Translated by Yehuda Aharon Horovitz
Telz is situated near the lake Mastiss, surrounded by hills. It was far from a railway, and only in the twenties of this century it gained contact with the Shalvi and Memel railways.
Being one of the oldest cities in Lithuania it is mentioned in historical documents dating back to the beginning of the fourteenth century and is named after its founder Djugasss Tal. A town named Talschem is mentioned in records of a German Order, recording an invasion of knights into Zamut in 1317.
Telz is included in the 15th century list of royal estates of the United Country. At the beginning of the seventeenth century the estate was run by prince Safiaga. In 1710 it suffered from Swedish invasions and epidemics causing many deaths.
In 1795 it became part of the Vilnius District Commission, and from 1802 of the Vilnius region. By 1873 it was annexed to the Kaunas region.
The city was damaged from the two Polish uprisings (1831 and 1863). It was hit by two major fires in 1905 and 1909. During World War I it was occupied by the Germans, who ruled it until 1918, followed by the red army who entered the city for a number of weeks.
In independent Lithuania it received legal status as a city, but only in 1931, in accordance with the new Constitution of cities, it became a ‘City of the first order’.
The Jewish population of Telz numbered 2248 persons in 1847, and in 1897 3088. During the days of war and deportation its Jewish population dwindled. In 1923 the local Jewish community numbered only 1545 people (33% of the population of 4691 people) and in 1939 2800 (35% of a population of 8000 persons).
The city's Jews engaged in trade in grain, timber and crafts. An important source of income for many of them was the great Yeshiva and other houses of study, where students from all over Lithuania and abroad learned.
The city had four major Batei Medrash [Synagogues]: the Great Beit Midrash (its Gabbaim were Rabbi Hirsch Braude and Rabbi Mordechai Levin); the Beit Midrash of the tailors (Rabbi Mordechai Koppel); The Beit Midrash of soldiers Yovonishe Klois (Rabbi Avraham Koppel); and the Beit Midrash of the butchers.
Central to the life of the community was the Yeshiva, which was one of the largest and most famous in the last generation. Thanks to it the city became a metropolis of Torah for the entire Jewish world. From its midst arose Rabbis and spiritual leaders in large communities throughout the Diaspora and Israel. Alongside the Yeshiva was preparatory school (Mechina; Yeshiva Ketana) and an educational institution for children. It also had a Kollel for Rabbis and Qualified married men. Two Teachers seminaries Yavneh (For men and women individually) and a girls gymnasium Yavneh existed in the city in the years of independent Lithuania. The religious youth was organized in the Tiferes Bachurim society (directed by Rabbi Yitzchak Bloch).
Already in the previous century the local institutions of Torah and education left their mark on the whole life of the community, which became a fortress of Orthodox Judaism and devout Jewish extremists. The latter held a battle against any disclosure of enlightenment and deviation from tradition.
In the 1880's, when a Russian Jewish School (directed by poet YLG) was established in the city, the Orthodox zealots declared an irreconcilable war. YLG resided in this city for six years and the orthodox impeded and caused him great suffering, but YLG fought them hard with his witty satire that many a time was dedicated to the Telz extremists.
The first World War and the expulsion of the Jews from Lithuania undermined the status of the Telz community, However after the end of the war, it recovered and again became the center of all those loyal to traditional Judaism and especially to the movement of Agudath Israel including all its factions and streams (Yavneh, Agudath Israel Zeirei Agudath Israel). During the period between the two world wars new spirits began in the city. Zionist parties and organizations were established. Also the Bund came back and penetrated this fortress of traditional Judaism. The new faces among the parties were: Mizrachi (of its leaders was R. Yisrael Chayitz) HaTZoHar (Isaac Bloch) Z.S. (Grinker, Ba'al Shem and Abramovich) Macabi and Young Zionists (Meyer Leich, Yisrael Talpiot and Isaac Zacs). The city's Branch of the Bund(Lead by: Rebecca Yaffeh and Mottel Mailer) existed only until September 1920, its members joined the Communists by acting under the name Culture Leagues under the guise of a drama group directed by the Chaitin brothers. In 1926 with Tautinis revolution, the leftist's institutions of Lithuania were closed down. An attempt to establish a Hebrew School of the Tarbut stream was also thwarted.
The city excelled in its charity institutions: Chevra Kadisha, Visiting the sick, Linas HaTzedek, Hospital (headed by Dr. Menuchin), Free loan fund, Free public kitchen, AZE clinic and summer camps for weak children (directed by Rebbetzin Rachel Bloch and Sonia Rostowsky), as also a woman's Society to support the poor and the sick. Two newspapers appeared in the city: Hane'emon and Der Idisher Leben Periodicals of Agudath Israel.
In 1940, after the occupation of Lithuania by the Soviets, the Yeshiva and all the religious schools were shut down. However, the heads of the yeshiva did not stop their Torah activities and transferred their students to nearby towns, this until it was decided, not long after, to move the yeshiva abroad. Two directors of the yeshiva came to Cleveland (USA) and established there a new yeshiva, which continues the tradition of the Telz Yeshiva.
Among the Rabbis of Telz: R. Yechezkel, Rabbi of Telsiai and the Zamut regions; R. Yehuda Leib ben Azriel Ziv (son of the first rabbi of Kovna) who also served as rabbi of Plungian; R. Moshe of Telz; R. Avraham Shapira; his son and successor R. Leib; R. Shmuel Shapira (Author of the work Meil Samuel); R. Shaul Tuvia ben R. Mordechai, (student of R. Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin) served from 1837 as rabbi in Ponivezh; R. Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin, A.B.D. Telz, R. Yosef Rayzin (until 1874) then in Slonim; R. Yehoshua Heller (1876 1880); R. Aba Werner, later Rabbi of Machzikei Hadass in London; R. Eliezer Gordon (18831910); R. Yosef Leib Bloch (1010 1930), and the last rabbi R. Avraham Yitzchak Bloch H.Y.D., native of Telz (19301941); early in this century, the official rabbi of Telz was R. Shimon Berman Bible scholar and commentator. He wrote a commentary on the book of Isaiah.
The following Rabbis were born in Telz: R. Avraham Abba Werner (d. 1917); R. Heshel Margolis, Rabbi of Wishnieve; R. Yitzchak Isaac Cantor, Rabbi in Riga; R. Gershon Ze'ev ben R. Yitzchak Isaac Broide (Rabbi in Rockford, USA); R. Aharon Yitzchak Blum; R. Moshe Helfen; R. Eliezer son of R. Chaim Rabinowitz; R. Avraham Yitzchak, R. Zalman and Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch; R. Avraham Yitzchak Perlman.
Translated by Ralph Salinger
Telz (in Lithuanian, Telšiai) is a town in the northwest of the Lithuanian Republic of the Soviet Union; 13,500 residents (1959).
Jews began to settle there in the 16th Century, and they were under the control of the Keidan [Kėdainiai] community.* In 1847 there were 2,248 Jews and by 1864 there were 4,204. The town's population decreased [in the 19th Century] as a result of years of famine in Lithuania and the fact that the railway bypassed the town. In 1897 there were 3,088 Jews (51 % of all inhabitants) and by 1936 there were 2,500 (33%). The famous Hebrew poet Y. L. [Yehuda Leib] Gordon* was a teacher there in the years 18661872. In his writings Gordon described Telz as a conservative town that adhered to its traditional ways. In 1941 the Jewish men of Telz were murdered by the Lithuanian fascists, and half a year later the women were also murdered.
Telz earned its place in the story of the Jewish People by virtue of its yeshiva, which existed from 1880 until 1941. It was led by these rabbis: Eliezer Gordon [d.1910]*; Joseph Leib Bloch [d. 1930], who was the Rabbi of Telz until 1930; Shimon Shkop*; and Chaim Rabinovitz, all of whom were the great teachers of their day. After the Volozhin Yeshiva* closed, in 1892, the Telz Yeshiva became one of the foremost yeshivas in the Russian Empire, with between 300 and 350 students. In 1897 construction of the yeshiva building was completed. The yeshiva continued to operate even when a portion of the Jewish population of Telz, as well as many other Lithuanian Jews, were exiled (1915).
The Telz Yeshiva introduced a new program of studies: The students were divided into 5 lessons (classes) depending upon their level, with examinations from time to time, and importance was given to attending lessons. Likewise, Jewish ethical concepts, as contained in the Musar* literature, were studied, especially in the days of Rabbi Y. L. [Joseph Leib] Bloch. The way of learning at the yeshiva was focused on encouraging and developing sharpness, incisiveness, and keen logic; additionally, scholarship in the study of the Talmud and all of its commentaries were greatly valued. Together these qualities made the Telz Yeshiva different from the other yeshivas in Lithuania. The best example of such erudition was Rabbi Shimon Shkop. The following received their education in Telz from this man of Torah and public leader Rabbi Simcha Asaf,* Rabbi Y. Avramski, Rabbi Me'ir BarIlan,* BenTsion Dinur*, A. Hertzfeld,* and other rabbis.
During the period of Lithuania's independence, from 1918 until 1940, the Telz Yeshiva was one of the country's three largest yeshivas, which were centers of Torah [learning] for the Diaspora [Jews dispersed throughout the world]. The influence of the Telz Yeshiva was felt in the creation of a complete educational system: a kindergarten, a primary school, a girls' school, and a gymnasium [secondary school] for girls. Young men from the yeshiva where sent to smaller towns to establish yeshivas there for younger students. In 1924, the Yavne school for teaching religious teachers moved from Kaunas to Telz and established a Hebrew pedagogical school there for women teachers. A kollel [postgraduate institute] was also established near the yeshiva to train those who had graduated from the yeshiva and wanted become ordained rabbis. From 1928 to 1931 a monthly Hebrew language religious magazine called HaNe'eman [The Faithful] was published in Telz. In the 1930's the yeshiva was led by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch [a son of Joseph Leib Bloch and a grandson of Eliezer Gordon] and Rabbi Ezriel Rabinovitz. When Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union (1940) the yeshiva's building was confiscated and the students continued their studies in several other towns in Lithuania. A few of the teachers and students [were able to escape and] and [by traveling across the Pacific Ocean safely] reached the United States. They established a yeshiva in Cleveland to which they gave the name the Telz Yeshiva (1941).
Translated by Ralph Salinger
Telz is a regional center and one of the oldest towns in Lithuania. The town was mentioned in historical documents in the year 1320.
Telz had a reputation as a fortress of Judaic studies in Lithuania. A magnificent lighthouse. A town where the sound of Torah studies never ceased, both day and night and its echo was heard far away by all of the Jewish Diaspora. The educational institutions in the town were in the hands of the haredim, from the kindergarten and schools up to the gymnasium [high school] and the Yavne seminaries for male and female teachers. The highlight was the great and magnificent yeshiva, to which came students from all over the Jewish world.
The Telz Yeshiva was founded by the Ga'on Rabbi Eliezer Gordon in the [Hebrew calendar] year of 5643 . Afterward, his work was continued by his soninlaw the Ga'on Rabbi Joseph Leib Bloch, who was his deputy in the rabbinate and at the yeshiva; the Ga'on Rabbi Shimon Shkop; the Ga'on Rabbi Cha'im Rabinovitz; and the heads of the yeshiva who died in the Holocaust, [namely,] the Ga'on Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch; Rabbi Azriel Rabinovitz; Rabbi Zalman Bloch; and Rabbi Moshe Olshvang (may God avenge their blood). Rabbi Eliahu Me'ir Bloch of blessed memory [deceased] and Rabbi Mordechai Katz were saved by escaping to America, where they founded the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland in memory of the famous yeshiva that was destroyed.
A smaller yeshiva was established in Telz where 150 young men studied. That yeshiva was led by Rabbi Avner Oklanski and Rabbi Ephraim Pinchos Helfant.
The newspaper HaNe'eman, which was for the haredi students of yeshivas in Lithuania, was published in Telz.
Jewish Telz was also famous for its public institutions, such as, religious Zionist organizations of all the streams, the people's bank [Folksbank], the Jewish hospital, a branch of OZE, and others.
The rabbis of Telz included: The Ga'on Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin, the father of Rabbi Israel [ben Ze'ev Lipkin, who was also known as Rabbi Israel] Salanter , the author of the work Ben Aryeh, which discusses the Shas, and rabbinical rulings; the Ga'on Rabbi Joseph, author of the books Poras Joseph [Joseph's Work] and Edus biHosef [Joseph's Testimony], who afterwards became the Rabbi of Slonim; Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, who was the fatherinlaw of Rabbi Joseph Leib Bloch; and [Rabbi Bloch's] son, the final rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Bloch.
Before the Holocaust the Jewish population was around 2000 souls. They were murdered together with Jews from the surrounding area on the 20th of Tammuz 5701 [July 15, 1941].
by Shmuel Natnovits
Translated by Ida Selavan Schwarcz
Before the Holocaust, in 1941, the town of Telz was one of the Jewish towns in Lithuania which became famous all over the Jewish Diaspora as a bulwark of Orthodoxy and Torah. At the end of the nineteenth century it became a center of Torah for all of Jewry. Telz is situated in the northwest of the Republic of Lithuania in the Soviet Union. In 1959 there were 13,500 residents.
Telz [Telsiai] is the District center of the Lithuanian Republic and is considered the capital of the Zamut [Zemaitija] region. According to legend it was founded by Dzugat, for whom one of the hills in the Telz area is named. The town is at the crossroads of the railroad which connects the cities of Shavli [Siauliai] and Memel (Klaipeda). The town is located on the banks of the Lake Mastis. From the top of the hill in the center of town, where there is a Catholic church, the main street, Presidento Street, descends, and it continues as the market street. Parallel to it there are narrow paths in the form of terraces to the banks of the lake. There is a small green island in the lake. At the south end of the lake there is a pine forest reflected in its waters and on all sides there are fields of grain and pastures with a background of forests until the horizon.
The suburbs of the town are steeped in greenery and gardens in the summertime. The houses are nestled in fruit orchards and parks, with broad highways which give the impression of a garden town.
Telz is an ancient town, mentioned in historical documents from the thirteenth century.
Jews came to Lithuania at the end of the middle ages. In the time of the Grand Duke Gediminas (1316 -1341) there were Jews in the cities of Brisk, Grodno, and Troki (Trakai). The persecutions of Jews in Spain, Germany, France, and England, created a stream of exiles to the lands of Poland and Lithuania. The state of Lithuania appeared on the stage of history in a later period, at the end of the Middle Ages. Its residents were still pagans and lived under the ancient regime. The culture of the Middle Ages, especially religious fanaticism and hatred of Jews had not yet penetrated there. The Lithuanian rulers, Dukes Gediminas and Witold (1386-1430) invited Jews to their cities in order to extend trade and crafts and to exploit the trade connections with European countries for the benefit of the state. They granted charters of privileges to the cities that protected the Jews and their rights in trade and crafts and their ways of life. The Jews created ghettos in the cities, of their own volition, that separated them from the other residents.
In 1435, under the rule of Alexander Jagellon, (1492-1506) [sic!] according to a ducal edict, all the Jews were exiled from the cities within Lithuania and their property was expropriated. This sudden turnabout in relation with the Jews was due, it seems, to the influence of the nobility and the church, who wished to free themselves from their debts to the Jews.
The Jews again took up their wanderers' staff. Some went to the direction of the Black Sea area but the majority went westward, to the Baltic Sea areato Zamut and from there to Prussia. At that time Jews also reached Telz. In 1503 the edict was nullified and all those who had wandered westward returned to their cities and their property was given back to them.
After the Union of Lublin, in 1569, Telz was included in the government districts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 17th century the head of this estate was Duke Safina. The Jewish community of Telz was subordinate to the community of Keidan. The Kahal in Keidan conducted all the tax matters in the province of Keidan, which also included Telz.
During the 17th century there began an autonomous rule of the Jews in the Lithuanian cities the Kahal. The heads of the Kahal were chosen from a limited list of influential scholars and communal workers. The Kahal represented the community before the ruler and cared for its religious and social needs. The central institution of the communities created the Va'ad Medinat Lita [Council of the Land of Lithuania].
In 1648 there broke out the Cossack Uprising in Poland-Lithuania. The rebellion began in Ukraine, moved to Podolia and then to Lithuania. The Cossack militias, led by Bogdan Chmielnicki, may his name be erased, with the call to free Ukraine from the yoke of Poland, massacred hundreds of thousands of Jews with greater cruelty than that of the Middle Ages.[a] These evil decrees have been named the decrees of 1648-1649 and they caused a holocaust of the Jews of Poland and Lithuania.
These decrees passed over the town of Telz, probably because of its geographic location. Many cities were emptied of Jews and survivors came to Zamut and to the cities on the Baltic coast.
In addition to the Cossack Uprising, the Jews suffered from the invasions of militias from Sweden.
After the third partition of Poland in 1795, Lithuania (the districts of Vilna, Grodna, and Slonim) were annexed by the Russian Empire. The town of Telz became a district town of Vilna. In 1802 Telz was included in the province of Vilna and in 1873 it was annexed to the Province of Kovne.
The second and third partitions of Poland resulted in Tsarist Russia annexing provinces from Ukraine and Lithuania with large Jewish populations. The resolution of the Jewish Question became a real internal-political problem of the Tsarist Empire. Even before the partitions, in the days of Catherine the Second (1789-1796) the edict of the Pale of Settlement was enacted in 1794 which prevented Jews from leaving their cities.[b] The edict forbade Jews from entering most of the large cities of the Tsarist Empire. The edict also expelled Jews from all the villages.
In 1804 the edict of the Pale of Settlement was re-enacted. Jews who were expelled from the villages were allowed to reside in towns and to work at crafts and trade and even agriculture (but not in inn-keeping).
Jews were given the right to vote for and to be elected to municipalities and also to open schools, but they had to introduce the study of Russian or Polish in the schools. Universities were also opened to Jews. But the edict limited the activities of the Kahal. The management of Jewish affairs was transferred to the police and to the city councils. Taxation was also transferred to the municipalities. According to the order of the Russian Senate on January 1, 1800, a municipal council was founded in Telz. The Jews had three representatives there. In 1804 the Jews were removed from the municipality by request of the city councilors. The edict of expulsion of Jews from the villages was annulled in 1809. This edict had little effect on the Jews of Lithuania, especially in Zamut. In Lithuania the village Jews were not inn-keepers or sellers of spirits as they were in Poland. The number of rural Jews was relatively small and they worked at dairy farming or agriculture.
According to the Russian language Jewish Encyclopedia, the number of residents in Telz in 1847 was 6,000, of whom 2, 248 were Jews. In 1802 Telz became a district center. It included the cities of Seda, Zidikai, Skaudvile, Salantai, Kretinga, Plungea, Varniai, and Gargzdai. There were 183,000 people in the district, 22,695 of them Jews.
The Jewish population of Telz varied:
1847 2,248The invasion of the French army into Telz in 1812 caused much destruction, especially when it retreated. The soldiers ransacked and burned the houses. In memory of this incursion there is a barrel of a giant cannon, on a stone base in the city park. In the folk tales the French invaders are remembered as very cruel.
1939 2,800 (27% of the entire population)
The Jews did not participate in the Polish rebellion against the Russian rule in 1830. In general, the Jews did not think highly of the Polish nobility. The Poles suspected the Jews of assisting the Russians and caused them great difficulties. In Telz a Jew named Monish Lukniker was hanged by the rebels as a spy. The Jews did not participate in the Polish rebellion of 1863. The enlightened class was opposed to the rebellion. The Jewish intelligentsia put their faith in the promises of the Russian rulers to grant more freedom and equality to the Jewish population. Thanks to this, the Russians helped the Jews to be saved from the Polish threats.
Telz was the district center and in charge of trade with the cities of the district. It was known for its trade in textiles. R' Ya'akov Rabinowitz was one of the largest importers of textiles and fabrics from Germany. The economic situation of the population of the town was bad. Although the merchants of grain and flax and the middlemen who served the owners of the large estates did well, they were but a small minority. The great majority lived in poverty, the storekeepers and small peddlers barely made a living. The artisans, wagoners and porters were poor. There were also beggars who lived off the charity dole of the community or went begging from house to house.
The source of income was the Korobka. This was a tax on ritual slaughter, which was under government supervision. The tax collector had to report to the treasury three times a year and to give most of the money to the treasury. A portion of the income was set aside for the local needs of the community.
The poet Y.L. Gordon, who lived in Telz between the years 1866 to 1872, gives us a picture of the poverty and illness of the students of the Talmud Torah. (He founded a Jewish school teaching in the Russian language in 1866 and served as its principal). In his poem, Be-tseiti mi-Telz [On leaving Telz) (1872) he describes the poverty and neglect in the religious school of the community and the children, sick and hungry for bread
The deplorable condition of the peasants in Zamut influenced the economy of the town. The region of Zemaitija was considered the weak part of Lithuania. The peasants were conservative and depressed and their agricultural methods were primitive. Until 1862 there existed in Lithuania the rule of indenture, which expressed itself in the peasant being a serf to the owner of the estate and considered his private property. He could sell his property with the serfs as part of it. The peasant worked for the owner of the estate and was exploited at his will.
The Lithuanian writer Zemaite (1845-1901) famous in Lithuania, in her story Straw roofs (Slaudimne pastoge) describes the poverty and sufferings of the peasant serfsthe cruel exploitation, the miserable huts with the roofs of straw in which they lived. After 1862 the legal position of the peasants changed, but their economic conditions did not get better.
The attitudes of the Lithuanians to the Jews in the 19th century were good. The Lithuanians, most of them peasants, viewed the Russian regime as conquerors. The Tsarist rule oppressed the Lithuanians. They saw the Jews as their brothers and partners in their struggle.
At the time of the rule of Alexander the Second (1855-1881) part of the edicts from the time of Nicholas the First were annulled. In 1882, by order of the Tsar, Jews were again allowed to purchase land and to dwell in cities where they were previously not allowed to dwell. They were also given more freedom of trade. In 1862 the serfdom of the peasants was annulled.
During the reign of Alexander the Third (1881-1894), an anti-Semitic movement suddenly appeared in Russia unlike any before. There began persecutions and pogroms, organized by the government. The pogroms started in Ukraine (Kiev) and spread southward (Odessa), and reached Kishinev and Warsaw, Biala, and other cities.
In Lithuania there were no pogroms, because the Lithuanians themselves were opposed to the Tsarist regime. But the fear of the bloody events and the harsh edicts against the Jews also undermined the feeling of security of the Jewish population in Lithuania. The difficult economic conditions, the danger of being drafted into the Russian army (for six years!...) and the threat of the pogroms caused thousands of Jews, especially young ones, to leave Lithuania. The lands of immigration were: the United States, Argentina and South Africa. The stream of emigration began in 1890 and continued until the First World War.
Many young people, especially those eligible for the draft, also left Telz. The number of Jewish residents got smaller, from 4,204 in 1864 to 3,088 in 1897 (27% emigrated). The one bright spot in the life of the Jews of Telz was the founding of the Yeshiva. Its founders were three young men, who came to Telz from Vilna [Vilnius] and Kovne [Kaunas] and in 1875 with the help of a generous donation from a German Jew, they founded a Yeshiva for local young men who were eager to study Torah. In 1882 Rabbi Eliezer Gordon was appointed Chief Rabbi of Telz and in 1884 he was chosen as Rosh Ha-Yeshiva [the head of the Yeshiva].
Rabbi Eleizer Gordon was born in 1840 in the neighborhood of Kovne and was one of the outstanding students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. When still very young he was famed as a great scholar, with much energy. As rabbi of Telz he was very popular, his house was open to all who wished to come. He had an imposing presence, even in the way he dressed. He glowed with wisdom and nobility. He had strong ties with the ruling class and they honored him. Under his direction, the student body of the Yeshiva grew from day to day. The Yeshiva was considered one of the greatest in the world. At the end of the 19th century the enrollment was 400 students.
He appointed as heads of the Yeshiva his son-in-law Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, Rabbi Shimon Shkop and Rabbi Hayyim Rabinowitz. The Yeshiva was supported by regular donations from Russian Jews. The Yeshiva was also a boon to the economy of the town. The students received tuition grants. On Shabbat the students were invited to eat with various householders. The presence of so many young men added liveliness to the life of the town.
The houses in Telz were almost all built of wood, so that the fires of 1905 and 1909 caused great devastation. The new houses were built of bricks.
We have no reliable documentation of the condition of primary education in Telz of that time. We know that there was a Talmud Torah and private hadarim [one room schools]. Generally the poor children attended the Talmud Torah. This is the subject of a poem by Y.l.Gordon (1874) On Leaving Telz. He founded a school for boys in Russian and a school with two classes for girls.
The fervently Orthodox community, especially Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, fought against this school and its principal, who was one of the leaders of the Haskalah [Jewish enlightenment] who opposed the rabbis and the heads of the community.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the twentieth centuries there were two hadarim, one taught by Rabbi Shimon Moshe Viner, and the second by Rabbi Moshe Fridman, where the children learned how to read and write, Bible, the commentaries of Rashi, and Gemara. Rabbi Moshe Fridman was a God-fearing and intelligent scholar. He taught the Bible according to a German translation (probably that of Mendelssohn). He held the commentaries of Rashi in high regard, but he was also critical. These hadarim lasted until the end of the First World War. The students were mainly the children of the wealthy class.
In 1910 Rabbi E. Gordon had a stroke while he was in London collecting funds for the Yeshiva. He died and was buried there.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 between Russia and Germany and after the defeat of the Russian army in Prussia, rumors spread in Russia that the Jews were spies for the Germans. On this basis by edict of the Tsar May 3, 1915, implemented by the Supreme Military Commander, all Jews living in the province of Kovne were to be expelled. In a matter of days 200,000 people were expelled from Kovne and other cities in Lithuania. Their possessions were expropriated and they were sent to southern Russia: to Ekaterinoslav, Kherson, Bakhmut, etc. In order to avoid cruel mistreatment by the army, many Jews left of their own will. The edict of expulsion passed over Telz, but its Jewish population decreased. In 1897 there were 3,088 Jews and in 1923 there were only 1,545 left. Many Jews left Telz of their own free will.
In the summer of 1915 the Germans entered Telz. The period of occupation was very difficult and lasted until 1918. The shops were emptied of goods, there was a lack of shoes and clothes (mothers sewed clothes for their children from tablecloths); there was no kerosene for lamps and no candles. There was also no laundry soap. The German military officials expropriated the crops of grain and the cattle in the villages. There was hunger for bread in the town (finally a system of rationing was instituted.) On the other hand, the Germans were concerned about sanitation. They built a special slaughter house, and instituted compulsory education. They opened a school for Jews in German. Between 1917-1918 there were epidemics which continued after the war. Mortality was high. In general, the Germans did not show any discrimination in their attitude towards the Jews.
The Jews Under the Lithuanian Regime
With the cessation of hostilities, the Jews who had been exiled from their homes after years of wandering in Russia returned to their birthplace, little by little. They found ransacked homes and a wrecked economy. With Jewish obstinacy they began to rebuild the ruins, to create sources of income, to build synagogues and to renew the life of the community.
In 1919 Lithuania became an independent country. The Jewish residents received the rights of a national minority with a national Jewish council, and a minister for Jewish affairs in the Lithuanian government with an independent Jewish community in every city. The government conferred broad national-cultural autonomy with government Hebrew schools where the languages of instruction were Hebrew and Yiddish, and it recognized Hebrew secondary schools. But this did not last too long. In 1925 there was a nationalist reaction. The autonomous Jewish institutions were closed. Communal privileges were restricted. Only the full equality as citizens remained, as well as the cultural autonomy of the schools. All the elementary Jewish schools remained under government control and the secondary schools remained private, with rights equal to those of the Lithuanian government schools.
At the end of the German occupation in 1918, after the Yeshiva students returned, connections were renewed with the Jewish communities in the world. The Yeshiva increased its activities and in the course of years again became the great center of Torah.
Inspired by the rabbi of the town, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, and with the help of the traditional supportive Jews in town and the Orthodox organizations, Agudat Yisrael, Tseirei Agudat Yisrael and the Yavne center, modern traditional educational institutions were founded (some of them governmental) which had great influence on traditional education in Lithuania. In 1920 a school for boys was opened on the foundations of the school that had existed before the occupation. There they learned general studies, Bible and Gemara. This school became an elementary government school. Its first principal was R' Yehoshua Golub. In 1920 a preparatory school for the Yeshiva was founded under the direction of R' Mordekhai Katz. The graduates of the elementary school continued their studies in the preparatory school of the Yeshiva for four years. There they studied secular subjects as well as Gemara. In 1921 a government school for girls, Yavne, was founded.
In addition to secular studies, according to the government syllabus, there were also Jewish studies: Bible with Rashi, laws and prayers. The first principal was Shlomo Trakhtenberg.
In 1923 the Hebrew Teachers' Seminary, Yavne was transferred from Kovne to Telz under the name Yavne Teachers' Seminary. The course of studies lasted four years. Students with baccalaureate certificates from the gymnasium were accepted into the fourth year. In Yavne Gemara was taught for three hours every day. The Seminary was private but it received government support and all the government privileges. Its first principal was Dr. Yitshak Raphael Holzberg Etzion. (1) Dr. Holzberg was born in Kovne in 1885. He graduated from the faculties of Mathematics and Biology and served as a docent at the University of Kharkov. He was a representative in the Lithuanian parliament. In Israel he was a teacher and supervisor in the educational institutions of Mizrahi in Jerusalem. He was a superb educator, scientist and researcher. He published many books on pedagogic, scientific and religious subjects. Dr. Etzion served as the principal until 1933. After him the principals were: Dr. Zaltsberg, Shalom Shohat, Y. Shnaider*, and Shlomo Trakhtenberg.* The religious principals were Rabbi Y.A. Hirshovitz, Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Vesler* and Rabbi Shemuel Hayyim Dainish. Ten graduating classes completed their studies there.
In 1923 two year courses were offered for female teachers and in 1928 a one year course was given. Sixty teachers completed this course. The women were accepted if they had baccalaureate certificates. In 1938 a special class for women teachers was opened under the direction of Rabbi Hayyim Nusbaum. In 1939 thirty-one teachers completed the class. Most of the students of the Seminary were Yeshiva students who had completed a preparatory course. The graduation certificate of the Seminary allowed its recipient to enter the university and to teach in elementary schools.
As is known, there were three streams of education in Lithuania: Tarbut (national education in Hebrew), Yavne (religious-national education in Hebrew) and Culture-League (secular education in Yiddish). All the schools in Telz were part of Yavne.
In 1921 the Hebrew gymnasium for girls Yavne was founded in Telz. It was the first Orthodox Jewish gymnasium in Lithuania. It was founded by the following communal activists: R. Avner Okliansky, R' Meir Gurvitz, R' Leib Gurtsovitz, A.M. Davidov, R' Pinhas Halfon, Moshe Polivnuk, R' Eliezer Rabinovitz and R' A.M. Bloch and R' Mordekhai Katz. The last two were members of the parents' council through all the years. In the gymnasium, in addition to general studies, the girls studied Pentateuch with Rashi, Prophets and Writings, and Laws. The girls prayed together every morning. General studies were taught on a high level. The first principals were Dr. Levi and after him, Shmuel Zukerman. From 1923-1933 the principal was Dr. Yitshak Raphael Holzberg-Etzion. After him the principals were: Dr. Levitan-Shereshevski, Dr. Zaltzberg, Shlomo Trakhtenberg,* Shalom Shohet, and Y. Shnaider.* The teachers of the gymnasium during all the years of its existence were: Rabbi Dr. Borer (the rabbi of Goldingen)*, Shpoznikov*, Mrs. G.R. Broida, Rabbi Hayyim Kron*, Rabbi Yitshak Shmulevitz*, Mrs. Hinda Rabinowitz *, Mrs. Sara-Leah Halfon*, Gita Gutman*, Mrs. Pogremansky, Dr. Imanuel Shereshevsky, Ya'akov Shereshevsky, Yehuda Volgemut, Dr. Eliezer Bloch, Mrs. Axelrod.Twelve classes graduated from the gymnasium.
About five hundred teachers completed their studies in the various teachers' schools in Telz. Telz was the only town in Lithuania with so many institutions for teacher preparation. The men educated in the Yeshiva traveled all over Lithuania and the cities of the Diaspora. They taught Torah and Hebrew culture everywhere. Thousands of the Yeshiva students were instrumental in creating study circles for Mishne and Hayei Adam in all the synagogues.
The Jewish teachers in Lithuania created, on this small piece of soil, a living national Hebrew culture in the Hebrew language. They turned the Jewish community in Lithuania into a part of Erets Yisrael in the Diaspora. All of these young people were, at the time, part of the Jewish Telz environment. They were in every Jewish home. We met them in the synagogue, in gatherings on the street, on the beaches of the lake and in the forests around. They were beloved in their lifetime and not separated in death [Quote from Bible on death of Jonathan]. Their names are listed among those murdered in Kovne and Telz. On one day, the teachers and educators were killed together with their students and were buried in a mass grave where they found their eternal peace. May their memory be a blessing forever.
Social and Cultural Life in Telz
At the end of the First World War, during the first years of the independent Lithuanian government, there was a feeling of great excitement in Jewish society in Telz. The most active organizations were the rigorously Orthodox ones: Agudat Yisrael and Tseirei Agudat Yosrael. They published two periodicals : Hane'eman [Faithful] a literary and social monthly, edited by R' Yitshak Shmualovitz and the weekly Der Yidisher Lebn [Jewish Life], edited by Yoel-Dov Zaks, printed in Kovne but published in Telz by Tseirei Agudat Yisrael.
There was also a great revival in the secular groups. After the war, in the years 1920-1922,with the return from Russia of those expelled from Telz, and under the influence of the Communist Revolution--new winds were felt in Telz. The ideas of the equality of classes and democratic rule woke many hopes among the Jewish intelligentsia as well as among the artisans and the lower classes. A local branch of the Communist Party and a branch of the Bund were organized in Telz. They founded a Yiddish school which existed from 1920-1922. It was closed by the authorities. The Communist activists were: Rivka Yaffe and Motl Moler, the Haiton brothers and others. Nisan Pops and T.V. Katz, both born in Telz, were active in the Comintern in Moscow. (Nisan Pops' brother, the Hebrew writer Ben Yisrael, also lived in Telz. He drowned in a lake in Switzerland when he was traveling abroad).
All the Zionist parties were represented in Telz; The Miszrahi, ( among its leaders: Rabbi Moshe Perlman, R' M.W.Hotz, and R' Hayyim Hatz); The General Zionists (Vigodsky, Sofer and Gershon Volpert), Tseirei Tsion and Maccabi (Me'ir Laikh, Yisrael Talpiot, and Yitshak Zaks), Ts.S. [Tsiyonim Sotsyalim] (the Grinker brothers, Ba'al Shem and Abramovitz), The Revisionists and a branch of Betar (the commanders: Yitshak Blokh, one of the great activists in Lithuania; After him there were Kaplanski, Nisan Noyak and Eliezer Natanovitz). The Zionist youth were alive and vibrant, participated in all the Zionist gatherings, and worked very hard for the Zionist funds. They had clubs where they conducted lectures, public [mock] trials, evenings of questions and answers, and various enjoyable events. All of them spoke Hebrew and sang Erets Yisrael songs. Some of them participated in hakhsharot [preparatory groups] and went to the Land of Israel. The Tseirei Agudat Yisrael also had hakhsharot later on. From 1928 to 1939 3,500 people left for Israel from all of Lithuania.
There was a branch of WIZO[Women's International Zionist Organization] in Telz that organized a Zionist kindergarten which existed besides the government kindergarten. On Sabbaths, WIZO also held lectures for women on various topics. Dr. Menuhin and his wife initiated the opening of a Jewish hospital with sixteen beds. During the last years Dr. Menuhin worked there without fee, voluntarily, and concerned himself with its improvement. There was also a branch of OZE with clinics and summer camps for children, initiated by Rahel Bloch and Sonya Rostovsky.
An important center of secular culture for youth was the Peoples' Jewish library. There were books in Yiddish and Hebrew and a periodical reading room. Jewish youth were naturally eager to learn. They used to swallow the books. The books were almost all worn out from much use. The library was also a meeting place for friends, political debates, literary criticism, etc. Among the Hebrew books, the thick volumes of the literary quarterly Hatekufa (published by Shtible in Warsaw) stood out. They contained most of the treasures in Hebrew and translation. The Yeshiva boys also sneaked into the library to read voraciously everything they could. The Yeshiva administration was very suspicious about the reading of outside literature, but in the course of time it adjusted to the idea.
Batei Midrash [Houses of Study]
There were four batei midrash in Telz: three were in the Jewish quarter, near the market: the big Beit Hamidrash, the Kloyz--the beit hamidrash of the Hevra Kadisha [Free Burial society] and the beit hamidrash of the butchers. The fourth was at the beginning of Prezidento Street, at the top of the hill--the synagogue of the Greeks. The buildings were not especially impressive, only the big Beit Hamidrash was impressive because of its size. Next to it was a large courtyard, the shul hoyf, where weddings took place and also eulogies for the departed. At the entrance of the Beit Hamidrash, along its sides, were the shtiblekh prayer rooms.
The synagogues in Telz were always full of people in the morning and evening, not only on Sabbath and holidays, but also on ordinary days. Before nightfall, after Minha [afternoon prayer] various groups such as the Hevrat Shas [for the study of Gemara and Mishna] would gather and many people would sit and read Psalms aloud. The late Rabbi Eliahu Hayyim Halfan, would teach the daily page of Gemara in the big Beit Hamidrash until the day of his death. Among the regular participants in the Hevrat Shas were (as I remember) R' Shalom Talpit, R' Ze'ev Levin, R' Mordekhai Levin, Alter Vitin, Beinush Moshe, R' Liber Shabshilbon, R' Naftali Natnovitz, R' Tsevi Braude, R' Ya'akov Zundlovitz, S. Luria, and many more I cannot remember. In the Kloyz the leader of the daily page in the Hevrat Shas was R' Moshe Fridman, and after him R' Moshe Yitshak Hotz. Most of the men in the Kloyz were members of Mizrahi. The other two synagogues also had study groups for Mishna and Eyn Ya'akov. In the butcher's synagogue most of the participants were butchers or artisans from the area.
The Big Synagogue served, besides as a place of prayer, as the site of sermons and speeches by rabbis and activists of all of the Zionist movements, both of local residents and visitors. Twice a year the town rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Leib, preached for the community, on Shabbat Shuva and Shabbat HaGadol. Delaying the reading of the Torah was used as a means of protest for and against community affairs. As I remember, one Shabbat the butcher R' Yitshak (the Red--so called because of his red hair) came up on the pulpit, struck the reader's desk and declared that he would not allow the reading of the Torah until there would be a proper bath house. He demanded that the bath house be heated every week, and not just once a month. All the confused sextons as well as the rabbi, promised that the matter would be taken care of, and then the butcher left the pulpit. The synagogue was also a meeting place for ordinary Jews, to exchange bits of news and gossip, and to talk of their problems and their successes.
There were no regular cantors in the synagogues. There were only prayer leaders who led the prayers on the High Holidays. It was accepted that the rabbi of the town would lead the ne'ila [final, closing] prayer on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yosef Leib kept to this custom until the day of his death. He had a very sweet voice. When he chanted the entire synagogue was full of worshipers. On the High Holidays all the residents of the town, men and women and even non-religious folk would come to the synagogues.
As in all of the Lithuanian towns, commerce and handicraft were the major occupations. Jews were the storekeepers. They supplied all the needed goods, not only to the residents but also to the peasants in the area. The income of the storekeeper was dependent on the economic condition of the peasant. Under Lithuanian rule the economic condition of the peasants improved. During the year 1922-1923 there was agrarian reform in Lithuania. The lands of the large estate holders were divided among the peasants. The government invested a great deal in rehabilitating the peasants, whose work would be the main source of income for the young state. With the help of low interest loans and agricultural training, the agrarian economy and the peasants' income increased greatly. There was an abundance of produce and the number of Jewish storekeepers increased and business was good. The storekeepers' main concern was the market.
There was a Peoples' Bank in Telz, with three hundred members, directed by R' Mordekhai Levin. There was also a Free Loan Society managed by R' David Meizel, which functioned on a voluntary basis for many years. There was also a branch of the guild of artisans and mutual aid for workers.
We should mention the following charitable institutions: Bikur Holim [visiting the sick] Linat Hatsedek [hostel for the poor], a public kitchen, and of course, the Free Burial Society where every member of the community was required to participate at some time. Charity, mutual aid, free loans, and donating charity anonymously were among the foundation stones of the Jewish community in Telz.
The Telz community lived as within a closed circle. It almost did not feel the influence of the Lithuanian rulers and the Lithuanian majority. It did not even need the Lithuanian officials to settle disputes. Most of the time the Jews went to the rabbi of the town. Yiddish and Hebrew were not only the languages of communication but also the languages used for documents and contracts. All of the documents of the people's bank were in Yiddish. There were very few criminals or law breakers among the Jews. In the center of town there was the large central prison. It was always full of prisoners. During all the years of the Jewish community there was hardly ever a Jewish prisoner there.
As the synagogue was the spiritual center of the Jews, so, not to be compared, the market place was the source of income. The market place was in the center of the Jewish quarter. All of the Jewish population lived in the streets and alleys which led to the market place. The main street of Telz was Prezidenti Street (President Street). This street descended from the highest point of the town until the market place. All of the buildings on both sides of the street were two story brick buildings and the first stories were shops. Husbands and wives worked together in the shops. On market days all of the family was there. In the vicinity were three synagogues, the Yeshiva, the preparatory school and the elementary schools.
The Jewish neighborhood was not attractive--the houses were crowded together, the alleyways were narrow and neglected, there were no trees or vegetation. At the sides of the street there were pavements of cement blocks, and in the square were stones. At the center of the square was the butchers' abattoir. Every butcher had a small shop there. The main income of the storekeepers was on market days--Tuesdays and Fridays. On those days the entire square teemed with horses, and people. It was full of wagons heaped high with agricultural produce sacks of grain, packs of flax, calves and sheep, poultry, fruit and vegetables, eggs and hides. Merchants and hucksters walked between the wagons along with housewives with full baskets; peasant women with white kerchiefs on their heads, with their goods in bundles and baskets. The market in Telz was the only place where clogs made of one piece of wood were worn. They were the symbols of Zamut [Lower Lithuania]. The peasants wore them in the mud and in the snow. The kosher animals and poultry were bought mainly by Jews. If a peasant wanted to sell a calf to a Jew he had to bring a birth certificate from a Jew that the calf had been with its mother for seven days after birth, as is written in the Torah. I remember that peasants used to inform my late father of the birth of a calf and he would give them a certificate which read, in Hebrew: A black male calf was born on Tuesday.
There were times when there was a surplus of geese in the market. In order to make it easier for the peasants, every official had to buy a goose a week. (The peasants had certificates for every goose). The Jewish teachers in town were considered government officials, but since most of them were bachelors, instead of geese they bought certificates from the peasants.
Poor women, mostly widows without means, found their income in the market. They would buy eggs and poultry from merchants and sell them to the housewives. There were also women who sold herring in brine. They would buy a barrel of herring from the storehouse of R' Lieber Shabshilbon, often on credit. At the end of the day they would pay back what they owed. Most of these sellers were Jewish women with many children and this was their only scanty income. In Lithuania herring was the cheapest food. Herring with potatoes were the staple food of all the poor people, peasants and Jews.
There were also paupers in town, lonely old people, sick people, householders who had lost their money and did not have food for their families. Some of the children came to school barefoot in the summertime, because their parents could not afford to buy them shoes. There were kind women who were concerned about them and the leaders of the community tried to help with anonymous donations, but they did not have the means of creating sources of income for these paupers.
The peasant was not only the supplier of agricultural products, but also the main customer of the processed products sold in the town: iron agricultural tools, fuel, all kinds of haberdashery, salt, sugar, rice, spices, oil, dry goods, shoes, glass goods. He was also the main customer of the artisans: the shoemaker and the tailor, the clockmaker and the photographer, the carpenter, the blacksmith, etc.
After the market day the square was full of horse manure, mixed with straw and garbage (there was a period when prisoners cleaned the square). In the evenings the storekeepers would sit behind locked doors, counting their money and summing up the earnings of the market day and waiting for the next market day. In town there was also a small number of merchants of grain, flax, flaxseed, hides, eggs and rags (raw materials for the manufacture of cloth). Most of the shops were small, retail. There were a few large stores and they were: S. Naftolin (drygoods), L. Girtsovitz (shoes), Volpert (luxury items), Shif-Yaffe (wholesaler), Polivnik (haberdasher), Volkin (chemical items), the Broyde brothers (iron goods). In the market square there were bakeries, hotels, restaurants, and barsall owned by Jews.
The artisan class were in the second place after merchants and storekeepers in the economy of the town. They supplied all the needs of the residents of the town and the neighborhood. There were all kinds of Jewish artisans: tailors, shoemakers, harness makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, painters, mechanics, tilers, plasterers, clock makers, photographers, barbers, bakers, and hatters. In addition there were wagoners and porters. All of these formed the backbone of the Jewish population in town--they were simple Jews, hardworking, with many children, worn down and busy trying to earn a living all week long, from the morning until the evening.
But they did not live on bread alone. Most of them were observers of the commandments, would get up early in the morning to pray with a quorum in the synagogue and in the evening after a day of hard work, would hurry to the Study House to study a chapter of Mishne or Hayei Adam, or forget their poverty and worries in the Book of Psalms. They sat in the back in the synagogue, near the stove, as opposed to the learned householders who sat in the seats near the Eastern wall.
In 1922 there were 153,000 Jews in all of Lithuania (6.7% of the two million population), but in the cities and towns the Jews totally controlled commerce and crafts. On Saturdays a gentile Lithuanian could not even buy a pack of cigarettes because all the stores were closed. The Lithuanian Merchants Organization (Verslininkai) with the help of its periodical Verslas (The Merchant) propagandized not to buy from Jews. With the assistance of the government they organized cooperatives for all kinds of goods. They competed with the Jewish merchants. They founded three central cooperatives: Maistas Meat Consortium, Pienocentras Dairy Consortium, and the Lietukis Company that concentrated the trade in meat, dairy products and agricultural machinery. All import and export was concentrated in their hands. In Telz too, new modern stores were opened by Lithuanians. Many Jewish merchants went bankrupt, the income from their stores plunged, and were closed. The situation became worse from day to day.
The Lithuanians were very sensitive to this subject. It was constantly mentioned in the non-Jewish press. As long as the democratic regime was in power, the situation did not change. On December 17, 1926 there was a military coup d'etat. The nationalists, with the aid of the army, took over the government, canceled the constitution and established a fascistic tyrannical regime. Their leader, Smetuna, was declared president of the state. The national Sejm was disbanded.
Institutions of the Jews were closed. The entire regime was controlled by the Nationalist-Fascist party. Their main battle was against the Jewish hegemony in trade and manufacture.
In 1927 Telz was connected by the train to the cities of Siauliai and the port city of Klaipeda. New conditions were created, making trade easier. The Lithuanian merchants exploited this opportunity. The nationalists were under the influence of the Nazi movement in Germany. The sons of the rich Lithuanian farmers studied in the universities of Germany. Many Jewish youths left the small towns and moved to Kaunas and Klaipeda, where they worked in factories owned by Jews. Some young people studied in hakhsharot [agricultural preparatory farms] and went to the Land of Israel.
There began mass emigration of Jews abroad. Between 1920-1939, 5,000 Jews emigrated to South Africa, 1,500 to the United States, 2,500 to South America and 3,500 to Israel. The 1926 revolution and the fascist movement were, perhaps, the handwriting on the wall' for Jews, but few knew how to read it. In spite of economic pressures, the Jews of Lithuania remained steadfast. Despite these difficult years, original Hebrew culture developed the Zionist movement and the Hebrew language struck deep roots among the people. In these difficult years a new, proud generation arose, glorying in original Hebrew culture, which had no precedent in the Diaspora.
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* Died in the Shoah Return
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