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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
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Translations by Shimon Joffe

[Page 19]

I) Under the Russian Tzarist Rule (1795-1914) - The Pale

        In the shadow of the reform, regulations and persecutions (1795-1856)

After the annexation of Lithuania to Russia, the rights and status of the Jews began a process of deterioration. Like all the other areas along the western borders of the Russian kingdom, Lithuania was now included in what was known as the Jewish Pale. The Jews living in the Pale were forbidden to leave it and be registered as residents within Russia. As a result of the deliberate policy of the Empress Catherine the Great and the three Tzars who followed her in the first half of the nineteenth century (Paul the First, Alexander the Second and Nikolai the First), the restrictions on the Jews grew. The privileges of the Kahal too were greatly restricted. The religious courts were only permitted to hear religious cases. In general, the Jews were under the legal authority of the local or the provincial. Administration. In the beginning, the government tended to permit the election of Lithuanian Jews, as was also customary in Russia, to the city councils, but in view of the vigorous opposition of the city burghers, this was repealed. In addition, the Jews were obliged to pay double the tax paid by the Christians and the Karaites.

At the end of the eighteenth century the Jews constituted approximately half the population in a number of places and in some, even constituted an absolute majority. In the urban communities the Jews tended to concentrate generally in a defined housing area, a sort of Jewish suburb, often called the Jewish street or a similar name. Jews living scattered or outside such an area kept up their attachment to it and with their brethren living there.

Out of the 75,575 taxpayers counted in the 1797 census by order of the Russian Government in Lithuania, 31,159 were Christian urban dwellers, who were forced to pay 67,303 Rubles, and 46,416 Jews and Karaites who had to pay 95,69 Rubles. Following is a breakdown of the population as per census, by nationality, community and region:

Table 2: Taxpayers in the province of Lithuania, by district of residence and religion

District Urban
Jews and Karaites
Total Males Females
All districts 31,159 46,416 22,150 24,266
Vilna * 5,014 6,721 3,152 3569
Sventsionys 614 1,373 477 896
Breslav 826 1,091 446 645
Oshmiany 3,218 3,212 938 1,274
Trakai* 2,329 2,679 1,251 1,428
Kovno * 2,701 2,984 1,508 1,476
Upite (Panevezys)* 3,007 5,836 2,899 2,937
Vilkomir * 3,527 6,088 2,827 3,261
Samogitia Region Total 9,923 17,732 8,652 9,080
Telsiai* 2,500 3,599 1,650 1,849
Raseiniai* 4,305 8,588 4,245 4,343
Shavli* 3,118 5,545 2,757 2,788

In the eight districts marked * which were included as of November 1919 in independent Lithuania, there were 41,930 Jewish and Karaite
tax payers in the Jewish and Karaite population, except for Trakai district where there was an insignificant number of Karaites.

A large percentage of these Jews lived in rural communities whose economies were based upon sale of spirits, leasing of estates mills, fishing sites and various agricultural activities. In addition to the above activities they also bought agricultural produce from the peasants and sold them useful or necessary articles such as salt, tools etc. In the endless discussions held in the special committee and in the higher echelons of the government, such as the Senate in Moscow, and the Russian Provincial governor for Lithuania and the higher Lithuanian nobility, it was suggested again and again that the inn keeper and the other Jews in the villages were responsible for the lowly condition of the peasants. The conclusion of these discussions and research was published in the form of the Jewish Regulations in the year 1804. These included a number of rules which were intended to persuade the Jews to study in the general schools system and to encourage them to work in agriculture and industry. On the other hand, the restrictions of the Pale remained and taxes were doubled. The Jews were subject to municipal government and the police, and had to bring their lawsuits before the official courts. Great importance was given to this regulation in the city of Vilna (which was the third in the number of inhabitants in the Russian cities), where the local government continued to oppress the Jewish inhabitants.

Moreover, it was forbidden everywhere for the Kahal to impose new taxes, but demand was made of it to collect the state tax and to account for the fiscal activities. The most serious regulation referred to the Jews living in villages. The regulation stated that as of January 1st 1807 a Jew, in a village or settlement might not hold any lease whatever of a tavern, a public house or an inn, to sell spirits there or to use as a dwelling.

But, as there was no replacement available for most of the Jews about to be expelled, the regulation was not enforced on the date stated and enforcement was put off to a much later date. In 1812 the expulsion was again put off due to the invasion of Russia by Napoleon's French army and the conquest of Lithuania and other areas.

The invasion of the French army and its disorderly retreat a half-year later was rife with fires, robbery and violence, which hurt the Jewish population as too. In many cases the army seized Jewish public buildings, including synagogues, and caused much damage. The temporary Lithuanian authorities acted for the French, and under their protection imposed double taxes upon the Jews living in the cities. Both as members of the community and as city dwellers, well-to-do Jews were forced to provide huge sums as war loans. As a result of the above, most Lithuanian Jews, except for a small number who supported the temporary government, and even gave information to the French, remained loyal to the Russian government. Many served the Russian army by providing important information, and others were suppliers to the army.

Although the war ruined the Jewish population, and even caused Jewish casualties and property damage, yet on the cultural front the Jews were much influenced by contact with the French Jewish soldiers and officers.

At the end of the war against the French, the Russian authorities remembered the patriotic stand taken by the Jews in the war and in 1814 the Lithuanian discrimination Status law which disqualified Jews from giving evidence in a case where Christians were involved was finally canceled. The governor of the province of Lithuania, A.M. Rimsky-Korsakov, even involved the Jews in local government and assisted those who had settled in towns, in streets forbidden to Jews during the period of the “Polish Republic.” But due to pressure from the urban populace these achievements were canceled within a short time.

In 1823, in the closing days of Tzar Alexander's reign, a new forum for discussion was formed called “The Committee for Jewish Matters”, which was to issue new regulations for the Jewish population. Amongst other things, it was decided to implement the law for the expulsion of the village Jews, and first and foremost those who lived within fifty kilometers of the frontiers, in order to prevent smuggling. At about the same time, the process of giving Jews family names began.

The discussions in The Committee for Jewish Matters continued into the days of the next Tzar, Nikolai the First. He pressured into adoption a law requiring Jews to enlist in the army. According to this law, the community was obliged to annually submit to the army a quota of Jews who were to give 25 years service. Their number was calculated as a fraction of the total quota of “recruits” fixed by the government for each area (canton). However, whereas the quota for the general public was 7 per thousand men once in every two conscriptions, the Jews' quota was 10 Jews per thousand in each annual conscription. Worse yet was the discrimination in age and length of service. For the general population, an age range of of 20 to 35 was set, while the Jews were required to provide recruits from the 20-25 year group. The Kahal was given a choice: instead of providing recruits in the above age category, they could provide others aged 12-18. The youngster conscripts (popularly called “Cantonists” or “Nikolai soldiers”) were transferred as part of their service and pre-military education to far-off places all over Russia and were pressured heavily to change their religion. Many died on the way and during the service due to hardship, disease, hunger and cold. Those who survived to the age of 18 were then taken in to serve the regulation 25 years. Exempt from conscription were merchants who were members of the three guilds, Rabbis, students and graduates of the general schools, craftsmen and workers in industry and agriculture. Besides these, every Jew between the ages of 12-25 could expect, ostensibly, to be included in the conscription quota with all that it entailed. Most did not wish to serve in the army, and attempted to avoid it by every means possible: bribery, crippling themselves, forging date of birth, change of name etc. Members of the upper class tried hard to register as merchants in one of the three guilds who were exempt from conscription.

The fate of the potential conscripts depended greatly on the heads of the Kahal who had to supply the quota of “recruits”. They generally did their utmost not to touch the sons of the well-to-do, the scholars and the important members of the community. Above all, the “recruits and cantonist decree” affected the poor and those who, for various reasons, opposed the institution of the Kahal or were seen as undesirables. Furthermore, since it was easier and more convenient for the Kahal heads to hand over children to the army rather than adults (particularly those who were married and had children) the majority of conscripts were aged 12 or even less. In order to find these children and hand them over to the army authorities, the Kahal employed special men, generally violent ones, called “Khapers” (catchers). In time, the authorities permitted the heads of the Kahal and even ordinary Jews to catch any Jewish man who did not possess a passport, or whose passport had expired, and hand him over to the conscription authorities. It is no wonder that the various catchers and their allies in the community and of course the initiator edict “Evil Nikolai” were the objects of fear, loathing and hatred by the Jewish masses. Folk songs and folklore of that period express these feelings, as does the literature in Hebrew and Yiddish in a later period, as for example in the book by Mendele Mokher Sfarim (in his book The Valley of Tears).

Voices were raised in community institutions and by the Rabbis against Jewish collaboration with the authorities in these matters and against the continuing deterioration of morality and its effect within the community itself. The evasion of conscription by many men and their consequent leaving of their homes to hide elsewhere for many months to avoid the conscription decree caused great economic distress to Jewry as a whole, except for the great merchants.

Notwithstanding the decrees and persecutions leveled at the Jews, they did not join in the Polish revolt of 1831. In order to attract the Jews to their cause, the rebels decided not to inflict harm upon the Jewish public. They also requested the Jewish leadership to assist them and forced them to swear not to reveal the hideouts of the rebels, nor to reveal anything about their movements and such like. In regions where the rebels had set up temporary government they even published warnings to the Jews not to defy the instructions, and threatened them with dire consequences. In a number of places the rebels hanged Jews suspected of spying for the Russian regime. Polish rebels in the Samogitia area stopped a cart full of Jews on the way to a wedding and murdered them all. Details of this event shocked the Jews of the area and were recorded by the poet Reb Shlomo-Zalman Damie in 1833, in his book “Poisoned Grapes”. A great many Jews died of Cholera, which prevailed during the time of the revolt. After the suppression of the revolt, the Lithuanian military authorities published their appreciation of the loyalty shown by the Jews to the Russian kingdom. This fact was mentioned many times by the representatives of the Jewish public headed by the Vilna Kahal, who continued to send memorandums to the government in connection with existing decrees, and those about to be published.

At the beginning of 1835, the “Regulations Relating to Jewish Matters” were finally published, and these included the Regulations of 1804 as well as the decrees, limitations and various prohibitions which had been added since, such as the prohibition to dwell near the western frontier, the prohibition to employ Christian servants (male youths under the age of 18, girls-under 16), prohibition to use the Jewish language (Yiddish) in official and commercial documents etc. On the other hand, schools remained open to Jews, the edict banning Jews from the villages was canceled, and the Jews were permitted to participate in the activities of municipal institutions. The latter regulation evoked much opposition and the authorities were forced to retreat and introduced a number of limiting amendments, according to which the number of Jews who may be elected to a municipal council could not exceed one third of the total councilors and also that Jews could not be elected head of municipality.

The wave of edicts continued. In spring 183, once again, an edict was published to banish the Jews living within 50 km. of the western frontier. As a result, a great many Jews lost their livelihood and property. In 1844, the Russian government abolished the autonomy of the Kahal and it lost the right of jurisdiction. Thus, the autonomous government of Lithuanian Jewry came to an end. A number of civic functions were transferred to the civil authorities. In matters of payment of taxes and conscription of youths to the army, the Jewish community became subject to the Duma (City Council) or the Magistrate (City Administration). Matter of dealing with the conscripts quota, collection of taxes and income from the “Korobka” became the responsibility of Jews appointed by the authorities. The budget of community expenses paid out of the income from the “Korobka”, had to be confirmed by the authorities – matters of religion, prayer halls, everything connected with prayer-halls – while the synagogue treasurers and charitable institutions dealt with matters of charity. Religious spiritual authority remained in the hands of the local Rabbis, though the administration of birth records and similar official tasks were put into the hands of Rabbis appointed by the authorities and were known by the title “Appointed Rabbis.”

The lengthy military service and the expulsion of the Jews from the villages, intensified the migration of the Jews to the towns and cities and intensified the overcrowding and poverty. Only some of the newcomers managed to find an income by trade, brokerage or craftwork. Thousands of Jewish families of the Vilna and Kovno districts asked the government for grants of land for agriculture. A few received such plots and were transferred to agricultural communities founded in these districts. Over one thousand and five hundred families who did not receive grants of land in Lithuania accepted the Russian government offer and settled in the Kherson district in Southern Russia. Many young Jews, conscription bound, fled over the Prussian border and continued on to Western Europe and even emigrated overseas. But in spite of the above, the number of Jews increased in the Lithuanian districts in the first half of the nineteenth century and reached a quarter of a million. In only ten years the numbers grew by 43,125 (around 20%).

Table 3: The Jewish population in Lithuanian districts in 1838 and 1847

District 1838 1847
Total 205,200 248,125
Kovno* 81,505  
Vilna 128,000 68,424
Grodno 77,000 98,196

*Until 1843 the Kovno district was included in the Vilna district.

During the same period, the Jewish population grew in the urban communities on the left bank of the Neman River, which were later included in the Suvalki district. Many of the Jews had made a living by distilling and selling alcohol in the Polish villages until they were expelled. Their situation did not improve after they reached Lithuania, where they attempted to continue in the same business. The visit of the Jewish intermediary and benefactor from England, Moshe Montefiori, infused great hope that there would be an easing of the oppression and an improvement in the economic situation under the rule of Nikolai the First. The Tzar and a few of his ministers received this eminent person graciously and politely, but the meetings did not bring any real results. He was received most enthusiastically by the Jews. His visits to the Lithuanian cities (Vilna, Kovno, Vilkomir, Kalvarija and Suvalki) during the first third of the month of April 1846, were both impressive and emotional. In addition to the speeches, greetings and words of praise, heard in a very festive atmosphere, were also serious deliberations about the difficult situation of the Jews and on means for improvement. A few of the communities prepared written memorandum to be handed to the personage. One of these, prepared by the young Rabbi of Utena R. Mordekhai Gimpel Joffe, brought up the matter of the crude behavior of the police to the Jews, and complaints about the Russian policy towards the Jews. The memorandum also refuted the claims that the Jews were responsible for the drunkenness of the peasantry and that the Jews did not want to do agricultural work. To prove that point, it was pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Jews from the district of Kovno had requested farmland of the government, and only 16 families were given affirmative answers. In summing up, the memorandum requested the authorities to return at least some of the autonomy which they had enjoyed before.

Apart from encouragement and enthusiasm the visit of Montefiori did not bring about any improvement in the condition of the Jews. A few months later, Tzar Nikolai published an edict forbidding Jews to grow side locks (peyot) and to be seen in public in their traditional dress. The police took stern measures against transgressors of the law and did not hesitate to cut the side locks (peiot) and clothes in the open. A further edict promulgated in the name of the Tzar frightened the Jewish public: the intention was to categorize the adult Jews into two classes: productive (razriadim) or useless. The latter were to suffer yet more limitations than those inflicted upon all other Jews. The outbreak of the Crimean war and the subsequent defeat of the Russian army put an end to this edict.


        Between Liberalism and Reaction: from the Crimean War to the First World War

Among the changes introduced by Tzar Alexander after the Crimean War, a number of edicts which had oppressed the Jews for a whole generation were canceled. First and foremost the cantonists law was abrogated, and this led, inevitably, to the end of child kidnapping and forcing into the army anyone without an identity passport etc. In addition, the banishment of Jews who lived near the border was held up, and the limitation on living in Vilna, Kovno and Trakai was abrogated.

The new atmosphere now created, hopes arose among the Jews of further easing of their condition by the State, which now appeared to them more liberal compared with that of Nikolai the First. No wonder that during the Polish revolt of 1863 many Jewish intellectuals (including scholars and graduates of the rabbinic seminaries) sympathized with the Russian regime, but the masses of Jews remained neutral and only a small handful of Jews were prepared to assist the Poles in their struggle, including propagating material relating to the revolt. Once again, as in the revolt of 1831, the Jews found themselves between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” On the one hand, the rebels suspected them of sympathy with the regime (and murdered a few Jews), and on the other hand, the Cossack “punishment squads” sent by the authorities against the rebels, abused the Jewish populace in the villages from which they had driven out the rebels. After suppressing the rebellion, the authorities began the process of Russification: Russian government schools were opened for Jewish schoolchildren in the cities, where they did not have to pay school fees. In many cases, parents were forced to send their children to these State schools.

Before they had time to recover from the results of the revolt, they suffered further disasters (as did all the other Lithuanian inhabitants) – a severe famine (in 1867) and a Cholera epidemic (in 1868). Emigrants from this country living in the neighboring port city of Memel in Prussia, came to their assistance. The well-known thinker and journalist Dr Yitzkhak Rilf who officiated as the Rabbi of Memel community headed the assistance committee, and thanks to his energy and public standing, a sum of 175,000 Rubles was collected and transferred for the sufferers. This relief impressed greatly the Kovno provincial governor Prince Obolanski, who also worked for the relief of the sufferers. At his invitation, Dr Rilf came to Kovno for consultations on the rehabilitation of the Jewish sufferers, and on plans to transfer some to agricultural colonies in southern Russia. A shortage of means prevented this program from being realized officially and in an organized manner, but a considerable number of poor and needy families who had heard of it left for the Black Sea area independently...

In spite of the fact that the ordinance governing city councils in 1870 limited the number of Jewish councilors to no more than one third of the total number, and did not permit a Jew to head the council, the Jewish members of the councils nevertheless exercised considerable influence in their home cities and did their best to defend the interests of their brethren. In the course of time the Jews began to participate in the district government too. They began to be prominent among the lawyers. Professionals, school graduates and students were permitted to leave the Pale. In 1874, army service was decreed for every citizen 20 years of age, but now the communities were freed from the duty to provide recruits. Nevertheless, many potential conscripts continued to avoid service under various pretexts.

In 1881, revolutionaries assassinated Tzar Alexander the Second, and his son Alexander the Third ascended the throne. As a result, there was an immediate retreat from the previous liberal policy and the authorities adopted a hard reactionary regime, which was accompanied by ill treatment of the Jews. Unlike events in the south of Russia, where the Jews suffered violence (Storms in the South), the Lithuanian provincial governor, at the request of the Jews, would not allow such open occurrences. In spite of this, great fires were started by unknown persons, which caused much damage to the Jews of Kovno, Panevezys, Zagare and innumerable other places. News of these events and the appeals to provide aid to the stricken filled the Jewish newspapers in those days, as for instance in the Hamelits, and others. In many of the communities, the local rabbis headed the “appeal funds.” The Rabbi Yitzkhak-Elchanan Spector of Kovno, who was already famous in the Jewish world as a renowned Torah scholar and for his public activities, took place of honor in the struggle against the riots and attacks of every sort. Together with his trusted assistant R. Ya'akov Lifshitz, Rabbi Spector transferred, in secret, unending information to Rabbi Dr Rilf in Memel (Klaipeda) about the riots and violence against Jews. Dr Rilf attended to the translation of the material, the editing and dissemination in the countries of the west. Thus it became known to the public throughout the world, and created pressure on the Russian government.

At a conference in St Petersburg, with the participation of Jewish public figures, Rabbi Spector opposed the suggestion of the Russian Minister of the Interior Ignatiev, who proposed to limit the number of Jews by encouraging emigration abroad (the western border was open to Jews). His opposition stemmed from the fear that should the emigration proposal be accepted, it would interfere with the continual demand of the Jews for a repeal of the laws limiting the rights of the Jews. In actual fact, there was already a large stream of emigration, and it increased after the publishing of further limiting edicts, called “temporary regulations”, but which remained in power endlessly in the Russian kingdom. According to these regulations, Jews were forbidden to trade on Sundays, on Christian festivals, to purchase land outside cities and towns, and to settle in villages etc.

While the royal commission headed by Graf Falen, considered the matter of the “Laws dealing with the Jews”, new edicts and regulations were published, year by year, such as: imposition of a 300 Ruble fine on a Jewish family whose member did not report for conscription (in 1886); a numerus clausus of 10% for Jewish students in high schools and institutes of higher learning (1887); the cancellation of the right of Jews to participate in city elections to city councils (1892) etc.

The policy of oppression and limitations continued after the crowning of Nikolai the Second in 1894. This ruler denied the recommendation of the Vilna District governor to permit the Jews to settle in other places, outside the Pale, because of their growing economic distress. He nevertheless agreed to cancel the decree banishing the Jews from the border area. But this did not stop the authorities from continuing to blame the Jews for exploiting the peasants and causing them harm by the sale of alcohol etc. Similar accusations were to be heard, again and again, from the lesser nobility, who competed with the Jews in the countryside, and from the Lithuanian Catholic clergy (headed by Bishop Valanchius), which began, already in the first half of the nineteenth century, to conduct systematic propaganda against the production and sale of alcohol. Against this background, the hatred for the Jews grew among the Lithuanian masses, the majority being Catholic peasants who had even previously related to the Jews as being different and not very likeable. A further reason for the adoption of the negative attitude to the Jews can be seen in the agitation conducted by the Polish rebels according to whom the Jews assisted the Russian authorities to suppress the revolt. As a result of all the above, there occurred, from time to time, anti-Jewish riots and blood libels in the township Siaulenai (1861), in the village Pamusis (in 1901), in the town Dusetos (1905) and others.

During this period, the Lithuanian press (which until 1905 was printed in Germany), published anti-Semitic articles, yet in spite of this, the Jews assisted in smuggling into Lithuania Lithuanian literature, which was forbidden until 1905. By this time the Jews were involved and active in political life to such a large extent that feelers began to be sent out between the Lithuanian liberal circles and the Jewish national movement (Zionists) and also the Jewish Revolutionary camp, including the Bund. Many of the Socialist Revolutionary camp fought bitter battles against the employers (Jewish and non-Jewish), and participated in bloody clashes with the police. As a consequence of these activities, Jewish youths, intellectuals and workers, were sentenced to physical punishment, imprisoned, or sentenced to exile in Siberia. In 1902, a Jewish cobbler, named Hirsh Lekert, was sentenced to death in Vilna, for assassinating the provincial governor who had ordered the beating of Jewish demonstrators on the first of May. In a number of revolutionary events the Jews and gentiles closely collaborated.

With the rise of revolutionary events during 1904-1905 following Russian defeat in the war against Japan, the Jews in Lithuania, fearing the break out of pogrom as had happened in many other parts of the Russian kingdom, formed self-defense units. Poalei Zion and the Bund organized units separately. Until 1906, Bund members boycotted the elections in which the general Jewish public participated – through the “Association for Rights” – for the elections to the first Pan-Russian Duma (parliament). Thanks to the agreement with the Lithuanian Labor party (Trudoviki), Dr Shmaryahu Levin was elected to represent the Vilna district, and Leon Bramson, the Kovno district. A total of twelve Jews were elected to this Duma. The second Duma, elected in 1907, had three Jewish representatives. One of them, the lawyer Shakhna Abramson of Kovno, was elected to represent Kovno district One of the two delegates elected to the third Duma was the Lawyer Naftali Friedman from Panevezys, elected to represent the Kovno district. He was again re-elected in 1912 to the last, the fourth Duma, which had three Jewish delegates. These representatives participated, together with other Jewish public figures, in a conference of 46 Russian cities, which took place in 1909 in Kovno, in order to discuss central issues affecting the Jewish public. Among the 120 conference delegates were 27 community heads from Vilna, Kovno, Siauliai, Raseiniai and others. This was one of the greatest events held in Lithuania under Russian rule.

About five years later World War One broke out, and at the very beginning some 75-80% of Kovno district alone were deported to inner parts of Russia. A small number of these, who had tarried in adjoining areas, succeeded in returning swiftly to their homes, others returned after 5-6 years, and many did not return to Lithuania.

        Demographic Changes

The population growth tendency in the first half of the nineteenth century was accelerated in the second half, as seen from the data in Table 4.

Table 4: Jewish population growth in Lithuanian districts
in the second half of the 19th century (1847-1897)

District 1847 1897 Growth
% growth % growth of
total population
Total 248,100 697,800 449,700 181 14.6
Kovno 81,500 212,600 131,200 161 13.7
Vilna 68,400 204,700 163,000 199 12.8
Grodno 98,200 280,500 182,300 185 17.8
Suvalki - 57,200 - - -
Total inc. Suvalki - 755,000 - - 10.2


Out of a total of 755,000 Jews resident in Lithuania in 1897, 260,000 remained, according to various calculations, within independent Lithuania in 1923. Of these, 212,666 were to be found in Kovno district, 30,000 in Suvalki district, 15,000 in Trakai and Sventsionys in the Vilna district and approximately 3,000 in the Plunge district in the Courland province. Therefore, in 1897, the Kovno district contained 82% of all the Jews in independent Lithuania (according to the 1923 borders).

In the space of fifty years, in spite of the massive emigration to countries overseas, the Jewish population grew, in each of the four districts of ethnic Lithuania by a factor of almost 3. In the Kovno district the number of Jews increased from 81,500 in 1847 to 212,666 in 1897.

From the data in table 4, it transpires that until the end of the 19th Century, there was a continuous growth in the Jewish population, in spite of the massive emigration to Western Europe and overseas. Simultaneously, there occurred a great drop in the mortality rate in the Jewish population, and a very high birth rate. Although the rate of natural increase decreased with time, ten years later it still stood at a ratio of 14.2 per thousand, in other words, higher than that pertaining to the general population, as seen from table 5.

Table 5: The Rate of births and natural increase
per 1000 population, in the Kovno district (1897)

  Jews Non-Jews
Births 30.8 36.0
Deaths 16.6 23.3
Natural increase 14.2 12.7


While the rate of increase and deaths amongst the Jews was lower than that amongst the non-Jews, the rate of the natural growth of the Jews was higher than that of the non Jews – 14.2 as against 12.7 after adjustment.

As the Jews in the Kovno district eventually became the majority of the Jewry in the independent Lithuania (the Kovno state), detailed data regarding them are presented in Table 6. The data is taken from police records of 1847 and 1864, and what is more precise yet, from the census of 1897.

Table 6: Kovno district Jewry in the second half of the nineteenth century, by districts (1847-1897)

District 1847 1864 1897
All districts 81,505 115,911 212,666
Kovno 13,692 25,917 65,356
Vilkomir 10,883 10,961 30,145
Novo-Alexandrovsk (Zarasai) 6,161 8851 22,981
Raseiniai 13,740 24,607 26,447
Panevezys 9,003 9,268 27,207
Shavli 13,404 18,314 22,695
Telsiai 14,622 17,993 31,835


From the above data we note that the highest rate of increase was in the Kovno district. This was due also to the fact that the Jewish community in this city grew in the space of fifty years, by an approximate factor of twelve: from 2013 persons in 1847 to 25,448 in 1897 (During the same period the large Vilna community grew only threefold and reached 63,841 souls in 1897). As a result, the Kovno community was second in importance and became also the social and spiritual center for the Jews in ethnic Lithuania. In 1897, there were also large concentrations of Jews in the Kovno district cities, such as Vilkomir (7,287), Shavli (6,990), Panevezys (6,564) etc. Nevertheless over half of the Kovno district Jewry lived in towns. 75 of these communities contained over 500 people. As a result of the frequent banishments from the countryside, the number of Jews was reduced from 40,000 in 1847, to 33,202 in 1897. The distribution of Jews in the Kovno district, according to category, is seen in table 7.

Table 7: The population of Kovno district by kind of settlement and by nationality (1897)

Settlement Type Total
Jews in
% Jews in
% Jews in
total Jewry
All settlements 1,544,500 212,600 13.8 100.00
Villages 1,192,100 33,200 2.8 15.6
Towns 209,300 117,200 56.0 55.2
Cities 143,100 62,200 43.4 29.2


In terms of the national makeup of the urban population in the Kovno district, the Jews were a majority - 43.4%, as opposed to the “Majority” Lithuanians who comprised only 11.2%, with the Poles, Germans, Russians and others constituting 45.4%. In a large number of towns the Jews constituted an absolute majority. In the Kovno district, excluding the city of Kovno, 1508 urban Jews were counted, against 2708 Christians, mostly Poles and a small number of Lithuanians. Below are listed the changes that occurred in the national makeup of the population in the district.

Table 8: Population by national groups (in percentages) in Kovno district in the second half
of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century (1857-1909)

Nationality 1857 1897 1909
      Urban Villagers
All nationalities 100 100 100 100
Jews 9.4 13.8 49.9 12.5
Lithuanians 79.6 66.6 20.6 74.9
Poles 3.1 9.0 8.3 2.9
Russians 2.2 4.1 17.7 3.6
Germans, Latvians 5.7 6.5 3.5 6.1


The following data point to the differences between the Jewish and non-Jewish population according to age groups as detailed in Table 9.

Table 9: Jews and general public in the Kovno district (in %) by age and gender (1897)

Age group General
Jews No. of females
Per 100 males
All ages 100.0 100.0 113
0-09 25.2 27.1 96
10-19 21.0 24.5 119
20-29 16.0 13.4 134
30-39 12.3 9.7 135
40-49 9.1 9.4 127
50-59 7.1 7.3 117
60-69 5.3 5.5 94
70-79 2.7 2.4 76
80 plus 1.3 0.6 81


In the above data the 20-40 groups in the general population compared to the Jewish one, stand out. This may be the result of the heavy emigration of this age group amongst the Jews. As most of the emigrants were males, the proportion of females in this age group grew considerably. In the census taken in the Kovno district in the above year, there were 112,297 females as against 100,369 males (that is to say, proportionately, there were 112 females for every 100 males).

In spite of the difficulties involved in leaving the borders of Russia, many Lithuanian Jews succeeded in leaving illegally via Prussia, which had a common border with the Kovno and Suvalki districts. Young Jews began to escape across the Prussian border (mostly to Koenigsberg) and from thereon to Western Europe and America, after the first conscription order enacted into law by Tzar Nikolai The First in 1827. By 1840, over 1,500 Jews from various Lithuanian districts, left for Kherson, in southern Russia. Many of the breadwinners were craftsmen or farmers, but there were also peddlers and small traders amongst them. These families drew relatives and friends in their wake.

As a consequence of the Cholera epidemic, which raged in the Kovno and Suvalki districts during 1868, many began to leave Lithuania. The majority moved to neighboring Prussia and other regions of Germany and settled there. Members of German communities, coordinating with the organization “Kol Yisrael Khaverim” (All of Israel are Friends), whose center was in Paris, set up assistance committees on the Russo-German borders, in the cities Stetin (Polish-Szczecin), Hamburg, and Memel (Klaipeda) to assist the immigrants. In Hamburg and Memel courses were opened to teach them craft skills. The immigration tide from Lithuania grew noticeably after 1881, mostly due to the difficult economic situation but also because of the riots and persecutions, which reached a peak during that period. The majority of immigrants were men of working age. They mostly emigrated to the United States, South Africa, Palestine, Canada and the Argentine. Over the period 1881-1897 some 50,000 left the Kovno district for the above lands. As a result of the mass emigration the number of Jews in the Kovno district fell to 56,733, despite the fact that the annual natural increase during that period (1897), was 14.2 births per 1000 population. Since most of the emigrants were males, a great numerical disproportion developed between the sexes, amongst those remaining in Lithuania. A large number of emigrants traveled, in the early stages, to South Africa via England, but later on, did so directly. Half of the immigrants who settled in South Africa came from the communities of Panevezys, Rietavas, Plunge, Joniskis and Shavli. This wave reached its peak in 1906. After that, there was a gradual decrease until the First World War of 1914-1918. Between the years 1896-1914, 33,88 Jews emigrated from the Kovno district alone. This number includes those who turned to Palestine, mostly for ideological reasons.


        Economy and Standard of Living

The annexation of Lithuania to Russia created great changes in the status of the Jews. The government of the Empress Catherine obligated those among the Jews who were not agrucultural workers, in other words the vast majority, to be considered as belonging to the urban class, on condition that they pay a tax of 2.5 Rubles, or as members of the merchant class (who enjoyed greater rights than the townsmen such as exemption from army service etc), on condition that they declare that they possess business capital and pay tax according to their affiliation to one of the three merchant guilds.

Because of the growing importance of the Jews in the economy, the merchant competitors could not ignore them. At times, it was permissible by law, for Jewish merchants to live in the cities or at least to enter them during market or fair days. At the same time, the policy of applying pressure was continued to expel the Jews from the villages to towns and cities, thus destroying the source of income of thousands, which they derived from the distilling of alcohol, its sale and from the leasing of various agricultural enterprises. This process of expulsion continued, in fact, over a number of decades. As a result, by the middle of the 19th Century only a few Jews still made a living out of these pursuits (generally merchants of the first guild) compared to the 40% of Jewish breadwinners who did so at the beginning of the century. The expulsion of the mass of families from the villages, thus denying them income, resulted in growing overcrowding and poverty in the Jewish quarters in the cities and towns. Hereunder a realistic description is given by the Russian writer Afanasyev of the situation in the Kovno district at the beginning of the eighteen seventies;

The Jews live in great overcrowding. Sometimes, a number of families live together in a small room. No cleanliness, inside or outside, which is a glaring sign of their living quarters. The rich have a number of rooms, kept clean, nice furniture, a few pictures. The Jew has few expenses: in the morning he eats radish, onion, garlic or herring with bread. The rich drink tea, their midday meal is vegetable soup, cereals with vegetables, fish or meat. There are artisans whose families fast all day while waiting for the family provider to bring home some of his earnings.

Simultaneously, there began a process of concentration of economic branches in the hands of a small number of Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs. With the increase in the demands of the army for road building, barracks building and the supply of various army needs, the number of rich Jews grew. They invested their capital and also engaged in import-export business, and in building, contracting and purveyance.

A similar situation existed in industry. Out of 69 factories in the Kovno district in 1864, 48 (69%) were in Jewish hands. The number of Jews who lived as manual laborers rose as well: from 21,272 in 1887 to 23,525 in 1897. Out of the 212,666 Jews counted in the Kovno district in that year, 66,132 were active economically (47,285 men and 18,847 women). In comparison, out of 1,019,774 Lithuanians (the national majority) 288,519 were active economically, in other words, one quarter only. Table 10, shows the division between the Jews and the Lithuanians according to the various occupational groups.

The occupational division amongst the Jews in the Suvalki district was approximately the same as that of the Jews in the Kovno district, as opposed to that of the majority (Lithuanians) who engaged mostly in agriculture. The Jews concentrated their activities in a number of occupations and were a major factor in those. One of them was trade (buying and selling), at the end of the 19th Century some 87% of the trading business in the Kovno district was in Jewish hands. Most of them were active in the various stages of the corn business, beginning with the traders who wandered from village to village in order to buy the harvest from the peasants and ending with the great wholesalers in the cities and agents of companies who exported the corn to Germany and other countries. Their business included flax, wood, hides, pig bristles, cattle, geese and other domestic fowls, eggs and other products. In addition, the Jews had a large part in the tobacco business. The rise in the peasants' income brought in its wake increased demand and once again, the small Jewish traders in the towns and the peddlers in the villages benefited from the trade.

Table 10: Jewish and Lithuanian occupations in the Kovno district

Employment or economic activity Jews Lithuanians
  Number % Number %
Total active economically 66,132 100.00 288,519 100.00
Industry and crafts 22,024 33.3 22,075 7.6
Trade (principally agricultural produce and finance) 17,821 2.60 1,724 0.6
Services 7,355 11.1 33.104 11.3
Agriculture 3,270 4.9 210,433 73.0
Free professions and office work 3,018 4.6 2,893 1.0
Transport and cartage 2,628 4.0 1,423 0.5
Army service 1,934 3.4 672 0.2
Unemployed 6,171 9.3 8,635 3.0
Unknown 1,911 3.4 7,560 2.6


Many Jews lived off industry and craft work. Almost half (49%) of factories and plants functioning in the Kovno district in the year 1897, and which employed a total of 4,179 workers, belonged to Jews (in 1864, the Jews owned even a larger segment - 69%). In fact, these were very small plants, which produced only 41% of the total industrial output in the district. Out of 1,543 workers in these plants the majority were Jews (90%). Approximately one third of these were women. The Jews owned six soap factories. These too, were small, and rather resembled workshops. In addition, the Jews owned most of the natural products, as is evident from table 11.

Table 11: Natural products factories and plants in the Kovno district and the number of Jews employed in them

Sector All factories In Jewish
% Jewish
of total
Factories workers Jewish factories workers
Milling 40 388 - 24 99 26
Tanning 32 180 - 31 162 90
Brick making 24 191 - 4 97 51
Wood mills 8 131 37 6 118 90
Tobacco 6 323 201 5 - -


The Suvalki district contained most of the Jewish factories and workshops for the working of pig bristles, known under the appellation “bershter” (brush industry). Some one thousand Jewish workers worked in five towns in this sector alone (Vilkaviskis, Vistytis, Virbalis, Naumiestis-Sakiai (also known as “Kudirkos-naumiestis”), Kalvarija). 400 of these were employed in three Jewish owned factories (Vindsberg, Sobolevitch and Rosin in Vilkaviskis. Brush makers were also present in Panevezys and in Kovno.

The place for tanning leather was in Shavli, where the great plants of Haim Frankel were to be found, and whose fame spread throughout Russia. Just before the outbreak of the First World War the plants were valued at 25 million Rubles and employed close to one thousand workers, many of whom were Jews. Unlike the clothing industry, where the workshop was in the employer's dwelling, and the relationship was somewhat patriarchal, the work in the leather tanning and the brush making industry was carried on in factories outside of the owners premises and the relationship to the workers had more of a “capitalistic” character.

One further sector developed and kept largely in Jewish hands was that of printing. In 1905, Jews owned 85 printing shops out of 101 which functioned in the Vilna and Kovno districts. Many of the skilled workers, particularly the typesetters, were Jews. By the end of the nineteenth century, the share of the Jews in the distilling industry in Lithuania, both in the production of alcoholic drink and its sale in the village taverns, fell considerably. For social, economic and other reasons, this activity was frowned upon by the non-Jewish establishment and brought upon the Jews the hatred of the gentiles. By instruction from the Russian authorities the Jews were ejected from this business. But in 1863, the monopoly rights of the nobility to produce alcoholic drinks was canceled and in consequence many Jews again leased the distillation plants and a great many continued to make a living from the sale of these products. But after the authorities created newer restrictions (among others by transferring the sale of spirits solely to the government) the number of Jews in the tavern business and the production of spirits was considerably reduced as is seen from the following data:

Table 12: Plants for the distillation of spirits owned by Jews in the Kovno district by sector

Sector In 1887 In 1897
Jewish non-Jews Jewish non -Jews
Brandy production 38 28 3 72
Alcohol production 41 13 15 44


A further reduction in the traditional ways Lithuanian Jewry made a living was due to a large extent through the development and efficacy of the means of transportation. As a result, journey time was reduced and with it the need for wayside inns, many of which were in Jewish hands and provided income. The reduction in customs duties and customs agents as well as the smuggling of goods, two activities common to Lithuanian Jewry in general and to those living along the borders in particular, bit into their income and profit as well. On the other hand, many new income avenues opened for many as a result of the rise in the demand for goods by the peasantry, whose standard of living rose, as well as the growing demand by the Russian army for equipment, including uniforms and boots for the soldiers. Consequently, thousands of Jews were absorbed into the clothing and shoe-making sectors, both in home workshops and mechanized factories.

Tailoring and shoe making were crafts popular among the Jews, for clothing and shoes were basics always needed by all. The monitory investment needed in tailoring and shoe making was small, and at times it was possible to produce the items in a corner of the dwelling with the assistance of family members or an apprentice. The ratio of Jews in the clothing trade sector reached 73% as against 3.2% for the Lithuanians. As is evident from the following table, the workers in the clothing and shoe making sector amounted to over 50% of all Jewish workers, 23,525 in the Kovno district (25% of these were women).

Table 13: Jewish craftsmen in the Kovno district (in %), by profession (1897)

Profession Workers
All professions numbers 23,525
Percentage 100.00
Cobblers 17.3
Needle trade  
Men's tailors 16.7
Women's dressmakers 11.7
Underwear sewing 4.7
Baking and cooking 8.5
Fishing 6.8
Building carpentry 5.8
Building work 5.0
Carpentry and cabinet making 3.7
Smiths 2.9
Hatters 2.7
Painters 2.6
Millers 2.0
Tobacco and cigarettes 1.8
Leather work 1.7
Glaziers 1.7
Hairdressers 1.5
Laundry, dying and chemical cleaning 1.4
Sock knitting 1.4
Weavers 0.1


In a number of these tasks young women were primarily employed. They mostly sewed dresses and underwear, knitted socks, worked in millinery and made gloves.

Close to two thirds of all the Jewish artisans (60.85%), that is 14,313 men and women, were the owners of the workshops as well. Alongside them, or under them, worked 5,621 learners (23.9%) and 3,591 (15.26%) workers. The large number of workers created great competition amongst them, and the various work suppliers exploited this. Against this background, spontaneous strikes broke out, as well as strikes organized by the workers and artisans trade organizations.

The situation was particularly serious for those who had narrowly defined skills and did not have a regular place of work or were “independent.” Many of them were unemployed during most of the year. In the year 1898, 3,334 such unfortunates were counted. These included the following, divided by activity sectors: carters of goods-885, porters-791, cab drivers-469, rafters-335, floor layers-237, agricultural laborers-216, drawers of water-158, rag pickers-152, hewers of wood-86, well diggers-5. The contemporary Russian writer A. Sobotin, in the following, describes the desperate situation of the above.

Jews employed on a daily basis go out to the market place and wait there all day without eating a bite. They look for work, but often they return home after a day of inactivity where their hungry family awaits them. They work like beasts, dragging a two wheeled cart laden with 15-20 pud (pud=16.32 kg), such a load is fitting for a cheap working horse, and it is pulled by a lean Jew, with a fallen-in chest, narrow shoulders and eyes inflamed by wind and dust. Whoever has not seen such a picture, will not believe that Jews are capable of drawing such heavy loads.

The situation of the 1402 Jewish factory workers was not much better. Almost all of them worked in the 134 factories owned by Jews, and this was approximately 50% of all the factories functioning at that time in Lithuania. About one third of the employees were minors, of both genders. Unlike the Jewish workers in the “traditional” trades (tailors, jewelers, furriers, leather workers), who were organized in associations (like the Chekhs of the non-Jews), and who enjoyed a measure of mutual help and assistance within the industry, most of the unskilled workers had to struggle for their rights and stand by themselves.

The first workers who achieved a real improvement in their working conditions, after a bitter struggle, were the brush makers (which is a term including all the workers who made brushes with pig bristles etc) In 1911 the Bund (see the following) organized a strike demanding a working day of 8 hours. One thousand brush makers participated in the strike. Better conditions were achieved by the metal workers: the Jews in this sector were the second largest national group (28%) after the Poles. They outnumbered the Lithuanians by a ratio of 3 to 1 in this industry. The Jews also constituted, relatively, a large grouping in the free professions. Thus, for instance, the Jews were the largest national group (29%) in the medical profession and the second largest (29%) among the lawyers.

On the other side of the equation, among those working in agriculture, the Jews were only 1% as against 73% Lithuanians, which nation was almost entirely peasant. Out of 3,270 Jews in the Kovno district who registered as agricultural workers and lived of that work, 216 families (1,604 souls) lived in 15 agricultural communities in the middle of the nineteenth century. They were exempt from military service and various taxes. They had at their disposal 2,654 desiatin land (desiatin=1,092 hectare, i.e. they had some 11,000 dunam available), which they had received from the government. They had 463 cattle, and 193 horses. In a number of places, Kedainiai, Kalvarija, Pumpenai and Daugai in the Kovno district and in a number of townships in the Suvalki district, some of the families specialized in a number of agricultural branches, such as fruit or vegetable growing (in particular cucumbers), milk products, honey and fish farming. Thousands of families who lived in urban areas, augmented their income with the help of auxiliary farms, which they tended next to their homes. In all, 23,500 Jews worked 25,000 desiatin land, of which they owned about 12% and the remainder leased from other land owners.

In contrast to the factory owners, contractors and large-scale merchants, who enjoyed a high standard of living, that of the agricultural workers and others who lived off the toil of their hands, was very modest, to say the least, and even lower. In order to survive many families were forced to rely on assistance from close and distant family members, who had immigrated to lands across the seas. No less than 182 Jewish charitable organizations and public bodies extended assistance to the needy in the Kovno district. Amongst them were 71 bodies whose aim was to help the poor sick (Bikur Holim), 47 bodies which lent small amounts of money without charging interest (Gmilut Khesed, and another 31 charitable associations for various purposes (clothes for the naked, assistance for poor brides etc). In addition, there were 17 hostels (hospitality for the poor), 8 hospitals, 5 old age homes, 3 public kitchens (meals were given to the poor for free or for a symbolic price). In 1898 some 8,662 families were reduced to seek help from these charitable institutions, or almost one quarter (23%) of all the Jewish families in the Kovno district. The number of families requesting help from the association “handful wheat” (Ma'ot Khitim) rose from 5,559 in 1894 to 7,424 in 1898. This situation did not change substantially until the First World War.

        Torah and religious Culture

By the end of the Polish Republic period, the Lithuanian Jewry began, as pointed out, to stand out more and more in the spiritual-religious sphere. One of the reasons for this was the controversy between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim. During the period of 120 years of Russian rule, Lithuanian Jewry slowly became the religious and the cultural-political center of Russian Jewry.

After the death of the Gaon in 1897, in other words, at the beginning of the Russian reign over Lithuania, the controversy between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim was renewed with greater vigor. It reached the point of conveying information to the authorities, thus divulging information about internal communal matters. Although for a short time, the Hasidim took over the management of the communities of Vilna and other places, in most parts of Lithuania their progress was soon checked, mostly through the opposition raised against them by the Yeshivot founded by the Gaon's students. One of the first was started in Volozhin in 1802 by R. Haim Bar Yitzchak, who preferred to encounter the Hasidim on a theoretical educational basis. During the years 1808-1809 a number of senior students of the Gaon emigrated to Palestine in the framework of the “Prushim” (students of the Torah who neglected all worldly matters, see the following). Their arrival strengthened the Zefat and Jerusalem Ashkenazi communities. There was also a spiritual influence on the scholarly public in Lithuania by the descendents of the Gaon and his family in the Samogitia district and other places. They, their students and the students' students refused in principal to engage in Pilpul (casuistry), which was the practice among many of the scholars as well as the demonstration of sharpness then practiced in learning, and instead preferred the use of common sense and a search for the truth. Under their influence, the tendency to study Torah for its own sake and not to get a rabbinical position was strengthened. The scholars who adopted this attitude, and were able to do so economically, preferred individual study instead of attending a Yeshiva.

  1. Almost simultaneously, the system of individual study spread also amongst the yeshiva scholars, who were preparing themselves to become rabbis or teachers In order to concentrate entirely on their studies, without being interrupted by external factors, they separated themselves temporarily from their families. They were popularly called “Prushim” (withdrawn). The ones who settled in Palestine came from these. There were among them some who were influenced by the practice of withdrawal by the Gaon, and seeking spiritual meaning. As a place of learning, they usually chose a study house (Beth Midrash) in a small town, but contrary to the practice of Yeshiva students who “ate days” (took their daily meal with families who offered them hospitality), the “Prushim” ate only what was brought to them in the Study House by the town folk. They also slept, when possible, near the place of study.

  2. At the same time (1864), there were in the Kovno district, 60 synagogues and 23 prayer halls of all sorts, which were also used as study houses (Beth Midrash).

In the second quarter, the number of yeshivot and students grew extensively, one of the reasons being the transfer of thousands of Jews from the villages to towns and cities and because of the Cantonist edict promulgated by Nikolai the First. The status of a yeshiva student belonging to a recognized Torah institution freed the youth from the duty of military service, and from the fearful reach of the conscription officials or that of the various “Khappers” (literally catchers, who brought youths to the conscription center by force). This exemption, it appears, based itself on the principle which states: “anyone who takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, is excused the yoke of the State” but in place of those exempted, the sons of the poor were taken for service. It is a fact that, at that time, the various yeshivot over the length and breadth of Lithuania, as for example those in Vilna (the R. Meila yeshiva), that of Vilkomir, Kedainiai, Zagare, Salantai and others were filled with hundreds of students.

A number of yeshivot in Lithuania were influenced by the “Musar” (Ethics) movement which developed in Lithuanian Jewry during the eighteen forties. The principles of this movement were the spiritual activities to improve personal morality, deepening the concept of piety, all by individual study. Yeshiva students who wished to live by these precepts were enjoined to be strict about their clothing and their manners etc. The founder of this movement, R. Yisrael Lipkin, known also by the appellation Yisrael Salanter, founded in Kovno and other places the Ethical “Shtiblekh” (small synagogues) which, generally were to be found in isolated rooms where it was possible to concentrate on the study of ethics. R. Yisrael's center of activity was in the Beth Midrash Neviazher in Kovno, where he also founded and headed a yeshiva. He was also instrumental in founding a “Kolel Prushim”, a seminary for Talmudic scholars which became in time, one of the leading Torah institutes and produced hundreds of Rabbis and Torah scholars. The Kovno Rabbi R. Yitzkhak-Elchanan Spector, mentioned above, headed the institute. The majority of the Lithuanian rabbis, though, preferred the traditional study system, and did not show much enthusiasm for the Musar method, which gave preference to isolation and self criticism instead of Torah studies. There were among them some who were afraid of the creation of a new sect in Jewish society. In spite of the opposition, the Musar movement achieved much influence in some of the large yeshivot which came into being in Kelme (in the year 1866), in Slobodka in Kovno (in the year 1881). These two became prime examples of the Lithuanian yeshivot, which were founded at that time and others started later on in Lithuania and elsewhere. In many places yeshivot were created as a kind of branch yeshiva and were called “little yeshiva”, Kolel Avrechim (yeshiva for married men). In 1908 a great yeshiva was founded in the city of Panevezys. All these yeshivot functioned until the Second World War.

        Enlightenment and education

Unlike the period of the Polish Republic when a few Lithuanian Jews managed to enter the general secular cultural scene, now, during the period of the Russian regime, the movement known as the “enlightenment” developed and took in a great many more. But even now, the development took place mostly in Vilna, which was the spiritual center of Lithuania. Even within the circles of ultra traditionalists (orthodox), it was well remembered that their revered rabbi, the Gaon, did not forbid the study of “Foreign Learning” and that he himself had penned books on algebra, geometry and trigonometry (the three year old ram), the geography of the Holy Land and more. The Gaon also proposed, contrary to general opinion, to begin the studies in the Kheder with the Pentateuch with Rashi commentary, and to move on immediately to the Gemara, and that Jewish children should study the Bible and grammar first, but the establishment did not adopt this idea.

A secular school for Jewish scholars was opened in Vilna in 1808. The subjects included, inter alia, reading and writing Polish, but due to the objections of the majority of the public it was closed after one year. It was the first of its kind in Lithuania. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century some 40 Jewish students studied medicine and natural sciences at the local university. They suffered at times attacks and harassment initiated by their Polish colleagues. These incidents occurred again and again in different forms for many years, while the number of Jewish students increased many-fold. During the rapid Russification period, which developed after the Polish revolt in 1863, free schools were opened for the spread of Russian culture among the Jews. One of the most central such institutions was a governmental institute, Beth Midrash for Rabbis, in Vilna. But because this institute did not bring about the desired results, it was changed to a teacher's seminary. After the doors of the Russian schools were opened to Jews, they had more applicants than they were prepared to receive. As mentioned above, there were Jews who succeeded in entering the universities to study medicine or natural science, the arts and humanities. This enabled them to live outside the Pale and to fill official positions. Some of the graduates published books in Russian on various subjects. This tendency of integration into the Russian culture, while slowly pushing out German culture, continued among Lithuanian Jewry until the First World War when the Germans conquered Lithuania. This was a time which saw a great advance in all matters relating to Jewish culture and Hebrew and its development. Whereas previously, Hebrew was used as a means of communication between members of the religious elite or for correspondence between Jewish merchants and, of course, in studies of Holy writings and literature throughout the ages, it now became more and more the vehicle for artistic creation and also part of the daily language. At the head of this process stood young persons who saw themselves as leaders of the enlightenment in the full meaning of the word. They were therefore named “Maskilim” (intellectuals). In the beginning they saw to the translation into Hebrew or Yiddish (the latter mostly for women) of literary and scientific works from various languages and spreading them at large. This activity, mainly concentrated in the city of Vilna, which spread to the surroundings, in addition to religious thought, as well as secular cultural values that influenced the intellectual public in all the Lithuanian towns. Many of them traveled to the city to experience its culture and some also remained and became part of the activity and creativity. One of these was Mordekhai-Aharon Ginzburg from the town of Salantai, who later became one of the best-known writers and a leading Maskil. Within the Jewish world the city is known as an important cultural center of Jewish Eastern Europe, as it has produced a long and diverse list of Jewish books, beginning with the complete edition of the “Shas” (the six books of the Mishna). Published by the famous printing works of the widow and brothers Rom, and closing with a famous French novel by Eugene Sue called The Mysteries of Paris, translated by Kalman Shulman. Smaller Haskala centers were to be found all over Lithuania including in the Samogitia region, and in places like Zagare, Salantai, Raseiniai and others. Being close to Prussia, they also kept their bond to German culture.

The number of rabbis, too, increased during this period. The scholars and the practical men wrote books on Halacha (Jewish law), ethics, studies in Hebrew language and grammar, and various sciences. It would appear that both the groups were influenced by the book “Te'udah Byisrael”, published by Yitzkhak Ber Levinson, in Vilna in 1828 in which he advocates the thorough study of Hebrew, as well as foreign languages and non-Jewish subjects. Levinson also called for changes in the curriculum for boys, to exalt labor and trade and to study a practical trade for life. The book emphasizes that none of the suggestions conflict in any way with a religious way of life, holy studies or religious practices. In the introduction to the book, which serve as a kind of Ani Ma'amin (credo) of a Lithuanian “Maskil”, appears the supportive statement of the well known rabbi, R. Abeli of Pasvalys. This was a method employed by other Maskilim of that generation, namely, receiving the assent of a well-known rabbi for the manuscript.

There were quite a number of zealots, rabbis and other well known persons in the religious circles in Kovno, Vilkomir and other places who initiated a struggle against the “enlightenment” and its advocates, more so when the latter supported the efforts of the government to force the Jews to change their style of clothing and the education of the children. Over time, Jews of the traditional camp expressed their reservations, if not open their hostility, regarding the appointed rabbis (appointed by the State), some of them being graduates of the Vilna rabbinical seminary.

The intellectuals too, were not passive and fought back, demanding firmly changes to be made in the religion. The writer Mordekhai Leib Lilienblum from Kedainiai, and the poet Yehuda Leib Gordon who taught in Panevezys, Shavli and Telsiai, immortalized this struggle in their works. This is also true of the novel “The Hypocrite Eagle” by Avraham Mapu of Kovno. In time, the Jewish “enlightenment” movement grew stronger in Lithuania in its Hebrew context and no longer needed outside help and became an important part of Jewish culture. In 1841, the first volume of the anthology “Northern Flowers” was published in Vilna, and until the First World War 86 Jewish publications appeared in Lithuania (20 of them in Hebrew) as against 62 in Lithuanian. Amongst others, the Hebrew daily “Hazman” (The Times) appeared for a fairly long time (until it was closed by order of the authorities), which had been transferred there from St Petersburg. It gave birth to many other publications such as the monthly “The Times”, the Yiddish daily “The Yiddish Newspaper” and other publications. The first Hebrew daily, Hamagid (The Herald) printed in Prussia, existed mainly with support from subscribers and readers in Lithuania. Within the first week of its appearance in June 1856, hundreds subscribed to it and no less than thirty just in Vilkomir. Many rabbis subscribed to the monthly “Shakhar” (Dawn) which appeared in Vienna – approximately one third of its subscribers lived in Lithuania. There were many readers in the Lithuanian cities and towns of the Hebrew publications “Hamelitz” (the Advocate) printed in St. Petersburg, “Halevanon” and “Hayareach” published in Germany and “Hacarmel” published in Vilna. The orthodox circles in Lithuania who opposed the Maskilim also used the three last ones. Occasional brochures in this spirit were issued by the publishing house “Matzdikei Harabim” (The Society for the Promotion of Goodness and Justice) by the R. Ya'akov Lifshitz circle of Kovno.

In addition to dealing in literature, research and translations into Hebrew of general history books, geography etc, the Maskilim also set up new educational institutions (in their language “improved”) for Jewish children, and influenced the teaching contents and their level. In the year 1841, they initiated the opening of two “improved” schools in Vilna, the first of this kind in Lithuania. The Bible was taught with modern interpretation, as well as Talmud, Hebrew, Russian, German, history, geography, arithmetic etc. This educational content was copied, more or less, in many other educational institutions in Lithuania, and these were called “Jewish Schools” or “Improved Kheder” (the latter was called by the opposition the “Dangerous Kheder”).

Alongside these new institutions the traditional Kheder, in which 4-5 year old children continued to learn for many years, until they reached the age of 12-13, began with learning the Hebrew alphabet and the Khumash (Torah, the Five Books of Moses), with the Rashi commentaries and quickly moved on to selected passages from the Talmud with Tosaphot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud). At an advanced level, generally around Bar Mitzvah age, they moved on to study the Gemara in small groups, under an acknowledged scholar schooled in the Torah. They derived their knowledge from him in the critical literature of the “Shas.” At least some of the students were prepared, post factum, to continue to study by themselves and to reach the level of a “talmid hacham” (a scholar). In addition, the possibility existed that he may continue to study in a “small yeshiva”, and in continuation, in one of the famous yeshivot of Lithuania, some of which have been mentioned above. The school fees, which were between 40-45 Rubles per term, depended on the number of students and on the fame of the “Melamed” (tutor). The following are some of the basic findings of a survey made by the IKA (Jewish Colonization Association) in the year 1898 of 613 “Khederim” in the Kovno district.

Table 14: Students studying in a Kheder in the Kovno district by type of settlement (1898)

Average Students
per Kheder
Total 613 8,634 14.1
In cities 256 3,329 13.0
In towns 357 5,305 14.9


According to the above survey there were 18 girls among the students. Besides the Khederim there were also 26 Jewish educational institutions in the Kovno district: 12 private schools – 8 governmental and 6 Talmud Torah – teaching an aggregate of 1,357 male students and 903 female students. According to other sources, the Kovno district contained before the First World War 63 Talmud Torah schools teaching over 3,000 students, approximately 1,100 private Khederim with over 14,000 students and 52 schools teaching 4,500 students according to an authorized teaching program. In the whole of Lithuania there were approximately 2,500 teachers. In 239 schools operating in the district, 2,280 Jewish students studied.

        Movements and Parties

The affinity of Lithuanian Jewry to the community living in Eretz Yisrael was expressed in a practical manner in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through the regular transfer of monies for the strengthening of the Jewish community and the immigration of individuals, amongst whom there were figures in public and economic life, such as R. Ya'akov of the “Yakirei Kehila Kedosha Vilna” (Notables of the Holy Vilna Community). Some of the immigrants belonged to the circle of R. Yehuda HaKhasid (in 1700).

The connection between Lithuanian Jewry and Eretz Israel strengthened after the immigration of the Gaon's students, in the “Prushim” group mentioned above (in the year 1809 or 1810), amongst whom were public personalities who eventually raised famous and extensive families in Jerusalem. Among them was R. Shlomo-Zalman Tzoref from Kedainiai – the father of the Solomon family, R. Hillel Rivlin – the ancestor of the great tribe, the Rivlins.

During the second half of the nineteenth century the collection of money for the Land of Israel grew extensively. Practical people then immigrated to Palestine, scholars and sages great in Torah learning such as R. Yosef–Zundel from Salantai and his son-in law R. Shmuel Salant, the writer A.M. Luntz, R. Zvi-Pesach Frank and others. After the above, more Lithuanian Jews came, influenced by the “Lovers of Zion” movement.

The movement “Khovevey Tsion” (Lovers of Zion) arose in Lithuania, as also in other parts of the Jewish world, on the back of nationalist yearning and hopes emanating from the study of Torah and from Jewish tradition, as well as from social aspirations. One of the first in Lithuania to base the idea of settling the land of Israel on rational grounds, who also acted to propagate the idea outside its borders was the preacher Nathan Fridland from Taurage. An appeal to create a national home of their own was published in the “Magid” by its editor David Gordon. Influenced by men like these and by itinerant wandering preachers, such as Haim-Joseph Yaffe from Vieksniai, dozens of associations of the “Lovers of Zion” were founded in the cities and towns of Lithuania in the eighties, and later under different names. They all had the same purpose: the practical realization of the settlement of Eretz Israel. Jews living in small communities joined the associations in the neighboring larger ones.

Two delegates from the Kovno district participated in the In the “Lovers of Zion” conference which took place in the year 1884 in Katovich: Leib Klibansky and Moshe Bramson. At the beginning the association spread mostly in the Orthodox circles. Among the rabbis who came out in support was the rabbi of Kovno, R. Yitzkhak-Elchanan Spector. Central personalities from among the Maskilim circles supported the movement, including the writer M.L. Lilienblum and S.P. Rabinowitz. The latter initiated in the year 1884, a national campaign for the collection of monies for the settlement of Eretz Israel by the distribution of pictures of Moshe Montefiore. Local town leaders assisted in making the campaign a success.

The stream of immigrants to Eretz Israel at the end of the nineteenth century grew simultaneously with the local activity, both in groups e.g. the Bilu, and as individual immigrants. Either and both were among the founding fathers of Gedera, Petach Tikva, Ekron, Metulah, Rishon Letzion, Nes Ziona and Rechovot.

With the crystallization of political Zionism under the leadership of T. Herzl, many of the activists of the Lovers of Zion in Lithuania joined in the ideology and organization of the movement. The regular activities were carried on mostly within the framework of the local Zionist societies, the number of which grew within one year by a factor of approximately eight, from 16 to 135. The activities included the sale of the Zionist Shekel, contributions to the National Fund (Keren Kayemet Lisrael), the sale of shares in Otzar Hityashvut Hayehudim (The National Jewish Bank), the holding of meetings and lectures, the setting up of choirs and reading rooms, the opening of Hebrew language and Bible classes and even the study of “Chayei Adam”, Shas and other holy works. The associations assisted in the founding of improved Kheders.

Five delegates from Lithuania participated in the First Zionist Congress which took place in Basel in 1897. Among them were the couple Gitelevich from Marijampole at the third congress, the rabbi S.I. Rabinowitz from Aleksot (a suburb of Kovno) was elected the deputy for the Region, which included the Zionist associations of Vilna, Kovno, Grodno and Suvalki. Under the initiative of the deputy, a regional assembly was held before the Third Congress (1899) with the participation of 71 delegates from 41 cities and towns – mostly from the Kovno and Vilna districts. Representatives and many guests from Lithuania participated in the Russian Zionist conference in Minsk in 1902. In the same year the Zionist associations sold 1954 Shekels in the Kovno district and 974 in Suvalki.

Herzl visited Lithuania in 1904, a visit which became a mass celebration in spite of difficulties made by the authorities. A year later, the central office of the Zionist organization in Russia was opened in Vilna. It was intended to be the central office for all Russia, but because of its location, it induced greater Zionist activity within Lithuania. The same influence was also felt by the publications of the Zionist Organization “Dos Yiddishe Folk” (The Jewish People) and “Ha'olam” (The World). The book publisher “Kadima” (Forward), printed in the city.

With the widening of Zionist activities into the sphere of education and culture of the mass of Jewry, opposition developed from the religious quarters, which supported Zionism at the beginning. The Keren Kayemet collection box, found in Jewish homes throughout, was now seen as a menace to the charity boxes of R. Meir Ba'al HaNes. Due to this, the opposition to Zionism grew stronger among the Jewish public. The hard core of the opposition, each and every one a fanatical orthodox zealot, functioned in a semi secret society known as “The Black Office” headed by R. Ya'akov Lifshitz of Kovno, already mentioned above in his struggle against the Maskilim. In time, the opposition to Zionism included a number of important rabbis. But rabbis, led by S.I. Rabinowitz and some Yeshiva students, as well as Zionist leaders in Kovno, managed to prevent the publication and distribution of a sharp manifesto denouncing Zionism. The book, “Or LaYesharim”, published in 1900 by the “Black Office”, did not save the opposition, and the battle died out.

Around the same time, the first associations of Poalei Zion, began to organize in Vilna and other Lithuanian towns, that espoused both the Zionist solution and the effort to bring about an improvement in the economic and cultural condition of the Jewish workers. They appeared already at the seventh congress (1905), together with their leader Dov Ber Borochov as the Poalei Zion party S.D. (Yiddishe Sotsial Demokratishe Arbeiter Partei, Poalei Zion). It leaned towards Zionism but also towards Marxism. Because of the persecutions of the authorities, particularly during the reaction after the 1905 revolution, party activists often had to go underground and at times, even to stop their activities temporarily. The party center was forced to move out of Lithuania.

As in other regions of eastern Europe, groups of Zionist youth began to appear in Lithuania, called Young Zion, and became a party with a Zionist Socialist agenda, but not Marxist. Ideologically, they were close to the Hapo'el Hatza'ir in Eretz Israel. A few of their members immigrated to Zion within the “Second Aliyah” (The second immigration wave).

In spite of the sharpening of the struggle with the Socialist camp and the persecution by the authorities which did not cease until the break out of the First World War, Zionism continued to strengthen, and immigration to Eretz Israel continued. Among the immigrants before the First World War were individuals whose names became famous with time, such as Alexander Zayd, Boris Shatz, Judge Yitzkhak Olshan, Dr Baruch Ben Yehuda and others.

Along with the diverse Zionist movements, Jewish organizations and movements in Lithuania arose which considered themselves mostly part of the Socialist camp. The economic development of Lithuania and the growth in the number of Jewish workers brought into being, by the end of the 19th century, workers associations had the character of trade unions, At this stage, they were still far from the Socialist world view, but over time, they were influenced by the Jewish Socialists, some of whom had studied previously in the Seminar for Rabbis in Vilna.

Strikes frequently took place in Lithuania aimed at the improvement of working conditions. One of the first strikes of Jewish working men took place in 1896 in the brush factory owned by Vindsberg in Vilkaviskis. During the strike, which lasted two weeks, a number of strikers were arrested, but the strikers attained some important objectives. Among them the limiting of the working day to ten hours. The workers, who were accompanied by Socialist agitators from Vilna, formed, under their instigation, the Bershter Bund (The Brush Makers Union), which was the first trade union of Jewish workers in all of Russia. Its headquarters was in Kovno.

In view of the success of this trade union and others which were formed in Lithuania and surrounding regions at the same period, the great Jewish workers union was founded in Vilna bearing the name “Algemeiner Yiddisher Arbeiter Bund in Rusland, Lite un Poilen” (The General Jewish Workers Union in Russia, Lithuania and Poland), or in short, the Bund. Most of its activities were carried on underground. In Lithuania, the national activity was centered in two branches: Vilna and Kovno. Secondary branches existed in Anyksciai, Vilkomir, Yonava, Panevezys Shavli and in Kedainiai. In these places the groups were called the “Small Bund” (Der Kleiner Bund), a kind of youth section of the organization. In 1898 and 1899, two important conferences of the Bund took place in Kovno. Eventually, three illegal printing works were at its disposal. The main newspapers were: “Di ArbeiterShtime” (the Workers Voice), which emphasized political matters, “Der Yiddisher Arbeter” (The Jewish Worker), printed outside Russia, and “Der Veker” (the Waker), the organ of the Brush Makers. The Bund reached its greatest strength and influence during the Russo-Japan war and the revolution in 1905. The total number of members reached forty thousand and it became the major force in the organization of political strikes and mass demonstrations. Its members also played a central role in the organization of self defense against pogroms.

In addition to the trade union activity among the workers and its support to the progressive forces in Russia fighting the autocratic Tzarist regime, the Bund, at the beginning, appeared as a Socialist movement using Yiddish as its language of agitation. Later, its political program included the demand for civil equal rights for Russian Jewry and for cultural autonomy. Since its binding principle was that the Jewish worker should pursue his struggle for his existence wherever he lived, the Bund condemned Zionism as a national movement of the middle class and fought it without mercy. In addition to the persistent propaganda it carried on in this vein, members of the Bund attacked, on many occasions, the participants in meetings and assemblies organized by the Zionists. In the years preceding the First World War there was a slight decline in the Influence of the Bund in the Lithuanian towns. Many young Jews, looking for their political path in the Socialist camp, tended to join the “Poalei Zion.”


[Page 36]

J) The days of the First World War (1914-1918)

        Show of loyalty, suffering and oppression under the heel of the Russian army

The patriotic wave which surged throughout greater Russia with the outbreak of the war in July 1914 also touched many of the Lithuanian Jews. In a public statement published by the Vilna community, mention was made of the loyalty of the Jewish citizens to Russia, as was proven in the Napoleonic War of 1812, and emphasis was given to their willingness to die for the homeland. Special prayers were offered in the synagogues in the presence of representatives of the regime. The Jewish delegate from Kovno district, Naftali Friedman, declared in his speech in the Duma that the Jews will fight, shoulder to shoulder, together with all the Russian nations until final victory.

The mobilization of many Jews to the army and the halt in the financial assistance from family members abroad affected the Jewish families very hard, as previously they had already been living from hand to mouth. Thousands of families suffered from the mass unemployment which resulted from the transfer of industry to the Russian interior as growing military activities at the front came closer to the western and southern regions of Lithuania. The result was that a great part of Lithuanian Jewry remained without means of subsistence or housing and the need for public assistance grew ever greater.

In Shavli, Panevezys in Yonava and other places in the Kovno district, the urban population was incited against the Jews but, it seemed that the local authorities were not interested in encouraging this agitation and acted swiftly to contain it. However, after the defeat of the Russian army in Eastern Prussia, a clear change took place in the official attitude to the Jews settled in the Lithuanian border lands once these regions were placed under Russian military rule. One of the first acts of the Military authorities was the closure of Jewish newspapers. Pogroms against Jews took place in many cities and towns in the Suvalki district and property was pillaged. In Marimpole, Kalvarija and other places the authorities forced Jews to do work on roads during the festival of Succoth as a punishment for showing, seemingly, signs of friendship for the Germans. Rumors were rife that the Jews transmitted information to the enemy by various means. To bolster this claim, the beadles of the synagogues were accused of having telephones and arrested, and the Eruv lines (a line delimiting the border of a community) were pointed to as evidence. It took a great deal of persuasion before the authorities understood that it is a matter of religious usage and not a means of sending information to the enemy, and only after that were the men released.

These persecutions and others, produced a change in the attitude of the Lithuanian neighbors. In a number of places there were cases of denunciations, robbery and rape. These occurrences became very common in the spring of 1915, when the Russian army began to retreat from North Western Lithuania. With the approach of the Germans, some of the Jews abandoned their homes. After the Germans were pushed back and the Jews returned to their homes, the soldiers, together with the local peasantry, rioted against them. The riots in the towns of Vilkija, Kriukai and Kupiskis were very serious. In most cases they were the result of a policy of instigation and libels by the army authorities against the Jews. Great publicity was given to a libel, outside the borders too, concerning a little community called Kuziai near Shavli, which contained a mere six Jewish families. After the place was taken by the Germans in April 1915, an official announcement by the Headquarters of the Russian army accused the Jews of Koziai of signaling and providing practical assistance to the German army to conquer the place, This announcement was distributed throughout Russia and produced anger and an anti Jewish storm. Even after the matter was investigated by the delegates to the Duma, Messrs Naftali Friedman and Alexander Kerenski, and the libel was refuted, the authorities did not go back on their accusations and even began to banish the Jews from their habitations (during the Second World War, Kuziai was a place of murder and torture of Jews from Shavli and the surroundings).

        Expulsion of Lithuanian Jewry into Russian Interior

At the beginning of March 1915, the authorities expelled the whole Jewish population from the town of Plunge, on the Baltic coast. A few days later, the Jews were expelled from the town of Batokai (Butki), in Samogitia, on the charge of having thrown a cat into the public well, seemingly, in order to poison the local Christian population. On the first of April, the Jews were expelled from a number of towns in the Suvalkija district. On the second of May, immediately after the announcement of the “treason” of the Kuziai Jews, an official order was published banishing all Kovno district Jews living in places west of the Kovno-Yaneve-Vilkomir-Rogeve-Panevezys-Salat-Brisk line. The Jews living in the above towns were also included in the banishment order. Some of the Jews living in the Courland and Grodno district were also expelled. The banishment order included all ages, the sick in the hospitals, residents in institutions for invalids, residents in old age homes etc. The authorities also warned that any Jew remaining in place after the fifth of May would be severely punished. In small communities the order was published only on the fourth of May, or even on the very fifth, and the exiles had no opportunity to prepare themselves for the road. Even before the Jews left, their non-Jewish neighbors began to plunder their property. Since it was difficult to get a cart, even for money, thousands of the exiles, the old, women and little children, had to make their way on foot to the train stations. The banished carried the Sifrei Torah (the Scrolls of the Law) of their communities with them, and these were lodged in the New Religious Academy in Kovno. All along the way and in the interim stops in Lithuania the banished were warmly received and given brotherly assistance by individual Jews and local committees set up spontaneously for this purpose. At the Russian Stations, they were fed by representatives of “YeKoPo”, The Jewish committee for Assistance to War Victims (founded in St Petersburg in 1915).

Calculations made at that time, showed that some 120,000 people were expelled from hundreds of communities in Lithuania. Once the refugees reached their destinations, after a long journey of suffering, in the provinces of Yekotarinoslav, Penza Tembub, Poltava and other places in the Russian interior, the local Jews took care of them. The association Mefitzei Haskala (Spreaders of Education) assisted them greatly in schooling for the children. Thanks to their adjustment to new circumstances, their commercial skills and the mutual help, the refugees overcame the distress caused them by their being suddenly expelled, and the suffering caused them by the war and what followed, that is, the civil war. Many of those who managed to survive the difficulties returned later to Lithuania, which had become an independent state.

        Vestiges of the expulsion at the end of the Russian regime in Lithuania

The sudden uprooting of the majority of the Jewish population (75%-80%), among them industrialists, contractors and suppliers to the army, created an upheaval in the economic sphere and great difficulties in the functioning of the administration. Under pressure from the civil authorities, the military agreed to permit the return of some of those expelled back to their homes on condition that rabbis and other important persons would be sureties to them for the satisfactory behavior of the members of the community. This condition was completely rejected and the expulsion was stopped on May 10th 1915. Concomitantly, the authorities themselves took hostages. The commander of the Kovno district acted in this manner with regard to the Jews of nine towns close to Kovno. The local rabbis and other important persons were imprisoned and after they were released, they were obliged to keep a close watch on members of their congregations and to report to the military any activity detrimental to the interests of the army.

In other parts of the Kovno district, in which the banishment decree had not yet taken force, the local authorities harshly oppressed the Jewish population. The ill treatment of the Jews became more violent during the months of July-August, in parallel with the defeats the Russian army suffered at the front and with the beginning of its retreat from Lithuania. There was bloody violence accompanied by rape of women and robbery committed by Cossack units in dozens of Lithuanian towns. It included the burning down of synagogues and the despoiling of Sifrei Torah. The local population, too, townsfolk and villagers took part in the robbery and destruction.

Many of the Jews took to their road of exile without waiting for the banishment order, so as to benefit from the assistance and benefits given to the war refugees. Many of these, and others too, stopped on their way in Vilna, which offered relative peace and quiet. On Yom Kippur (September 18th 1915) the Germans took the city, and the remaining Jews who had escaped the banishment order, and the anti-Jewish outbreaks now found themselves under German Army authority.

        Under German Military Rule (1915 – 1918)

With the conquest of the whole of Lithuania by the German army, it came under the administration authority of the German army, the “Oberost”. Vilna contained many Jewish refugees from all parts of Lithuania. Some made every effort to return as quickly as possible, by any available means, to their previous homesteads. Others, who had in the meantime arranged their lives in the big city, opted to remain there. It is estimated that in 1916, the latter numbered some 22,000. Those returning to their previous homes found them generally burned or plundered. According to calculations made later of 98 communities, some 8,000 Jewish houses were destroyed and many taken over by Lithuanians. In a number of cases, the returned refugees managed, often with the assistance of the German army, to recover some of their stolen property.

Compared to the insufferable situation the Lithuanian Jews found themselves in, during the last months of the Russian army rule and the restrictive decrees of Yanushkevich – the Russian army chief of staff – German army rule, despite being very strict, seemed to the Jews to be an easier regime. The Bund, for instance, hoped that it would prepare the ground for the plans for national autonomy, on a personal basis, after the war. Together with the innumerable decrees, which hurt them economically and imposed restrictions on many Jews, the German administration took steps to encourage the sympathy many Jews showed towards the Germans. In keeping with that spirit, the Germans also published their announcements and proclamations in Yiddish. The identity cards issued to Jews had the details in two languages; German and Yiddish. In January 1916, the military administration permitted the reopening of the Slobodka Yeshiva, “Knesset Israel”. At about the same time permission was granted by the administration to publish a Jewish daily; “Di Letzte Nayes” (The Latest News), long before permission was given to publish a Lithuanian daily. The Oberost administration also permitted the sale of flour for Passover Matzoth.

The Jews, unlike the non-Jewish population, suffered from a shortage of food and some even suffered starvation. The non-Jewish population, most of whom were villagers, could feed themselves, at least partially, from their crops. The stern regulations instituted by the Germans, prohibiting trade in anything connected with agricultural produce and foodstuffs and the prohibition against free movement from place to place forced the Jews to risk imprisonment and serious punishment in their search for business activity in order to feed their families. The Jews were hard hit by the imposition of forced labor and the requirement to keep shops open on Saturdays and Jewish festivals,

The shortage of goods and particularly of food brought in its wake a steep rise in prices. Few could afford to buy on the black market. In view of the hunger prevailing throughout Lithuania, the German army administration decided in the first stages of the conquest to issue cereal grains to the very poor. For administrative purposes, distribution committees were set up in various places consisting of Jews and non-Jews headed by rabbis or priests. With the aid of these committees the needy population was also given candles, sugar and salt. Salt was particularly required – people were prepared to exchange a bag of potatoes for a pinch of salt. Jewish Lithuanians were greatly assisted by American Jewish bodies until the entry of the USA into the war on April 6th 1917. Some of this assistance continued to reach them after that date, via Holland. The “Joint” transferred, for the assistance of the impoverished Jews in the Oberost as well as for Lithuanian Jewry (population and refugees), a total sum of $1,439,635. Nevertheless the economic situation of the Jews worsened in spite of this help. At the beginning of the conquest the Jews were able, albeit in a limited way, to continue retail trading. But this source of income tended to dry up as the new policy of the German administration encouraged the setting up of sales organizations and consumer cooperatives among the Lithuanians. The German authorities confiscated for the army cattle, grains, meat, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, and in addition, demanded of the inhabitants to deliver to them strategic materials such as copper. They even forced them to collect wild weeds such as nettles and the like. Men, aged 17 to 60, of all nationalities, were placed in labor camps. These had a most severe regime, and what was most serious, there were cases of death by starvation and disease.

The fate of the Jews was harder than that of the non-Jews, as most of them refused to eat non-kosher food. Whoever avoided mobilization and was caught, received three years hard labor or a very heavy fine. The German administration also imposed collective punishment, including “contributions” (forced collections) and other decrees. As most of the population did not know German, they had no means of contact with the regime officials and thus could not soften the serious effect of the decrees imposed upon them. In that respect, the situation of the Jews was much better, as many of them spoke German in some measure or other, and others could also communicate to some extent by speaking Yiddish. Moreover, in time, many German-speaking Jews were integrated into the lower echelons of the administration and some acted as translators for the local population in the towns and villages. The fact that the German administration did not treat the Jews any worse than the rest of the population raised the status of the Jews among the Lithuanians, but simultaneously it also resulted in jealousy of the Jews who succeeded in adapting themselves to the situation. As time passed, more Jews learned German and many of their children attended local schools set up in almost every town for the various national groupings – Lithuanians, Poles and Jews.

During festivals and holy days Jewish soldiers serving in the German army frequented the local synagogues and thus connections were made between them and the local Jews, whom they called “Ost Juden” (eastern Jews), Jewish officers often intervened on behalf of local Jews and helped to extract them from prison or from other punishments. In more complicated matters (such as “contribution” demands of the community), the heads of communities used to turn to the German Jewish leadership and these in turn appealed to the German senior officials known to them. The German authorities, determined in their efforts to widen the influence of German culture among the Jewish population, permitted the Jews to open high schools in which the language of instructions was German. The project was given to a number of Jewish officers serving in the German army who had been traditional Jewish orthodox students in the “Frankfurt Tradition”. One of these, Dr Yosef Karlibach, was appointed principal of the Kovno “Re'al Gimnasium”. Besides him, there were also Dr Leo-Shmuel Deutshlander, Dr Shlesinger and a few others. In a number of these institutions the teaching was in the national Zionist spirit.

The headway made among the local Jews and the creation of educational institutes was due to many German Jewish personae that arrived in Lithuania as part of their task in the army and administration. Among them were the military rabbis Rabbi Wilhelm Levi, who advised the Jewish schools, R. Rozenhak, the artist Herman Shtruk, who was appointed adviser in Jewish matters and later immortalized Jewish Lithuanian figures in his drawings, the writer Arnold Zweig, who later on described his impressions of the German conquest in his book, the Advocate and writer Dr Sami Groneman and others. In spite of being German patriots, they drew close to the local Jewry and appreciated the local culture and life style. Some of these German Jewish educators continued their activities in the country after the war.

The weakening of Germany in the war and the 1917 revolution in Russia undermined the German military administration in Lithuania and brought it into low esteem. Because of robbery and theft a number of Jewish communities organized their own self-defense scheme. They procured the necessary arms from, among others, German soldiers who deserted their units. The Jews became more and more aware of possible future developments in the status of Lithuania after the war in view of the pro Lithuanian policy now adopted by the military administration. The military administration permitted the Lithuanians to convene a kind of national assembly to elect a body which would represent the Lithuanian nationals – the Tariba (council), but in the meantime the Jews were not given the possibility of appointing an official representative body of their own. The activity of the community committee was limited to social assistance only.

A number of Jewish personalities of public standing among the Jews and also among the wider public took upon themselves to represent the interests of the Jews, such as Dr. Vigodski, Rabbi Yitzchak Rubinstein of Vilna, Rabbi Israel-Nissan Kark of Kovno and others. They strengthened the contacts with the neighboring German Zionist center and also kept in touch with the Lithuanian public leadership, who proposed that the Jews add two members to the council, when it comes into being (in addition to the twenty Lithuanian members). However, their condition was that they, the Lithuanians, would select the two representatives and that the candidates should have a mastery of the Lithuanian language. The Jewish representatives rejected this condition and demanded that the number of Jewish members of the “Taryba” should be one sixth of the total number, thus representing the actual Jewish ratio of the population before the war.

The Jewish leadership demanded that the military administration permit them, as it did with the Lithuanians, to convene a national assembly, to discuss their future, to prepare the conditions for national autonomy and to elect representatives to the “Taryba.” In October 1917, the chairman of the German Zionist Organization, Dr Arthur Hantke, visited Lithuania. After discussions with the Jewish leadership he submitted a memorandum to the military administration in which he supported the demands. Max Varburg and Paul Nathan, the German Jewish leaders, also submitted a memorandum in the same spirit. During discussions in Berlin at the beginning of 1918, the representatives of Lithuanian Jewry (Rabbi Yitzchak Rubinstein of Vilna and Rabbi Israel-Nissan Kark), with the leadership of the Zionist Organization and German-Jewish public personalities, also raised these demands. In addition to the demand for proper representation in the “Taryba”, the demand for recognition of the right of the national minority for autonomy was emphasized in the deliberations.

Nevertheless, in spite of the support of the German Zionists for these demands, and discussions held with the political establishment, the latter aligned themselves with the militant nationalist line of the Lithuanian leadership. Moreover, in secret contacts between German politicians and Lithuanians it was promised that industrial plants and businesses which were previously in Jewish hands before their banishment to Russia, would be handed over, after the war, to Lithuanians for a symbolic price. As an earnest of their intentions to carry out this policy, the Germans pointed to the encouragement the administration gave over a long time to the creation of Lithuanian consumer and agricultural producers co-operatives, and as a result the continued Jewish efforts to come to an understanding with representatives of the Taryba did not succeed, even after the latter declared on February 1918, with German concurrence, Lithuanian independence, which was supposed to be based on democratic principles. At that time, the leaders of the “Taryba” were confident in the political and military power of the German army to defend their unyielding attitude to their national minorities. This situation continued for a number of months, until Germany was forced to admit defeat and signed ceasefire agreements.


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