish population in these shtetlach before the Holocaust. One can arrive only at an indirect total. In 1937, under the auspices of the Yiddish Folk Bank, a census was taken of the Jewish workers. This census was authentic and truthful. We know that the Jewish workers made up about 35% of all Jews engaged in earning a living. We know that Jewish wage-earners were 33% of the total wage-earners in Lithuania. The situation in the following shtetlach is typical of the other shtetlach in Lithuania.
The Number of Jewish Workers in the Following Shtetlach of Lithuania (The Jewish Handicraft Workers in Lithuania, 1937, Kaunus, 1938)
|Shtetl||Number of Workers|
Based on the data that one-third of the Jewish population consisted of workers, we arrive at a total population for the previously referred to seven shtetlach of 3,700 souls in 1937. This is one-quarter of the Jewish population in these seven shtetlach in 1897 The data indicates that in 1938 there were 123,000 Jews in Kovner gubernia (region) and more than 212,000 Jews according to census of the Kovner region in 1897. This means that in 1897, Jews were 60% of the total population. In the larger cities, like Kovno, Shavli, and Ponevezh, the Jewish population grew slightly. Where did the Jews in these three largest cities come from? They apparently came from the shtetlach of Kovno gubernia, which lost considerable numbers of Jews. The consequence of this was that there were no longer shtetlach with 75% - 90% Jewish populations. Thus the Yiddish culture that developed in the shtetlach could not be sustained once the demographics of the shtetl changed. Nevertheless, the longing and nostalgia for the shtetl did not diminish because the foundation of the Yiddish lifestyle and culture was the shtetl.
The Lithuanian culture was not as rich or as developed as the Yiddish culture, and did not pull the Jews to assimilate, but the economic and political activity of Lithuania did attract the Jewish population. Perhaps sensing from the discrimination of the majority toward the Jewish minority that they could not expect a promising future in Lithuania, Jews began to emigrate not only to America and South Africa, but also to Israel. No Jewish community sent more chalutzim and Hebrew-speakers to Israel than the small Yiddish community of Lithuania.
The Change in the Demographics of the Yiddish Shtetl in Lithuania
There is no doubt that in the last quarter of the 1800's and in the first 14 years of the 1900's, the economic conditions of the Jews in Russia and in the shtetlach of the Kovner region did improve. Generally, the economic conditions in Russia at that time became better, with periodic economic crises and even years of hunger, but the overall situation had improved. In spite of this, the Jewish emigration from Russia increased. From the Kovner region, between 1897 and 1917, 56,000 souls left the country. The Jewish population naturally increased by 70,000 souls. The net result was that there was hardly any increase in the total Jewish population. The major population increase was in the larger cities, not in the shtetlach.
In 1898, Kovno's Jewish community grew by 8,662 families, which represented 22.9% of the total Jewish population. This was a larger percentage than in neighboring Grodno and Vitebsk, but smaller than in the Vilna region.
One must acknowledge that the concept of poor man, beggar, pauper" changes with time and circumstances. The poor man of Nicholas I’s time was very different from the pauper of the period of the last Nicholas. The concept of poor man changed radically. The poor man at the end of the 1800's and the beginning of the 1900's had very little patience and was not very inclined to suffer hunger in silence. He was impudent and bold and demanded help. The days of Linetzki when a Jew had to eat, but not gorge himself on food, and Mendele's olive-sized stomach which was supposed to feed only the soul and not the body those days were vanishing. Perhaps the strong impetus to emigrate was in part the result of growing appetites for better living conditions. Those who emigrated were often those with energy and initiative. Those who emigrated were not even the poorest, nor the very richest, but those who had a little money and yearned for a life that was a little better than what they had; a life that offered some possibilities and opportunities. Those left behind were the weaker, the poorer, the submissive ones.
The Jewish population fell during the WWI years. According to the data from the Yiddish Statistical Society, 69,000 Jews were expelled from the Kovno region. During WWI the death rate among Jews was high. This, together with the movement of Jews from the Shtetlach to the bigger cities, accounted for the large decline of the Jewish population in the shtetlach. In the 1930's, most of the Jewish youth left the shtetlach, and the percentage of old people in the shtetlach was greater than in the cities. In the 1930's, the Lithuanian Jewish youth were convinced they had no future in Lithuania, and immigration was their only option and hope. The large number of marriages in the shtetlach reflects the reality that a couple could go to Israel on one certificate.
In Rakishok district between 1934-1936, there were 182 births and 155 deaths; i.e., 27 more births than deaths. In the years 1937-39, there were 175 births and 184 deaths, or nine more deaths than births. In the shtetlach, the percent of older people continued to increase.
The Tragic Situation of the Jews in Lithuania Especially in the Provinces
Evaluating the economic development of the independent Lithuania and the condition of the Jewish population, it is evident without a doubt that Lithuania prospered economically. Its industry increased as did crafts and skilled workers. The Jewish people also gained from this economic growth in the overall economy of Lithuania. But almost from the beginning it became clear that the Jews would be allowed in just so far and no further to the economic table. The economic and political powers which would allow Jewish access only to the older generation with whom they had practical ties were useful for the Lithuanian majority, and they considered it to be to their advantage to use the superior skills and knowledge of the older Jews for the benefit of the general Lithuanian population. The Jewish youth felt and knew that for them there was no future and no opportunities in Lithuania and therefore they had to emigrate and leave Lithuania.
After WWI, the Jewish refugees wandered back to their hometowns to find chaos and destruction. Nothing was left of their houses or belongings. They had to start over from scratch. The workplaces and shops had been plundered. The Russian money was worthless. The refugees were helped by Jewish relief organizations. In 1923, the refugees in Kovno found themselves in a dreadful situation. They were waiting for the relief organizations to resettle them someplace. They were waiting in barracks where conditions were very unsanitary and the food was horrible. More refugees streamed to the barracks, almost naked and starving. Those who returned to the shtetlach found only devastation. They were starved and feeble and sick. There was no place or medicine to help the sick. Many of the diseases spread among the refugees, and the death rate rose. Epidemics were spreading over the land, especially the dreaded typhus.
|Councilmen of Rokiskis with President Molevin
[no individual names appear]
After WWI, there was desperate irony, tragedy, and great suffering for the Jews of Lithuania. They had played a significant role in the struggle of Lithuania for its independence. The contribution of the Jewish people to Lithuania’s struggle for independence was recognized by the political leaders of Lithuania. This gave the Jews some reason for hope, inasmuch as the Jews had helped Lithuania achieve nationhood, they hoped for justice and equality from the new nation. At the very least they expected that Lithuania would treat the Jews humanely. But the facts proved otherwise. A report by the Jewish section of the second Lithuanian legislature [Sym?] relates the following events of a blood libel:
The first blood libel broke out in the shtetl of Ponidel in 1932. This shtetl was in the Rakishok circle. A Lithuanian shopkeeper planned and initiated the libel. The shopkeeper was a woman who had converted to Christianity from Judaism and married a Lithuanian who was a former petty official. The one accused was the father of the convert. The libel was spread just before the market fair was about to begin; thus the libel spread quickly to a wide circle of the peasant population. The shtetl experienced some very tense, difficult days. The police, fearful of the instigators of the libel, remained aloof and passive.Thanks to the swift intervention of the Jewish faction of the Legislature (Sym) the central government prevented any excesses. Another entry in the report referred to previously:
In 1924 there were blood libels in Mariampol, Shantz, Linkova, and Ayranoleh. In the last two shtetlach, the witnesses upon whom the accusers relied were two young Jewish girls, aged seven and eight. The girls were students in a Lithuanian school and were brought as witness by the instigators of the libel who were the girls’ teachers in the Lithuanian school. In both situations, it was the Lithuanian intelligentsia of the small towns that sounded the alarm and protested the libel.The intervention averted a pogrom on the Jewish population. The Lithuanian intelligentsia of the larger cities were more practical than the peasants in the small towns. The Lithuanians living in the larger cities did not make accusations of blood libels nor commit hurtful acts.
There is an entry in the same report as follows:
In September and October, 1923, Kovno will memorialize the attack on Jewish youth passing through the town by ‘chauvinistic’ Lithuanian youth, who also defaced synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Further, it is reported that about 20 Jews were wounded, and on Yom Kippur eve in one of Kovno's synagogues, 25 windows were broken.Further quotes from the Jewish Section of the Second Lithuanian Legislature (Sym):
The Lithuanian Jews held in their hands the economy, and as the Lithuanians began to move from peasantry to urbanization, they became resentful of the Jews who were already there in positions they coveted. The Lithuanian government used all its power to favor the new merchant class and to discriminate against the Jewish merchant.As far as is known at the time of this writing, the archival material of the Holocaust has not been opened by the government of Lithuania. The archives will not document all attacks of terror because the censor did not report these events. The terror among Lithuanian Jews must have been very great before the onslaught of the Holocaust. The majority of Lithuanians were active participants in the murderous rampages that were organized by the Germans.
The Lithuanian government wanted to wrest commerce from the Jewish entrepreneurs, and also their livelihoods. The government gave million-dollar subsidies to non-Jewish cooperatives, passed laws that made it mandatory for merchants to keep their books in Lithuanian, passed laws that all exams for skilled work must be in Lithuanian, raised taxes on Jews, and held trade fairs and markets on the Sabbath. Thus they weakened and wounded the Jewish community, not just from year to year, but actually from day to day. The condition and situation of the Jews became ever more tragic. The Jews of the provinces and shtetlach suffered greatly; they felt helpless and hopeless. With the invasion of Hitler and his armies, they felt squeezed, threatened, and faced open brutality and death.
In Lestschinsky’s book on the Jews of Lithuania he documents how Jewish people tried to defend themselves and diminish the severity of the economic blows coming from the government and from the organized Lithuanian economic organizations. The gentile enterprises and economy were heavily subsidized from the government treasury, which received a substantial portion from taxes on the Jews.
The following episodes were reported in the Jewish press (Folks-Blatt ). Sometimes the news report did not appear until later because it did not become known until the Jewish community intervened with the central government.
1) October 10, 1935: In connection with the attacks on Jews, two Jewish representatives, one of them a member of the Legislature, Mr. Itzkovitsh, and his associate, Mr. Shapira, went to the director of the Interior Department who promised to take strong measures against these actions.The author of these lines. lived through the fear and dread and the heart-stopping fearfulness of the time just before a pogrom was beginning. At any moment one would expect a hard blow on the head. Anyone who has lived through a pogrom, or even the expectation of a pogrom, knows that Jews suffer with their blood and their nerves which are shaken and ruined.
2) December 19, 1935: In the shtetlach Karsh and Varneh, near Telz, there was an anti-Semitic attack by the peasants from the surrounding area. Thirty-three Jews were wounded and one Jew was seriously wounded.
3) January 11, 1936: One of the victims of the pogrom in Varneh on 12/19/35 died. The Jews in the entire region are terrified. Those who led the pogrom are fomenting a wild hatred against the Jewish community.
4) January 16, 1936: A reader of Paris Today (a Lithuanian Jew), received a heart-rending letter from the shtetl Varneh where bloody onslaughts upon the Jews of Varneh wounded 30 Jews. The pogrom is described in the letter as follows:
I wrote you this letter a week ago, but could not mail it because of the great unrest here. I write you in the name of all our associates perhaps something can be done to help us? We are today at the very edge of our reason. We are attacked in the streets and we cannot do anything. The trade fair turned into a battlefield. There were 36 Jews who were wounded. They came from shtetlach around Telz. You know that Jews come to the trade fair to earn a bit of their livelihood. Instead, one got clobbered on his head, and another had his hand broken. Those who were hurt and wounded are in an extremely difficult situation. All the wounded were taken to the hospital. One of the wounded already died. For the past week all the shops have been closed and their doors bolted. People are hungry, but everyone is afraid to go out on the street to shop. Everyone is afraid of these hooligans. Thus, we are in a life-threatening situation, just as if we were in Germany. The police are afraid and no one seems able to calm and control these hooligans who are reigning over us.
5) March 20, 1936: A personal letter received describes the following situation. When the market day ended, some agitators stirred up a drunken rowdy crowd and brought them to the apteka (drugstore) of Zelig Rapaport. The agitators convinced this drunken crowd that the body of Veronika Pishvaishkyny is hidden in the apteka and that the Jews killed her. They tore into the apteka and proceeded to ransack and search everywhere. Of course they did not find the corpse. During the search inside the apteka, bricks and stones were hurled from outside and shattered the windows of the Apteka, as well as the windows of the house next door which belonged to Mr. Soloveichik. The police chased the drunken rabble away and there is supposed to be an inquiry of the guilty ones. We received a report that the apteka and several Jewish houses were demolished.
6) July 22, 1936: The resident of Ausdkalner village, Kretiner Wolost Trokim came to the market on the 16th of July, with his 16-year-old daughter Mariana The girl wandered off somewhere and did not return. Immediately, rumors spread in town that Jews had kidnapped the girl. Irresponsible elements started to foment violence by shouting, Let’s beat up the Jews! In the evening of July 18, 1936, two gentiles wanted to beat up Jews. They were arrested. Before the arrest, these two hooligans managed to slug a Jew in the face and destroy another’s clothes and break 10 windows in Jewish homes. We brought all the latest information to the authorities, but they did not consider the victims important or significant.
All the pogroms were the prologue to the hate-filled atmosphere that was rising and, in 1939, took on its vengeful, wretched, deadly form. All the subsequent data points to the fact that the enemies of the Jewish people were prepared for mass-murder. Hitler's murderers knew the plan. The Nazis depended on the strength of the Lithuanians who showed from the very beginning that they would take the initiative. When Hitler attacked Russia, they started to murder Jews. The Lithuanians did not wait for the official German commands; they quickly started to murder Jews.
The Occupations of Jewish Workers in the Provincial Shtetlach of Lithuania
In 1937, the Folks-Bank, sponsored a census of all Jewish workers in each of the shtetlach in the Rakishok region. The names of the Jewish correspondents who conducted the census is shown below for each shtetl.
|Autian (Utian)||H. Yoffe|
|Azshpol||Fraulein Z. Lauffer|
|Antolept||Frau Sh. Levin-Gershtein|
|Widukleh (Widzeh)||Isaac Beker|
|Widishkis||Chloine Weiner and Honech Pehter|
|Zarasai (Novo-Alex.)||A. Shtejn|
|Panemunelis||Fraulein B. Yoffe|
|Kamai (Comay)||Chaim Anulnik|
|Total||Misc||Watch -Maker||Carpenter||Lock/ Tin/ Black||Baker||Butcher||Shoe||Tailor/ Modiste|
Summary of Above Table
Tailors and shoemakers make up almost half of all workers. If we add
butchers, we find that those three occupations make up more than half of
all Jewish workers. The metal and iron-skilled trades make up only 8% of
all workers. These latter are allied to industrial work. The Jewish working
population of Rakishok was 101, of which 73 were employed in the following
occupations: tailors and seamstresses, 16; butcher, 24. The shtetl of Aution
had a more unusual distribution. It had a Jewish working population of
150, of which 68 were employed as tailors, shoemakers, and butchers. They
had 17 workers in the iron and metal trades, which was a very high number
for the size of the population of Jewish workers. None of the other shtetlach
listed in the above chart came anywhere near that number. The closest was
Aniksht with nine just half the number.
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