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The Jews of Lithuania in the Inter–War Period

by Roni Stauber

The First World War brought about great changes in the history of Lithuania and its Jews. After being part of the Russian Empire from the close of the 18th century, the Lithuanians were determined to take advantage of the consequences of the war to create their own national state. The defeat of the Russian army and the occupation of Lithuania by the Germans enabled the Lithuanian National Council (Lietuvos Taryba) to proclaim Lithuania as an independent state on 16 February 1918.1

The Lithuanians had to fight for their independence, especially for the right to retain Vilna (Vilnius) as their capital. A serious challenge to the new state came from both Russia and Poland. At the end of 1918 the Red Army invaded Lithuania and occupied most of its territory. When Vilna fell to the Bolsheviks, the Lithuanian government moved to Kovno (Kaunas). The government in Kovno appealed to its inhabitants to join the Lithuanian army and help defend their country. As a result, the process of organising a new Lithuanian army began. There were many Jews among the volunteers in the Lithuanian resistance forces.2

By February and March 1919 the Lithuanian army, with the aid of the German army and Western equipment, had succeeded in checking the Russian advance and begun to drive the Russians from its territories. By July 1920, a peace treaty was signed in Moscow. However, the Lithuanians were now forced to repel another invader, the Polish army. The new Polish state, whose independence was also a direct outcome of the war, sought to restore its historic boundaries. The aim of the Polish government, under the leadership of Jozef Pilsudski, was to force unification upon Lithuania, or, failing that, at least to annex Vilna. In April 1919 the city was occupied by Polish troops. This act of aggression was the beginning of a bitter dispute between Lithuania and Poland and between 1920 and 1923 the two countries were in a state of war.3

The Western Powers, the Entente and later the League of Nations made many

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Night classes were held in Riteve during the inter–war period although, strangely, these were not referred to in the recollections. This group of night classes I and II in Riteve was taken in 1919, indicating that they were used mainly by young women.
Only the woman's names are provided in the original caption, but 24 instead of 25 are provided. No indication was given of identification, but the family names are of interest to those with Riteve connections:
Dvora Levite: Rachel Friedman; Chana Miller; Menucha Segal; Mita Singer; Alte Gross; Esther Shapira; Malka Geniss; Penina Palukst; Rachel Leah Feldman; Chaya Averbuch;
Feige Rosa Shapira; Sarah Gitel Rabanowitz; Chaya Singer; Zipora Prisman; Miriam Levite; Hirshovtz; Tamar Sans: Gila Safes; Bila Miller; Ziva Verkul; Zini Nigowitz; Shenka Goldberg; Feige Babush.


attempts to settle the Polish–Lithuanian dispute. They tried to establish an acceptable line of demarcation, but the two rivals could not reach an agreement about what constituted 'Lithuanian territory. The crux of the matter was the 'Vilna Question' – the possession of the city, and its environs. The Polish government claimed that the Poles constituted a majority in the city which was also Polish in culture. The Lithuanians claimed it as their historic capital. The aim of the foreign policy of both countries was to convince the League of Nations to accept their arguments and support them in the dispute. In this political struggle the Poles had an advantage over the Lithuanians. The rebirth of Poland was one of the goals of the Entente in the First World War. Poland was officially invited to the Paris Peace Conference and enjoyed the special protection of France. Lithuania, by contrast, was viewed with great suspicion by Western diplomats as a product of German intrigues.4

The Vilna Question was not the only object of Lithuanian foreign policy. An attempt was also made to convince the League to recognise its right to annex Memel (Klaipeda). The Treaty of Versailles had separated Memel from Germany

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on the grounds that the majority of its population was Lithuanian, and since France and Poland opposed the German position, Memel was turned over to independent Lithuania.5

The Lithuanian political efforts to obtain international recognition and support for its claims concerning Vilna and Memel had important consequences for the status of the Jewish minority in Lithuania. The Lithuanian leadership sought to use Jewish influence in the West in order to break Lithuania's political isolation. The support of the Jews was also vital to the new state, which was fighting for its existence. The Jews were the largest national minority. According to the census held in 1923, the Jews numbered 153 743 (7.5 per cent of the total). Moreover, the Jews formed 40 per cent of the population of Vilna. Any state which sought to rule the city could not ignore this fact.6

The Lithuanian representatives to the Peace Conference at Versailles declared that the new republic had accepted the right of the Lithuanian Jews to national autonomy. The Lithuanian government ratified this obligation on its admission to the League of Nations. By that time a minister for Jewish affairs had already been appointed, the first being Dr Jacob Wygodsky who was one of three Jewish ministers in the first Lithuanian government. When the Lithuanian government moved to Kovno, Wygodsky remained in Vilna and was replaced by Mordecai (Max) Soloveichik, one of the leading communal and Zionist activists in Kovno. A Jewish National Council was appointed headed by Shimon Rosenbaum, and the Jewish community (Kehillah) was recognised as an authorised institution for religious and social affairs. The Kehillah was also empowered to impose taxes in order to finance its activities. Two communal conferences were held in Kovno in 1920 and in 1922, and delegates from all the Jewish communities in Lithuania participated.7

This policy of the Lithuanian government, which was based on political utilitarianism, did not last very long. When, on the one hand, the war against both the Russians and the Poles ended, and on the other the Lithuanian leadership realised that they had lost the political struggle over Vilna, the Jewish influence was no longer relevant. Contrary to the obligation made at the Peace Conference at Versailles, the Lithuanian Constituent Assembly decided not to include the clauses relating to Jewish national rights in the constitution. From the end of 1922 there was a permanent erosion of the Jewish autonomy, encouraged by the reactionary anti–Semitic circles in Lithuania. The cabinet formed in 1924 included no minister for Jewish affairs. At the end of that year the Jewish National Council was dispersed by the police, and the autonomous status of the Kehillah was abolished.8

The anti–Semitic tendencies in Lithuania were strengthened at the end of the 1920s and during the 1930s. In 1926–1927 the democratic system in Lithuania was abolished and power fell into the hands of the Nationalists under the leadership of Antanas Smetona. The anti–Semitic policy during these years was

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The two brothers, Alter and Zahnan Lab Levite, closely resembling each other in appearance and both teachers in the Hebrew School in Riteve, were active leaders among the young people of the shtetl.
Alter Levite was to become the editor and main driving force behind the original edition of this book. Above: Zalman Levite teaching a class of older girls.
Below Alter poses with a class of eight older children.

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Portraits of the two Levite brothers Zalman Leib Levite, left, and Alter Levite, showing their close resemblance to each other. They were both dedicated leaders


directed especially against Jewish economic positions. The Jews, who formed about one–third of the total population of the larger towns, held many economic positions, mainly in small trade and crafts. The rapid process of urbanization after the war caused growing economic competition between the Jews and the newcomers. The anti–Semitic campaign in the 1930s was led mainly by the organization of Lithuanian traders and workers known as the Verslininkai. Its slogan was 'Lithuania for the Lithuanians'. The Lithuanian government encouraged the Lithuanians in this competition. Lithuanian traders, for example, enjoyed reductions in taxation, whereas the Jews were systematically dispossessed of their economic positions. As a result, many Jews were deprived of their livelihood and had to emigrate. Between 1928–1939, 13 898 Jews emigrated from Lithuania; 4 860 (35 per cent of them went to South Africa.9

In October 1939, the Soviet Union took the first step to achieve control of Lithuania. These steps were carried out according to the secret agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union which divided Eastern Europe into their spheres of influence. Lithuania was compelled to admit Soviet garrisons and to grant air bases. The treaty between the Soviet Union and Lithuania also included the Soviet approval of the annexation of Vilna to Lithuania.10

Lithuania remained an independent state for the next seven months in spite of Soviet limitations. During these seven months 14 000–15 000 Jewish refugees, of all parties and professions, escaped from Poland to Lithuania. Most of them, 10 000 in number, went to Vilna. Many of them hoped to emigrate from Lithuania, if possible to Palestine. The Jewish communities made a great

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effort to assist the refugees. A special committee headed by Dr Jacob Robinson coordinated all the relief and legal activities.11

On 15 June 1940, about 20 years after the National Council's proclamation of Lithuanian independence, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Army. Although many Jews were very seriously affected by the Communist economy which was principally against any private enterprise, they were considered by the Lithuanians as supporters of the Soviet regime. This popular opinion was based on the fact that Jews held important positions in the new regime.12

Soviet rule in Lithuania was terminated on 22 June 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. This occupation opened a new and tragic era in the history of the Jews of Lithuania: during the war years most of the Jews of Lithuania were exterminated by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators.


  1. A Gerutis. ed., Lithuania 700 years. New York, 1969, p. 154. Return
  2. Don Levin, 'The Jewish participation in the Lithuanian War of Independence' (Hebrew), in: Kivanim, Vol. 13. 1981. p. 81. Return
  3. Alfred E Senn. The Great Powers, Lithuania and the Vilna Question 1920–1928, Netherlands, 1966, pp.1–102. Return
  4. Ibid., p 14 Return
  5. Gerutis, op cit.. pp. 203–213. Return
  6. Ettinger. op cit., p. 236. Return
  7. Leib Garfunkel. ‘The Struggle of the Lithuanian Jevs for their National Rights’ (Hebrew), in Yahadut Lita, Vol. 2. Tel Aviv, 1973. pp. 37–57. Return
  8. Ettinger. op cit., p. 236. Return
  9. J Leschtchinsky, The Economy and the Demography of the Lithuanian Jews' (Hebrew), in Yahadut Lita, Vol. 2. 1973, pp. 91–100. Return
  10. David Thompson, op cit., pp. 756–766; Gerutis, op cit., pp 239–262. Return
  11. Don Levin, ‘Yerushalaim d'lita’ as a temporary shelter for Jewish refugees in World War Two" (Hebrew), in: Nationa and Language (ed M Zohori et al.). 1985. pp 95–114. Return
  12. Don Levin the relationship between the Lithuanians and the Jews during World War Two' (Hebrew), in Kivunim, Vol. 2. pp. 29–43. Return


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