“Gorzd” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Gargzdai, Lithuania)

55°43' / 21°24'

Translation of “Gorzd” chapter from Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Raphael Julius

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

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(Pages 187 - 191)

Gorzd (Gargzdai)

Written by Raphael Julius

Translated by Barry Marks

(in Yiddish, Gorzd; in German, Garsden; in Polish, Gorzdy)

Region of Kretinga (Kretingen), district of Zhamut.

1847  648 
19393100 more than 100030

*483 men, 566 women

Gorzd is located in the region of Zhamut {Samogitia} in western Lithuania on the left bank of the river Minija, adjacent to the border with Germany. The town is about 15 kilometers from the city of Memel.

Gorzd is mentioned for the first time in historical documents in the writings of the Crusaders (the Crusader order) dating from the year 1253. In 1510 a customs station was established which also served for the exchange of money and the sale of wax and salt. Part of the lands belonged to the Kesgaila noble family and later to the Radziwill family (Radvila in Lithuanian). Until 1587, Gorzd belonged from an administrative standpoint to the center in Plungen {Palanga}. In the year 1600 Gorzd received permission to organize annual fairs. In 1792 municipal privileges (Magdeburg rights) and a symbol were granted. With the Russian conquest in 1795, Gorzd lost its municipal privileges and became an ordinary town. Beginning in the nineteenth century, it served as a district center. In 1865, a library was established in the castle of the Baron Reno.

In the period of Russian rule (1795-1915) Gorzd was included in the Telz {Telsiai} district, province of Kovno. During this period it was a poor and remote town with one main street (Tomozhna Street) leading from the market square to the army barracks adjacent to the border and proceeding from which were several unpaved alleys. The prosperous people lived on the main street; the rest of the inhabitants resided in the alleys. Around the market square were stores for food, fabrics, and metalware, a pharmacy, and a tavern. At the edge of the square stood the church. Every Thursday in Gorzd was market day, during which farmers from the surrounding villages brought their produce to sell and bought what they needed. The residents of Gorzd earned their living from dairy farming or shopkeeping; a few of them were artisans- shoemakers, tailors, bakers, teamsters or peddlers and shopkeepers. In Gorzd there was a small workshop for tanning hides and a blacksmith shop. The houses were of wood and many were falling down. In the winter the alleys were full of mud. Economically, Gorzd was in large measure dependent on the Memel region, which at that time belonged to Germany. But from a cultural standpoint, despite a strong German influence, this was a typical East European town.

In the year 1812, Napoleon's soldiers camped in Gorzd on their way into Russia. In 1907 or 1908, a severe plague of smallpox broke out in Gorzd. In August 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, the residents of Gorzd who were drafted went to the front. During the time of the First World War, the town was not damaged, but the residents left and returned only after the German Army had entered. During the time the Germans ruled, sustenance was abundant. In 1939, there were eleven streets in the town.

In the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940), the town continued to be a district center.

The Jewish community in Gorzd was one of the first in Lithuania, predating the Memel (Klaipeda) community. For many years the Jews of Memel were accustomed to burying their dead in Gorzd. This practice came to an end after the partition of Poland. The Russian authorities devised obstacles to Jewish burial and even prohibited it outright, and the Jews were compelled to smuggle in their departed secretly for the purpose of burial. In the Zhamut region during those days they were not accustomed to set up gravestones and therefore the stones that were found in Gorzd are from a later time. The earliest of these is from the year 1731 (20th of Shevat 5491). We may infer that a Jewish cemetery was established at the latest at some time preceding this date. According to another source, gravestones were there even earlier than this.

In documents from the 15th century Jews of Gorzd are mentioned as appointees for collecting the customs duties. In 1639 King Wladislaw IV bestowed a charter of rights, according to which the Jews were promised full privileges as citizens. This charter was confirmed anew in the year 1742 by King August III. In general, our knowledge about the history of the Jewish community in Gorzd until the 19th century is very scanty. According to one of the stories passed down by tradition among the Jews, after the decrees of 5408 (the Chmelnitzki massacres of 1648), there arrived in Gorzd a Jew by the name of Bendit (R. Bendit Podkove) who had been wounded by the perpetrators of the Chelmnitzki pogroms and had lost his memory. He settled in Gorzd, died and was buried there. One of his descendants was R. Shmuel Chasid (1751), a follower of the Gaon of Vilna, upon whom they bestowed the nickname the Chasid from Zhamut. The communal ledger, in which are recorded details about the beginnings of the community, was burned in a fire at the time of the First World War.

The Jews of Gorzd earned their livelihood mainly from the export of lumber to Germany. Many were engaged in floating logs down the river Minija. There were also some who made their living by smuggling merchandise to Memel and from there (perhaps because of this and because of the trade in horses which the town conducted with Germany, the residents were stuck with the nickname “Gorzder ferd ganovim”, horse thieves from Gorzd. Among the Jews were no small number of rich men. Prominent among them were Jacob and Feivel Yafshitz, who were timber merchants and owners of a well-known bank in Memel. At the end of the 19th century, Jews were 60% of the total population of Gorzd.

So long as there was a link to the city of Memel, Jews would buy whatever they needed, shoes and clothing, in the big city. The Jews of Gorzd were open to the influence of German culture, and most of them knew how to speak German (or a mixture of German and Yiddish that could be understood by the German inhabitants of Memel).

When pogroms were conducted against the Jews, many Jews from Gorzd would cross the border into Germany and remain there until the storm subsided. Many of them never returned to their hometown. In Gorzd there was a synagogue and a house of study (Bet Midrash), at which groups for the study of Mishna and Gemara were active and of course a Chevra Kadisha (burial society). Among the communal institutions were societies such as Lechem Aniyim (bread for the poor), Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), Linat Hatzedek.(lodging of righteousness, i.e., a shelter for poor travelers), and Kupat Gemilut Chesed (Free Loan Society) which was established (apparently in 1930) with the assistance of emigrants from the town who had settled in New York and Chicago.

At the time of the First World War the German Army occupied Gorzd. The Germans brought to Gorzd many Jewish refugees who had fled from Poland and put them to work at forced labor. Many of these young men remained afterwards in Gorzd and established their households there. At the time of the German occupation a folk school was established and most of the boys who had studied in the Talmud Torah and in the cheder (Hebrew school) transferred there. The principal of this school was the teacher Lam. The Hebrew teacher was Horvitz.

With the founding of independent Lithuania at the end of the First World War, Gorzd experienced a time of blossoming. The merchants of Gorzd exported to Memel flax, animal hides, chickens and geese, beans, and other merchandise.

In the year 1921, in accordance with the Law of Autonomy for the Jews which was enacted by the government of independent Lithuania, a community board of eleven members was chosen in Gorzd. Serving on it were two Zeirei Zion (Young Zionists), three workers, and six non-partisan members. The Board manifested lively activity and was involved in everything that was done in the town: it hired the teachers for the folk school, paid their salary, took care of conflicts that arose in the House of Study in the matter of seating, extended help to the poor, and solicited householders to support the school.

During the 1920's a branch the Jewish Folk Bank (Volksbank) was opened in Gorzd. In 1927 it had 292 members; in 1929 the number had gone down slightly to 269. During this time loans were granted to 92 individuals totaling 38,580 lit. In 1939 Gorzd had 45 telephones, 20 of them belonging to Jews. Very many of the Jewish residents (about 80%) found their livelihood in the big city Memel and were accustomed to traveling there every day by bus. The children of Gorzd studied in the secondary school in the big city.

According to a survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1931, there were in Gorzd 34 businesses and stores, all of them Jewish owned: eight butcher shops, seven food stores, seven stores for grain, five stores selling kindling, two fabric shops, one for ironware, one for hides, one for sewing machines, and one pharmacy. According to the same survey, there were in Gorzd and its vicinity a workshop for combing wool, a flour mill, a factory for tanning hides and one for making bricks - all under Jewish ownership.

After the annexation of the Memel region to the Third Reich in March 1939, Gorzd became once again a border town. Ties with Memel were severed and the situation of the Jews worsened a great deal. Jews who had dwelt in Memel for many years were compelled to return to their towns in Lithuania and left behind all of their possessions. Many young people moved to Kovno, the capital of Lithuania, where there was still hope of finding employment. In the last years of the existence of independent Lithuania, when the Lithuanian government became more and more anti-Semitic, many young people from Gorzd immigrated to the Land of Israel. Others wandered to America and to South Africa. At the end of the summer of 1939, a great fire broke out in Gorzd which destroyed 150 houses, half of the Jewish homes in the town. The Jews of Gorzd assisted the “burned out” ones and sheltered them in their homes until they could re-establish themselves.

Local youth studied at the Talmud Torah - which even received official status and enjoyed government support - and in the two folk schools (one where the instruction was in Yiddish, founded in the 1920's, and one where the teaching was in Hebrew, which received official status as a government school). The older youth traveled away from town to study at the yeshivot and gymnasia in the big cities and would return home for vacations, bringing with them a new spirit. In Gorzd there were two libraries - one belonging to the Zionists which had many books in Hebrew (its founder was Horvitz, the Hebrew teacher in the folk school) and one belonging to the Yiddishists. In the libraries literary contests on various subjects were held. The Gorzd industrialist Shmuel Zaks supported both of these libraries with money. Gorzd distinguished itself in its public life and municipal culture. There was even a club for the study of Esperanto (founded by Leibe Schauss, 1915-1967). A drama club was also active in Gorzd. The theater lovers of Gorzd gave presentations in Hebrew and in Yiddish. The organizer and moving spirit of the club was Zalman Leib Rubenstein. Presentations took place in the wood Community Center building that belonged to the Lithuanian community. People would come to the presentations even from Memel. Revenues were designated for assisting the needy. In Gorzd volunteer firemen were active -both Jews and Lithuanians.

After the Balfour Declaration the Zionist movement began to develop in Gorzd. Youth movements and Zionist parties were established and debates were organized between the different ideological “streams.” Religious youth was organized in the Tiferet Bachurim group. Secular young people were members of Zionist groups, Hashomer Hatzair, Betar, or sports clubs such as Maccabee and Hapoel, which also sponsored soccer teams. The Maccabee club had 56 members. Several young people established the “Youth Revival” movement which was devoted to the study of Hebrew. In Gorzd most of the Zionist parties were represented, including Hechalutz. A branch of the Zionist-Socialists (Z.S.) was already in existence in Gorzd in 1925. The town was a place of preparation and training for would-be pioneers, who stayed at farms in the vicinity in anticipation of making aliya (immigrating to Palestine). The young people of Gorzd arranged many pageants, celebrations, and literary competitions.

Elections for Zionist Congresses - Results from Gorzd

Eretz Yisrael OvedetRevisionistGeneral ZionistStatistMizrachi
    Z. S.Z. Z. AB  
1519274624615 -3- - -
1619299035918 - 3 - -5
171931 44 29 6 11 2 4 - - 6
18 1933 - 131 97 10 8 - - 16
191935 - 213115 3 4 - - 91
        National Block  
211939 62 49 36 - 5 8

Z. S. = Socialist Zionists
Z. Z. = Zeirei Zion (Young Zionists)

The distribution of mandates by the voters in the elections for the Zionist Congresses is shown in the table printed above (in 1931, the elections took place at the Hebrew library; in 1939 they took place at the Maccabee club).

Among the rabbis who served in Gorzd were: R. Leib Matz and his son R. Ber Matz; R. Baruch son of R. Nachum Gutman (died in 1833); R. Yosl Shveksner and his son R. Zev Yaffe (died in 1848 during the great plague); R. Moshe Yaffe (occupied the rabbinical seat for 45 years from 1840 to 1885); his son R. Joseph Yaffe (died in Manchester in 1897). According to tradition, members of the Yaffe family were related to the Gaon R. Mordechai Yaffe, author of the “Levushim”; R. Isaac Jacob Rabinovitz ( known by his nickname, Reb Itzele from Ponovezh -he died there in 1918); R. Aaron Walkin; R. Yitzchak Isaac Friedman; R. Shabtai Aaron son of R. Moshe Shapira. The last rabbi of the community, R. Meir Levin perished in the Holocaust (Tammuz 5701/ 1941).

A few Gorzd residents became famous: R. Shlomo Zalman son of R. Shraga Feivish Shach; R. Samuel Walkin; the scholar Chaim Benjamin Schauss, who researched and described the history of the town; the poetess Judith Tzik (who wrote her poems under the pen name “Yudika”); the industrialist Sam (Shmuel) Zaks, later owner of the “Meshi” factory in Ramat Gan; the physician and Communist writer Dr. Hershel Meir, who immigrated to the United States. One of the natives of Gorzd in the 18th century was R. Shmuel Chasid (son of R. Baruch), a descendant of R. Bendit Podkover. R. Shmuel was accustomed to journey to the Gaon of Vilna twice a year, earning from him the nickname “the chasid from Zhamut”. R. Shmuel Chasid later moved to the city of Rasein {Raseiniai} and died there at a ripe old age. In an inscription on a gravestone in the cemetery in a well known place there appears the name of R. Zusl Preis, one of the honored members of the community, who was gabbai of the synagogue and was buried here in 5627/ 1866 (according to a local tradition, he was killed after a quarrel concerning the purchase of the honor of reciting the prayer Atta Horeita, recited prior to opening the Ark on Simchat Torah).

A special place is reserved for the shoemaker and bibliographer R. Moshe son of R. Shlomo Zalman Markovitz, known as “Moshele der m'chaber” (Moshele the author). Born in 1856, he died the 10th of Iyar, 5695, April 21, 1935. He was author of the book Shem Gedolim Hashlishi (first edition Vilna, 1910; second edition, Keidan, 1932) and of the book “History of the Cities of Israel and their Rabbis.” (Warsaw 5673/ 1913). Markovitz was born in Namucst and lived in the city of Rasein, province of Kovno, but in his last years he resided in Gorzd and died there. His second wife and his daughter were killed in the Holocaust.

In the time of the Second World War

In the summer of 1940 after Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, Gorzd was declared a border region and anyone who wanted to visit there needed a special permit. Under Soviet rule, the economic situation grew worse. Private commerce was curtailed and the Jews lost their sources of livelihood. Some businesses were nationalized and all of the Zionist organizations as well as most of the community institutions were liquidated. The Hebrew school was turned into a government-run institution, in which the language of instruction was Yiddish. Soviet rule lasted a year until the German invasion of Russia.

The town was captured by the German Army on the first day of the war with the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941 after a hard battle with the Soviet garrison. Several Jews participated in the resistance. During the attack many Jews and some Lithuanians hid in the cellar of the brewery. Several Jews were killed in the artillery shelling. The next day by order of the Gestapo, all the residents of the town were gathered in the market square, and there the Jews and the Communists were separated from the others and taken to the town park. The non-Jews were set free. The Jews and the Communist activists remained in custody for several days. That same day the Germans with wanton cruelty forced the Jewish males to dig an antitank ditch adjacent to the customs house that sat alongside the border with Germany. The Germans were especially cruel to those Jews who had served in important positions during the time of Soviet rule. The physician Dr. Oksman was put to death in an especially cruel manner because he had served as a district physician under the Soviets. Wanton cruelty was also the fate of the town's rabbi, R. Meir Levin. The next day (June 24) twenty Gestapo men were brought to the town along with police from Memel and they killed all of them - 200 Jewish men and one woman (the wife of a Russian commissar) at the edge of the ditch which they had dug. Among those murdered were the livestock merchants, Funk and Sher, the three Korfman brothers, the industrialists Bernstein and Tauer, the owner of the soap factory Feinstein. After the murder the killers were feted with beer and vodka and had their pictures taken.

Women and children were taken by an escort of armed Lithuanians across the river Minija and housed in empty warehouses without food. The women were compelled to work at forced labor. On the 14th of September 1941, the Germans took the young women and brought them to the village of Anlishkus {Kalniske} and from there to the forest of Vizhitz {Vezaiciai} (Vezaitine forest) several kilometers distant from Gorzd, not far from the road to Kul {Kuliai} , where they killed them. Two days later, the rest of the women and the children were brought to the same place, and their fate was similar. The killing was carried out with great cruelty by Lithuanian nationalists. Only one woman, Rachel Yomi, was able to save herself by pretending that she was dead, and she is the single witness to what happened. A Lithuanian teacher named Gritzius from the village of Vizhitz concealed her during all the years of the war. After the war Rachel married her rescuer. Most of the Jewish homes were totally destroyed and in their place fields were plowed and sown. The Jewish cemetery was totally destroyed and of all its monuments only two were left.

Twenty one of the Jews of Gorzd were murdered in the Kovno ghetto and in concentration camps, and several Jews were transported from the ghetto to Estonia. They too were murdered.

After the war a monument was erected on Klaipeda Street in Gorzd in memory of the 201 Jewish men and the one woman who were murdered. The graves of the women and children (about 300 in number) were located and marked at the 6 and 7 kilometer mark of the highway leading from Gorzd to Kul, and on their grave as well a monument was erected. On one of them was marked the date “August 1941”. Witnesses who appeared at the trial after the war (January 29, 1958) related that in August or September 1941 at least 100 women and children were killed in the forest near Gorzd by drunken Lithuanian policemen. Only a few of the Jews of Gorzd were rescued. At least 16 residents of Gorzd fought against the Nazis in the ranks of the Lithuanian Division which served within the framework of the Red Army; six of them fell in battle.

On the 17th of December 1989, a granite monument was unveiled. On the monument was inscribed in Lithuanian and in Yiddish: “In July 1941 the Hitlerites killed hundreds of Jews. Here is a wound in the Lithuanian soil that is still raw.”

In the years 1959-1989, one Jew resided in Gorzd.


Caption of photograph on p. 188:

Administration and board of directors of the local Folksbank, 1936.


Archives of Yad v'Shem 43(1), M-9/15(6); M-33/979; TR-2 deliberations 14; TR-10/277, 1096; Ulm trial; 0-4/1; 0-34; Collection-communities of Lithuania 0-57, file 3; L. Schauss, letters to Y. Leshem; testimonies by Yakov Schauss, Rachelle Osher.

Central Zionist Archives, files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.

YIVO, collection-communities of Lithuania, files 147-154, 1511-1552, pages 7623-8355; pages 69403, 69407-69409.

Y. Alperovitz (editor) Sefer Gorzd (The Book of Gorzd), Tel Aviv, 5740/1980.

Oshry, Churban Lite (The Destruction of Lithuania) , pages 207, 208, 316.

Lite (Lithuania), edited by Mendel Sudarsky, Volume I, New York, 1951, pages 1453, 1517-1520; Volume II (photograph of the Esperanto club).

Protocol of the Trial of Nazi Criminals that took place in Ulm, Germany.

Unser Veg (Kovno) 1.5.1925.

Hayntike Nayes (Kovno), 1939.

YIVO Bletter (New York), Volume 19, 1942, pages 354-365.

Yerushalim d'Lita (Jerusalem of Lithuania) (Vilna), 3.1.1990.

Folksblatt, (Kovno), 6.3.33.

See also:
Gorzd book; A memorial to the Jewish community of Gorzd

“Gorzd” - Volume I: Lite (Lithuania)

“The Destruction of Gorzd” - Volume I: Lite (Lithuania)

“Gorzd” - Jewish Cities, Towns and Villages in Lithuania until 1918

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