by Zevulun Poran
Translated by Irene Emodi, Tel Aviv
The following Pages are a description of the land, its Lithuanian inhabitants and their history. Of course the Jews too will be mentioned, for they found a refuge here in this country, and lived there for a period of history of hundreds of years. The Jews, together with the Lithuanians, developed their land, established towns and villages with exemplary Jewish communities. The excellent relations between the Jews and the Lithuanian people, were upset in the years 1941-1945 and ended tragically and with bitter cruelty when the Nazis entered Lithuania.
More is to follow.
Lithuania is one of the three Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, on the shores of the Baltic sea. Lithuania is the largest of them. It presently occupies an area of about 80,000 sq.m. Formerly this land went from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and occupied large areas of the land of Russia, Ukraine, Belorus, Poland and Prussia. At present Lithuania only controls areas that are mainly occupied by Lithuanians.
Lithuania is a flat country without high mountains rising above. This is how Yitzhak Katzenelson, the Lithuanian poet describes it:
During most of the year Lithuania is a gray country. Narrow horizons. Rain. Very hot in some months of the summer and cold in winter (20 degrees C. below zero and less, that is 6 degrees F. ).
There are hundreds of rivers and lakes in Lithuania. The lakes are covered by moss weeds and algae. These lakes are called swamps (Falkes). The bottom of the black swamp is turf (peat) (Tarf) which is good for heating and fertilizing.
The soil of Lithuania is mainly clay and does not absorb water, which therefore remains on the surface and creates rivers and swamps. The land of Lithuania is in part "black land", very fertile, yielding a rich crop. Most of the Lithuanian land is good for agriculture.
The crops are: linen, wheat, rice (??), oats, barley and sugar beet. Vegetables and plants are also grown in Lithuania, suitable for woven materials, such as linen and canvas. Lithuania grows excellent soft linen and has linen seeds that are very good for producing oil. Potatoes are grown for food (common food!) and some of it for liquor and starch. The fruit orchards are also important and here apples are grown, pears, plums etc.
Animals are raised in Lithuania as well, such as cows, horses, sheep, pigs, poultry and bees.
In spite of all these achievements, farming in Lithuania between the two World Wars was considered primitive compared to farming in Germany, where the land was ploughed with sophisticated agricultural machines and was of very high quality. In the period when Lithuania was under Russian control cooperatives and farms were set up.
Tilling the land was improved by the use of farming machines. Lithuania's main export was agricultural produce such as: fodder, timber, dairy products, eggs, meat etc.
There are no natural resources in Lithuania, except for turf. Names of towns such as Kazlu-Ruda and Visakio-Ruda indicate iron lead (Ruda!); in the past iron was extracted in a primitive way.
The forests were Lithuania's natural and blessed wealth. The forests in Lithuania cover 16% of its area of land, enhance its landscape, supply wood and improve the climate. The forest is varied and has both evergreen trees and trees with leaves.
The most well-known trees in Lithuania are: the fir tree (Yalke) - mainly for export for the paper industry. The pine tree - good for heating, building and furniture. The birch tree (Berioze) - good for the furniture and household utensils industry. The elm tree - a soft tree from which matches are produced at factories, and also boxes for packing merchandise. The oak tree - which was not present in large numbers and which was a strong wood from which furniture and tools was made.
There are other kinds of trees and bushes of which there are smaller quantities in the forests of Lithuania, adding color to the woods. The Lithuanian forests are full of all kinds of berries (Yagdes) and mushrooms, good for eating,.
The evergreen trees in the Lithuanian forests are good for people's health. In the summer months people would go to the villages or rest homes near the pine tree forests which were used for rest and recreation and for recuperation, mainly for lung patients.
Industry in Lithuania was minor most of the time. It gained impetus only after World War II. Textiles were produced, leather, paper, building materials and furniture, farming machines, electrical appliances etc.
Docks were set up in Klaipeda (Memel) where ships were built and repaired. The Klaipeda (Memel) port was used for Lithuania's foreign trade.
Transport in Lithuania was by railway lines, roads and waterways.
The population in Lithuania numbered over 3 million inhabitants, 80% of them Lithuanians and the others - Russians, Poles and others; there was a small minority of Jews among them, Holocaust survivors. In the past the Jewish population constituted over 7%. Vilna is presently the capital of Lithuania (about 400,000 inhabitants), Kovna (about 300,000 inhabitants), Klaipda (about 150,000 inhabitants) and then, with a smaller number of inhabitants, Shavl, Ponivezh - each of them less than 100,000 inhabitants. The Neman - NEMUNAS - is the father of the Lithuanian rivers. When speaking of Lithuania, it is impossible not to mention the Neman, which is not simply a waterway, but a source of life and national pride. The Neman originates in the region of Minsk, the capital of Belorussia. It is 960 kms. ( 600 miles) long. Near Grodna the Neman is about 100 meters (330 feet) wide, 230 meters ( 700 feet) near Yurburg and 170 meters (500 feet) near Klaipda, where it flows into the Kurian bay; many small rivers flow into the Neman. The beautiful 725 kms. (450 miles) long Viliya - NERIS - joins it near Kovna. The Neman captures the heart of those who see it, with the magic of its beautiful shore adorned with trees and shrubs, and many poets, who admired its beauty, devoted their best songs to it. The poetess Elisheva writes in her poem "On the shore of the Neman":
On they flow to the sea,
riding along the strong current
losing themselves in the waves.
However, in addition to its poetic side, the Neman was very important, as it served as the main route for the transport of merchandise abroad, such as trees and farming produce and industrial goods to Lithuania.
The Neman also served as an important internal way of transport, linking Kovna with the Baltic Sea. Numerous boats, the steamships (called "Kitoriot" by the people and "Dampfer" in Yiddish) among them, sailed to Kovna and Klaipeda and from Klaipeda back to Kovna.
Yurburg was the middle stop on these sailing trips, especially as most ships belonged to the townspeople, most of them Jewish.
The link with the Baltic Sea is very important for Lithuania, for in this way it was possible to do business with the neighboring Baltic countries and with the people from Western Europe and America.
The Baltic Sea is also an important source of living for the many fishermen. The Baltic Sea is rich in all kinds of fish. Another important source of income for many, mainly Jews, was amber, the precious "bernstein", discharged by the sea and used as a creative material for making precious jewels.
The shores of the Baltic Sea were also used by the Lithuanians as beach resorts, such as Zandkrug, Schwartz-Art and Palangen (Palanga) a little town where the Jews would often come in summer in order to bathe in the sea and rest and find healing for their aches.
The Lithuanians, as all the people in Europe at present, are Aryans, of the Caucasian race, of the Indian-European group of people. The mother of the Lithuanian language is Sanskrit, the source of almost all the European languages.
In the distant past the Lithuanian tribes were pushed towards the north by tribes and peoples, mainly the Slavs; the Lithuanian tribes were forced to hold on to both sides of the Neman river, a cold and muddy land, the present Lithuania.
The Lithuanians are slender, slightly above average height, have blue eyes, flax-colored hair, pale skin and long faces, rather similar to the Finnish and German type.
The tribes that settled on the heights were called Aukstaiciai, and the tribes that settled in the west were called Zemaiciai. There also was a Yotvingiai tribe which settled near Grodna, but this tribe was pushed away and mingled with the inhabitants of the surrounding area.
The dialect of the Lithuanians who settled on the heights, became the cultural-literary language of the Lithuanian people. The Lithuanians are already mentioned in the chronicles of the beginning of the 11th century. At the time they lived in tribes and were pagans. They lived in a primitive lifestyle, but the muddy land and the forests assisted them in times of war.
Mindaugas was the first king of the Lithuanians. he became Christian in 1251. He conquered areas of land in White Russia (Belorussia). After his death his sons inherited his kingdom.
Gediminas, the Great Prince of Lithuania (1316-1341) fought against the Poles and the German noblemen and won. In those days the Vilna-Vilnius capital was established. After his death he was succeeded by his two sons -Algirdas and Kestutis (1345).
Algirdas fought against the Russians and even reached the Black Sea.
Kestutis fought against the German noblemen and freed the areas of Lithuania held by them including Kovna (1362). When Algirdas died he left the regions of Russia, Belorussia and Ukraine to his son Jogaila.
Yogaila revolted against Kestutis and killed him together with the German -Teutons in 1382. However, Kestutis' son, Vytautas renewed the war against Jogaila and won. Jogaila established relations with Poland, married Jadviga, the Queen of Poland, became a Christian and was crowned the King of Poland called Vladislav II. Vytautas became Jogaila's deputy (1392) and ruled over Lithuania.
Vladislav II granted the Polish Boiars and Lithuanian noblemen as well as the Christian priests special rights.
Vytautas was declared the Great Prince by the Boiars. In 1410 Polish and Lithuanian forces joined ranks and went to war against the Teutonic Germans, led by Vytautas, who defeated them in the Greenwald-Tannenberg (Zalgiris) battle.
Vytautas also fought against the Russians, conquered areas of land and established his rule there. He granted rights to tradesmen and intellectuals and invited them to come and settle in Lithuania. Among those who were invited to do so were also Jewish and Karaite tradesmen. Since that time Jewish settlement in Lithuania grew. Vytautas died in 1447. After his death the Poles did not observe the agreement with Vytautas. However, Russian pressure forced the Lithuanians to take the side of the Poles. The Lithuanian nobility mingled with the Polish "shlachte" and the Polish language became the language of the Lithuanian nobility.
In 1569 the Polish and Lithuanian Seimas (parliaments) met in Lublin and decided to unite Lithuania and Poland - the Lublin merger -(Lublin Unija) the Lithuanians had no choice but to agree to this. The "Polish Republic" was set up with a joint parliament, in which the Poles outnumbered the Lithuanians by three. In the subsequent years Poland, including Lithuania came under Russian pressure. From time to time areas were handed over to Russian rule.
Lithuania under Russian rule. In 1795 Lithuania was annexed to Russia. The Russian Czars were also called the Great Princes of Lithuania. The official language in Lithuania was Russian and thus the policy of "Russification" of Lithuania started. Use of Lithuanian writing was forbidden. Lithuania became the north-western region of Russia. However, the Lithuanian intelligentsia did not abide by the Russian decrees and started to strive for national revival. In 1883 a Lithuanian newspaper started to appear in Tilzit (Prussia), edited by the physician Jonas Basanavicius. The newspaper was sent in a clandestine way via Yurburg for distribution in Lithuania.
In 1905 during the days of the first revolution in Russia, Dr. Jonas Basanavicius convened a conference of Lithuanians in Vilna where it was decided to demand national autonomy for Lithuania.
In World War I (1914-1918) the Germans conquered Lithuania. In 1917 a national conference was held in Vilna where the "Council" (Taryba) was elected headed by Antanas Samtona. The council announced Lithuania's independence under German patronage and at the advise of the Germans crowned Wilhelm Urch, the Prince of Wuerttemberg, King of Lithuania. The King called himself Mindaugas II.
In 1918 the "Red Army" conquered Lithuania and a Soviet government was set up for Lithuania and Belorussia, However, under the pressure of the Lithuanians the Russians agreed to grant Lithuania the right to set up an independent state. Jews also participated in the negotiations in favor of Lithuania and exerted considerable influence. That is how the independent state of Lithuania was established on 16 February 1918.
A short while later the Poles conquered Vilna and the dispute between Poland and Lithuania continued until World War II.
Klaipda (Memel) was annexed to Lithuania, and here "Seimik" was established as an expression of partial autonomy. The regime in Lithuania was democratic. In the first years of Lithuania's existence the Jews had "national autonomy". The Jews felt they were full citizens in Lithuania. However, at the end of 1926 a military upheaval took place - Smetona became the President and Prof. Voldemaras, head of the nationalist movement, became the Prime Minister. The constitution was abolished and the "Seimas" (parliament) was dispersed.
In 1929 Voldemaras was displaced and his extremist-nationalist group was dismantled.
Antanas Smetona was in fact the sole ruler in Lithuania. The party supporting the President was the nationalist "Tautininkai" party.
In 1934 Lithuania signed the Baltic agreement with Latvia and Estonia. In 1938, when Lithuania existed for 20 years a new constitution was created, ensuring return to the parliamentarian rule in the country. A new government was formed, but before it started to function World War II broke out.
In 1939 Poland demanded Vilna be handed over and asked for diplomatic relations.
Lithuania had to agree to the Polish demands and the border to Poland was opened. In March that same year Lithuania also had to agree to the German demand to hand over rule over the Klaipeda (Memel) region.
1939 was the year of upheavals in Lithuania. On August 23, 1939 it was agreed in a German-Soviet agreement that Lithuania would be under German influence, but in that same year, in September 1939, it was decided by Germany and the Soviet Union that Lithuania become a state under Soviet influence.
On October 10, 1939 Vilna was returned to Lithuania including a 9000 sq.km. area around the town.
On June 15, 1940 Lithuania was forced to form a regime that was friendly towards the Soviet Union. When the new government was formed, headed by I. Paleckis, the Red Army took over Lithuania. President Smetona fled, the Lithuanian leaders were exiled to Siberia. The parties were dismantled. A popular Seimas was elected, 99% of which were Communists. The Seimas unanimously decided that Lithuania would join the Soviet Union.
When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 a revolution took place in Lithuania which made it easier for the Germans to conquer the land. The Germans declared an independent Lithuania but united it with all the Baltic countries and Belorussia into an area of land called Ostland, where they planned to settle Germans. Nevertheless, the Lithuanians took the side of the Germans, particularly in the help they extended in the extermination of Lithuanian Jews - till the end of the war.
In July 1944 the Red Army conquered Vilna and in August it took over Kovna. Klaipeda (Memel) was only conquered in January 1945. Lithuania was a Soviet Republic, member of the Soviet group of peoples - up to the present day.
Recently, under the influence of Gorbachev's "Glasnost" the Lithuanians are asking for more independence, though not yet total separation. As to the future - who knows?. .
Lithuanian language -writing and literature. For hundreds of years there was no Lithuanian language-writing and literature. After Lithuania's merger with Poland, Lithuanian "nobility" was influenced by the Polish "shlachte". In those days the Lithuanians did not write in their own language. However, oral literature had always flourished in Lithuania - folklore, popular songs, stories and tales. They sang songs to their children in the cradle, during work, at weddings, holidays and celebrations. The Lithuanian peasants also had their own folk-dances. Such a popular lyrical song was called Daina.
The first book to be translated into Lithuanian was the book written by Father Martinas Mazovidas (1747), and the first original book to be written in the Lithuanian language was by K. Donelaitis (1714-1780). The book's contents - songs about the peasants' work during the year's seasons.
At the same time there were Lithuanian authors and intellectuals - university graduates - who wrote in Polish and German. One of them was Adam Mitzkevitz (1798-1855) who, although he wrote in Polish, created subjects dealing with Lithuania. One of his books of poetry starts with the words: "Lithuania, my fatherland.. . "
Lithuanians claim that also the philosopher Emanuel Kant (1724-1804), who lived in Prussia, was a Lithuanian and even developed a Lithuanian grammar. A street in Kovna was called after him - Kanto Gatve.
After the Russian occupation (1795) the Lithuanian authors were influenced by Russian liberal and revolutionary literature.
In the years 1883-1886 the first underground newspaper called "Ausra" (the dawn) was published and this determined the unified Lithuanian-literary language.
One of the famous Lithuanian authors, who laid the foundations of the new Lithuanian literature was Vincas Kudirka (1858-1899). One of Kudirka's songs - "Lithuania our fatherland" - "Lietuva tevine musu" was chosen as Lithuania's national anthem.
The authoress Julia Zemaite (1845-1921) described the life of the peasants in the village. The most famous poet of the generation of national awakening - rather like our Bialik - was Maironis (1862-1932). Karova (?) Mickevicius was also greatly admired (1882-1954).
Lithuanian literature flourished in independent Lithuania until it was conquered by the Soviet Union (1940). Till today Lithuanian authors and poets are influenced by the socialist realism common in the Soviet Union. The socio-cultural changes taking place in the Soviet Union at present will probably also influence the character and spirit of Lithuanian literature.
In conclusion we would like to add that the Jews too assisted in the development of the Lithuanian language (Avraham Kissin and others) and its literature. Yitzhak Meras, the Jewish-Lithuanian author, presently lives in Israel and writes in Lithuanian which is translated into Hebrew.
When did the Jews arrive in Lithuania? There are no historic documents in this respect, but it is most likely that by the 10th century there were Jews in Lithuania, individuals as well as groups, who served as brokers and go-between in matters of trade. They established connections between tradesmen in southern Russia and the commercial towns on the shore of the Baltic Sea.
Jewish immigrants arrived in Lithuania in two ways. The first were immigrants from the Kaukasus, Krim and southern Russia. The names of these Jews and their customs resembled those of the Russians. There were Jews who came from the other direction,
in the days of the crusaders in the 10th-13th centuries, from western Europe, mainly from Germany. In the days of the crusaders the German Jews were persecuted and they had to emigrate to the north, that is how they arrived in Lithuania, where Christianity had not yet taken root. These Jews brought the Yiddish language along with them, other names and customs influenced by the Germans. Till now it is possible to distinguish between the two streams of immigration according to the color of their skin: the German Jews were light in color while the Russian Jews were dark skinned. The names were also different, those who came from Germany carried names such as Weissberg, Zucker, Sternberg, Grosman etc. Those who came from Russia were called Ansky, Kaplansky, Rabinov, Ritov etc. Most of them spoke Russian and a few of them Tatarit. After a couple of hundreds of years the two streams of immigration merged and became one division. There was no trace left of the differences. Over the years the merger created the Jewish type of the special "Litvak" character.
Jews who were not particularly fond of the Litvaks criticized them and their supporters blessed them. This is how the late Professor Klausner describes the two groups: "The Lithuanian, i.e. the Lithuanian Jew, is dry: mind wins over feeling. He is "Mithnaged" "refuser" and lacks the sparkle and enthusiasm of the "Hassid".
The Lithuanian is clever, sharp-witted and outwits the Polish Jew and the Podoliholini Jew and, needless to say, the German and western-European Jew; however, this cleverness has a certain element of guile, which the Lithuanian uses to cheat the Jews of Poland and the other countries. The Ashkenazi Jews said the Lithuanian Jew's fear of God was not deeply rooted and sincere and he was suspected of concealed heresy and of thinking lightly of religious customs and obligations.
That is how the Lithuanian was criticized, but even his enemies recognized his great attributes:
"The Lithuanian is a "Talmid Haham", knows the Torah better than other Jews and takes his Torah with him wherever he goes. On his many wanderings, caused by his poverty, he spreads the word of the Bible. The learned scholars, rabbis, cantors and shamases (caretakers), all these Jews carrying out the religious duties and included in the name "kley kodesh" come from this group. The intellectuals and Hebrew authors come from Lithuania as well, and not only from eastern Europe, most of the "learned men" and Torah teachers come from Lithuania,and this applies to western Europe as well as to the United States."
Under the rule of King Gadiminas the Jews received a bill of rights ensuring protection of body and property as well as freedom of trade, craft and religious observation.
The great prince Vytautas brought Jews to Lithuania, tradesmen and craftsmen, when he fought against the Tatars of the Krim peninsula and southern Russia. At that time he also brought Karaites, a group that separated from the Jews, to Lithuania; Vytautas
allowed this tribe to set up a Karaite community in Trakai (1399). This community exists until today.
In 1495 Alexander Jagelon threw the Jews out of Lithuania and confiscated their property. However, in 1503, after he was appointed King of Poland, he allowed them to return and their property was returned.
When Lithuania and Poland merged into one state, the Lithuanian "nobility" received the same rights as the Polish "shlachte". The situation of the Jews did not improve.
In the 16th century the "Committee of the Lithuanian State" was created in which the main communities were represented by leaders ("Heads of State") and rabbis. The "Committee of the Lithuanian State" collected taxes for the requirements of the communities. In 1633 the Jews received a bill of rights.
Lithuania became known as a Torah center. Students from Poland and Russia came to the yeshivas there. However, the pogroms of Hemlenitzky - decrees of (1648-9) - destroyed and annihilated the Jews of Lithuania. In 1764 the "Committees of the Lithuanian State" were cancelled and a one-year levy of gold was imposed on every Jew, from the age of one year old.
In 1795 the Russians conquered Lithuania and Russification of the population started. The Russians allowed the Jews to attend the general schools and encouraged them to work on the land and in industry.
Czar Nicholas I ordered the enlistment of Jewish youngsters [into the army] and children for 25 years (the "Cantonists"). The children were brought up in peasant homes in Siberia, in the spirit of Christianity, while they were totally cut off from their parents and the Jewish community. Army service was very long. This terrible decree divided the Jewish community, for the rich people found a way to set their children free while the poor Jews were forced to carry out their duty. The "recruitment" of the children was carried out by Jewish kidnappers who handed them over to the authorities.
When Czar Alexander II came to power in Russia he canceled the "recruitment" of the children and allowed large traders and high-school graduates to settle in the large cities, outside the settlement area. The settlement area was also reduced. The Jews were ordered to live together in small towns. The Czar wanted to spread education among the Jews. And indeed, many of them studied and learned, yet did not mingle with the people of the land. Education led the younger generation not only to study and get acquainted with the foreign culture, but also to develop their Jewish-Hebrew culture.
Learned scholars and authors writing in the Hebrew language sprung up from among the Jews. A Jewish printing house of the " Rom Widow and Brothers " was opened. A study center for rabbis and teachers was set up. Indeed, the youngsters made good use of the opportunity to study and gain an education. The custom of a " government appointed community rabbi" was established for purposes of registration etc.; and a rabbi who was a publicly accepted yeshiva graduate.
Under the rule of Alexander III the situation of the Jews got worse and emigration to western Europe and the U.S.A. increased. At that time Jews who did not believe in a solution by emigrating from one Diaspora to another set up the "Hibat Zion" (Love of Zion) movement, with the aim of emigrating to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and establishing Hebrew settlements there.
The first alyiah (immigration) to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) started in 1882. The Jews of Lithuania were among the first to set up settlements for tilling the land. However, many good youngsters did not chose the way of "Hibat Zion" but devoted their energy and strength to underground activity against the Czarist regime.
In 1897 Dr. Herzl convened the representatives of Hovevey Zion from all the countries to the Zionist Congress - the first Zionist Congress in Basel. After lengthy debates the Congress decided to establish the World Zionist Federation, with the following purpose: "Zionism strives to create a fatherland for the people of Israel in the Land of Israel as ensured by general rule". Dr. Benjamin Zeev Herzl was elected President of the World Zionist Federation. At first, response was minor to the Zionist Federation, but from one congress to another activities increased, it gained momentum and created tools for building Jewish settlement in historic Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Lithuanian representatives fulfilled an important task in the congress and subsequent activities.
The second alyiah (1904-1914) was an immigration of unmarried working youngsters, unlike the first immigration, when families arrived with their own financial means.
The Jews of Lithuania showed great sympathy for the activities of the Zionist Federation. In 1903 Dr. Herzl returned from a visit to Russia and stopped over at Vilna. He was enthusiastically received by all the Jews of the town.
In 1905 a revolution took place in Russia. The "Duma" (Parliament) was elected. The Jews hoped they would be able to participate in government and that their situation would improve. However, after a short while the "Duma" was dispersed and hope abided.
In World War I (1914-1918) the Jews of the Kovna region were banished to Russia, among them Jews from Yurburg, and only when the war ended were they allowed to return to their homes in independent Lithuania. Vilna was conquered by the Poles and Kovna became their temporary capital. The Jewish population within the reduced borders of Lithuania numbered about 160,000 people, i.e. over 7% of the total population. In the first years of Lithuania's independence the Jews attained national-cultural autonomy and self rule on matters pertaining to the Jews. However, even after the autonomy was canceled, the Jews were allowed to act in the cultural spheres. The primary schools were financed by the government, but not the high schools. The schools in general educated their pupils in a nationalist-Zionist spirit. And so did the religious schools ("Yavne"), except for a number of Yiddishist schools. There were large yeshivas as well in Slabodka and Teltz, which were among the most famous in the world. There was a Hebrew Teachers College in Lithuania as well - "Tarbuth" - which was recognized by the government. Furthermore, there was a chair for Hebrew studies at the Lithuanian university in Kovna, headed by Dr. H.N. Shapira. A few daily newspapers appeared in Lithuania in Yiddish and Hebrew periodicals. There was a Hebrew drama studio as well and a Jewish theater. Hebrew Jewish student organizations were active at the university. Zionist parties - General Zionists, Youngsters of Zion, Z.S.I. Workers Movement, the Revisionists and Mizrahi. There were sports clubs as well for the youngsters - Maccabi, V.A.K.and Hehalutz and Hehalutz Hatzair, the Scouts, Shomer Hatzair, Beitar, Hamizrahi youth movement etc.
In the last years the economic situation of the Jews deteriorated. The Government restricted the tradesmen and forbade them to deal in import/export business; many of them fell into poverty.
When Vilna was annexed to Lithuania, right before World War II, the Jewish population numbered about 250,000 people. The Soviet regime canceled Hebrew education and dismantled the Zionist parties and Zionist youth movements. Many Zionists and rich Jews and yeshiva students were exiled to Siberia.
The Holocaust in Lithuania started the moment the Nazi warriors [soldiers] entered Lithuania. Only few [Jews] managed to escape. Small communities were destroyed and wiped out by the Nazis and their Lithuanian helpers, already in the first days of the invasion; their belongings were taken away and their houses demolished.
The nationalist Lithuanians organized themselves into "activist partisans" and helped the Nazis to destroy the small communities. Only three communities in fact existed for a longer period of time - Vilna, Kovna and Shavl, where ghettoes were set up for Jews in small areas. At Ponivezh and Keidan there were only labor camps. The Jews in the ghetto were forced to wear a yellow badge. The elderly, children and weak were executed. In Kovna at Fort 7 and 9 and in Vilna at Ponar. The healthy people in the ghettoes were sent to forced labor in towns or labor camps. Many were sent to work in Estonia as well. The living and economic conditions were bad.
The Nazis appointed "Jewish councils" (Eltesten-Rat)at the ghettoes. In Vilna the council was headed by Yacov Gans, a former officer in the Lithuanian army and a teacher of Lithuanian at the Hebrew gymnasium in Yurburg. In Kovna the Eltesten-Rat was headed by Dr. Elkes and when he died he was replaced by advocate Leib Garfunkel.
(Dr. Elkes died in Dachau. Garfunkel was a member of the Eltesten Rat--J.R.)
Underground groups of Jewish youngsters were formed at the ghetto, they collected arms, went into the woods and operated there as partisans, in coordination with the
Red Army. There were about 1000 partisan fighters from Lithuania in the Rudnitski forest.
Thousands of youngsters, who fled to the Soviet Union, joined the Lithuanian division which fought in the framework of the Red Army against the Nazis in order to free Lithuania.
When the Jewish survivors got together at the end of the war, it transpired that merely 10,000 had survived, and they were but a small percentage of the total former Jewish population of Lithuania. At present most of them live in Vilna and a few in Kovna. There are synagogues in these towns, but in the present situation there is no Jewish community life there as yet. A certain revival is taking place recently among the Jews. A few Jews come on visits to Israel. Although the gates of exit were opened in Lithuania, there is no significant movement of immigration to Israel for the time being.
The Jews of Lithuania who had lived in the land of Lithuania for hundreds of years, lived as in a kibbutz, separated from their neighbors, the country's citizens. The Jews observed their own way of life which was founded on the Torah and religious duties. The Jews of Lithuania had a great and deeply rooted love of the Torah.
The man who personified the rule of Torah, in the mid-18th century, was Rabbi Eliahu Shlomo-Zalman, called the "Gaon of Vilna" (1720-1797). "The Gaon of Vilna" and his students, the "Prushim" considered Torah study a guarantee for the survival of the nation, although they did not deny that in order to understand Halaha it was essential to study science. The "Gaon of Vilna" was one of the greatest philosophers and spiritual leaders of the Jews in the new era. He headed the Mithnagdim-Prushim" who fought against Hassidism, because they considered it a deviation from the historical tradition of the Torah. The "Gaon of Vilna" encouraged the establishment of "yeshivas" and "kolelim" for Torah study which trained rabbis for the small and large Jewish communities. The most famous yeshivas in Lithuania were - Volozhin, Mir, Slabodka, Telzh etc. Rabbi Kook and Haim Nahman Bialik were among those who studied at Volozhin. In his poem "Hamatmid" Bialik expresses his love for the Torah and its studies at the yeshiva.
It is noteworthy that after the death of the "Gaon of Vilna" Rabbi Menahem Mendel from Shklov came on alyiah to Israel at the head of a large group of Lithuanians and settled first in Safed and then in the old city of Jerusalem. That is how the alyiah of the "Prushim" was able to renew the Jewish-Ashkenazi settlement in Jerusalem.
In the 19th century the Musar (Morality)movement was founded in Lithuania, at the initiative of Rabbi Israel Salanter (Lipkin) (1810-1882), who wanted to strengthen rabbinical Judaism by studying the Musar theory as a barrier against Hassidism and Haskala.
Among the well-known rabbis in those days in Lithuania was the Rabbi of Kovna, the Gaon Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor (1817-1896), one of the greatest rabbis of his generation. Nahlat Yitzhak in Tel Aviv is named after him. Torah Judaism under the leadership of Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan occupied an important place in the Lithuanian community.
The Haskalah. In those days the "Berlin Haskalah" started to spread in the world and in the towns of Lithuania. The rabbis fought against this phenomenon and warned the Jews of Lithuania against the negative results of this Haskalah that was strange to the Jewish spirit. The rabbis warned about Jews assimilating with the indigenous population, for this was spreading among the German Jews. However, the gentile education, which was spreading in the towns of Lithuania was completely different from that in Germany. Not only did the Haskala not lead to assimilation, but it even strengthened the love for the Jewish people and its cultural values. Intellectuals rose up in Lithuania, educated people, authors and poets - such as - Adam Hacohen Levinson, Micha"l, Yalag (Yehuda Leib Gordon) and story-tellers such as Kalman Shulman, Avraham Mapu, Peretz Smolenskin, M.L. Lilienblum, and critics such as A. Kovner, Paparna and others. The Jews, who were educated at the universities, spread general culture among the people and raised its standard.
The life of the Jews in Lithuania was reflected in the work of many writers who were born or lived in Lithuania when they were young and absorbed the special Jewish experience, such as: Isaac Meir Dick, Mendele Moher Sefarim ("In Those Days"), Prof. Joseph Klauzner, Ben Avigdor, Y.H. Brenner, G. Shofman, Zalman Shneur, Yitzhak Katzenelson, Yacov Cohen, Y.L. Baruch, David Shimoni, A.A. Kabak, H. Lansky, Avraham Kariv etc. And there were writers who wrote memoirs about Lithuania, such as A. A. Lisitzky, M. Vilkansky, Hirshbein, D. Tsherni, Z. Segalowitz, Bergelson, Zvi Visalvsky, M. Ungerfeld and many many others.
The period between the two World Wars was a time of rejuvenation for Hebrew and Yiddish literature in Lithuania. From this time we remember authors, poets and translators such as Haim Nahman Shapira, the son of the Rabbi of Kovna, who was a lecturer of Hebrew literature and language at the Lithuanian university.
Dr. Joshua Friedman, Nathan Goren (Greenblat), Israel Kaplan, Isidor Eliashev (Ba'al Mahshavot), Esther Elyashev, Nave Yitzhak Gotlieb, Yacov Gotlieb, Zvi Osherowitz, Jehoshua Latzman, Ella Greenstein-Kaplan, Eliezer Heiman, Noah Stern, Daniel Ben Nahum , Yacov David Kamzon, Meir Yelin, Yudika, Sara Eizen, Joseph Gar, Aharon Goldblat etc. Most of them wrote in Hebrew and some of them in Hebrew and Yiddish, others wrote only in Yiddish.
In the thirties a group of Hebrew writers "Petah" of the Shlonsky-Steinman school became known. Among them were: Lea Goldberg, A.D. Shapira (Shapir Dr), Ari Glazman (among the first to perish in the Holocaust), Shimon Gans and others.
The following are the publications that appeared at different times in Hebrew: Hatzofe, Hed-Litha, Netivot, Olameinu, Galim, in educational paths edited by Dr. Avraham Kissin. This Week (orthodox), "Ziv", - Hashomer Hatzair- edited by Yacov Gotlieb (Amit) and Daniel Ben Nahum.
Yiddish literary publications: Vispa, Sleihen, Mir Alein, Toieren, Better, Ringen, Briken etc.
The daily newspapers - in Yiddish: "Yiddishe Stimme" edited by L. Garfunkel (first editor), Reuven Rubinstein; "Dos Wort" edited by Efraim Greenberg and Berl Cohen; "Folksblatt" edited by Dr. Mendel Sudarsky, Yudel Mark and Helena Chatzkeles; "Yiddisher Leben" - Agudath Jisrael (short period). In 1940 the newspapers "Yiddishe Stimme" and "Folksblatt" turned into a newspaper called "Emmes".
Painters and sculptors in Lithuania. We should mention artists here, born in small towns, whose creations became known in Lithuania and all over the world - Yitzhak Levitan (Kibart), Mark Antokolsky and Ayala Gintzberg, Victor Brenner (Shavl), the sculptor Jaques Lifshitz, the painter and sculptor Zerach William (Yurburg), the painter and sculptor Baruch Shatz (Vorna) - founder of "Bezalel"; Max Band (Neishtot), Arbitblat and Markus, the painter Yehezkel Streichman (Sapizishok), who is now a famous painter in Israel, the painter Abramowitz (in Israel), the paintress Bluma Odes-Ronkin (Plungian), Zlipher, Yudel Pen (Ezhereni), the sculptress Gurshein (in Israel), Liova Kansky-Shlatofer (in Israel) and many others, some of them perished in the Holocaust. We should also mention the name of Esther Lurie, the painter from the Kovna ghetto.
Hebrew and Yiddish theater. They loved theater in Lithuania. There was hardly a town without a drama circle. Performances were usually in Yiddish and at Hebrew schools in Hebrew. However, real theater at a Yiddish artistic level was not to be found in Lithuania.
Immediately after World War I (1919) Leonid Sokolov, producer and actor on the Russian stage, founded a drama group in Kovna, which performed a few successful plays in Yiddish and Russian. When Sokolov left Lithuania the group dismantled.
From that time on they limited themselves to performances held by theater artists who came from abroad, such as Sigmunt Turkov and Yonas Turkov, who would perform with the assistance of local actors. The performances took place on the stage of the people's house in Kovna and also in other towns.
From time to time reading-artists would also come, such as Hertz Grosbard and Eliahu Goldenberg, who would read literary passages to the public. The "common people" would fill the hall and be satisfied with what they heard. It should be remembered that there was a regular state theater in Lithuania that performed in the Lithuanian language, attended by quite a few Jews, however, it did not have any Jewish actors.. . .
A Play with Zalman Lebiush , Chai Saliet (Clara Petrakansky) and Arie Glazman
The Hebrew Studio. The visits by single actors and theater groups from Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) (Habima, Ohel) prompted the Zionist-Hebrew public to set up a Hebrew studio in Kovna.
Indeed, in 1927 a public committee was set up that founded the Hebrew drama studio. Members of this committee were Nathan Goren (Greenblat), Nahum Prachiahu, Dr. Alexander Rosenfeld, Goldfarb, Dr. Jehoshua Friedman and Nathan Shapira. The "Tarbut" center managed by Dov Lipetz sponsored and supported the establishment of the studio. The "studionists" who were accepted to the studio after meticulous examinations were: Nathan Shapira, Rehavam Mogiliuker, Zalman Leibush, Haya (Klara) Petrikansky -Glazman, Ari Glazman, Haim Laikowitz, Hanoch Paz, Baruch Klas, Adina Yudelewitz, Arie Volovitzky (Ankorion), Zvi Osherowitz, David Milner, Mordehai Gilda, Haviva Greenstein-Yizraeli, Nehama Meizel, Mrs. Sirkin, N. Gutman, S.Riak and others. Most of them were students at the Lithuanian university.
The studio's producer was Michael Gur, theater actor in Israel, who taught drama and acting. Later on Miriam Bernstein-Cohen joined him as diction teacher.
In 1928 the studio performed the Peretz party with 4 stories: "The Death of the Musician", "Venus and Shulamit," "That's The Way " and "Moon Stories. " It was a tremendous success. In 1929 the studio performed "Scapin's pranks" by Moliere, a grotesque play. The public and Jewish press in Lithuania loved the performance.
In 1930 the studio performed "The Tower of Oz" by Ramhal. Victor Alkaseiwitz Gromov, one of the greatest producers in Russia, produced the play, which was extremely successful. The next play was "The Gold Chain" by Peretz produced by Rafael Zvi from the "Ohel". The public fell in love with the play.
When Rafael Zvi left, some of the actors went to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) as well, among them: Zalman Leibush, N.Gutman, Hanoch Paz, Baruch Klas, Nathan Shapira, Arie Volovitky (Ankorion), Adina Yudelewitz, Nehama Maizel and Haviva Greenstein-Israeli. In subsequent years the activities of the studio continued at a slower pace until the Red Army entered Lithuania which resulted in an overthrow of the regime. Yiddish was the language used in Hebrew education in Lithuania and everything connected with it, but this too was merely a matter of time. In 1941, when the Nazis entered Lithuania, everything was turned upside down. The studio disappeared, as did its people, together with all the Jews in Lithuania.
Most of the studio members who had gone to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) successfully integrated with the theater groups in Israel, Zalman Leibush became one of the pillars of the Kameri Theater. Hanoch Paz and Baruch Klas spearheaded drama culture on the kibbutz stage. The activities of the studio in Lithuania were not in vain.
The Yoel Engel choir counted 40 singers. Its conductor was Shaul Blecherowitz. The singer and famous soloist was Yona Varshavsky. The choir's program included oratorio, cantata and popular songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. The choir's performances in Kovna and country towns were an artistic cultural event for the Jewish population of Lithuania.
The choir was founded by the "Tarbuth" center and supported by the Kovna municipality and national educational department. The Jewish public as well as the non-Jews loved the choir.
After World War I the Jews returned from exile in Russia and established new communities in independent Lithuania. In 1919 minority rights were recognized in Lithuania and the Jews gained national autonomy. A Ministry of Jewish Affairs was set up, headed by Dr. Menahem Solovetzik (Solieli) and Shimshon Rozenbaum.
In those days of glory a broad chain of schools was established for Jewish children. About 60-70% of the schools belonged to the "Tarbuth" trend, i.e. they were national-Zionist secular schools in the Hebrew language. More than 30-40% of the schools belonged to two other trends. One of them - Agudath Israel - "Yavne", where studies were conducted in Hebrew.
Nearly 15-20% of the schools belonged to the "Kultur-Liga" trend where all studies were conducted in Yiddish. These schools were supported by the anti-Zionist "Folks-Partei" (the Folksists) and the "Liebhober fun Wissen" company.
The fact that at over 80% of the schools studies were conducted in Hebrew was quite wonderful, for this was neither the mother tongue nor the language spoken in the area. Nevertheless, the experience was successful in spite of all the problems. The Hebrew school thrived on ground imbibed with the spiritual tradition of Torah and Haskalah.
The Jewish kindergartens were private institutions and were not supported by the government.
The primary schools -first 4 years and then 6 years of study - were governmental. The government subsidized wages to the teachers, and local authorities, municipalities etc., subsidized maintenance expenses for the schools (buildings, janitors etc.).
The pro-gymnasia (5th and 6th grade) were private. The parent committees were in charge of their maintenance.
The gymnasia (14 years of study including kindergarten) were the backbone of Hebrew education in Lithuania. At 9 points of settlement there were 11 gymnasia, as follows: Kovna (5), Shavl, Ponivezh, Mariampol, Virbaln, Vilkovishk, Vilkomir, Rasein and Yurburg. These were private institutions at the expense of the parents committees. Diplomas were signed by representatives of the government education department.
The Yiddish trend had 2 gymnasia - one in Kovna (Kommertz) and the other in Vilkomir.
"Yavne" had 4 gymnasia. They too were private institutions, as the others. The "heders" were dismantled by virtue of the compulsory education law. The "yeshivas" were private and existed in Slabodka (2 large yeshivas and smaller ones in Telzh and Ponivezh). In addition to these schools there was a professional school in Kovna, "ORT", which was of a high level.
Teachers colleges. From 1921 the "Tarbuth" center conducted two-year teachers colleges. At first the teachers were "yeshiva" graduates and from 1927 high-school graduates.
A Hebrew college for kindergarten teachers was held in Riga (Latvia) and belonged jointly to the three Baltic countries. The "Yavne" trend had a teachers and kindergarten teachers college in Telzh, and the Yiddish trend had an annual kindergarten teachers college in Kovna. The parents carried the heavy burden of the educational enterprise, but the Jews of Lithuania managed very well, and they deserve all the credit for this.
Public library. There was hardly a Jewish settlement in Lithuania without a public library or two libraries in Hebrew and Yiddish. There were over 110 libraries in Kovna and country towns and about 120 libraries next to the schools. The Hebrew readers were mainly youngsters, students of the Hebrew schools. There were quite a few readers among the older generation as well.
The residents of Kovna were proud of a large Hebrew library called "Avraham Mapu" with a spacious reading room next to it, where those who were interested could peruse a Hebrew book or read Hebrew newspapers.
There was also a Yiddish library in Kovna of the "Liebhober fun Wissen" company. Most Hebrew books printed in Lithuania were study books and but a few were poetry books or novels. The "Tarbuth" center founded the "Ezra" cooperative which sold books at reduced prices.
The visit of a writer, artist or Zionist leader was a festive occasion in Kovna and the country towns. The halls were hardly large enough to hold the numbers of interested people.
Among the stage artists we shall mention the visits by "Habima", "Ohel" and actors who came separately, such as Refael Klatzkin, David Vardi and Hava Yoelit, Michael Gur, Miriam Bernstein Cohen, Amitai and others.
The national poet Haim Nahman Bialik visited Lithuania twice and admired the Hebrew schools and their pupils who spoke Hebrew just as well as native Israelis. The writers Shaul Chernihovsky, Zalman Shneur, Eliezer Steinman and Yitzhak Lamdan, whose cultural origins were to be found in Lithuania, were most impressed by the Lithuanian Jews and their Hebrew-cultural level.
Among the Zionist leaders who visited Lithuania we shall mention M.M. Usishkin,
David Ben Gurion, Zeev Jabotinsky, Nahum Sokolov, Berl Katzenelson, Nathan Bistritzky, Leib Yaffe, Yehiel Halperin, Alexander Goldschmidt and Zvi Zohar.
Furthermore, there were emissaries who came to train the members of the youth movements and for fundraising for the building of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).
The Hebrew schools scored tremendous achievements in the field of education. However, these impressive achievements of the schools had a junior partner - the youth movement. The blessed activities of the youth movements, in nationalist-Zionist education, complemented the ideological-educational activity of the schools. Study hours at the schools were limited and it was impossible to find time to install nationalist-Zionist values. This is where the youth movement stepped in and taught their members lofty ideals. The movement's activities took place in an educational environment - the club. At the youth clubs the vision of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) was created and its establishment as a fatherland for the people. The aim obliged the members to toil each day for its realization. That accounted for the activity on behalf of the Jewish National Fund, fundraising for the purchase of land to make the desert bloom.
That is why there was a blue box at home and that is why funds were raised for the realization of the Zionist dream.
An atmosphere of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) was created at the youth clubs, the members spoke Hebrew and prepared themselves for training and going on alyiah to the pioneer village, the kibbutz. The story of the youth movement is a wonderful story, full of the majestic splendor of the boys and girls whose lives, regretfully, were lost too soon, following the tragic events of the Holocaust.
The following are the youth movements that were active in independent Lithuania between the two World Wars: Hashomer Hatzair (59 branches - 3200 members); Hashomer Hatzair Hatzofi Halutzi (34 branches, 1350 members); Hehalutz Hatzair (15 branches - 1000 members); Beitar (38 branches - 1500 members); Gordonia (32 branches - 700 members); Hanoar Hatzioni (4 branches - 155 members); Noar Halutzey Hamishmar (129 members), Noar Z.S. (Eretz Yisrael Haovedet) - details are missing.
Sports organizations: "Maccabi"; "Hapoel" and "Hakoah"; I.A.K.-Yiddisher Atletik Club.
Students organizations: Beitaria (90); Herzliya (38); Yardenia (80); Al Hamishmar (129 members); Noar Z.S. (Eretz Yisrael Haovedet) - details are missing.
(The above data are derived from "The Book of Lithuanian Jewry" - according to registration from 1931).
The Lithuanian Jews' love of Eretz Yisrael was deeply rooted and was reflected in study of the Torah, prayers and yearning for redemption. From the alyiah of the "Gara" students -the Mithnagdim-Prushim in the 18th century, the Lithuanian Jews' spiritual ties with Eretz Yisrael grew. Among the "Gera" students were people of mind and matter, such as the Rivlin and Salomon families, who set up new neighborhoods around the old city of Jerusalem and agricultural settlements all over the country.
When many new immigrants had problems they set up a financial enterprise - the Rabbi Meir Ba'al Hanes fund - in support of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).
Following the alyiah of the Gera students, other immigrants started to come, initially very slowly, who decided to expand settlement of the country. These were the of the well-known Kalisher Rabbis, Alkalai and Shmuel Mohliver, from Lithuania, after whom kibbutz "Gan Shmuel" is named.
Before the Shivat Zion movement was formed, Eliezer Ben Yehuda (Perlman) came from Lithuania and he enthusiastically spread the Hebrew word. Young people, mostly students in Russia, founded Bilu - Beth Yacov Lehu veNelha (Isiah II: 5), and they went to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) in order to make the desert bloom; among these olim were Biluim from Kretingen in Lithuania, Horabin, among the founders of Gedera and its head.
Other Biluists spread out all over the country and devoted their efforts to settlement.
That is how the first alyiah started. About 10-15 agricultural settlements were established, many of them by Lithuanian immigrants assisted by Baron Edmond Rothschild.
When the Zionist Federation was founded by Dr. Benjamin Zeev Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in Basel (1897) influential representatives from Lithuania took part, and one of them - a Jew from Erzhvilki near Yurburg - Prof. Zvi Shapira made a practical proposal at the Congress to establish the "Jewish National Fund" for redemption of land and settlement. Herzl's faithful assistant, David Wolfson, is the man Herzl describes in his book "Altneuland" as its central character - the "man from Litvak".
After Herzl's death (1904) the"man from Litvak", David Wolfson, was elected second President of the World Zionist Federation (kibbutz "Nir David" is named after him).
Many youngsters from Lithuania took part in the second alyiah (1904-1914) - the workers' alyiah - they were Hebrew workers and laid the foundations of a new way of life - the kibbutz - "Degania" (M. Busel). They also founded the Hashomer organization (Israel Shochat, Alexander Zeid and others).
Later on, in the third alyiah (1918-1924), of the pioneers, the pioneers from Lithuania were among the founders of the "Gdud Ha'avoda", drained the swamps, paved the roads and settled in the Jizrael valley.
In the fourth alyiah (1924-1929) the Jews from Lithuania contributed towards the building of Tel Aviv and industrial development; By the way, the founder of Tel Aviv and its living spirit was Akiva-Arie Weiss, from Lithuania. Then there was Avraham Krinitzi, among the founders of Ramat Gan, and its mayor for many years. And Zerach Brandt as well, who was among the founders of Petach Tikva.
In the fifth alyiah (1929), the last before World War II, many wanted to go on alyiah from Lithuania, old and young, but the hostile mandate authorities prevented them from doing so. The few who came on alyiah were members of the pioneer youth movements, who went to till the land; they set up tens of "Homah uMigdal" ("Tower and Stockade") settlements and guarded and protected in the days of the bloody clashes and in the World War against the Nazi enemy.
The Jews of Lithuania contributed and left their mark on all spheres of life and creation in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel); on each clod of land that was redeemed, on each stone that was upturned, and each settlement that was erected.
When the State of Israel was born, only a small part of the Jews of Lithuania were fortunate enough to fulfill their dream. Those who came from Lithuania and settled in Israel, took place in the building and establishment of the State - its institutions, government, science, defense, law, economy, culture and education.
It is a great pity and to be regretted that many people from Lithuania who yearned to witness the creation of the State of Israel and to live there - did not have the good fortune to do so. May their memory live on forever in the work and creation of the Lithuanian Jews in Israel.
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