54° 54' / 23° 54'
Translation of the Kaunas chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita
Translation of the Kaunas chapter from
Written by Miriam Niv
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem, 1996
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem, 1996
Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
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.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Written by Miriam Niv
Translated by Shaul Yannai
A special thanks to Josef Rosin and Barry Mann
for helping me in working on this translation.
In Yiddish, Kovne, also Kovna; in Russian and Polish, Kovno
A city and a district with the same name. From 1920 to 1939 Kaunas was the temporary capital of Lithuania.
Kaunas is surrounded by water and mountains. The Nemunas and Vilija Rivers cross the city from the south and the north. They merge at the western end of the city and give it the shape of a peninsula. The Aleksotas Mountains extend on the banks of the Nemunas River in the south, and The Green Mountain extends on the banks of the Vilija River in the north. The city is located along the road to Vilnius and Trakai. Due to its geographical location, the city developed as the economic and administrative center of the region.
Kaunas originated as a fortress and as a palace that were built along the Western edge of the city by the Lithuanian prince Koinas or Kaunas. He founded the city in 1030 and gave it his name. 10 years later, Koinas was killed in a battle against the Russians and his name and the name of the city disappeared from the chronicles of that era for an extended period of time. Only towards the end of the 13th century is the city mentioned again, as a battlefield between the Lithuanians and the Germans. In 1362, the city was conquered after the Teutonic Knights kept it under heavy siege, and its walls, towers and bridges were burned and destroyed. In 1410, the Teutons were defeated at the Grunwald Battle by the Lithuanian prince Vytautas and the Polish army. It was only after that defeat that the period of German occupation came to an end and Kaunas began to develop as a commercial center and an important transit station for international commerce.
Ever since Poland and Lithuania were unified in 1569, the history of Kaunas is interwoven with the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At that time, the city was included in the voivodship (region) of Polotzk. In 1795, after Poland was divided for a third time, Kaunas was annexed to Russia and remained under its control until WWI. In 1796 it was included in the Vilnius region, and from 1843 it was the center of the Kaunas region. Between 1915 and 1918, during WWI, Kaunas was under German occupation.
The city developed greatly during the period of Russian rule, especially from the second half of the 19th century until WWI. A decisive factor in its development was when Kaunas was established as a province in 1843 and the city became the center of the new province. During that period the population of Kaunas grew tenfold, dozens of factories were built and commerce proliferated. The regulation of the Nemunas riverbed and the construction of the St. Petersburg Berlin railway line that passed through the city was another factor that accelerated the development of Kaunas and its commerce. Ships from Danzig, Koenigsberg, Memel (Klaipeda) and Tilsit docked at the Kaunas port (at the Nemunas River) and large warehouses were built in the old city. At that time, a new plan was drawn for the city. The Catholic and Protestant cemeteries were moved from the city center to a more distant place. The garrison stationed in the city was also enlarged. The district's matters were managed by a Duma (a council), which was appointed by the General-gubernator (the general governor) in Vilnius. A representation of residents in the city council was elected in 1876, but only residents who owned property were eligible to vote. In that year, Kaunas had about 30,000 residents; the number of eligible voters was only 1,319. In 1876, kerosene lamps were installed to light the city's streets and from 1899 with electricity, after a Belgian engineer built a power station in Kaunas. In 1887, the city started to pave the streets with stones, and in 1892, a horse-drawn tram (Konka) was moving in the streets. At the end of the 19th century 10 steam ships handled the transportation to Yurburg and to towns along the Nemunas. A shipping connection with Alytus began in 1901.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the relations between Russia and Germany deteriorated. In order to face the approaching evil, the borders were reinforced and fortified in many places. In view of the strategic importance of the city as a transportation junction between Germany and Russia, the Czar, Alexander II, approved in 1879 to build a fortress in Kaunas. That fortress was a compound of 9 forts, 8 of which were built around the city from 1882 to 1890. In 1909, the Ninth Fort was built along the road to Zemaitija. When the construction of the stronghold was finished it covered an area of 65 square kilometers and was surrounded by 3 lines of barbed wire fences and canals filled with water.
After the first stage of constructing the fortress was completed in 1887, and according to the military's strategic conception at that time, it was forbidden to build in Kaunas buildings higher than two stories. This prohibition hindered the architectural and economic development of the city.
Before WWI, Kaunas had already about 90,000 residents and it expanded in all directions. The suburbs also grew: Slobodka, where the poorer Jews lived, and also Aleksotas and Sanciai, where factory workers and families of military men lived.
In the beginning of WWI the Russians blew up the Church towers in Garliava, Raudondvaris and Zapyskis in order to eliminate reference points for the artillery of the German army. The Kaunas fortress, which was the strongest fortress in all of Russia, held out for 10 days against the German army attacks. On August 17, 1915, the Germans conquered Kaunas.
The retreating Russians blew up the middle part of the railway bridge and destroyed the floating bridge to Aleksotas. The city itself was looted extensively.
With the establishment of the Independent State of Lithuania and the Polish army seizing control of Vilnius and the areas around it, Kaunas became the temporary capital of the new state instead of Vilnius, the intended capital. After the Litas became Lithuania's legal tender, the municipality, which was elected in 1921 (see below), began to implement large projects for the city and its inhabitants. Many streets were repaved and later covered with asphalt. In 1928, a water supply system was installed and 5 years later it served almost the entire city. The city's drainage system started to function in 1925. The old Tram (the Konka) was replaced by buses, which started operating in 1924. The traffic to Aleksotas and Slobodka was through two large bridges above the rivers. In 1931, a cable car was installed in the Green Mountain and later in Aleksotas as well.
Impressive buildings were built in Kaunas during that period, such as, the Government Bank, the Institute of Physics and Chemistry (in 1927), the Central Post Office (in 1930), the District Council (in 1933), the Institute for National Insurance (in 1933), the Medical Department (in 1939), the Sports Hall (in 1934), and many others.
In those years, Kaunas became the industrial center of Lithuania. In addition to the factories, some of which were built before the war (see below), many other factories were built in Kaunas, among them two large factories of industrial food production that also exported their products abroad: Maistas, which processed and marketed meat, and Pienocentras which processed milk products.
Public transportation also developed greatly during that period. In 1939, 300 buses arrived daily at the Kaunas Central Bus Station. The ship traffic on the Nemunas increased also.
The Jewish Settlements Before the Eve of World War I
Jews received formal permission to settle in Kaunas only in the beginning of the 18th century, but the history of Jewish Kaunas goes back hundreds of years before that and it is intertwined with the history of Kaunas as a Lithuanian city. Individual Jews began arriving in Kaunas at the end of the 14th century and they settled there with or without permission.
Some of the first Jews to arrive in Kaunas were prisoners brought from Crimea after prince Vytautas defeated the Tatars. He captured many prisoners and among them were Jews and Karaites. He brought some of them to Lithuania. Vytautas aspired to develop the commerce in his country and considered bringing Jewish merchants to Lithuania, who were viewed as a key factors in trade. But his policy created a situation that for 300 years hindered all attempts by Jews to settle in cities like Kaunas. For he permitted the German merchants, especially in the Hanze cities, to maintain in them large warehouses and he granted to the residents of cities like Kaunas the Magdeburg rights, which were the foundation for the independent rule of the townsmen. Those rights were expanded over time, and gave to the ruling class, the townsmen, many of whom were merchants, control over those cities. The townsmen viewed the Jews as their competitors and had no interest in their coming.
In 1776, Kaunas was one of 11 cities where townsmen continued to enjoy self-rule, even after those rights were annulled in 150 other cities in Lithuania. Although the rulers in Kaunas, as in most of the Polish-Lithuanian cities, wanted Jews to come to their cities, they still each time submitted to the pressure of their townsmen who feared that the Jews would compete with them, and they did all they could to prevent their settling in the city. An additional factor that made it difficult for Jewish merchants to come to the city was that Jewish merchants, in contrast to the Polish and Russian merchants, were not exempt from paying taxes on their trade.
Another measure that adversely affected the Jews was when King Kazimir IV granted the townsmen of Kaunas the privilege to prohibit Jews from settling in the city. After he was crowned as the King of Poland in1447, Kazimir annexed also Aleksotas, which was on the other side of the Nemunas, to the territory of Kaunas. At the same time, he permitted Jews to settle in Slobodka (Vilijampole, in Lithuanian), which was on the other side of the Vilija River, and which was the estate of princes and the Magdeburg rights did not apply there.
In the course of time, Jews from other places joined the prisoners that Vytautas brought and they developed the commerce in the city in spite of the fact that they still had no permission to settle there. According to Lithuanian sources and according to the Lithuania Record Book, Jews came to Kaunas from Trakai, Vilnius, Grodno and other places for commercial purposes. The sources note mainly the Jews of Trakai, which is located on the business road between Kaunas and Vilnius. Jews also came from Kedainiai and apparently they were the founders of the Jewish settlement in Slobodka.
In contrast to Kaunas, which had only a few Jews, a Jewish settlement developed in Slobodka, a suburb of Kaunas, where Jews were permitted to settle. The first Jews to settle in Slobodka, as noted above, came from Kedainiai, which like Slobodka belonged to an aristocratic family, the princes of the Radzivil family. They and their successors wanted to develop that location, an area which was completely covered with forests. That is the reason they wanted Jews to come there. So the Jews came, cleared the forests, developed the land, paved roads and built themselves small wooden cottages. This is how the settlement in Slobodka was gradually built.
The Jews of Slobodka depended on the Jewish community of Kedainiai for their religious services. During the peak of Jewish autonomy in Poland-Lithuania, the period of the Council of Lithuania (1623-1764), the Slobodka community belonged to the Kedainiai galil (province). Whenever the Jews of Kaunas were persecuted and were forced to seek refuge, they found it in Slobodka and when the assault abated, they returned to Kaunas.
In the second half of the 15th century, there were in Kaunas proper several wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs who leased tax contracts and governmental customs' contracts. The first to be mentioned in historical documents was Daniel, an offspring of a renowned family from Trakai. He was a wealthy Jew and owned an estate he received from the king. In 1450, Daniel leased the customs house in Kaunas and maintained it until his death in 1470. His son and inheritor, Ze'ev (Zov in Lithuanian sources), also dealt in commerce and he increased his property to such an extent that he became one of the wealthiest men in Lithuania. He had a large house in Kaunas, land in the area, and he also owned the hill known as Mount Napoleon, which the local peasants formerly called Zydkalnis (The Mount of the Jews), a vestige of its Jewish owner. His fortune accorded him a special status and ministers regarded him as a trusted guarantor. It was on his behalf that King Kazimir IV asked the mayor of Danzig and its council to allow Ze'ev and his brother Michael to travel without hindrance in Danzig and Prussia for their business matters, a privilege denied to other Jewish merchants. Daniel and his inheritor enjoyed that privileged status and they were granted, due to their skills and achievements, royal privileges, allowing them to live in Kaunas at a time when all Jews were forbidden to do so. Although their families, clerks and servants accompanied them when they were in Kaunas, this still was a settlement of a few single privileged individuals and not the seed of the future community.
The situation changed during the time of Alexander, the son of Kazimir IV. Kaunas grew and expanded during his days, but Alexander, who was influenced by the hatred of the Hanze merchants for the Jews, publicized in 1492 a decree to expel all the Jews. Only Ze'ev, the son of Daniel, was not included among the expelled. This decree was a harbinger of the 1495 expulsion that applied to all the Jews of Lithuania. This time the Jews of Slobodka also went into exile, joined by Ze'ev, the last Jew of Kaunas, who refused to convert to Christianity and preferred to share the fate of his people.
After eight years in exile, Alexander permitted, in exchange for a large sum of money, the exiled to return to Lithuania and to regain their property. It has been conjectured that Zygmunt (1506 1548), also known as The Elder, the heir of Alexander, permitted the Jews of Slobodka to build a prayer house and this is how the foundation for the community was established there.
The situation in Kaunas was different. There, the townsmen enjoyed the Magdeburg rights and the privilege that forbade Jews to settle in the city. But now an amendment was added which permitted the resettling of individual Jews; the King granted Jewish appraisers official status and their job was to estimate the value of merchandise, mainly wood, that was transported on the Nemunas River from Kaunas to Prussia. This role made it much easier for merchants who dealt with exports for this is how the value of the merchandise was determined and as a result the Christian merchants in Kaunas did not object. Thus the Jewish appraisers and customs' contractors were counted as residents of Kaunas.
In the beginning of Old Zygmunt's rule, the customs house was leased to a Jew by the name of Avraham Josefovitz. His lease included customs houses in a few other cities. Avraham was the son of a lessee from Kiev by the name of Joseph and the name Josefovitz is derived from him. During the 1480's he converted to Christianity and reached a high position. He was a Starosta (a representative of the Count or the King) in Kaunas even before the expulsion of 1495 and he kept his post also during the expulsion. As a result, he received also the customs' leasing that belonged to Ze'ev, the son of Daniel. In 1510, Avraham Josefovitz was nominated as the minister of the Lithuanian treasury and he received an estate near Vilnius as a gift. He remained loyal to his people despite his conversion to Christianity and was among the interceders who tried to cancel the expulsion decree in 1503. The sources also mention the name of Aharon Nahumovitz, who in 1528, together with the Christian Andrey Piokopovitz, leased from the King the customs' fees for wax and salt in Kaunas. In the 16th century, among the Jews of Kaunas and Slobodka there were also Jews who had licenses to maintain public baths.
The policy of discrimination against the Jews of Kaunas continued also during the days of Old Zygmunt's heir, his son Zygmunt August (1548-1572). Nevertheless, Jewish appraisers and customs officials with special privileges in Kaunas were joined by Jews with other professions and titles. The leasing of customs developed rapidly during that time, and in 1558 the King granted to two Jews, David Shmerilovitz and Josef Ben Shalom, the leasing rights for salt, wax and the border customs for a period of three years. Documents from 1559 also mention a pharmacist by the name of David, but some people doubt that he settled in Kaunas permanently and conjecture that he was only a temporary resident. Also mentioned during this period was a Jew by the name of Todros who held the title of Doctor; it is possible that he was the leader of the few Jews who lived in Kaunas at that particular time.
As to the Jewish merchants, especially the Jews from Trakai, who came to Kaunas in spite of the prohibition and whose commerce was mainly with crops and wood, the mayor made sure that their number would remain at a minimum. Among other things, they were restricted to settle only on one side of Yanova Street, and they were banished from the market. The Jews of Trakai asked the King twice, in 1579 and in 1589, to permit them to trade in Kaunas and he granted their request.
Kaunas had its golden age during the first half of the 17th century. Commerce and industry prospered, blacksmiths and coppersmiths were invited to work there, beautiful buildings were built for the public and Khoma houses for the residents. The names of individual Jews are mentioned in the Pinkas Lita (The Record Book of Lithuania) also during this period, for example, Rabbi Ber Segal meKaveni, Rabbi Yechiel meKaveni and khatan Rabbi Yechiel meKaveni. These Jews are noted as having paid high taxes to the Council of Lithuania. Obviously, the money did not come from the Kaunas community since it did not exist yet. It is reasonable to assume that these Jews were granted special privileges from the Council of Lithuania and paid for those privileges.
During the wars that broke out in the 17th century, first between Russia and Poland and later after Sweden joined the conflict, Kaunas was conquered and its inhabitants abandoned the city. The rehabilitation of the city began only after the wars ended, that is, during the days of Jan Sobieski (1674-1696). In 1682, in order to appease the townsmen of Kaunas, the King approved the former privileges related to banning Jews from settling in the city, and at the same time permitting non-Jewish merchants from outside of Lithuania to settle there.
After Jan Sobieski renewed the decree, the Jewish residents of Kaunas were forced to move to Slobodka and they tried in every possible way to acquire a permit to settle in Kaunas. At the beginning of the 18th century a contract was signed between them and the townsmen, obligating them to pay 1/15 of the city taxes. There was no proportion between the number of Jews and the rate of the taxes they were obligated to pay. But that was the only way to get permission to settle in Kaunas. Henceforth, the Jews of Kaunas were able to create a community life. The name of Rabbi Azriel is mentioned during this period, also known as The great Rabbi, Oker Harim (a name applied to someone with a very sharp mind), as Pe'er HaDor (the glory of the generation), as Avdak (president of the court and the community) of the upper galil (province) and Kaunas Horadani (a variation of the Yiddish name of Harodne [Grodno]), because Kaunas was part of the Grodno galil. It is possible that he served only as a rabbinical judge. Around this same period, mention is also made of a MoTs beKavani (teacher of righteousness in Kaunas), Rabbi Moshe. Both left the city after the great fire in 1731, which is noted below.
During the first half of the 18th century Kaunas was beset by a number of disasters. From 1700 to 1715 raged the Northern War, causing much destruction throughout the country. During the war, Kaunas was under Swedish occupation for several months. In 1731, a great fire broke out in Kaunas and its few houses burned down, including a number of warehouses. The German merchants moved their commerce from Kaunas to Konigsberg. During the seven year war, the Russian forces who passed through Kaunas on their way to Prussia also contributed to the destruction. But after the war, Jews found many opportunities in the demolished city of Kaunas; they bought the ruined houses, acquired lots and restored the city. Although the mayor of Kaunas was willing to accept the high taxes the Jews paid, he nevertheless found it difficult to bear their settling in the city, and even more so their leaving the narrow streets that were a sort of ghetto. He decided to expel them from the city. He was helped by the fact that the working agreement between the townsmen and the Jews, which was the legal basis for the Jews settling in the city, was burned during the fire. In 1753, the State Court in Warsaw ruled that the Jews must be expelled from the city and their property to be confiscated. The Jewish merchants from outside of Kaunas were permitted to enter during market days only. But with help from the Starosta, who was to implement the decree, the Jews bypassed the court order. He moved most of the Jews to his own land, which was under the authority of the King and not the city council, and therefore the expulsion decree could not be applied in that area. A small number of Jews moved to Slobodka.
The situation turned bad when the new mayor took office. At that time, in 1761, the first pogrom against the Jews took place in Kaunas. The townsmen attacked Jewish homes, burned some of them down and they also burned the only Bet Midrash in the city. The Jews were again expelled and once again they found refuge in Slobodka. The attempt to expel them from Slobodka failed.
The Jews in Slobodka organized themselves as a separate community from the Jews in Kaunas. They established their own Chevra Kadisha and with help from their brothers in Kedainiai, they brought suit against the mayor of Kaunas. More than 20 years later, the King's court ruled that Jews were permitted to return to Kaunas, their property was also returned to them, and the mayor was obligated to pay for the expenses of the trial within two years and to pay compensations to those who were harmed in the pogroms. He was also sentenced to two weeks in prison. This event was perpetuated in the Kaunas Megila that was composed by Rabbi Shmuel HaKatan, who was a Sofer Kahal who came to Kaunas from Vilnius. The appellation Katan (small in Hebrew) indicates the modesty and humbleness of the man. This megila was read each year during Purim in the old Bet Midrash in Kaunas.
Among those who lobbied for invalidating the expulsion decree were Avraham and Moshe Soloveitshik, sons of a family that in the course of time became one of the most renowned families in Kaunas. The origin of their family was in Brisk and it appears that Avraham and Moshe came to Kaunas with their father in the middle of the 18th century and were among the Jews who acquired property in the city that was destroyed during the wars. The Soloveitshik brothers loaned the Kaunas community the money they needed for funding the lobbying for the nullification of the expulsion decree. When the Jews returned, an amendment was added to the decree that each Jew must pay his share of the debt according to what the appraisers would decide; if anyone refuses, his property and right to settle in the city would be revoked.
The Jews returned to live in their streets, which subsequently were named Zamkova and Povlieska (in Yiddish: Zamkave and Pavilieska) and they were allowed to trade freely on market days. The Jews of Slobodka had a saying: during the day you can't see sheep in Kaunas, and in Slobodka you can't see a human being. From this saying we learn that the livelihood of the Jews was concentrated in Kaunas. The leaders of the community, who wanted to prevent confrontations with non-Jews, ruled that when a Jew loans money to a Christian he is forbidden to receive a security for the loan in the form of a house located outside the Jewish quarters. This ruling was not upheld very meticulously as can be seen from the 1785-1790 trial between Abba Soloveitshik and a Christian by the name of Bartemanski who did not repay his debt to Soloveitshik. The trial agitated the townsmen of Kaunas who again hoped that the Jews would be expelled. But in the end, one of the oldest houses in Kaunas outside of the Jewish quarters passed into the hands of Soloveitshik.
In 1795, Poland was divided for a third time. As a result, Lithuania was joined to Russia and the region on the left side of the Nemunas River, including the suburb of Aleksotas, were joined to Prussia. In 1807, this region, including Aleksotas, became part of the Warsaw Dukedom established by Napoleon. Kaunas, which was joined to Russia, became a border city. In 1801, Lithuania was declared as a Lithuanian Province with Vilnius as the capital, and Kaunas became the city of a district. In 1843, Kaunas became a Gubernia (province) and the city of Kaunas itself became the center of the province.
When Lithuania was annexed to Russia, the Jews were included in the class of the townsmen and this deeply worried the townsmen of Kaunas. They tried to reactivate the obsolete royal privileges, and in 1797 they addressed Czar Pavel the First, hoping he would order the expulsion of the Jews from Kaunas and confiscate their goods. According to documents from that year, the community had 1,508 Jews. The Czar's investigation made it clear that the townsmen's demands were unfounded. Nevertheless, the court of the Province of Lithuania imposed severe limitations on the Jews and thereby to preventing them from leaving the ghetto zone and acquiring houses outside of it. In cases when a Christian debtor was unable to pay his debt to a Jew, it was demanded of the mayor, as a representative of the Christian public, to handle the payment of the debt and in this way to prevent the transfer of a house in the Christian quarters to Jewish ownership. This decree had retroactive validity and houses that already passed to Jewish ownership were returned to their previous owners.
The recurring complaints of Kaunas's townsmen were of no avail and when the matter was brought before Czar Pavel the First, he ruled in 1798 to leave the Jews of Kaunas alone and permitted them to trade and work all over the city. On the basis of this decision, the Jews of Kaunas were able to leave the ghetto. However, this ruling received no formal permission and it was actually done with a fair amount of bribery.
The townsmen of Kaunas succeeded in preventing the Jews from participating in the city council elections for more than 20 years. But the Jewish lobbyists did not remain idle either, and in the end the townsmen were defeated. In 1839, a law was legislated, permitting Jews to participate in the elections for the city council and the struggle ended.
Although the Jews in fact left the confines of the ghetto, the Christians continued their attempts to prevent them from going deeper into the city. In 1843, the year Kaunas was declared as the city of the province, Czar Nicolai the First passed through the city and he was surprised to see that there was very little construction taking place in it. When he inquired as to the reason for that, the local governor pointed to the limitations imposed on the Jews. There were also non-Jews who favored the annulment of those limitations. In 1846, a request on this matter was presented to the Czar and it was signed by 42 estate owners and other Christian dignitaries. The struggle continued for a long time and only in October, 1861, a decree was published which invalidated the existence of the ghetto in Kaunas.
One day the Russian authorities published a ruling that prohibited Jews from living in the villages. As a result, many of them settled in Kaunas and the commerce and labor slowly passed into their hands. The authorities also imposed a tax for wearing a Kapota (a long coat) and a Yarmulka (kipa): merchants of the first guild had to pay a total of 50 rubles a year, from the second guild 30 rubles, and from the third guild 20 rubles a year. The others paid 10 rubles a year and an additional 10 rubles for the permission to wear a kipa.
Jewish Kaunas grew and developed. Jews from the surrounding villages and towns flocked to the city. In 1897, the number of Jewish residents in Kaunas reached 25,448, making up 36% of the population (compared with 25.6% Russians, 22.8% Poles, 6.8% Lithuanians, 4.7% Germans). The Jews enjoyed a relative majority in this multi-national and multi-lingual city and left their mark on it.
Religious Institutions and Rabbis
The development of the community of Vilijampole, namely Slobodka, preceded that of Kaunas. But eventually Slobodka became part of Kaunas so it is proper to begin the history of the community with Slobodka.
Although Slobodka already had a prayer house in the 16th century, their Jews received their religious services from the community of Kedainiai. It too, like every other developing settlement, aimed to be self-sufficient. The process of developing from a settlement to a community runs parallel with two central events and apparently was aided by those events: on the local level it was the expulsion of the Jews of Kaunas (Vilijampole was built from the ruins of Kaunas) and on the national level the annulment of the Council of Lithuania, which was the autonomous leadership of Lithuania's Jews.
It is not certain who were the first Rabbis in Slobodka, yet it is reasonable to assume that they were the names mentioned in the Chevra Kadisha record book, such as: Menachem Mendel Segal, and especially Moshe Soloveitshik, who was already famous as a key lobbyist and who greatly influenced the consolidation of the community's institutions. His name is mentioned in the Chevra Kadisha record book with regard to the construction of the fence around the public bath. In 1772, he built the great synagogue and his being nominated as a Rabbi came after that event.
A great crowd of Jews celebrated the inauguration of the synagogue with great joy. The architect and the builders were Italians, a custom that flourished in Poland-Lithuania during that period. It was a very large building, made of whole stones and with thick walls. It had much in common with the great synagogue in Vilnius. The inscription on the entrance read: I was a sanctuary for them (Ezekiel, 11:16). Painters ornamented the ceiling; its walls were covered with psalms, and the pulpit and the Holy Ark were designed by artists. 100 years later, the building burned down in the great fire of 1892. Only the exterior walls remained standing after this devastation; they too collapsed after WWI and a Talmud Torah was built in its place.
The Jews of Kaunas returned to their city after the expulsion decree was annulled, but they continued to depend on the Slobodka community for many years. As noted above, each Jewish settler in Kaunas was required to receive an approval from the chiefs of the community and defray his share in the Soloveitshik brothers' lobbying costs; it was forbidden to sell a house or a lot to a Christian; according to tradition, an existing ruling forbade the Jews of Kaunas to build a synagogue (they had to settle for a prayer house) and a cemetery; a special contract between the two communities did not allow for the Jews of Kaunas to have a Rabbi and a Rabbinical judge for a period of 10 years, and even after that period they needed the consent of the Slobodka community. As long as the number of Jews in Kaunas was less than the number of Jews in Slobodka, they were also not permitted to have a cantor and a Shamash (orderly). In Kaunas proper they were allowed to appoint only a Moreh Zedek (a teacher of righteousness) and a Shochet u'Bodek (slaughterer and examiner).
The societies for learning were the first organizations in Kaunas that tried to address the spiritual needs of a multitude of Jews: the unfortunate, laborers of all sorts, fishermen, workers on rafts, coachmen, porters and others. The first organization of this type was Magidei Tehilim (Preachers of Psalms), which was established in 1790, when the old Bet Midrash was already in existence and it operated through it. One of the society's record books has been preserved. In 1860, 39 clerks and administrators worked in that society. Its members paid a weekly fee and the society was also involved in welfare tasks. One of the regulations stated the duty to be fulfilled when a member passed away: to say the psalms next to his bed and to give charity on his behalf during his funeral: and if he is poor and has no funds, the treasurer shall take from the charity fund and give on the behalf of the deceased (Regulation 6). In 1822 (5582), a new building was built for the Bet Midrash and it hosted also the members of Lomdei Shisha Sedarim - Mishna, a society which was founded in the same year. The record book specifies the order in which people should study together the Mishna and the Gemara (Talmud), and the fees that future members are to pay for purchasing books. The regulations also fix a fine to be paid by a member who missed studying Gemara once a week. Another regulation determined that a new member who is upright and erudite in his learning shall pay a reduced fee. The Lomdei Torah (Students of the Torah) society was founded in 1833 (5593). Their record book defined their cause as follows: That there shall be no persons who stray from the path and are without the yoke of the Law on their shoulders, roaming in the mountains like sheep without a shepherd.
In 1810, Abba Soloveitshik founded a Prayer House in the same old house in Kaunas that passed into his hands, as mentioned above. It was named the Soloveitshik Kloiz (Prayer House), and was active until 1870, when the building collapsed.
One of the most famous families in Kaunas was the Neviazher family. Their surname indicates the place where their family came from, namely, from one of the settlements next to the Nevezis River in central Lithuania, where the head of the family, Velvel, leased an estate. Velvel, who was one of the pioneers to settle outside of the ghetto, bequeathed to his son, Hirshel, his great wealth and his commitment to public affairs. In 1851, Hirshel Neviazher built a Prayer House and named it the Neviazher Kloiz, which remained active until the Holocaust. The front wall was inscribed with the date when the building was constructed. This Kloiz was one of the most beautiful and richest in Kaunas and included adorned silver vessels. It was in this Kloiz that Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught his ethics for a period of time after Hirshel invited him to come from Vilnius to Kaunas. When he was old, Rabbi Hirshel left his enterprises and home and passed the rest of his days in the Kloiz. Apparently other dignitaries in Kaunas also had their own Prayer Houses. In 1846, during his visit to Kaunas, Moshe Montefiore prayed in the Kloiz named after Eliyahu Merkel, which was built a few years earlier. In 1864, there were already 19 Prayer Houses in the city apart from the old Bet Midrash. A write up in the Hamelitz from 1893 notes that there were more than 30 Prayer Houses in Kaunas in that year. Most of them were poorly kept. In contrast to them, the Chor Shul (Ohel Ya'akov) synagogue stood out for its beauty. It was built in 1871 and even Christians came to listen to the singing of Cantor Rafael Yehuda Rabinovitz. It started in the Mapu school, until it moved to a building especially built for it. Among other things, a concert was held in it, which included prayers in Hebrew and classical music. Among the great crowd in the synagogue were Christian dignitaries who held high posts in the municipality, in the police, and also high ranking military officers. R.Y. Rabinovitz was the cantor for 15 years and his successor, Yehuda Perlmutter, maintained the high level of liturgical chanting in the Chor Shul synagogue. When the synagogue's budget was reduced and the choir was dispersed, its prestige was also harmed. The cantors in the Chor Shul were preceded in the 19th century by the cantors in the big Bet Midrash, namely, Baruch Karliner and Yitzhak Leib, also known as Kodreh, whose names were well known outside the borders of Lithuania. Baruch Karliner used to travel with his choir and both of them had students who became cantors in many communities.
All the Batei Midrash and Prayer Houses had societies for studying the Torah, Mishna, Shulkhan Arukh and other studies. There were study groups of laborers and even those of children from the Heder who memorized Psalms. After the expulsion decree was annulled, the first person to receive the title Rabbi and Rabbinical Judge in Kaunas in 1842 was Rabbi Leibel Shapira, known by his nickname Rabbi Leibel Kovner. In addition to his erudition in the Torah and Kabala, he was also known for his knowledge in geometry and was quoted as saying: If my students would listen to me, then I would teach them geometry and astronomy. He was a man of patience and tolerance and he rejected a request from the orthodox Jews of Philipov when they sought his help in removing their Rabbi, Rabbi Haim Philipover, also known for his great tolerance, from his post. On another occasion he supported the coachmen who complained to him that a wealthy crops merchant deprived them of their rightful wages. His patience and popularity also explain why he objected to the Ethics Movement that was spread by Yisrael Salanter. One of his sons, Menachem Zundel Shapira, served as a judge on the Green Mountain and at the end of his life he emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael where he became a presiding judge in Jerusalem.
After him it was Rabbi Itzhak Elchanan Spector who served as the head of the Rabbinate. He was a public figure, well known beyond the borders of Lithuania, and his name brought fame to the city of Kaunas as well. Rabbi Spector was nominated as the Rabbi of Kaunas in 1864 and served in the Rabbinate until his death in 1898. Throughout this eventful and richly ideological period, Rabbi Spector's name was linked to almost all of the public, cultural and religious events that took place in the city. His personality harmonized great Torah learning with public service and he was admired by religious and secular people alike. (He composed two books of Questions and Answers: The Well of Ya'akov and The Spring of Ya'akov). He was open to new ideas and associated closely with Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) and the Mefitzei Haskalah (Promoting Jewish Enlightenment) which appointed him as a Chaver Kavod (honorary member). He was loved by people from all walks of life. Coachmen competed with one another for the honor to transport him. During the drought and hunger period (1867-1869), Rabbi Spector permitted the eating of legumes in Passover and did so himself. During the Shmita (Sabbatical Year) period in Eretz-Yisrael he was lenient and supported Jewish communities that faced hardships, for example, the Strasbourg community in the West (after the war between France and Prussia) and the Jews in Iran. In dealing with foreign authorities he was aided by a translator because he did not know Russian or Polish. He was highly respected in their circles, and the governors of Kaunas used to visit him in his home and give him gifts. In his struggle against the Russian decrees, he received aid from other dignitaries and thanks to his efforts the rulings which the authorities imposed, such as to close a Heder or expel the Jews, were annulled.
Rabbi Spector had a secretariat headed by Rabbi Ya'akov Lifschitz, an extremist Jew with a radically different personality than Rabbi Spector's. But they cooperated in many areas. This secretariat managed the donations for the hunger stricken in Lithuania during the years 1867-1872. During the 1880's, this office, assisted by Rabbi Rilaf from Memel, informed the West about the pogroms in Southern Russia and sent the requests to help the victims.
Kaunas had a severe problem with Yeshiva students who needed financial support. Rabbi Spector initiated a meeting of Rabbis in Kaunas and they founded a Kolel for supporting Perushim Yeshiva students in Kaunas. This was the spirit in which they attempted to solve such problems. The institution was established through donations by Lachman, a philanthropist from Berlin, and was supervised by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinovitz, Rabbi Spector's son and his heir in the Rabbinate, where he served for 14 years. After he died, the management of the institution passed to Rabbi Israel Nisan Kark, who was ordained as a teacher by Rabbi Spector and at his recommendation was nominated in 1887 as a Moreh Zedek (a teacher of righteousness) in the city. He excelled in his teaching and participated in public affairs.
Kaunas did not have a Jewish cemetery until after the second half of the 19th century. Burials in the Slobodka cemetery involved many difficulties. When the snow melted, the water in the river rose and it was impossible to cross it. Sometimes they had to wait eight days before a burial could take place. After the great flood of 1862, the Jews of Kaunas received permission to buy a lot for the cemetery. The Chevra Kadisha in Kaunas was established in the same year, and in 1869 it employed 13 clerks and administrators.
The welfare system in Kaunas developed step by step, mostly as a philanthropic enterprise. The wealthy and respected people in the community established welfare institutions, which eased the lot of the needy, but this did not solve their problems. The Maskilim (supporters and followers of the Jewish Enlightenment Movement) were also involved in these initiatives. The Somech Noflim society (support for people who lost their property) was founded in 1862. Two years later it had 17 clerks and administrators and 320 members. Its goal was not only to bring temporary relief but to restore the sources of livelihood. In order to achieve this purpose it offered loans on convenient terms to wage earners who were in hardship. The author, Avraham Mapu, was one of the society's members and activists. He appealed to the wealthy in Kaunas and requested their support in meeting the goals of the society. The society's treasurers were people that time and again appear in almost all of the community's activities during that period: Rabbi Tzvi Shafir, Rabbi Yitzhak Ze'ev Soloveitshik, Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Frumkin, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Neviazhski and others. Among them was also Rabbi Spector. In times of economic crisis, the society also tried to contend with the problem of the relations with non-Jews. Thus, on June 8, 1888, the Hamelitz published the society's decision to lend money to all artisans facing difficulties, regardless of their religion, in return for collateral such as silver and gold vessels. This aid was provided in various forms. The members were guarantors for the loans that the borrowers received from other sources, but there were cases when the borrower did not meet the deadline for returning his loan and the debt was transferred to the guarantor. As a result, the number of people who were willing to act as guarantors decreased.
The inhabitants of Slobodka suffered from hunger on different occasions and it became necessary to help the poor lying in the streets and also the wage earners who were frequently away from their homes because of economic crises. Public soup kitchens were established and they received support from the authorities. In 1868, a public soup kitchen was opened for 600 poor people and the authorities encouraged the project. In 1881, with the support of Baranov, the Minister of the province, another soup kitchen was established for 500 poor people and the governor brought to Slobodka a wagon loaded with bread and other foodstuffs. The society, Lechem Aniyim (Bread for the Poor), was already active in that year. It sold inexpensive bread to people with low income and distributed it for free twice a week to poor families according to the number of members in the family. Even before this society was established, the wealthier people in the city collected donations in order to sell bread to the poor for a much reduced price and twice a week also potatoes for a reduced price. In 1888, the women's association initiated the selling of potatoes to the poor at a discounted rate. The poor also initiated certain actions, yet it was not an uprising but a request for help. Thus, after woodworkers and oven makers initiated their own actions, a branch of Lechem Aniyim was established for them which eased their hardships. The Lechem Aniyim society expanded its activities and provided help to the entire city's poor regardless of their religion. In 1893, when a cholera plague struck the city, this society established a sanatorium whose patients could stay there free of charge and it sent doctors to the homes of patients who were unable to come to the sanatorium.
The hunger was especially difficult when plagues (smallpox, cholera) struck the city from time to time. Although the authorities opened an inexpensive soup kitchen for the city's poor, the Jews did not use its services because of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) issues. They appealed to the authorities and in 1893 a soup kitchen was opened especially for them which served kosher food.
A few of the wealthy men in the city, namely, Hirshel Neviazher, his son-in-law Eliyahu Merkel, David Shereshevsky and others, collected donations and distributed firewood to the poor. This enterprise, which began as a private initiative, became an institution and in 1888 the association Firewood for the Poor was established. Since the money from donations was not enough to cover all costs, the association used revenue from the meat tax, which apparently was a regular source of income for all welfare activities.
The Hachnasat Orchim (Hospitality to Strangers) society took care of the poor who came to Kaunas and hosted them in a house that was located in the courtyard of the old Bet Midrash. They ate with the house owners which the society organized for them. The Tomchei Shabbat (Supporters of the Sabbath) society provided necessities for Shabbat. This society had its own Prayer House. The donations were collected in moneyboxes that were placed in the homes of the residents, an act which was not allowed for other societies because of the fear that they would compete with the Meir Ba'al Haness fund. In 1888, the society had 345 members and supported 140 poor people. The Maot Chitim (money collections for food) fund provided Passover matzah flour according to a census conducted before the holiday. In addition to caring for the city's poor, the society also cared for prisoners, military men and homes for the aged. One of the ways it collected money was by selling flour (for making matzah) only after the buyer presented a certificate, indicating that he contributed to the society. When a storekeeper from Kaunas brought matzahas from out of town and tried to sell them, the matzah bakers in Kaunas protested, claiming that this will prevent the contribution to Maot Chitim. Their objection was accepted, and that was the reason why notices forbidding the buying of matzahas from out of town were posted in all of the Prayer Houses.
The charity societies apparently faced public criticism because in 1888 the treasurers of these societies started posting on the walls of the Prayer Houses reports showing their incomes and expenses. There were societies that adopted this method even earlier because the Somech Noflim society, for example, already publicized its accounting statement in 1877.
The fires and diseases that struck the city called for improvised welfare activities. During the fire in May 1882 the city's dignitaries got together, and with the minister of the province acting as their patron they established a committee which succeeded in receiving help from distant communities. One of the committee's decisions was to obligate people who received compensation from insurance companies to allocate one percent from what they received for the benefit of people who were uninsured and were left without any means. Among those supported by the committee were artisans who were forced to buy new tools, and house owners who received aid for fixing their houses.
The community also faced the problem of military drafts. During that period, there were quite a few people who avoided enlistment and this created several difficulties: (a) the Jews in general were accused of encouraging military evasion; (b) others were enlisted instead of those who were obligated to enlist but evaded the draft; (c) a fine was levied on the parents of the person who was drafted but evaded it. The main reason for the military draft problem was the lack of organized registries of those who passed away. As a result, names of babies that died or young people who immigrated from Poland-Lithuania, appeared among those who were required to enlist. The enlistment problem also created a difficult economic situation for their families. A committee initiated by Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector and headed by Leib Klibanski tried to solve the problem through economic support and shared information. The committee established a special fund and announcements were publicized in all of the Prayer Houses about when support classes will be given to the enlisted and their families; bachelors would receive 150 rubles and married men 200 rubles. Effort was made to erase the names of emigrants and deceased persons from the enlistment lists and to update them. A society was established in Kaunas and Slobodka that provided food to soldiers on Saturdays. Rabbi Spector and the public worker Rabbi Hirshel Neviazher made sure to provide kosher food to the soldiers and to ensure their release for the holidays. The military authorities were obligated to free enlisted Jews for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, except in times of war. It is told of Rabbi Hirshel that one time, on the day of Rosh HaShana, he came to the synagogue and did not find the soldiers who prayed there on the previous evening. When he was informed that they were taken for military maneuvers he left immediately, despite the holiday, and traveled the required distance to see their commander, obtained their release and returned by foot to the synagogue where the Jews were waiting for him with the last Shofar blowing.
The plagues made it necessary to strengthen economic and medical welfare activities. In 1871, during the cholera plague that raged in the city, a committee, headed by Rabbi Spector, was organized to fight the disease. The effort was supported by several wealthy people in the city (V. Frumkin, H. Fried, M. Bramson). They supervised the sanitation, increased the number of doctors that treated patients, and sent residents of the city to be with the sick. Rabbi Spector permitted to cook on the Sabbath and the coachmen were allowed to travel on the Sabbath according to the needs of each sick person, whether he was a Jew or a Christian. When the extremists protested he replied: We are obligated to cook on the Sabbath when life is in danger and saving an endangered life is the first principle of the Torah. In 1893, the disease struck again, this time in smaller dimensions but it was accompanied by smallpox. The Jewish welfare system received aid from the authorities and signs were posted throughout the city requiring all inhabitants to be vaccinated. The poor, regardless of their religion, were told that they would be vaccinated free of charge. The Lechem l'Aniyim society expanded its activities and offered help to all of the poor people in the city, Jews and Christians alike. During the plague it established a free sanatorium, and the society sent doctors to the homes of patients who were unable to come to it.
One of the most important societies that contributed much to the healthcare system was Bikur Cholim (Visiting the Sick). In 1882 it helped build a new building for the hospital. This institution began as a hospital with ten beds that Abba Soloveitshik established in 1807 in the same old house that was mentioned above. At that time, patients were treated by Christian doctors because there were no Jewish doctors in Kaunas. The new hospital, which was also the first to have a pharmacy, provided poor patients with prescriptions for a lower cost or for free. The hospital was a two-storied building: the lower one was for men and the upper one for women. Each story had 30 beds. Paramedics took care of the patients and two doctors visited them daily. In 1893, the hospital had about 70-80 patients and during the entire year about 8,000 patients received ambulatory treatment.
In addition to the hospital, a free sanatorium was built which was supported by representatives of all the religions: the head of the Catholic Church, the Rabbi on behalf of Yitzhak Reuven Hacohen Schnitkind and other dignitaries in the city. The sanatorium offered help to poor patients regardless of their religion and each patient was treated by a professional doctor.
Near the hospital operated the Mevakrei Cholim (Visiting the Sick) society, which was established in 1887. Three years later, it already had 339 members. It loaned to patients the equipment, sent people to care for the ill in their homes, and provided a doctor to poor patients free of charge. In 1891/92, 1,290 patients used the society's equipment and 415 volunteers supported the ill 24 hours a day. During the days of the 1892 smallpox plague, the society bought vaccine shots and hired a paramedic who vaccinated the poor people for a fifth of the regular price.
In 1883, several young Maskilim played a special medical role by establishing an organization whose goal was to aid the ill who needed to use the healing baths in the town of Birstonas, near Kaunas. It was funded by donations from philanthropists and from wealthy people who were also ill. Until 1890, more than 300 patients received this type of treatment.
The home for sheltering the poor, one of the most beautiful institutions in the city, had a difficult beginning. It began as a commitment which aimed to fulfill a few functions at one and the same time: as a temporary home for the poor from other cities, as a shelter for the aged from Kaunas, and as a hospital for the chronically ill. The building of this institution was extremely neglected. Three of the community's dignitaries, Isar Ber Wolf, Abba Soloveitshik and Nachman Seligman, initiated the construction of a new shelter for 40 people, which was inaugurated in October, 1880. In the beginning, it sheltered 22 people. In 1892, a lot was acquired in a quiet street and a bet khoma was built on it and next to it were built 3 wooden houses, which were to serve as living quarters for the servants. The funding for the building and its equipment was provided mainly from the surplus of meat taxes and was maintained through membership fees and donations. The building was exceptionally beautiful. The entrance had a sign with the words: Cast me not off in the time of old age. Not far off there was a garden. The building itself had two stories (with about 30 rooms) and a cellar. The first story was for women and the second for men. Each story had a dining room, a laundry room, and a washing room. The cellar had a bakery, a kitchen, a laundry room, and a washing room. A large room on the second story was used as a prayer room. The Kaplanski family donated the Holy Ark and an old person, Yoseph Ben David Katz Brilenmacher, donated the Torah which he himself wrote out by hand. In January 1893, when the building was inaugurated, Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector and the Rabbi on behalf of Schnitkind gave formal speeches. Representatives from the authorities and other dignitaries from the city were also among those who attended the ceremony. One of the community's dignitaries, David Shereshevsky, addressed the audience with the words: Man shall not live by bread alone and the attendees responded with an open heart and donated Holy Scriptures, which became the foundation of the library for the residents of the shelter.
In 1908, more than 4,000 people needed support. The welfare institutions which were active in that year were: Somech Noflim, the women's association, a restaurant that charged little money, an association that supported needy merchants, an association that supported needy students, an information bureau for emigrants, a fund that aided families in cases of death, a home for the aged and an orphanage. The latter two were named after Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector.
Society and Economy
In 1846, on his way back from St. Petersburg, Moshe Montefiore visited Kaunas, where he was hosted by Merkel, one of the wealthiest people in the city. The entries in Montefiore's diary from that period note that the higher society, which included Merkel, lived under fairly good conditions. At the same time, Jewish workers lived in difficult conditions. The wages they received were below average. Montefiore appealed on their behalf to the governor of Kaunas to accept Jewish workers in constructing the roads that passed through Kaunas.
The second half of the 19th century was a period of development and construction. The road from Warsaw to St. Petersburg, which passed through Kaunas, was paved in the 1850's. In 1855, during the Crimean War, Russia was blockaded from the sea and Kaunas was its only outlet for international trade. The railway line to the German border was constructed during the 1860's, and the construction of the Nine Forts around Kaunas started in 1882 and continued almost until WWI. The Ninth Fort, constructed in 1909, became known during the Nazi occupation as a place where tens of thousands of Jews were massacred. At that time, a New Plan was prepared for the city. These activities offered Jewish entrepreneurs many opportunities and enabled them to integrate in the life of the city.
Some Jews found their business in supplying goods to the military; others became state contractors, or initiators of new types of industry. Many of them climbed the social and economic ladder, which provided sources of livelihood also to Jewish artisans. A well-established Jewish middle class was formed which gave rise to Jewish intelligentsia. People specializing in public affairs appeared on the scene and the names of some of the famous among them are mentioned time and again in every public activity. Almost all of the 145 people among the merchants' class in Kaunas in 1908 were Jewish. The main commercial Jewish activities concentrated in exporting agricultural products: timber, flax, crops, eggs, poultry and cattle.
On the other hand, most of the large industries, except for the flourmills, were owned by Christians, usually Germans, and they did not employ Jewish workers. The small industries, which did not require large investments, were mostly in Jewish hands. In 1863, R. Wolf built the first liquor brewery in Slobodka and in 1868 Finklestein built a factory for matches. Some factories were also built in Kaunas: a flourmill in 1870 by Leon Ozhinsky and his brother; the Ashkenazy candy factory in 1888; in 1891 Rozmarin built a sausage factory (smoked meat); and other industries. In 1843, the brothers, Moshe and Yekheskel Zimelevitz, founded a printing house. In 1913, there were already 16 printing houses in Kaunas, 14 of them were owned by Jews.
Jews also joined the liberal professions. In 1908, Kaunas had 21 lawyers, 4 of them were Jews. Of the 23 deputy lawyers, 12 were Jews, and of the 24 doctors, 15 were Jews.
The different types of craftsmen (tailors, shoemakers, water-drawers, etc.) were organized in separate associations and each association had its own synagogue. These frameworks were also designed to offer aid in times of hardhip and old age. In 1841, Jewish craftsmen in Kaunas included: 47 tailors, 35 shoemakers and 4 watchmakers. Among them was also a pioneer in the lighter industry, a tailor by the name of Tzvi Greenberg. In 1860 he brought a sewing machine from Leipzig, an act which angered the tailors of Kaunas because they were afraid to lose their livelihood. They tried to get organized and prevent the revolutionary tailor from using the machine, but as in so many other cases there was no way to turn the wheel backwards.
The factories that were built and that hired mainly Christian workers hurt the Jewish craftsmen. Nevertheless, their number increased because they were joined by Jews who were expelled from nearby villages and towns and who were unable to find their livelihood in commerce. Many of them were unemployed and looked for temporary work for their livelihood. Many Jews joined the water men, the workers who loaded rafts on the Nemunas. The difficult conditions of the Jewish workers in Kaunas are described by Sobotin in 1888, in his book, In the Zone of the Jewish Settlement: Jewish employees who go to the market sometimes stand there the entire day without eating anything. They are looking for work, but sometimes they return home after doing nothing the whole day and at home there is a hungry family waiting for them. Many Jews work at the Nemunas port. They work like animals, pushing a wagon on two wheels loaded with 15 to 20 poods (1 pood =16.38 kg) and transport it to the Nemunas and back; this load better suits the strength of a cheap wheel-horse and here it is being pulled by a bony Jew with a fallen chest, thin shoulders and inflamed eyes from the wind and the dust. Anyone who has not seen this sight with his own eyes will not believe that Jews are capable of carrying such heavy loads. More than 100 Jews are employed in Kaunas in such inhuman work, earning 40-50 kopecks a day (one ruble is divided into 100 kopecks) and only very seldom a little more than this sum. Transport work on the Nemunas was done only during the summer and the wages were supposed to support the family the entire year. In times of crisis, when there was no work in the summer either, these Jews and their families were abandoned to hunger and cold.
In order to deal with the difficult economic situation, a Jewish savings and loan union was established in Kaunas in 1901. Although Jews were not admitted to Christian credit institutions, the authorities nevertheless refused to approve Jewish credit institutions. The attempt, therefore, failed. The difficult situation intensified the social tensions which were expressed in various ways. A law was legislated which obligated to measure and register the amount of timber that was transported on the Nemunas. In spite of the large number of unemployed Jews, the wealthy Jewish merchants preferred to hire non-Jews for the measuring tasks and paid them an annual salary of 3,000 rubles.
Another example of the confrontations between the different sections of the population due to the economic situation during that period was the confrontation to move the fish market to a different location. In 1886, several wealthy people in the city, who built their houses and stores in the new part of the city, asked the minister of the province to move the market, which was located in the old part of the city since 1896 (in the street that faced Slobodka) and around which were built houses and stores for the new city. They hoped that in this way the value of their houses would increase. However, moving the market was liable to hurt the tenets of the houses and shop owners in the old city and they tried to prevent this move. Their cause was supported by H. Frumkin, one of the dignitaries in the city. And sure enough the fish market remained where it was.
The difficult economic situation increased the number of thefts and social clashes. Many people sought a way out of their difficulties by immigrating either to Russia or to other countries. In 1870, 11 families of artisans, which numbered 70 people, moved to Rostov-on-Don after receiving a request to go and work there. The community leaders, including Rabbi Spector, accompanied them as they embarked on their way. Artisans complained about their predicament by hanging notices on the walls of the synagogues. Families and individuals left daily for America. Among them were young people who just completed the gymnasia. In 1908, 600 Jews emigrated from Kaunas.
The frequent fires that broke out in the city made the difficult situation even worse. In 1882, a fire broke out and 4 people, all of them Jews, died in the fire. 6 streets, including their houses and shops burned down and hundreds of people lost their entire property. The firemen, who came from Siauliai and put out the fire, were mostly Jews. The books and manuscripts of Rabbi Y.E. Spector were salvaged from his burned house. In 1892, half of Slobodka burned down; the wind spread the fire between the crowded wooden houses. More than 300 houses burned down, among them the great synagogue and 5 Batei Midrash. About 3,000 people remained without shelter and depended on the goodwill of their brethren in Kaunas, where a relief fund was established for their sake.
The Volunteer Firefighters association was established in 1884 and most of its members were Jews. They were successful in their work, but as time passed the number of Jewish volunteers decreased and they were replaced by Christians. In May 1892, a fire broke out on a Sunday and the firefighters, who used to drink wine on this day, failed to contain the fire. After the disaster, a notice was published in the Hamelitz calling on Jews to enlist to the fire department.
The news about the pogroms in southern Russia in the 1880's and in Kishinev in 1903, created a panic among the Jewish population and was another catalyst for immigration. The Jews lived in fear with a tense expectation that a disaster was looming in the future. In spite of the calming promises by the minister of the province, rumor had it that the pogroms would reach this place as well. In order not to give the rioters any cause for action, no commemorations for the victims of the Kishinev pogroms were held in the cemeteries. Instead, as a sign of mourning, the Jews decided to abstain from visiting the public gardens and places of entertainment. Indeed, it was clearly felt that the Jews refrained from those places
Rabinovitz, a public servant and a cantor in the Ohel Ya'akov synagogue organized in August 1886, a concert in the city garden that played Handel's Judas Maccabaeus oratorio. After the concert, a Christian poet by the name of Alexandrov walked up from the audience, which included Jews and Christians, climbed on the stage and read an anti-Semitic song. A quarrel broke out between the Jews and the Christians. The following day, the minister of the province ordered Alexandrov to leave the city within three days. One of the policemen, who supported Alexandrov, was dismissed from his job by one of the city clerks who attended the concert.
In the populated areas of the Jewish sections in the old city, Jews lived with the illusion that I live among my own people, as though erasing from their minds their sense of exile. Frank Epstein, who was born in Kaunas in 1887 and spent his childhood in the old city, wrote in his memoirs that he doesn't recall any non-Jews except two: the courtyard keeper and the Shabbes Goy. The names of the streets Bric Gas (The Bridge Street), the Israel Rabinovitz Lane, The Katz Lane, Neviazhski's Lane point to the Jewish character of old Kaunas.
Education and Haskalah (Enlightenment)
As a city close to the border, Kaunas was influenced by the Haskalah movement in Germany. The two spiritual forces of Judaism in the 19th century, Orthodox Judaism and the New Judaism that was influenced by the Haskalah, met face-to-face in Kaunas and clashed over the character of Jewish society.
The center of traditional institutions for Jewish education was in Slobodka. The Talmud Torah was initially called Talmud Torah and Upholders of the Yeshiva. In the middle of the 19th century, Russian and math were also taught there. A few years later, the Talmud Torah was separated from the Yeshiva and all the revenue was directed to the Yeshiva. The quality of teaching in the Talmud Torah deteriorated and this was felt even more after one of the community's dignitaries decided to build a new building for the Talmud Torah and the cost of the new building came at the expense of the quality of learning there. When a Talmud Torah was opened in the new city, write-ups in the newspapers of that period severely criticized the Talmud Torah in Slobodka. The building was neglected: its rooms and halls are filled with mire and filth; the teachers are not fit to fulfill their roles: the students walk naked and barefooted no one cares to teach them because the teachers require a salary and the mashgiach (supervisor) will not pay them. The Maskilim launched a tenacious campaign for improving the image of the institution and it bore fruit, at least for a while. In 1887, the manager was replaced and teachers who taught Russian were brought to the institution. In 1889 there was already evidence to a definite improvement in the quality of the teaching, the education and the conditions. Four specialist teachers taught Russian, Hebrew, grammar and math. Attention was given to how the children dressed and a kitchen was built where they received their meals. However, the campaign to build a workshop to secure the children's future continued because they all came from poor homes and would not continue their education. At that time, there was a Bet Limud Melacha (a school for learning various crafts) next to The Beginners Hebrew School whose students came from wealthy families and had the means to continue their studies. Another campaign was to improve the skills of the teachers and those among them who did not have a proper teaching certificate were disqualified. Notices that were advertised by the Rabbi on behalf of Schnitkind said that teachers were required to have teaching certificates. In 1886, three teachers were tried because they did not have a teaching certificate. The same thing happened in 1888, when several teachers without certificates were tried and also had to pay a fine.
The public aspired for an educational revival within the traditional frameworks. Already in 1868, a crowd of thousands of people listened to the preacher from Slutsk who exhorted about the educating of the children in the spirit of the new times. The Maskilim, in particular, wanted to establish educational institutions in the new spirit. At the same time, they feared that the rushed to embrace the curriculum of general education would cause Hebrew to be neglected. One of the Maskilim, Ya'akov Reches, who had a teaching certificate from the authorities, opened a school in 1880 with three classes whose aim was to prepare the children of dignitaries in Kaunas for their secondary school studies. The school had two teachers who taught Hebrew, but Haskalah oppositionists harassed the school and five years later succeeded in closing it down. The melamdim (teachers, especially in a Heder) also wanted changes. In 1887, two melamdim, Avraham Yoseph Kahanovitz and M. Shulman, together with the teacher Shalom Khanoch Yaffe, founded a school in Aleksotas in the spirit of the Haskalah. There were other institutions for general education, such as the Beginners Hebrew School, but Hebrew was not compulsory there. Hebrew courses were considered marginal, were taught at inconvenient hours and their achievements were inadequate.
Slobodka, the quarter where poor people lived, was the center of the orthodox institutions. Some have claimed that the first of these institutions was the Or Haim (Light of Life) Yeshiva, which was established in 1863. The people called it the Rabbi Hirshel Yeshiva, named after its founder. There was also the Chafetz Haim (Delight in Life) Yeshiva, which was headed by Rabbi Hirshel Levitan and whom the people called Rabbi Hirshel of Slobodka. He became a living legend because of his kindness to the people, his fatherly attitude to his students, and his graciousness. He encouraged his students to study grammar and explained it thus: when a man speaks with his God he should use correct speech. The Machzikei Etz HaHaim (Sustainers of the Tree of Life) society was established in 1876. Its goal was to enable teenagers to study religious studies. It established 4 Yeshivas with dorms. In 1887, about 120 teenagers studied in these institutions. In principle, they taught also Hebrew and Russian courses, but they were not compulsory.
The crown of religious institutions in Slobodka was Knesset Israel (The People of Israel), named after Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who founded a school of ethics. Rabbi Yisrael wanted to counteract the influence of the Haskalah with his ethical teachings. But his severe demands generated opposition also from the religious communities that were not extremists. It was already stated above how Rabbi Yisrael Salanter started the Nevizer Kloiz. After Rabbi Yisrael encountered opposition, he moved to Slobodka where the Yeshiva, Knesset Israel, was established in his name. Its founder, Rabbi Natan Tzvi (Neta Hirsch) was also its spiritual leader. He was revered by the people who called him Der Alter (the elder) although he was still a young man. Students from all over Russia came to this Yeshiva and its graduates made it to the top of the orthodox world. Those who opposed the school of ethics established the Knesset Bet Yitzhak Yeshiva, named after Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector, who opposed Rabbi Salanter's ethics. Rabbi Spector founded and headed the Kolel for Avrechim and Gedolei HaTorah Yeshiva whose graduates were appointed as Rabbis and teachers. In his will he bequeathed the leadership of the Yeshiva to his son, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinovitz.
Young Jews who were influenced by the Haskalah movement started enrolling in the gymnasia (secondary school), but here they had to confront the Christian students who also wanted to study in that institution. As the number of the Christian students in the school increased, so the chances of Jewish students to study there decreased. The educated community workers in Kaunas searched for a solution, and together with the principal of the gymnasia it was decided to open two classes for Jewish students alongside the other classes. To accomplish this, the community allocated 2,000 rubles from the meat tax.
Girls also studied in the gymnasia. In 1860, a gymnasia for girls was opened in the city, and although an article in its regulations prohibited the acceptance of Jewish girls, this prohibition was annulled a few months after the gymnasia was opened and the words except Jewish girls were erased from the regulations. Among the girls who received honors for her studies was the granddaughter of Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector. In 1885, a second gymnasia for girls was opened. Jewish dignitaries were also among those who attended the inauguration ceremony.
Young Jewish men and women from all walks of life became interested in studying general subjects. Young Jews from poor families faced a special difficulty. The wealthy people in the city were not motivated to support them, but some of the Maskilim were concerned with their fate. For example, the pharmacist Tzvi Hirsch Shafir, who together with 20 others, established in Kaunas a branch of the Shocharei Da'at (seekers of knowledge) association whose center was in Odessa. He also initiated a way to collect donations to fund the tuition for the poor students and thereby easing their daily difficulties. 100 Jewish students studied at the gymnasia in 1871 and in 1881 their number reached 300. In 1886, most of the students in the gymnasia for girls were Jewish and the community participated in maintaining this institution by donating 10,000 rubles in addition to the yearly 2,000 rubles that came from the meat tax. But this did not prevent the gymnasia's administration to rule in 1886 that Jewish girls must sit on special chairs (except 3 girls who came from wealthy families). The most humiliating punishment in the eyes of Christian girls was the obligation to sit in the seats of Jewish girls. When the dignitaries of the community appealed to the minister of the province, he didn't see how his responsibility is related to that act and it bore no fruit.
In 1889, 360 students studied in the gymnasia for male adolescents, 104 of them were Jews. The gymnasia for female adolescents had 310 students, 115 of them were Jews.
In 1889, 12,754 pupils attended the elementary schools, 1,731 of them were Jews. 401 of them studied in the 5 schools that were for beginners, 66 studied in the Russian national schools, 206 in a private school for girls, 472 in 5 Talmud Torah institutions, and 586 in general schools.
In 1908, Kaunas had 3 active gymnasias: the gymnasia for male adolescents had 502 students, of which 66 were Jews; the gymnasia for female adolescents had 468 students, of which 228 were Jews; the gymnasia for commerce had 7 classes with 243 students, of which 126 were Jews. Kaunas also had 12 Jewish schools: two governmental schools with 148 boys and 154 girls; seven private schools with 213 boys and 152 girls; two Talmud Torah schools with 158 students. Apart from those, there was a Jewish Elementary School with 250 pupils. In sum, in 1908 there were 1,485 Jewish students, a fourth of all the school age children.
From 1888, the elementary school had two courses of study in two professional orientations: metalworking-welding and carpentry-engraving. During its 20 years of teaching it produced 530 graduates. Kaunas also had a professional school for girls, which was called Trud.
Avraham Mapu was born in Slobodka in 1808 and he lived most of his life in Kaunas. The city's scenery, which he viewed from the Aleksotas Mountains, was a source of inspiration to him and played a role in his novel Ahavat Zion (Love of Zion). One day the young Mapu met a Russian soldier who asked him a question which Mapu was unable to answer. This event motivated him to learn Russian and this is how Mapu entered the world of Haskalah. Mapu was also involved in the life of the community. In his book Ayit Zavua (Hypocrital Eagle) he takes to task the orthodox establishment for their opposition to Haskalah. In 1848, Mapu was appointed by the government as a teacher in the Hebrew school, holding this post until he died in 1867. Subsequently, the street where the school was located was named Mapu Street.
Among the writers of the Haskalah was a woman by the name of Miriam Mossinson, a descended from the Merkel family. She translated into Hebrew an historical story entitled The Jews in England. For a certain period of time, the influence of the interpreter of the Bible, S.L. Gordon, was felt in Kaunas. Some of Kaunas' Jewish intellectuals became famous: Dr. Dembo, who wrote a scientific book about the rules of Jewish slaughtering and its humanistic nature; Dr. Max Soloveitshik, the Biblical critic; Dr. Isidor (Israel) Elyashiv, who was known by his literary name as Ba'al Machshavot (A Man of Thoughts) and was the first critic of Yiddish literature.
Young Jewish people who aspired to change the nature of Jewish society, used to meet on Saturday evenings in the house of Hirsch Fort in the Aleksotas quarters. In 1867, thanks to the efforts of the Maskil Gerstein and the Rabbi on behalf of Schnitkind, a Jewish library was opened which included books in Russian, German and Hebrew. Among the library's administrators were several well-known Maskilim and activists in cultural affairs: the pharmacist Tzvi Hirsch Shafir, L. Klibansky, Natanson and others. The library was located in the Jewish school and a big crowd of people, merchants and Maskilim attended its inauguration ceremony and were among its readers. The library's administration asked writers, publishers and the public to donate books and journals to the library. But not everything proceeded smoothly: a year after the library was opened people started complaining that it was neglected, that books were disappearing, and that it was not right to cancel the regulation which allowed poor people to use the library for free. Subsequently, Dr. Yitzhak Feinberg, who in his youth was a student of Mapu, was appointed to head the library. Feinberg was a military doctor for many years and he received the title of State Advisor. His medical articles were published in journals in the West. In spite of the great honor that he received from non-Jews, he did not distance himself from his own people. He was very active in his own community and together with Isar-Bar Wolf he represented the Jews in their local Duma (municipality).
Kaunas also had a public library that belonged to the Ohavei Mikrah (Lovers of the Bible) Society, which was founded in 1869. The library's regulations required that a quarter of the books it purchased needed to be Hebrew books. This regulation was followed meticulously by the head of the library. In 1880, the library had about 100 books in Hebrew, books on Jewish apologetics and many Hebrew periodicals. But anti-Semitic emotions overshadowed the founders' intentions and the picture changed. In 1888, the library had 9000 books in foreign languages, among them anti-Semitic publications, and only a few books in Hebrew. The explanation for that was a lack of demand for Hebrew books.
Several events in the spirit of the Enlightenment took place in Kaunas where Jews and Christians met. When Mirski, the conductor of the choir at Ohel Ya'akov was about to leave Kaunas in order to study in the music academy, his friends held a party in his honor in the city garden. The synagogue's choir participated in that event and again it was Handel's oratorio, Yehuda HaMaccabi that was played. Most of the attendees were Christians and the income from that event was dedicated to Mirski.
The Maskilim generally preferred to generate income from social events and not from donations. When they wanted to support a family whose head immigrated to America, they organized a concert in cantor Rabinovitz's house. Among the organizers and players were also women. In order to fund the tuition of poor students, they staged Goldfaden's play, The Witch, in a private home and its income was assigned for that particular purpose.
An important institution in Kaunas was the drama-music society. It originated with a group of amateur actors who staged mainly plays by Goldfaden before Jewish crowds. Many members of the choir were men and women who worked in the sewing workshops. The songs were sung by the crowd and they became folk songs. The play, Shulamit, which was staged at the city theater, received enthusiastic reviews and attracted many Jews and Christians, including the governor of the city. A few prominent people managed to receive a permit from St. Petersburg and the company became the The Drama and Music Society of Jews in Kaunas. One of the people who joined the society was Ba'al Machshavot who was mentioned above. He influenced the society in staging serious plays with high quality performances. New talented actors started acting with the society and later became professional actors. The society grew, it leased a theater with 500 seats, and Kaunas had its first Jewish theater.
A severe conflict erupted between the Maskilim and the ultra-orthodox. The latter called the former by such names as heretics, criminals of Yisrael, outcasts, and resisted the new educational trends. Rabbi Shalom Parush, one of the leaders of the Perushim (Pharisees), declared in the synagogue that learning the language of the country is worse than religious conversion, because those who convert leave the nation of Yisrael while the Maskilim remain within it and influence it for the worse. In order to prevent the influence of the Enlightenment, the Yeshivas secluded themselves more and more and severely punished those students who were suspected to have an inclination for the Enlightenment. If a Yeshiva student was caught reading Enlightenment books he was denied the privilege of receiving the monetary value of his next meal from the Yeshiva's treasury.
The Maskilim directed their harsh criticism especially against the Perushim of Slobodka and its leaders, Rabbi Shalom Parush and Rabbi Yitzhak Blazer. They were accused of ignorance and fanaticism; the Maskilim cited the example that when a child dies in the city, the Perushim send a Rabbi to check the intactness of the mezuzahs. The Maskilim accused the Perushim of parasitism, for living at the expense of others, and even doubted the integrity of their leaders. It was a clash between two opposite world views, between two opposite frameworks about the essence of Judaism and its attitude towards the nations of the world.
The Zionist idea in Kaunas began in the early 1880's. When Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion) originated, the local Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) became active. In 1883, the association Supporters of Working the Land in the Holy Land was founded. In the beginning it had 240 young members, and a year later, more than 500. Those were the years of mass immigration to America and the members of the association turned their attention mainly to people with low income, poor in funds and rich in spirit, in order to persuade them that it is preferable to immigrate to Eretz-Yisrael rather than to other places. These young people dreamed of settling in Eretz-Yisrael and aimed to establish a Moshava there by the name of Kovna. This idea received support from key personalities in the religious institution, among them Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector, the Rav Meta'am (a person who was chosen to fulfill the role of dealing with the local authorities and thereby protecting the Rabbi from having to do so) Shnitkind, the Rabbi of Slobodka, Yitzhak Meir Rabinovitz, and the Head of the Aleksotas Rabbinate, Shmuel Ya'akov Rabinovitz. As the inaugurating convention of Chovevei Zion in Katowice approached, the young and the adults joined forces and became a single organization. Among the members of the convention's committee were again, as in the past, active personalities in Kaunas: Leib Klibansky, Isar-Ber Wolf, Moshe Bramson and others. Since Zionist activities were forbidden in Russia, the association presented itself as supporters of those who pray in the Holy Land.
The young and the adults differed about how to collect funds and what to do with them. The young wanted to buy land in Eretz-Yisrael and establish a new Moshava there, while most of the adults, who were loyal to the decisions reached in the Katowice convention, sided with keeping the funds at the center. Although in the end the two sides reached a compromise, this disagreement which lasted a few years, had a dire influence on the association and several times it almost ceased to exist. The youth association, Bnei Zion, was established in 1888 and its members, who were 12 years and older, were the disseminators of the Zionist idea in the homes of their parents. Another organization that was established in Kaunas was Benot Zion, the society for Zionist women. It was the first of its kind in Lithuania and engaged mainly in cultural activities. This Zionist movement reached also Slobodka, the center of the Perushim, and established a branch there.
Money was collected by various means. For example, 148 pictures of Moshe Montefiore were sold in Kaunas on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Cards sold for Rosh HaShana, for weddings, for Alias to the Torah, brought funds to the movement. In 1886, on the eve of Yom Kippur, bowls for collecting money were placed in all of the synagogues in the city. The responses of the prayers encouraged the activists and the following year it was done also in the synagogues in Slobodka. In order to make it easier for people with lesser means to participate in this effort, in 1902 the association produced coupons with 12 stamps, thereby enabling them to acquire the Shekel by buying a stamp each month.
Aliya activities were taking place throughout the period that we are discussing. In 1883, Rabbi Leib Frumkin from Aleksotas immigrated to Eretz-Yisrael where he bought land in Petach Tikva and Yahud. In 1891, families in Kaunas and Alekostas organized themselves to buy land in Eretz-Yisrael. Two associations were established in Kaunas and one in Aleksotas. Its members bought 5,000 dunams (about 1,235 acres) next to Zichron Ya'akov, thereby freeing land in Hadera and they were among its first settlers.
The religious camp was divided in its attitude to Zionism. On one side were the Perushim extremists who opposed Zionism to such a degree, declaring that whoever permits to settle in Eretz-Yisrael is as good as someone who has helped to build the golden calf; on the other side were Rabbis who supported the idea, and exhorted the people to observe the mitzvah of settling in Eretz-Yisrael which is considered to be the equivalent of the entire Torah. One of the leading oppositionists was Ya'akov Lifschitz, a supporter of Chibbat Zion and the chief of Rabbi Yisrael Elchanan Spector's bureau. Due to his severe attacks on Zionism and the enlightenment, his bureau was nicknamed the Black Bureau. This term first appeared in the Hamelitz, in an article by Slutzky. The orthodox called themselves the Untainted Bureau and the fortifiers of the religion and published articles that reproached Zionism. In 1900, the Untainted Bureau published a book entitled Or Layesharim (Light for the Righteous [Honest, Straightforward]) which included a manifest by Rabbis against Zionism. This attack was met by the supporters and activists of Zionism, especially by Zalman Vilk and A.B. Wolf. In the same year that Light for the Righteous appeared, the Zionist activists in Kaunas published a collection of articles by Rabbi S.Y. Rabinovitz entitled Religion and Nationality, which stressed the right and privilege to cultivate the Zionist idea. Subsequently, the bureau's influence weakened and the controversy abated.
During the time of Herzl, as the Zionist Movement was developing, local activities expanded and became more variegated. Herzl had many supporters in Kaunas and in 1903, when the train that transported him from Vilnius passed through Kaunas, 2000 people waited at the station, hoping to see the face of the leader. But the train's coaches remained locked, apparently due to an order from the authorities.
The religious Zionists set up their own organization which they called Shlom Zion (The Welfare of Zion). The elections to the 6th Congress (Uganda Congress) were held in separate synagogues. A.B. Wolf and Moshe Bramson were among the elected religious Zionists. The other camp also elected people from the religious establishment, for example, Rabbi S.Y. Rabinovitz, who was already a delegate in the Second Congress. During the Uganda Crisis, the Zionists in Kaunas openly opposed the resolutions reached at the Kharkov Congress that threatened to split the Zionist organization.
The Barkai association was founded for the purpose of promoting the Zionist cause in Kaunas. It had a publishing house by the same name and published pamphlets in Hebrew and Yiddish. One of its activists was the Haskala writer, Arie Leib Avigdor. In 1901, Eliezer Ben Yehuda visited Kaunas and a festive reception was held in his honor at Dr. Frumkin's house, who was Ben Yehuda's brother-in-law. In order to disseminate the dictionary, a committee was elected headed by A.B. Wolf.
Shalom Betsalel Tsadikov, a native of Kaunas, sermonized about Zionism in the new Bet Midrash. In the beginning of the century Tsadikov, while on a mission on behalf of the Mizrahi, preached in many settlements and encouraged the establishment of new Zionist associations. He immigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1906 and later returned to Kaunas on a mission as a representative of his party. WWI prevented him from returning to Eretz-Yisrael and he passed away in the Diaspora.
A library in the name of Avraham Mapu was opened in 1908 as part of the cultural activities of the Zionist movement. It was active until WWII and was one of the most important libraries in Lithuania. The permit for establishing the library was acquired due to efforts by several Zionist intercessors: Dr. Abba Lapin, Dr. Yitzhak Feinberg, Asher-Bar Wolf and Dr. David-Mordechai Schwartz. The library was built during a period of severe oppression, which began when Russia was defeated in the war with Japan, a time when almost any activity was seen as revolutionary and was outlawed. Before WWI, the Mapu Library was the main source for disseminating Modern Hebrew culture and for strengthening national feelings. The library was funded by membership dues and by income from cultural events. It hosted conferences and lectures and its reading hall overflowed with readers, mostly teenagers and some students from the Yeshivas in Kaunas and Slobodka, who came to read in spite of severe restrictions of the Yeshivas' leaders. In its first year, the library had 3,500 volumes; 46% of them were in Hebrew, 29% in Yiddish, and the other 25% were in other languages. Four years later it had 4,600 volumes and the number of visitors in the reading hall reached 10,606. After the Holocaust, hundreds of volumes that survived from the Mapu library, made their way to Bet HaSefarim (The House of Books) in Jerusalem. About 500 of them were given to the Dimona public library.
On the eve of WWI, the Tzeirei Zion (the Youth of Zion) segment of the Eretz Yisrael HaOveded party in Kaunas established a youth organization whose aim was to settle in Eretz-Yisrael.
The Bund was a tough rival to Zionism and competed with it. Several people who later became central figures in the movement were already active in Kaunas in the early 1890's, a few years before the Bund was founded in 1897. Prominent among them were a few revolutionaries who came from Vilnius: a seamstress by the name of Liza, a brush worker by the name of Alter Shevitz, and the most important one of them, Noah Portnoi, was a teacher in the Jewish National School. They were joined by a local worker, an engraver by the name of Klebanov, and together they established in Kaunas an important revolutionary core. Noah Portnoi was arrested in 1895 and was exiled to Siberia. He later became the esteemed leader of the Bund in Poland. The movement expanded, the revolutionary groups crystallized according to their professions and the revolutionary idea attracted more activists and supporters from the intelligentsia and from the Noar HaLomed (Studying Youth). The location of Kaunas as a border city made it a transit station for smuggling revolutionary literature into the interior of Russia. The underground materials and the revolutionary ideas they contained won the hearts of its Kaunas readers before reaching their destination. The Bund's center of propaganda in the city was in the brush factories, an industry that employed many Jewish workers and their organization was the first union of Jewish professional workers in Russia. The Bund branch in Kaunas had under its subordination eight branches in other settlements.
A fairly stable revolutionary base was established in Kaunas. When the central committee of the Bund in Vilnius and the editors of its journal Arbeiter Shtime (The Voice of the Workers) were arrested, Kaunas became the center of the Bund's activities. As a result, the movement's second conference (1898) and the third conference (1899) were held in Kaunas. The latter was especially important because it dealt with the problem of nationality. Kaunas' delegate to this conference was Semion Klibanski, a student and the son of a family of wealthy merchants.
The organization weakened after members of the revolutionary intelligentsia were arrested. In 1900, an attempt was made to restore it and this time almost all of its organizers came from the ranks of the workers. Three female workers established a new active committee and they also participated in the central committee which included two other female workers, five male workers, and one clerk.
The Bund was very active during the 1905 revolution. After the events of January 9, that is, the Red Sunday, when the czar's soldiers fired at workers who marched peacefully in St. Petersburg towards the Winter Palace, the Bund protested and declared a strike. In Kaunas the strike lasted for seven days. Non-Jewish workers also took part in it. Due to the protest, the workers managed to shorten the day's work and receive higher wages. During the war between Russia and Japan, the Bund published announcements in Yiddish, Polish and Russian and called to strike against military draft. In December, the Bund, together with the Lithuanian Social-Democratic party held a strike. The workers' demonstration was also joined by school children.
The children and youth were organized and active within the Small Bund, and the organization in Kaunas was the center of similar organizations in the area. Those youth boycotted an employer who employed one of their members and harmed him. The revolutionary spirit reached the Slobodka Yeshiva and Yeshiva students were also active in the Bund's ranks. The study houses and the synagogues became meeting places for general assemblies.
After the 1905 revolution failed, Bund activists from Kaunas immigrated to the United States and became active in the union workers' movement there. Among them was Sidney Hillman, the founder of the Association of Lithuanians in America and later the president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
Jewish public activists were searching for contacts within the Lithuanian public. After the war between Russia and Japan, a Jewish newspaper in the Russian language, The Kovensky Telegraph, appeared in Kaunas, which advocated for closer ties between the Jewish and the Lithuanian intelligentsia. After the 1905 revolution, as elections for the Duma approached, the newspaper supported creating a Jewish-Lithuanian bloc centered in Kaunas, and among its members were Jewish public activists such as Y. Feinberg, A.B. Wolf, and others. Leonid Bramson, a lawyer and public activist born in Kaunas, was elected as a delegate to the first Duma.
In November 1909, Jewish community workers convened in Kaunas in an assembly that was called Di Kovner Bartung (Kaunas's Council). The assembly continued for three days and 120 delegates from 46 settlements took part in it. It aimed in attaining equal rights for the Jews and to pass a law that would allow for the establishing of autonomous Jewish communities. The Bund representatives in the council demanded that the community be organized on secular and not religious grounds. This was the first time that such a conference was legally held in Russia and it stirred great enthusiasm. However, the committee's decision remained without practical results.
On the eve of WWI, Kaunas had 40,000 Jews. But in 1914, this Jewry with its difficulties and struggles, hopes and disappointments, achievements and failures, its search for direction, the various political and ideological currents in it and the conflicts between them, was to face a difficult experience: the outbreak of WWI.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: documents 63915-63919.
Aronson, Gregory, The Conference in Kaunas in 1909, Lite, Vol. 1, pp. 219-222.
Aronson, Gregory, Pages from the Social Conditions and Struggles of Workers in Lithuania, Lite, Vol. 2, pp. 163-181.
Ben-Isaac, Reb Hirsh Nevyazher, Lite, Vol. 1, pp. 1363-1366.
Lipman, D.M., The History of the Cities of Kovno and Slobodka, Keidan, 1936.
Lifschitz, Yaakov Halevi, Zikhron Yaakov, Part 2, Part 3, Kaunas, 1930.
Stolnitz, Natan, About Cantors and Cantorial Art in Lithuania, Lite, Vol. 2, pp. 573-574.
Epstein, Frank, Reminiscences of Kaunas, Lite, Vol. 1, pp. 1191-1202.
Friedman, A.A., Sefer Zichronot, Tel Aviv, 1957.
Kadison, (Shuster) Leib, The Kovno Dramatic-Musical Society and the Vilna Troupe, Lite, Vol. 2, pp. 535-540.
Shwartz, D. The Mapu Library in Kovno, Lite, Vol. 2, pp. 485-492.
Shulman, Victor, The Bund in Lithuania, Lite, Vol. 2, pp. 101-123.
Sherman, S.M., Rabbi Hirsh of Slobodka, Lite, Vol. 1, pp. 1359-1362.
Shkliar, H., Beginning of the Jewish Workers' Movement in Lithuania, Lite, Vol. 2, pp. 181-228.
Ha'avar, 12, 1964; 14, 1965.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] (St. Petersburg), 1866-1903.
Levitats, Isaac, The Jewish Community in Russia, 1844-1917, Jerusalem .
Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2022 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 13 Nov 2010 by LA