Gruzdziai (Gruzd in Yiddish) is located in the Zamut (Zemaitija) region in northwestern Lithuania, about 22 km. (nearly 14 miles) northwest of Siauliai (Shavl) which was the district administrative center. The nearby estate and the land in the vicinity were owned by a noble family named Zubov. From 1858 until the World War I the Narishkin family had ownership. During this period, the town was part of the Kovno Province (Gubernia) and was the county's administrative center. It also had this status in independent Lithuania.
|Gruzdziai General View|
The Jewish community in Gruzd was established at the end of the eighteenth century, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Jews of Gruzd comprised almost half the town's population. In 1897, there were 1,160 residents in town, 482 (41%) Jews comprising about 120 families.
The majority of the Jewish people were involved in small scale trading. Several families made their living through commercial dealings with the Narishkin estate and, in particular, with the adjoining cattle ranch.
In 1887, the Beth Midrash, the only prayer house in town, and 22 Jewish homes burned down. The local rabbi and four honored men of the community appealed to Jewish communities for help through the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz.
The Beth Midrash was rebuilt, but the poor economic situation in town forced many families to emigrate abroad, in particular to South Africa, America and Mexico. A few families settled in EretzYisrael.
|The Aron Kodesh|
Several of the Jews of Gruzd were activists for the settlements of EretzYisrael. Some are mentioned in the 1886 list of donors: The volunteers for our brothers, the colonists in the Holy Land. M. Shragai was the principal fundraiser. In another list published in 1914, additional names, headed by Rabbi Y. A. Fridman, are chronicled. During this time, a society named Havatseleth HaSharon was active in town.
Among the rabbis who officiated in Gruzd were:
Mosheh Shapira for twentyfour years. He died in 1885.
Yits'hakAizik, son of Josef Fridman (from 1905), was one of the leaders of the Mizrahi party in Lithuania and published many books.
Rabbi Zisl Levin.
Under the law of autonomies for minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the Minister for Jewish affairs, Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections to Va'adei Kehilah (Community Committees) to be held in the summer of 1919. In Gruzd, a Va'ad Kehilah of five members was elected, one a General Zionist, two from the TseireiZion party and two nonparty men. This committee acted for several years and was in charge of all aspects of community life in the town.
|A Street in Gruzd|
According to the first government census of 1923, there were 1,354 residents in town of whom 142 (10%) were Jews. During this period, numbers of Jews left Gruzd and emigrated abroad.
The Jews who remained barely made a living. They were involved in small scale trading, mainly from crafts and agriculture at the weekly market, which took place on Wednesdays. According to a government survey of shops in 1931, Gruzd had eleven Jewish shops. There were three grain merchants, one horse merchant, one hardware shop, one grocery store, four textile shops and one sewing machine shop. In 1937, there were seven Jewish artisans in town: two tailors; two barbers; one photographer, one potter and one butcher.
|Students and Teachers of the Jewish School|
|The Jewish cemetery in Gruzd in the left corner, note the head of the Hevrah Kadisha|
The Jewish Folksbank played an important role in the town's economic life. In 1920 it had twentysix members.
There was a Jewish school in Gruzd as well as several welfare societies, namely Gemiluth Hesed and Linath HaTsedek.
In 1939, of 1,300 residents in Gruzd, 75 (27 families) were Jews.
With the annexation of Lithuania to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, the social and economic life of the Jews of Gruzd changed.
On June 29th, 1941, only a week after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, many Jews were detained by local Lithuanian nationalists and imprisoned in the Beth Midrash. By order of the Germans who had arrived in town, they were freed the same day. As a result, the Lithuanians were angry and protested vehemently.
On August 5th, 1941 (12th of Av, 5701) approximately fifty people were imprisoned in the Beth Midrash. They were led to the Jewish cemetery the next day, where they were shot. The Jewish cemetery was located 1 km. (0.6 miles) south of the town center. The bodies were thrown into a pit that had been prepared beforehand near the eastern gate of the cemetery. The Germans watched and took photographs as the Lithuanians brutally murdered the Jews. Within a month, the remaining Jews of Gruzd were transferred to the town of Zhager (Zagare) where they too were murdered and buried together with other Jews who had been concentrated there. This atrocity took place on Yom Kippur 5702.
Pinkhas Ulman was the only Gruzd Jew who survived. A Lithuanian peasant, Augustinas Mazeikas and his family hid him in a nearby village. Pinkhas Ulman later emigrated to Israel.
|The mass grave near the Jewish cemetery of Gruzd|
|The monument at the murder site in Zagare
(Picture taken and supplied by Elkan Gamzu, July 2005)
HaMelitz, St. Petersburg 26.4.1887
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass Murder in Lithuania), Vol. 2, page 403
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