“Zagare” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Žagarė, Lithuania)

56° 22' / 23° 15'

Translation of the “Zagare” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996



Project Coordinator and Translator

Melanie Rosenberg


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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 277-282)


In Yiddish, Zager; in Russian, Zhagori

District city in Siaulai (Shavi) Province.

Written by Dov Levin

1766 840 
1847 2,266 

*1629 in Old Zagare, 3814 in New Zagare

Zagare is one of the very oldest settlements in Lithuania. The town sprawls across two banks of the Svete (Sventa) River on the border between Lithuania and Latvia, at an approximate distance of 40 kilometers northeast of the district city of Siauliai (Shavl). Here an estate called Zagare was established, which eventually evolved into a town. In 1495, Zagare was granted a permit to conduct markets within its territory. One hundred years later, a church was erected on the right bank of the river, around which houses were built and roads were paved in a relatively modern, well-planned manner. By the close of the 17th century, there were 100 houses. This area became known as “New Zagare,” and the area on the left bank, the older section, was called “Old Zagare.” Both areas were governed by separate municipal administrations. Everyday contact between the two sections was maintained via a wooden bridge over the Svete. In time, the population of New Zagare exceeded that of Old Zagare –and the economic, social, and standard and quality of living surpassed the level of their veteran sister-town as well.

The Narishkin family of landowners, who had owned the Zagare estate since 1850 as well as certain property in New Zagare, exerted a significant influence upon the town's development. From that same period, a significant spurt in economic activity took place. In 1861, the area boasted three small factories producing buttons, belts and similar accessories, employing 90 workers. Afterwards, additional small factories arose for processing agricultural products and food. Yet the development of Old Zagare (whose land belonged to the Heiman family of landowners) was more limited. One of the factories in Old Zagare manufactured candles. In 1897, 27 shops operated in the town (compared to 121 in New Zagare), with 90 artisans residing there (compared to 640 in New Zagare).

Zagare's citizens endured great hardship from both natural and man-made catastrophes: the Russo-Swedish War (1705), the cholera epidemic of 1848, the Polish Revolt of 1863, the Great Famine which gripped the region in 1867, and the massive fires of 1880, 1909 and 1911. A Cossack unit dispatched to Zagare wreaked great havoc when they took control during the revolutionary events of 1905 (for a very short period of time, the city was proclaimed an autonomous entity called “The Zagarit Republic.”)

From the close of the 19th century until the First World War, the two sections of Zagare were recognized as the Regional Center, with municipal and other institutions were established there. Moreover, it became the site of a burgeoning commercial trade with Latvia. Merchants from as far away as Germany and England would attend the city's annual fairs. During this time, the local population grew exponentially (by approximately 300%). From an administrative standpoint, Zagare belonged to the Kovna region and the Siaulai district.

During the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940), Zagare's economic activity declined sharply due to the severance from Latvian and Russian markets. The population also took a steep drop, returning to its level of 60 years prior. Throughout the entire period, Zagare served as a Regional Center. The city retained this status during Soviet rule (1940-1941), as well as during the period of Nazi occupation in World War II (1941-1944).

The Jewish Community Through Post-World War One

Zagare's Jewish community was one of the first in all of Lithuania, and in the Jamote District specifically. The community can apparently trace its beginnings to the 16th century. The first Jewish settlers dealt in leasing the privilege of tax and custom collection, and traded in salts and metals imported from abroad. Others traded in the exports of honey, beeswax and hides. There were craftsmen as well.

Eventually two separate communities arose in the city's two sections. Each community had its own rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers (shochtim), and even separate cemeteries.

The Old Zagare Community

Due to its overcrowded and difficult conditions, Zagare's sanitary state was extremely poor. Thus, when a cholera epidemic swept the area, 973 died from among the Jewish population. By the close of the 19th century, 1,629 Jews resided in Zagare, out of a total population of 2,527 – nearly three quarters. Of the 210 residences in the city, 158 were Jewish-owned. The majority of the Jews made their living as craftsmen (mainly tailors and shoemakers), from agriculture (raising vegetables and cherries), and as retail merchants, for by this time wholesale markets had moved to New Zagare. Nearly 500 Jewish craftsmen resided in the city. Among the few structures built from stone were the synagogue, Beit Midrash, and bathhouse.

Most of the Jewish boys studied in Old Zagare's several cheders. From 1893, a Jewish school for girls, with two classes, operated as well.

Despite the steadily worsening economic situation, the community continued its tradition of extending aid to other communities in distress. For example, when in 1884 a massive fire broke out in the neighboring town of Laizuva, both Zagare communities, Old and New, contributed 70 rubles towards its rehabilitation.

Among the rabbis, dayanim and talmudic scholars who served in Old Zagare were Rabbi Yekutiel-Zalman (who died in 1848), Rabbi Tzemech Zakash (who led the community from 1815-1863), Rabbi Chaim Luria (from 1858), Rabbi Zvi-Hersh Broide, Rabbi Yehoshua Broide, Rabbi Dov-Ber Raviner and his son-in-law Rabbi Shmaryahu-Leib Kantorovich, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Reif, and Rabbi Yehuda-Leib Broide.

The New Zagare Community

By 1790 the central marketplace in New Zagare was already completely occupied by Jews (approximately 50 families) who operated 30 shops and inns in the town and its environs. Rental fees for all these buildings totaled around 900 gold pieces annually. During this period, major Jewish community facilities were maintained, including synagogues and cemeteries. The city's rabbi at the time, Rabbi Berl Itzkowitz, was also responsible for the collection and payment of the rental for Jewish homes and businesses.

Following the Napoleonic War, the ruling authorities acceded to Jewish requests and increased the number of market days and fairs. According to one source, merchandise valued at 4000 rubles was brought to Zager on Fair days; Jewish proceeds amounted to around 900 rubles. Jews established factories in the area to manufacture candles, mead, rope, hides, buttons, processing hog bristles, and other products.

In 1897, the Jews of New Zagare comprised 60% of the entire population, residing in 329 out of the city's 450 homesteads. The majority made their living as craftsmen, in light manufacturing, agriculture and commerce. In contrast to Old Zagare is the relatively high number of large-scale merchants dealing in the export of linen (approximately 4000 boxcars annually), as well as in produce (approximately 1000 boxcars) to Germany and other countries, and the import of miscellaneous merchandise (approximately 300 boxcars) from abroad. The grandly built commercial center in the heart of the city, too, was occupied primarily by Jewish merchants. The outstanding prosperity of most of the town's Jews served to improve their relationship with the ruling authorities, which granted them substantial freedom in conducting their affairs via a “town administration” established in 1880. One of the heads of the Nerishkin family opened his lush garden to the Jews, who extended it by 80 hectares. It later became a city park. During that period, Zagare boasted four institutions of Jewish education: a boys' school with a student body of 30 during 1897/98; a girls'school with 53 pupils; a Talmud Torah housed in an imposing building (built with contributions sent from abroad by Klonimus Wolf Wissotsky, one of Zagare's renowned natives, and others) with 100 students; and the Russian municipal school with 154 boys and 53 girl students. Youth and adults pursued higher Jewish learning in Talmudic institutions (yeshivas) operating in four local batei midrash.

In autumn of 1881, a huge fire broke out in the city, causing grave damage to the community. As HaMelitz reported, more than 400 homes were burned to the ground, including a synagogue and bet midrash, with around one thousand families left needy and homeless. In response to requests for assistance published in the newspaper, as well as through contributions from various other sources, aid was delivered in the form of food, money, and clothing. The efforts of the local committee, which carried out the rebuilding and distribution of aid, were extremely intensive. Most notable was the work of local physicians Dr. Hertzberg and Dr. Hench, a Christian who assisted much of the Jewish population over the decades.

The decade of 1880-1890 was marked by a major emigration from Zagare to South Africa and America. In 1887, the society of Rodfei Zedek Anshei Zagare (Zagare émigrés) was established in Philadelphia. By 1895 there was already a good-sized community of Zagare-born immigrants in Johannesburg, South Africa, who supported the Jews of their native town. A list of the contributors was published in HaTzfira that year.

Among the rabbis who led the New Zagare community were: Rabbi Shimon ben Rav Shaul Horowitz, Rabbi Eliyahu Schick, Rabbi Uri-David Apirion, Rabbi Chaim-Yitzchak Korav, and Rabbi Yakov Yosef “Charif.”

Zagare –primarily Old Zagare –also possessed a large number of devout, fanatic Jews. For many years, Zagare also served as a center for members of the Musar movement, founded by Zagare native Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. At the same time, a significant number of the city's merchants whose business travels took them to Koenigsberg, Leipzig and other German cities returned not only with merchandise, but with new ideas and a sampling of the best of European literature. Most notable among them was the group of balabatim who were eminent scholars, religiously observant, and not fanatic, yet read a great deal of secular literature and scientific texts. This group became nicknamed “The Wise Men of Zagare” (Chochmei Zagare) and went on to gain renown in the early days of the Haskalah movement. Among those who belonged to this group, or were close to it, were Rabbi Chaim Zack, who was greatly respected by the entire community; Jewish researcher Rabbi Shneur Zaksh, Rafael Neta Rabinowitz, author of the book Dikdukei Sofrim, Rabbi Shimon Halevi Ish Horowitz, who was to become the chief rabbi of Leipzig; author Yaakov Dinezon, bibliographer Avraham Freidus; Ben Zion Zaltzberg, author of Introduction to Ecclesiastes; Eliezer Atlas, who was to become an editor of HaAsif and HaKerem; Avraham Eidelson, who became the editor of the (Russian Jewish periodical) Razsvet; Zvi Kahn, an expert in Jewish studies, Simcha (Sidney) Hillman, who became a leader in the U.S. labor movement; Zvi Izakson, who became director of the Israeli Farmers' Association, and many others.

The extended Mandelstam family held the highest place of honor among the intellectuals of Zagare. With roots in Germany, their descendents became prominent leaders in the Haskalah movement in Russia and ranked among that country's great writers and scientists. The most renowned were Josef Mandelstam and his three sons Benjamin, Aryeh-Leon, and Yechezkel, who, in addition to pursuing their professions, dealt in Biblical research, composing allegories and poetry and in disseminating knowledge (haskalah) to the Jewish masses. Yechezkel's son Max (Emanuel), who began his education in the Zagare cheder, became an eminent ophthalmologist in Kiev, and the right-hand man to Theodore Herzl in his Zionist activities. Chaim Yosef, the son of Josef Mandelstam, published articles on Zagare in Hamelitz. This small town spawned a long line of religious scholars, intellectuals, writers, researchers, and public figures renowned amongst the Jewish Diaspora.

An important contribution to the cultural life of Zagare was made by the local physician Dr. Hertzberg, who was mentioned previously for his assistance to the community. In July 1898, Dr. Hertzberg opened a bookstore and library on New Zagare's main street, which remained in business for many years. Close to the outbreak of World War One, a branch of the Association to Cultivate Literature operated in the city. Its primary activity was to sponsor reading evenings, lectures on literature and society, and the like.

With its large number of Jewish activists, the “Bund” held a great influence in Zagare. Later, Chibat Zion and Zionism became the strongest social forces in the city.

According to listings in the HaMelitz newspaper of those who contributed to the yishuv of Eretz Yisrael, Zagare Jewish community members numbered 55 donors in 1897, 98 donors in 1900, and 8 donors in 1903. Among those named were B. Segal and Ben Zion Zaltzberg. On the 1909 list, 18 donors appeared. The old cemetery of Jerusalem contains at least five graves of Zagare natives who died at the close of the 19th century. The Agudah movement was also active in Zagare. On the 1914 roster of dues-paying members were 75 people from New Zagare and 10 from Old Zagare.

Zagare's Jewish community demonstrated strong solidarity with their Lithuanian neighbors. When the Czarist authorities banned the printing of books in the Lithuanian language, the town's Jews aided in the “book issue” by smuggling the forbidden literature to its audience. Jews of Zagare were involved in the revolutionary movement of 1905, where several were imprisoned, banished and put to death at the orders of the Russian government.

During World War One, the majority of the Jewish population left Zagare for internal regions of Russia or emigrated to other locales.

During the Period of Lithuanian Independence

The newly drawn Lithuanian-Latvian border following World War One sentenced Zagare to become one of the remote, poor cities of Lithuania. Most of its Jewish inhabitants did not return, and among those who did were a large number who then emigrated to the United States and South Africa or made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. Adding to the city's commercial and social woes was the fact that Zagare's railway station was erected 28 kilometers away from the town. In the rain, Zagare's main road was impassable as well. Any commercial activity whatsoever took place only on market days, held each Tuesday and Friday.

A 1931 Lithuanian government survey indicated that 51 of Zagare's businesses were Jewish-owned (86%). The following data gives a branch-by-branch occupational breakdown for Zagare's businesses:

Branch /type of businessTotalJewish-
Produce and linen22
Butchers, cattle dealers2119
Restaurants and inns21
Food products11
Clothing, furs, textiles88
Leather and shoes76
Haberdashery, houseware11
Medicine, cosmetics52
Watches, jewelry22
Radio, bicycles, sewing machines11
Tools, ironware22

According to the same 1931 survey, the town's 25 Jewish-owned workshops and light industries included four barbershops, two factories for processing hog bristles, two spinning mills, two shoe factories, two sewing workshops, a flour mill, bakery, saw-mill, weaving factory, candy and chocolate factory, factories producing women's hats, leather, dye-works, intestinal cleanse products, a tinsmith's workshop, a soda water producer, a photography studio, and a power station. In 1937, there were 55 Jewish craftsmen: 15 shoemakers, 10 tailors, eight butchers, five tailors, three tinsmiths, two bakers, two barbers, a haberdasher, metalworker (welder), carpenter, ironsmith, painter, photographer, watchmaker, and three others.

The Jewish “People's Bank” (Volksbank) played a very important role in Jewish economic activity. In 1927, the bank recorded 287 members. With the exception of Lithuanian violent outbreaks against their Jewish neighbors, their relationship was a proper one, at least on the surface. Among the nine members of the local city council, four were Jewish (from 1934, only three). With time, the aggressive competition on the part of the Lithuanian cooperative guilds became fiercer. Difficult economic conditions, coupled with the sense of unease and isolation, led many traders as well as Jewish youth to move to other places, particularly the nearby town of Jonishok (Joniskis). In 1939, there were 36 telephones in Zagare, of which 15 were Jewish-owned.

During the first half of the 1920s, an 11-member community committee operated in Zagare. On the 1921 roster was one representative of the General Zionists, two from Tzerei Zion, one from the craftsmen's guild, two from the Workers List (Rishimat Hapoalim), and five who were politically unaffiliated. Even after the committee was annulled, and despite the steady decline in the Jewish population of Zagare, nearly all Jewish institutions continued to operate, including seven synagogues, an old-age home, a hospital, two bathhouses, two libraries (one Hebrew, one Yiddish), and two schools. One school, affiliated with the Yavneh network, had 135 students. In 1922, the “Tarbut” (culture) Society organized adult education courses with 50 participants.

The city's two fire brigades were manned by Jewish volunteers. The “Maccabee” and “Hapoel” sports clubs were active in Zagare, as well as several parties and youth organizations, primarily from the Zionist camp. The following are the results of elections held in Zagare for the Zionist Congresses:

#, Year

Despite the many ordeals endured during World War One and afterwards, the gulf between the Jewish citizens of Old Zagare and their brethren in New Zagare remained unfazed. Old Zagare's citizen's claimed superiority by virtue of having been the site of the first Jewish community. New Zagare's residents retorted that they were the leaders, since they boasted the largest Jewish population. Such wrangling sometimes reached needlessly divisive proportions. The generations-long rivalry was ended, in great measure, thanks to the good offices of Rabbi Yisrael Reif, rabbi of New Zagare, and of his son Rabbi Yitzchak-Zondel Reif, who led the Old Zagare congregation.

World War Two and its Aftermath

During the period of “Sovietization” following the Soviet annexation of Lithuania (1940-1941), all Jewish organizations and Zionist parties were disbanded. The Yiddish library established by the “Liebhaber von Visn” (Lovers of Knowledge) organization was one of the very few institutions to continue operating. A number of businesses were nationalized. Shortly before the German army invaded the Soviet Union on June 14, 1941, many of Zagare's Jews were expelled to Siberia, including the educator and Bible scholar Meir Kantorowitz-Elioeiny.

By June 25th, Zagare had already fallen to the German Army. Within the town, the Germans were aided by armed Lithuanians calling themselves “Anti-Soviet National Partisan Fighters.” In collaboration with the municipal authorities, the Lithuanians imprisoned hundreds of Jewish men inside the synagogue and brutally tortured them. The elderly Rabbi Yisrael Reif, who was a tall man, was forced under a rain of blows and curses to harness himself to a cart together with an extremely short man. Together they were made to pull the cart through the city's streets, to the loud jeers of the non-Jewish citizens. Tens of Jews were shot to death in the New Zagare cemetery and the nearby forests. In early July, all of Zagare's Jews were rounded up into one neighborhood, designated as the ghetto. In addition, Jews were brought here from the nearby towns of Zeimelis (Zemel) , Tirksliai (Tirkshle), Tryskiai (Trishik), Joniskis (Jonishok), Leckava (Loikeve), Lygumai (Lygum), Linkova, Pakruojus (Pokroi), Kelme, Kriukai (Kruk), and Radviliskis (Radvilishok). In total, there were over 7000 people – men, women and children. Each day, the Lithuanians would force most of the men out to work, while beating and torturing them. Before leaving for their labor, the Jews were compelled to spit at Rabbi Reif, or face a penalty of death. To avoid the murderous threat, the rabbi directed his congregants to obey the order. The Jews, humiliated and starved, were crowded into a narrow ghetto that lacked sanitary conditions and medical facilities. Beyond this, they fell victim to frequent attacks by Lithuanians and Latvians who would break into the ghetto to rob, rape and abuse the Jewish inhabitants.

The day after Yom Kippur, October 2, 1941, the Jews of Zagare – men, women and children – were summoned to the market square where they were addressed by the commander of the Sonderkommando (“special unit”), the secondary unit of the Operational Division A. Calmly, the commander informed them that they were about to be “transferred” to a new workplace with improved conditions. At that point, he gave a signal to the armed Lithuanian troops surrounding the area to storm the marketplace and fire on the Jews with automatic weapons. In the midst of the massacre, Alter Zagorsky cried out to those still alive, “Jews, run for your lives!” He then drew a knife and stabbed one of the Lithuanian murderers to death. Another Jew, Avraham Ackerman, attacked a second Lithuanian and bit his neck. Zagorsky and Ackerman were shot to death on the spot, but the ensuing confusion allowed many Jews to escape. Additional bands of armed Lithuanians were summoned to the scene, where they took control over the remaining Jews, including those who had run away. They were taken to the Narishkin Park, where nearby pits had already been prepared in advance. Here the Jews were shot to death and buried. Infants and children were murdered by bashing their heads against trees. Many were shoved into the pits alive. The victims' clothes and possessions were stolen by their neighbors, or seized by the murderers or the local authorities. Very few Jews survived the slaughter, nor did many remain alive of those who were expelled or had left for the Soviet Union prior to the outbreak of the war. Bible researcher Meir Kantorowitz-Elioeiny died in the Diaspora in 1980.

At the beginning of the 1990s, three plaques were erected at the entrance to the Narishkin Park, with inscriptions in Lithuanian, Yiddish and Hebrew: “In this place, on October 2, 1941, Hitler's murderers and their local accomplices killed around 3000 of the Jews of Siauliai Province, men, women and children.”

In 1989, one solitary Jew resided in Zagare.

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