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[Pages 997-1010]

Agriculture and Gardening Among Lithuanian Jews

By Engineer–Agronomist Jacob Rossein

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund and Sonia Kovitz

 

1. A Glimpse of History and Statistics

It must be said right at the start that agriculture and gardening, orchards and agricultural employment such as dairy farming (or correctly, the dairy profession), production of “Dutch” cheese, and so on played an important role in the economic life of the Lithuanian Jews of the Russian Empire. Yet this assertion is odd in view of the following statistics from the Russian Imperial Census of 1897, indicating a fairly small proportion of Lithuanian Jews engaged in agriculture.

Percentage of the Jewish Population of Lithuania Employed in Agriculture per 1897 Census

By 1918, at the close of World War I, part or all of these provinces belonged to independent Lithuania.

In reality, at that time many more Jews were active in agriculture in the three provinces than the census indicates. The reason for the disparity lies in the restrictive laws of the Russian Empire, which, with rare exceptions, did not permit Jews to live in a village [dorf ] or to own land. Thus Jews engaged in agriculture were afraid to declare the extent of their activity openly. Since it was illegal for them to own land, they hid ownership by leasing their land from persons with non–Jewish names.

Statistics on the same three provinces issued in that period by the Jewish Colonization Association reflect Jewish participation in agriculture more accurately.

These figures make clear that Jewish agriculture in the three provinces was based principally on leased land. In time, however, the ratio of owned to leased land improved in favor of ownership.

During the war years of 1916–1919, Jewish agriculture in Lithuania began to develop at a rapid rate in response to advantageous aspects of the German occupation. By 1920–1922, according to the research of the Jewish National Council in Lithuania, Jewish farmers owned more than half of the land that they worked. The Council's research gives us the following picture of Jewish agriculture in 1920–1922:

In the years 1920–1922, on the eve of the Lithuanian land reform [that nationalized the large estates and redistributed the land], thousands of Jewish families who wished to be granted land registered for it. They had a right to the land as agricultural lessees, farmers, small landowners, or veterans who had fought for Lithuania's independence. Allocation of land to the Jews had been agreed upon, but the registration process was extremely difficult, even after many memoranda and appeals to the [decision–making] Cabinet of Ministers by the Ministry for Jewish Affairs.

The land reform permitted landowners of farms of less than 80 hectares to retain control of them, but estates larger than 80 hectares, involving thousands of hectares of Jewish land in all, were subdivided into considerably smaller parcels. With rare exceptions, Jews lost almost all sub–divided parcels of land that had once been part of their large estates. A widespread consequence of the reform was that Jewish ownership was transferred almost entirely to Lithuanian peasants and new colonists.

Following World War I, both before and after Lithuania's independence, Jewish agriculture on the soil of Lithuania was primarily of the following types: estate ownership, peasant and village agriculture, near–urban agriculture (outside a shtetl or city), near–urban gardens and orchards, and household farms. What were the characteristics of each type of agriculture?

 

2. Large Land Holdings (Estates)

Large land holdings owned by Jews, the so–called landowners' estates, were concentrated mainly in the Suwałki region of Lithuania, that is, in the districts [krayzn] of Vilkovishk [Vilkaviškis], Mariampole, Shaki [Šakiai], Alyte [Alytus], and several locations in the Memel region, a separate chapter in itself. In Tsarist Russian times the Suwałki region, unlike Kovno and Vilna, followed the so–called Napoleonic Code of law [French civil code established under Napoléon I in 1804 that forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, etc.]. This code made it easier for Jews to purchase and own land, and explains why many more Jews owned plots of land, larger or smaller, in the Suwałki region than elsewhere in Lithuania.

Prior to World War I before Lithuania's independence, Jewish landowners as a group owned tens of thousands of hectares of land in the Suwałki region, about 15% of the total area of large land holdings. The Jewish agricultural families who had larger or smaller estates concentrated in their hands for many generations were well–known, namely Frank, Ziman, Eydels, Freyd, Goldberg, Kabaker, Frenkl, Shvarts, Dimenshteyn, Kagansky, Shatenshteyn, Skarisky, April, Nun, Vindsberg, Zimansky and others. Fields of Jewish wheat and rye stretched for scores of kilometers along country lanes and roads. Pedigreed horses and cattle of the highest quality were raised on Jewish estates, and the newest tools and machines were in use. In general, Jewish farms not only did not lag behind the best of the non–Jewish farms but to the contrary, in many respects surpassed them.

Later the situation of Jewish estate owners declined steadily as a result of land reform, the crisis years [1919–1939], and various subjective and objective factors. In independent Lithuania, cabinet ministers, priests and nouveau riche prominent men of all types knew how to take advantage of certain opportunities. Some even quietly used force to obtain for themselves many of the finest and most comfortable Jewish estates. For example, Goldberg's estate Kinderishky and Dimenshteyn's estate Vesulava near Kovno went to the priest Volokaytis; Frank's Naraykishky to the former minister Karvialis; Shvarts' Yolinava to the former finance minister Peturlis; and Frenkl's Freda was for the most part parceled out and sold to prominent Lithuanians. Ownership of a significant number of Jewish estates around Kovno and other larger cities gradually passed to the newly rising class of prominent Lithuanians.

In 1940 the Soviet regime took over the agricultural management of Jewish estates, among others. The Soviets parceled out the land and settled new colonists on it, with Jews receiving nothing from their former estates. Their land was transferred entirely to non–Jewish hands.

Jewish land ownership in the Memel [Klaipeda] region was taken over by the Nazis immediately after the Hitler regime tore the Memel region from Lithuania in 1938. The displaced Jewish farmers remained in Lithuania, but before the outbreak of war some of them succeeded in going to Canada and settling on farms there.

 

3. Village and Peasant Agriculture

There were times when Jewish farmers either established entirely Jewish villages or lived in Lithuanian villages, intermingling with Lithuanians. As noted above, at one time the majority of Jewish farmers lived in the Suwałki area. Decades ago, the Jewish villages of Feretshan, Butskun [Butkunai], Papetaytsh, and others had houses of prayer and as well as several minyonim [prayer groups]. Several such places are still called Žydkaimis [Jewish village], although no Jews live there anymore.

 

A Lithuanian Jew at his hook plow aka swing plow [sokhe]

 

Jewish farmers followed a way of life similar to that of their Lithuanian neighbors – with similar houses, similar dress, and similar styles of running their households. They worked from sunup to sundown assisted by their wives and children, and led a demanding peasant–style life of toil. Jewish farmers were powerfully tied to their households and their nurturer Mother Earth, and did not seek their fortune in the cities.

This situation changed during the final decades of the previous century [nineteenth], as Lithuanian villages began little by little to empty of Jewish farmers. Various difficulties, administrative edicts, the solitude and isolation of Jews in the midst of Lithuanian masses, the striving of the younger generation to move to the city, emigration to America, and still other factors resulted in the increasing disappearance of Jewish farmers from Lithuanian villages.

In the last years before the war, a Jewish village in Lithuania was already a rarity. Like the last of the Mohicans, in the Suwałki area only the tiny Jewish village of Panashishok–Zhidkaimis [Panošiškės Žydkaimis] remained. In the Shavl [Šiauliai] district a few Jewish villages remained, where one or two dozen Jewish farmer families lived. Individual Jewish farmers, rural settlers, and part–time farmers were scattered through the villages of Lithuania, and could be counted in the hundreds until World War II. These included the few Jewish farmers who had acquired land in the period of Lithuanian independence.

 

4. Near–Urban Farming

Near–urban agriculture (outside of towns)–especially gardens and orchards–played a significant role in the economy of Lithuanian Jewry. Near–urban agriculture suited these Jews rather than village agriculture, because they could live in a city or shtetl and yet be in Jewish surroundings. There was no need to suffer the aches and pains of labor; they could make better use of their economic connections with others; could better apply their own aptitude for commercial ventures; and could invest more money in hiring workers, thereby strengthening their economic situation and increasing their income. Lithuanian Jews introduced a lively spirit into rigorous near–urban agriculture in general, and gardens and orchards in particular.

A considerable number of Jewish–owned fields and gardens were located near Mariampole, Vilkovishk [Vilkaviškis], Shaki [Šakiai], Alyte [Alytus], Verzhbelove [Virbalis], Kibart [Kybartai], Nayshtot [Naujamiestis], Kalvariya, Srednik [Seredžius], Serai [Seirijai], Lazdei [Lazdijai], Vishey [Veisiejai], Simne [Simnas], Meretch [Merkinė], Koptcheve [Kapciamiestis], Keydan [Kėdainiai], Yaneve [Jonava], Slobodke [Vilijampolė], Marevyanke [Marvelė], Panemune [Panemunėlis] near Kovno, and additional shtetls in the Vilna area and throughout Lithuania. In situations where near–urban landowners who lived in a city or shtetl were also engaged in commerce and shopkeeping, the largest part of their income came from their fields and gardens outside the city. At the same time a number of agricultural experts in the bigger cities farmed their own land part–time, but primarily worked the land that they leased.

It is worth pausing to consider productive and pioneering activities by Jews in several areas of agriculture.

New methods of plant cultivation were almost unknown in Lithuania until after World War I, when they began to be developed and were then expanded throughout the country. New cultivation methods were used for tomatoes, sugar beets, tobacco, chicory, rhubarb, sweet lupin beans, several kinds of butter grasses, various garden greens, new varieties of fruit and berries, and so on. Jewish farmers played a large part in spreading the new cultivation and acclimating farmers to it.

A considerable number of Jewish cultivators were engaged in large–scale tobacco cultivation in the Suwałki region. Large Jewish fields planted with tobacco could be seen in the vicinity of cities and shtetls. In this way, Jews achieved greater professionalism in cultivating tobacco, and taught their methods to their Lithuanian neighbors. The larger Jewish tobacco plantations were located in the vicinity of Kalvariya and Verzhbelove. Kalvarier Jews Kronzon and Solomon, and Verzhbelover Jews Kaputchevsky and Kabaker, were especially successful.

Verzhbelover Eliyahu Kaputchevsky was the pioneer and largest planter of chicory in Lithuania. He not only found new ways to mechanize the cultivation of chicory in the field, but built the first drying chamber for chicory roots in Lithuania. His rigorous methods of preparing the dried, half–finished commodity on a grand scale for the chicory factories of Memel and Kovno helped to reduce or completely halt the importation of chicory from Germany. Kaputchevsky made plans and preparations to open his own large chicory factory, but his plans were not realized, first because of the crisis years [1919–1939], and then because of the Jewish khurbn [catastrophe, holocaust].

 

5. Near–Urban Gardens and Orchards

Jews played a characteristic and large role in Lithuanian commercial gardening and orchard–keeping in or near several cities, mainly Kovno, Keidan, Vilna, Verzhbelove; and earlier, also in Ponevezh [Panevėžys], Zhager [Žagarė], and Shadeve [Šeduva], where Jews developed agricultural production on many hundreds of hectares.

 

Removal of fruit from trees at the ORT agricultural school at the Kalinova estate, 15 kilometers from Kovno
[ORT is the acronym of Общество ремесленного труда, in Russian, now “Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades” of World ORT]

 

Farmers who did not possess land of their own in or around the city leased large areas of land at high cost from the surrounding estates and peasants. Over the course of dozens of years, the land that the Jews intensively cultivated and fertilized was transformed into excellent garden soil. In season, tens of hundreds of village and city women and men were employed.

Jewish commercial farmers occupied first place in the cultivation of cucumbers. After cucumbers came cabbage, beets, carrots, onions, and tomatoes. Vilna horticulturists focused mainly on small and early greens such as lettuce and sorrel, while also maintaining hothouses and greenhouses. Individuals such as Yankivsky and a few others in Kovno and Panemune were engaged similarly.

It was said that the cucumber was the darling of Jewish farming, and indeed in favorable years the cucumber brought in considerable profits. These profits helped to cover higher leasing fees and higher worker expenses in the lean years.

Who in Lithuania hadn't heard of Keidan cucumbers?

In 1939 Keidan farming already had a long history. Grandfathers and great–grandfathers had been farmers. During Tsarist Russian times, Keidan cucumbers reached Mitave, Libava and Riga [in Latvia] and St. Petersburg. Later, the cucumbers found a market not only in Keidan, Kovno, Ponevezh, Shavl and other Lithuanian cities, but also in Germany.

In 1939 the Association of the Jewish People's Bank in Lithuania, headed by the agronomist Sh. Kelzon (who died in a concentration camp in Germany), sent me on a special mission to Keidan. My assignment was to investigate the current state of Keidan Jewish farming and its prospects. Because growers were often maltreated by factory owners, discussion arose among them about the possibility of founding a large cooperative canning factory of their own. The factory was supposed to receive a long–term loan from the Association of a large sum of about 80,000 to 100,000 lit.

I [author Joseph Rossein] submitted a precise report to the Association and I still remember several details.

In 1939 the group of Keidan growers numbered around 40 families. Among them were large–scale farmers engaged exclusively in horticulture who had excellent incomes. For smaller–scale farmers, gardens were a secondary source of income. Approximately 500 hectares (1,250 acres) of owned and leased land were in the hands of Keidan's Jewish farmers and near–urban growers. The following were the best known of the large–scale Keidan cultivators. We'll mention Zeduk Shlapobersky first. He perished heroically in the mass slaughter of the Keidan Jews by dragging two of his murderers into the pit with him–he wounded one and strangled the other. The other well–known large–scale farmers included Golombek, Smilg, Geben, Fridland, Yaffe, and Zalmanovich.

Keidaners asserted that over the course of tens or perhaps hundreds of years, special “Keidan cucumber soil” and “Keidan cucumber climate”–not to mention cultivation of the cucumber fields by highly qualified specialists–brought in a big harvest even in “bad” years when the average farmer could not get any healthy cucumbers. The varieties of Keidan cucumbers, also called zelyonkes [Russian: bright green], were well–known in professional circles not only in Lithuania, but in Latvia, Russia and Germany. Seeds for the many varieties of cucumbers were grown in Keidan in large quantities. Every farmer prided himself on his own seed and considered it the best in the world. Traditions and even folk superstitions were established over the years about how to prepare, store, and sow the seed; how to supervise the farms; and so on.

Keidan cucumbers survived the times of crisis. In good years when cucumbers grew well for every peasant (these years were called “bad” by the farmers), over–production resulted, with nowhere to store the harvest. Thousands of barrels of cucumbers would be pickled right in Keidan to be sold later, in the autumn, winter and spring. Small, green cucumbers would often go to the Kovno canning factories of Ashkhenazy, Rozmarin, “Meystas,” and others.

Some house garden farmers supplemented their primary [i.e. non–agricultural] income with proceeds from selling their dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and berries to Jewish families. These small near–urban commercial farms were located in the vicinity of shtetls or cities.

Jewish gardening and farming in Kovno was concentrated mainly around Slobodke, Aleksot, Marevyanke, as well as Panemune. Several hundred hectares of land, most of it leased, were sown with vegetables. The group of Kovno Jewish gardeners and near–urban farmers consisted of over 50 families who earned their living almost exclusively from agriculture. The largest producers were Dovid and Kalman Burakishsky, Smilg, the Panemunsky brothers, the Lopiansky brothers, Karniovsky, Gan, Yankivsky, Miller, the Sheyn brothers and others. The farmers in the area concentrated on cucumbers because they were the most salable and best earning product. Cabbage, onions, beets, tomatoes, and carrots took second place. Most of this crop was purchased by market sellers, restaurants, military and municipal institutions, and canning factories.

In 1940, when the Russians occupied part of Lithuania and the land was Sovietized, the tragedy for Jewish farmers and gardeners began. For the most part they did not have land of their own, but held leases on land from the estates near Kovno, Keidan and other cities. This land was appropriated by the state. The Soviet regime considered farmers and gardeners the equivalent of large enterprise exploiters [Soviet prevarication], and therefore provided them neither with land nor, at first, jobs. By 1940 the majority of Jewish gardeners no longer produced any vegetables and were cast out from their way of life, as happened to hundreds and thousands of other Jews. Despite the Soviet practices, I was able to arrange responsible positions for the above–mentioned specialists–Dovid Burakishsky, Smilg, Panemunski and Gan–in the Kovno Municipal Garden Sovkhoz [Soviet state farm] that was under my direction until the war.

Many significant Jewish farming enterprises had developed immediately after World War I in the border shtetl of Verzhbelov. The cucumber producers founded a cooperative led by Sholem Filipovsky (now in Israel) and exported their crop in wagonloads mainly to the eastern Prussian cities of Eidkunan, Stalupenen, Goldap, Insterburg [Chernyakovsk], Konigsberg, and also to Berlin. In time, the cucumber transport to Germany ceased due to internal political issues.

The Filipovsky family of Verzhbelov played an important role in orchard farming in Lithuania. Experts Hirshl Filipovsky, the grandfather, and Abba, the father, engaged in farming and in growing and selling vegetable seeds. The father Abba Filipovsky with his two sons, Sholem and Yehuda Filipovsky, and their relative Urinovsky, established a modern seed business in Kovno called Sėklucentras [Lithuanian: sėklų – seed; centras – “city center”].

The third son, Yakov Filipovsky, graduated in 1925 from a special institute for orchard farming and horticulture and dedicated himself completely to scientific research and practical applications. He quickly became one of the most important and well known horticulture specialists in Lithuania. His large and modern tree nursery in Verzhbelov, where the finest cultivated varieties of fruit trees and berry bushes were raised on a grand scale, was considered one of the best, if not the very best, in the country. His trees received first prizes and awards at agricultural exhibitions. Whoever wished to plant a modern orchard with first class fruit trees did so with trees raised by Filipovsky.

 

Yakov Filipovsky and his brother at their tree nursery in Lithuania

 

In addition to his tree nursery, Yakov Filipovsky had a large modern fruit orchard of seven to eight hectares (18 to 20 acres) that served as a model orchard for all of Lithuania. Not only horticulturists and farmers, but the leading Lithuanian specialists, cabinet ministers, high priests and other prominent people visited in order to learn the organization of an orchard and to train in the field of orchard farming. Filipovsky's gooseberry and currant plantations were well known across the entire country, as was his rhubarb plantation later. He was the first and only one in Lithuania to produce rhubarb on a large scale.

In 1939, the Lithuanian Tribunal issued a resolution that the Filipovsky farms and orchards, due to their great size, were not simply farms and they were therefore transferred to the category of agricultural industries.

In the 1930s the Filipovsky brothers began to raise beet and cucumber seeds. They worked with their cousin, Dovid Urinovsky, who had studied in an institute for orchard farming and horticulture in Berlin. These three Lithuanian Jews became the best and largest seed cultivators in Lithuania. In the final years before World War II, they sowed more than 17 hectares of beet seeds.

Yakov Filipovsky traveled on a study trip to Canada and the United States in 1939, but on account of the outbreak of the war, he was not able to return home. His wife, children and other family members who had remained in Lithuania perished at the hands of the German murderers. Yakov Filipovsky, under the shortened name Filips, now [1950–1951] lives on a farm near Montreal, Canada, and continues with great success the agricultural activity that he previously pursued in Lithuania. Most recently Filipovsky has been involved with the large pioneer hakhshore farm [agricultural training for Palestine] near Grimsby in the Niagara Falls district.

Meanwhile Yakov's brother Yehuda, who remained in Lithuania, worked in farm management and continued to do so when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviets. The Soviet government did not nationalize the farm, but entered into a contract with Yehuda Filipovsky stipulating that all the fruit and rhubarb from the farm be delivered to the Kovno government cooperative.

 

6. Household Farms

There was no shtetl in Lithuania where Jews did not set aside a larger or smaller spot near their houses for a vegetable garden, fruit trees, berry bushes, a bit of pasture for a cow, a place for chickens and so on. One could say that every other Jew in the shtetl had a household farm. The master and mistress of a household farm generally worked it by themselves, though sometimes they hired workers. Summer and winter, thousands and thousands of Jewish families were able to provide themselves with their own dairy products, eggs, poultry meat, chicken fat, early potatoes, small carrots, beets, cucumbers, cabbage, radishes, beans, onions and other vegetables, from their household farm.

In the “old days” in Lithuania when large estates belonged to the [hereditary] nobility, hundreds of Jews were milk lessees and orchard lessees. The former were rural settlers who lived on an estate or part–time in a shtetl. Daily they collected the milk from the estate, turned it into cheese and butter, and sold it. The latter leased fruit orchards in the growing season, picked the fruit, and found markets for it in nearby cities and shtetls. Milk leasing eventually declined, mainly after the Lithuanian land reform, but some Jewish orchard lessees persisted until the end, though in strikingly smaller numbers.

In the decades prior to the war, several branches of Jewish household farms developed modern agricultural production. The production of so–called “Dutch” cheese, for example, that required considerable monetary investment and mechanization, was taken over exclusively by Jews. The most well–known of the largest cheese producers were the Pres brothers in Kurshan [Kuršėnai]; Shtires and Aba Roseyn in Pumpian [Pumpėnai]; Shtern, Poluksht, Leyzerovitch, and many others. Daily they processed the thousands of quarts of milk provided to their cheese factories by local peasants.

In the last decade before the destruction of the Jews of Lithuania, if you saw the houses in Jewish areas near towns and shtetls with their carefully planned small or large vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, warming beds, beehives, henhouses or other modern small–scale agricultural management projects, you would know that Lithuanian ORT played a definite role in them, through its Kovno Agricultural Work School, courses and instructional help.

 

Early spring preparation of the beds of a small vegetable garden at the ORT Agricultural School farm at Ungarina [Ungaryn] near Mariampol
[Also see Yaakov Oleisky's article “ORT in Lithuania” in Lite, vol. 2.]

 

The Jew Kreingel and his sons were among the largest beekeepers in Kalvariya, where they had their own bee farm and a small factory to produce artistic wax cloth.

One could say that from several earlier generations through the final one, the Lithuanian Jews of the shtetl did not break the thread that tied them to Mother Earth and to a more natural life of providing for their sustenance and producing what was needed by their household. Here was the healthy basis for Jewish economic survival in the Lithuanian shtetl. The Jewish economic structure was able to endure all of the ill winds and storms from all sides.

 

Hay cutting on the Jewish farm of the Mote Shateser family and Ben–Tzion Yame–their cousins are lying in the hay on the wagon
Photographed in 1930 on a field between Meysyad [Mosėdis] and Barshtits [Barstyiciai]. The picture was submitted by L. Grin, Toronto

 

    Bibliography

  1. Report of the Jewish National Council in Lithuania. 1922.
  2. ORT Almanac: Dedicated to Questions on Jewish Economics and Changes in Social Stratification in Lithuania. Kovno, 1935.
  3. “Keidaner Jewish Gardeners: Their Situation and Outlook.” Report by Yakov Raseyn to the Association of the Jewish People's Bank in Lithuania. Kovno, 1939.
  4. Reports of the Agricultural Work School of the Lithuanian ORT. Kovno, 1914–1917.
  5. Report of the Advisory Body for Jewish Agriculture in Lithuania. Kovno, 1932.
  6. “Report on Gardening and Orchard Farming Among Jews in Lithuania” from Naye Idishe G–B, Montreal, Canada.

 

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