« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 91]

(Klaipėda, Lithuania)

55°43' 21°07'

Memel is situated on the site where the Kurish Bay (Kursiu marios–in Lithuanian) meets the Baltic Sea and the river flows into the bay. In olden times this site was a port and a civilian settlement, it being here that in 1252 the Livonian Order erected a fortress that secured the strategic axis Riga–Memel–Koenigsberg–Danzig, this route maintaining the connection between the Livonian and Prussian Orders. In the years 1323, 1379 and 1409 the fortress, as well as the settlement, was destroyed by the Lithuanians, who took revenge for the invasions of Lithuania by the Order. In 1540, the town was ravished by a great fire. During the years 1629–1635 Memel was under Swedish rule and from 1701 the town came under Prussian rule. In 1709 the plague caused the death of about 2,000 of its population. In 1722, some 1,900 people resided in the town and another 1,500 in the fortress.

In 1756 the Seven Years War started and the Russian army and its fleet occupied Memel, controlling it from 1757 till 1762. The border with Lithuania was opened and commerce in Memel developed.

During the American revolutionary war with England in the years 1776–83, the need for timber, flax etc. increased and Memel grew fast. In 1782 the town's population numbered 5,500 people and about 800 ships sailed into its harbor annually.

Memel became the capital city of the Prussian Kingdom between the years 1807–1808, but after the defeat of Napoleon in the years 1812–1813 the Russian Army occupied Memel.

In 1853 the road to Tilzit was completed, in 1892 the railway to Kretinga was inaugurated, telephone communication arrived in 1888, and in 1900 the first power plant was built in the town.

After World War I Memel and its region (Gebiet) were cut off from Germany, and in accordance with the Versailles Treaty the Allies (the Entente) ruled this area with a French garrison headed by a French general as from 1919. On January 10th, 1923 the Lithuanian army entered Memel and its region, upon which the French garrison left. On February 16th, 1923 the Entente representatives approved Lithuanian's sovereignty over Memel and region. The population won an extended autonomy and interior issues were governed by a local Parliament (Landtag) whose resolutions had to be approved by the Lithuanian Governor who was appointed by the President of the Republic. During Lithuanian rule (1923–1939) Memel was the administrative center of the region.

In December 1938, during elections to the local Parliament, the local German Nazis received 26 out of 29 seats, as a result of which the city became in fact a part of the German Reich. On the 22nd of March 1939 the German army entered Memel and the city and region were officially annexed to Germany, the city Memel serving as a base for the German navy during World War II.

[Page 92]

On January the 28th 1945, Memel was liberated from Nazi rule by the Red Army. About 28% of its houses were totally destroyed and more than 36% of the others badly damaged. Since then Memel (Klaipeda) and the region is part of Lithuania.


Jewish Settlement till after World War I

Apparently Jews began to settle in Memel in the 15th century, but the first document about a Jewish presence in the city is from 1567. On the 20th of April 1567 Count Albrecht, under the influence of priests, issued an order stating that all Jews had to leave Memel within 21 days, since then and for the next 76 years it being forbidden for Jews to live or even stay overnight in Memel. It was only in 1643, when commerce in the city was developing, did Jewish merchants, who arrived on Fridays in the city and in particular during the short winter days, were allowed to stay over Sabbath, but on Sundays they had to leave. In those days the rules issued in 1613, according to which it was forbidden for a Memel citizen or merchant to have any contact, open or secret, with Jews, because Judaism was opposed to Christianity, were not treated seriously any more, despite the fact that fanatic clergymen were still propagating these orders.

In 1662 Friedrich Wilhelm, the Kurfuerst of Brandenburg, who wanted to expand trade with Memel, granted privileges to several Jews to settle in the city. One of them was a Dutch Jew named Mosheh Jacobson de Jonge (The Young), a commercial genius who settled in Memel in 1664. He developed trade with timber, furs and in particular with salt, organized shipping lines and established a workshop for repairing and building ships. He got permission to employ Jewish workers, among them a ritual slaughterer and a Jewish teacher for his children, and was also allowed to establish a prayer room in his house. After several years Mosheh Jacobson lost all his property as a result of too much speculation with salt and was forced to return to Holland with all his staff.

Jews were banned from Memel for many more years, and were not even allowed to peddle goods there. This ban was proclaimed publicly once a year, and until 1670 announcements to this effect were attached to the municipal building. It was only during the yearly fair, which took place in the summer and lasted 14 days, when Jewish tradesmen were allowed to import merchandise from Lithuania and Russia, such as agricultural products and expensive furs, and to buy German merchandise. Among the buyers were the rich Polish farm owners and Barons from Kurland. During the Crimean war, when Russia was closed on all sides except for the border with Prussia, 14,248 Jews were registered at the fair of 1854.

A special item sold to Russian tradesmen during the fairs were Hebrew books, among them the “Talmud” and rabbinical literature from the times when they were printed in Germany, or from private libraries of German Jews who did not need them anymore. The few Jewish printing presses in Russia as well as

[Page 93]

the difficulties caused by the censor, created a market for Hebrew books. In 1720 J. M. Friedlander received permission to sell Hebrew books at the fair. After some time a Jewish publisher from Berlin, Avraham Goldberg, opened a bookshop at the fair.

When rabbinical seminaries opened in Germany the need for religious books there increased, and the book trade in Memel stopped. After the Polish rebellion in 1863 and the construction of the railway to Memel, the importance of the fair diminished.

The system of privileges for “protected” Jews (Schutz Juden) was prevalent even during the times of the liberal King Friedrich the Great (1740–1798). When in 1777 the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn visited Memel on a business matter, he stayed in Koenigsberg, because he did not have permission to remain in Memel overnight. Only at the beginning of the 19th century, did the liberal legislation of Stein–Hardenberg bring about the cancellation of the severe restrictions affecting the Jews who had existed since the middle ages. But several tens of years passed till Prussian Jews began to settle in Memel that was located in a remote corner of the Kingdom and far from the main traffic arteries. In 1815 there were 35 Jews in Memel among a population of about 10,000 people.

Russian Jews, who came to Memel for their businesses, could not settle there because of lack of prayer houses and other religious institutions which were only allowed for Jews who held Prussian citizenship. As time passed, more and more Russian timber merchants would come to Memel before the High Holidays, staying there until January. They would arrive in the city by carts and even by carriages harnessed to horses, bringing with them cooks and ritual slaughterers, but only for poultry, whereas meat, sheep and cattle would be smuggled in from nearby Lithuanian towns.

Ber Cohen with his three sons Yosef, Aharon and Shemuel were the first Jewish family to receive citizenship in Memel, they brought in the first resident slaughterer by the name of Yosel Vald, all of them coming from the Lithuanian town of Tavrig (Taurage). Several years later, Mr. Vald transferred his position to his son–in–law Yeshayah Wohlgemuth, who after some time received rabbinical ordination. Later the sons of Yosel Vald became great flour and timber merchants.

In 1855 there were 289 Jews in Memel, and in 1867 this had risen to 887. Eleven Jewish babies (9 boys and 2 girls) were born in Memel in 1856, and one died. 16 babies were born (7 boys and 9 girls) in 1857, 3 of them died. Before the Jewish cemetery was established in Memel, local Jews would bury their dead in one of the towns in Prussia or, albeit with great difficulty, in one of the Lithuanian towns. The story goes that a Jewish merchant having died suddenly in Memel, was transferred to Lithuania for burial sitting in a carriage dressed in his coat and a pipe in his mouth, and escorts on either side.

In 1858 the Prussian government demanded the unification of the Russian and German communities in Memel. According to a Prussian law dated July 23rd

[Page 94]

1847, which granted autonomy to the Jews, every Jew had to belong to the community and pay taxes, which amounted to a certain percent of his income tax and was collected in some cases with the help of the police. Anyone who did not pay income tax, was also exempted from paying taxes to the community. The community was headed by an assembly of representatives of 16 persons that was elected for 6 years. The assembly elected the community committee of 3–5 from its members, who had to be German citizens to run the community's affairs and maintain contact with the government The united community was officially approved on the 9th of May 1862, as were the regulations of the “Hevrah Kadishah”. But in fact two different communities continued to exist, Russian Jews and German Jews, and each of them dealt with its own religious and educational issues. Members of the first committee were Dr.Lazar, S.Glazer and Meir Levi, and later on were joined by Moritz Kon and Julius Abelman.

Until 1900 the chairmen of the committee were Dr. Lazar, Julius Hirsch, Dr. Fuerst, J.Levental, S. Borchardt and Leopold Alexander.

In 1875 1,040 Jews resided in Memel.

Although relations between the Jews of Memel and their Christian neighbors were usually normal, Jews were unable to find employment in municipal and commercial institutions. Due to the fact that anti–Semites could not fight against Prussian Jews who had equal rights, they plotted against those Jews who did not possess Prussian citizenship, and in 1880 several of Memel's Jews who did not have Prussian citizenship were expelled from the city. The number of those expelled increased from year to year until 1885, when the government published an order that all foreign citizens had to leave Memel within a short time, before the 15th of October of that same year. Among the people affected by this order were Jews who had lived in Memel for 20 and even 40 years, but had not bothered to request Prussian citizenship in time, although then it was not difficult to obtain it. According to a source, had this order been carried out to the letter, only about 200 Jews would have remained in Memel. The man who was very active in thwarting this harsh decree was the Rabbi of Memel Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf (1834–1902), who contacted many people in Berlin, but only Chancellor Bismark could help. The Rabbi applied to him three times, resulting in a compromise according to which the city commercial institutions would prepare a list of Jewish merchants acting in Memel and these people would be allowed to stay.

Due to the expulsion of part of the Russian citizens from Memel during the years 1880 to 1886 the number of Jews decreased from 1,214 in 1880 to 861 in 1890. About 100 families, Jewish merchants from Lithuania, remained in Memel, and these were amongst the most important people in the city maintaining trade connections with Russia. But the rights of these Jews were restricted and they were under constant supervision by the authorities. About 700 people, men, women and children, were expelled from the districts of Memel and Heidekrug (Silute in Lithuanian), most of them workers and

[Page 95]

artisans. Many of them could not return to their Russian homeland for various reasons and it became necessary to help them emigrate overseas. In order to carry out this goal, a large sum of money was needed, which was collected from Jews in Germany and other countries.

Memel Jews traded mainly in timber and grains, but many Jewish timber merchants from Minsk, Pinsk, Vohlin, Grodna and Bialystok would also stay in Memel, and although they were only provisional residents, they played an important role in the community.


The old city of Memel with the Friedrich Market (1915).
Mainly Jewish merchants resided in this quarter


When World War I started in 1914 an order was issued that all Jewish Russian citizens be expelled within one week to Ruegen Island in the Baltic Sea. The Jewish community, the local commerce bureau, the Mayor of the city and the Governor of the region, made efforts to mitigate this harsh decree, and as a result any Jew who was able to produce a guarantee and a recommendation from two German citizens showing that he was not a spy, was allowed to stay on in the region. Thus most of the “strangers” were saved from expulsion.


Education and Religion

The first religious institution established for Memel's Jews was the cemetery, where in 1823 the first Jewish deceased was buried. In the course of time this cemetery was enlarged three times. In 1835, on the initiative and with the management of Mordehai Vazbutzky and Meir Lifshitz, the “Polish” synagogue and the “Mikveh” were built in order to serve the rich timber traders from Poland and Russia who lived in Memel during the autumn months and also during the High Holidays. For forty years the head of this synagogue was S. Blokh, who was also active in the community.

Rabbi Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf, who served in Memel as the rabbi of the German community from 1865–1898, was the initiator and involved in all educational, cultural and welfare activities in the city during those years.

[Page 96]

Prior to the establishment of the autonomic community according to Prussian law, Jewish children , mainly those possessing Russian citizenship, studied with “Melamdim” who came from Lithuania. The rich hired a private “Melamed” for their children, the less wealthy hired a “Melamed” for two or three families and the poor sent their children to a “Kheder” which was financed mostly by the community with parents only paying a small sum. Jews started to send their children to public schools only at the start of the 1860s.

In 1879 Rabbi Ruelf established a school for poor children (Armenschule), most of them having no other way of obtaining some education. The committee for helping Russian Jews in Berlin donated 50,000 Mark for maintaining this elementary school, which was recognized by the authorities, where Hebrew and its grammar, German, Mishnah and Talmud were taught. At the beginning many of Memel's Jews related to this school with reservation, since they were worried about the growth of a Jewish Russian proletariat in the city. A suitable building for the school was erected with the help of a large donation by the Baroness von Hirsch from Paris.

In 1898 Rabbi Dr.Y.Ruelf left Memel and Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Carlebach replaced him. Then the community established a “ Religious School for Jewish Children” (Israelitische Religions Schule), consisting of two classes for boys and two for girls.

Many rich parents initiated the establishment of a private religious school and were ready to finance it. It had four classes for boys, five for girls and one common preparatory class. In the preparatory class one learnt for one year and in the other classes, for two years. The teachers in the above mentioned schools were: Dr. I. Carlebach (director), Heineman, Dobrovolsky, Berman, Mrs. Carlebach and Mrs. Gitkin. In this school Hebrew, Bible, Mishnah and Gemara was taught. These two schools were under the supervision of the community by way of an education committee whose members were S. Blokh, Moritz Cohen, A. Aizenstadt, Dr. Med. Hurwitz and H. Schlos. Financial issues of this private school were assigned to a funding committee, whose members were Max Berelowitz, Ch. Sher and D.L. Wolfson.

In 1896 “The Kiryath Sefer” society was established in order to provide Memel's assimilated German Jews with knowledge of the literature and history of the Jewish people. Those active in this society were Rabbi Ruelf– chairman, L.Sheinhaus – his deputy, the teacher Arndt and the pharmacist Lichtenstein.

In 1875, when due to immigration of Lithuanian Jews the Jewish population in the city increased, a “Beth–Midrash” was built. The Lithuanian and Russian Jews could not finance this building by themselves, and were therefore helped with funds collected by Rabbi Ruelf among German Jews. In 1886 a third prayer house, the “Synagogue”, was erected in Memel for the German Jews, initiated by Rabbi Ruelf, who also collected the money for its construction. During the High Holidays all three prayer houses were full to capacity and it was necessary to rent an additional hall for the overflow audience.

[Page 97]

In 1861, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (Lipkin), who then lived in Memel, established “The Society of Gemara Students” as well as publishing a weekly pamphlet named “Hatvunah” (Wisdom)) in which famous Rabbis published ‘Khidushey Torah’ ( new commentaries). As many as twelve booklets were published, by a Jewish printing press in Memel. In the summer of 1886, the 25th anniversary of this “Society” was celebrated at the Beth haMidrash on the occasion of completing the 3rd cycle of the “Gemara” (Talmud). At this celebration, which lasted for three days, the speakers were Rabbi Gavriel Feinberg from the Lithuanian–Polish community and Rabbi Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf, the representative of “The Society of the Fans of Zion” in Memel. Rabbi Ruelf was a delegate on behalf of Vilna to the second Zionist Congress that took place in Basel in 1898. He was the only western rabbi who opposed the “Protest Rabbiner” (this was a disparaging nickname Dr.Herzl had given to those German rabbis who had prevented the first Zionist Congress from taking place).

The Rabbis of the German Jewish Community were: Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf – who did much to bring Jews from the east closer to Jews from the west, helped Lithuanian and Russian Jews very much during all the disasters and pogroms they experienced and published articles on them in the international press. He was also the editor of the newspaper “Memeler Dampfboot” and published a book on philosophy in five volumes. He died in 1902 in Bonn at the age of 72. Then there were Dr. Immanuel Carlebach, who died in Köln in 1928, Dr.Yitzhak Stein who died in 1915, and Dr.F.Schlesinger.

The Rabbis of the Lithuanian–Polish Jewish community were: Yeshayah Wohlgemuth, who died in Hamburg in 1899 (see Appendix 1); Gavriel Feinberg, who published the books “Be'er Ya'akov” and discussions on “Khoshen Mishpat” and “Yoreh De'ah” (Berlin 5653); Meir Yoselovsky who died in Memel in 1915, and Mordehai Yitzhak Rabinovitz, who served in Memel from 1917 and published many books.


Welfare and Help

During the 1880s a “Permanent Committee for Helping Russian Jews” was established in Memel, headed by Rabbi Dr. Y. Ruelf, M.Lurie and A.Vitenberg. In the Hebrew newspaper “HaMeilitz”, published in St. Petersburg on June 28th 1881, a world wide appeal to Jews was published asking them to send donations to help victims of pogroms that had occurred then in southern Russia. The money collected was sent through the “ J.S. Feinberg's Successors – Koenigsberg and Memel” bank for distribution in Kiev.

Nor did these public spirited workers forget the poor, “HaMelitz” from the 22nd of February 1881 reporting that one Sunday a group of respected men of the community gathered and collected 1,500 Mark, as well as dresses and wood for heating for the poor of the city.

[Page 98]

Most of the news from Memel published in “HaMeilitz” was written by David Eliezer Tubiansky and A.L.Sheinhaus.

During 1868 to 1869, years of famine in Lithuania, Rabbi Ruelf saved about 30,000 Jews in the Kovno Gubernia from starving, with money he collected in Germany. During a year and a half he transferred 630,000 Mark in weekly payments to 230 settlements in Lithuania, an immense sum in those years.

When Russian Jews were forced to leave Memel in the years 1880–1886, as mentioned above, Rabbi Ruelf arranged a fund raising event, and every family forced to leave received a sum of money for travel expenses and first arrangements, according to the number of its members.

The “ Gemiluth Hasidim Society “, which gave interest free loans to the needy, was established in Memel in 1894. 229 donors raised its basic capital, and during the first year of its activity it distributed 133 loans to the tune of 6,529 Mark. There were 10 members on its board of directors (Ehrenrat): Rabbi Dr. Ruelf – chairman, Rabbi Gavriel Feinberg, Dr.B.M.Hanneman, D.L.Wolfson, A.L.Sheinhaus, Sh.H.Bernstein, T.Lieberman, O.Ratner. W.Naftal, M.Gitkin.

The managers of the society were Gershom Millner, L.Hanneman, A.Kaplan, Akiva Pinkus, Ch.L.Shtronin, M.Altschul, the supervisors being of A.Joffe, Yosef Gilis, the brothers Hanneman and the accountants were M.H.Meisels and A.L.Sheinhaus.In 1897 the Memel “Tsedakah Gedolah” society was established whose aim it was to support the poor.

The proximity of Memel to Lithuania enabled many Lithuanian Jews to come there in order to consult the many doctors who were in the city. At the initiative of Rabbi Ruelf, Shaul–Zvi Blokh and Dr.Pindikovsky, a Jewish hospital was built in Memel in 1871, with donations from German Jews and timber merchants from Russia. Some years later this hospital was already too small to accommodate all the patients, and thus in 1896 a big new building was erected surrounded by gardens. It was situated on a high place with a spectacular view. The plot for the building was acquired by the banker Leopold Alexander, using his own money, but the building was erected with the help of additional donors, such as the Baroness Klara von Hirsch from Paris who donated 40,000 Mark and Ya'akov Plaut from Nizza who donated 20.000 Mark. The hospital that had 32 beds, fulfilled its purpose till the liquidation of the community in 1939.


Between the Two World Wars

The French Governor, who ruled the region on behalf of the Entente, cancelled all restrictions that had been imposed upon the Jews, and thus all the Jewish inhabitants of Memel and the region received citizenship. The Governor nominated a committee of four members, two of them Jews, Moritz Altschul and Leon Rostovsky, as well as one German and a French officer as chairman, to deal with requests for citizenship, as a result of which the number of Jews in Memel increased quickly.

[Page 99]

The southern part of Memel where most of the Jewish institutions were located


The port, the developing commerce, the convenient conditions for developing industry, the possibility to learn a trade and the easing of permission to leave for the west and to Eretz–Yisrael, motivated many Jews to settle in Memel. The Lithuanian Government, having annexed Memel and the region to Lithuania in 1923, was pleased with the increase of the Jewish population, because the Jews together with the Lithuanians reduced the influence of the German majority.

[Page 100]

The Klaipeda Port on the Dane River


The number of Jews in Memel in 1910 was 2,000 out of a total population of 21,108 (9%), and by 1928 there were 4,500 Jews, in 1938 – 6,000 Jews (12%) and in 1939 – 7,000 Jews out of a total population of 51,000 (about 14%).

Doctors who held German diplomas moved from Lithuania to Memel and local Jewish lawyers became judges and prosecutors. Among the 21 judges in the city, 7 were Jews and one Jew became a prosecutor, but at the end of 1938 there were only 3 Jewish judges and one Jewish prosecutor left, while their German colleagues plotted against them.

The legal basis for the existence of the Jewish community during this period was still the Prussian law from July 23rd, 1847 (see above) with additions that the “Directory” approved, i.e. the autonomy laws of the region established on the 28th of July 1924. Officially the “Directory” supervised the activities of the Jewish community, which meant that Rabbis, slaughterers and other employees of the community received their salaries and pensions from the “Directory” similar to the employees of the Christian churches in the region. The “Directory” consisted of 16 members, 8 of whom were elected anew every year, and in 1936 2,000 Jews were registered in the community. Only 900 Jews voted for the “Directory” during the elections of that year, 200 of them voting for the list of “Agudath Yisrael”. Memel's Jews were not too active or interested in the activities of the community and this explains the small number of participants in the elections.

Conditions of the Jews of the region were considerably influenced by friction between the Lithuanian ruler and the German population who were in the majority. In 1933, for example, there were 4,510 Lithuanians as opposed to 14,632 Germans in Memel.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they began agitating for the region to return to Germany. In 1935 Memel Nazis were convicted of

[Page 101]

hooliganism, as a result of which the German press wrote that they were victims of a Jewish conspiracy because they were judged by Jewish judges and Jewish prosecutors. In 1937 Nazi youngsters harmed Jewish vacationers in Schwartzort (Juodkrante), a summer resort on the Baltic Sea and the Kurisches Haff. In that same year 10 Jewish students of the School of Commerce and the Pedagogic Institute in Memel suffered from insults and scheming from Lithuanian students. Although the Lithuanians sought to have been interested to oppose such deeds, they were too influenced by Nazi propaganda. During the second half of 1938 the situation of Memel's Jews deteriorated, with Nazis painting swastikas on Jewish shops and even placing bullies outside Jewish shops to prevent buyers from entering. At a gathering of Nazi activists in Memel, they demanded the activation of anti–Jewish “Nuremberg Laws”.

In the elections of 1938 for the local Seimas, the Nazis received an absolute majority. The Jews were asked to vote for Lithuanian lists (see poster below).




By the beginning of 1939 half of Memel's Jews had left the city and moved to towns in the western part of Lithuania (Zemaitija), such as Palanga, Kretinga, Jurbarkas, Taurage and to Kaunas. The value of the property the Jews took with them from Memel was estimated at 100 Million Litas (1$ was then 6

[Page 102]

Litas). Others sold their property to Germans for low prices, but when it became clear that the city and the region would soon be annexed to Germany, all remaining Memel Jews moved to Lithuania in a panic, leaving their property behind.

Transportation became so crowded and prices soared, causing poor Jews to go by foot to the nearby Lithuanian town of Gargzdai. The Jewish communities helped these refugees to get organized in their new abodes.

In Shavl (Siauliai), Telzh (Telsiai) and Tavrig (Taurage) sick refugees were treated free of charge in the clinics of the “Oze” organization, the children of the refugees were accepted in the schools and high schools. The “Oze” organization supplied food for weak and poor children.

On the 22nd of March 1939 the German army occupied Memel and the region. By that time about 21,000 people had left the city, most of them Lithuanians as well as a small number of Jews, the majority of the latter having left beforehand. The Nazis confiscated private and public Jewish property valued at tens of millions Litas.

On the 14th of April 1939 the last Jews left Memel, some of them without any property.


Society and Economy

Despite the increasing influence of the Lithuanian Jews, the veteran community of Memel Jews kept its particular character. In an article published in the Yiddish daily newspaper from Kovno “Dos Vort” dated 4th of March 1935 the writer complained that efforts to absorb veteran Memel Jews into Lithuanian Jewish national culture achieved little successes, as German culture had a greater influence on the people. The Jews and even Lithuanians abandoned their cultural values slowly but gradually and assimilated into the German culture in spite of their conflict with Nazism. The veteran Jewish community of Memel still treated Lithuanian Jews, the “Ostjuden”, with scorn.

According to the same survey there were 151 industrial enterprises in Memel, 31 of which were owned by Jews (20%). The data is presented in the following table:

Type of Establishment Total Owned by Jews
Metal Works, Power Stations, Bricks 20 2
Tiles and Pots 8 0
Chemical Industry, Spirits, Soap 9 3
Textile: Wool, Flax, Knitting 9 4
Sawmills, Furniture 23 9
Printing Presses, Book Binders 8 1
Flour Mills, Bakeries 29 6
Clothing and Footwear, Furs, Hats 11 2
Leather Industry 1 0
Barber Shops, Photographers, Jewelers 33 4

[Page 103]

Type of business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 26 9
Grains and Flax 15 9
Butcher shops and Cattle Trade 18 0
Restaurants and Taverns 23 0
Food Products Trade 45 13
Drinks 8 0
Milk and its Products 2 1
Garments, Furs and Textiles 51 26
Leather and Shoes 14 5
Haberdashery and House Utensils 23 9
Tobacco and Cigarettes 3 1
Medicines and Cosmetics 21 1
Watches and Jewels 8 2
Radio, Bicycles, Electrical Equipment 36 5
Tools and Iron Products 28 4
Building Materials, Lumber, Furniture 24 5
Heating Materials 23 8
Machines, Overland Transportation 17 2
Books and Stationery 15 4
Miscellaneous 71 15

Remark: In this survey only family names of owners of businesses were recorded, but not their nationality. Because most businesses were owned by Germans or Jews and because of the similarity of their family names, some inaccuracy could have occurred when determining the nationality of their owners.

Legally the community was a religious organization, but in fact it was a national society that supported the Hebrew kindergarten and school, took part in raising “Bitzaron Ubitachon” funds for Eretz Yisrael etc. Its official name was “The Office of the Hebrew Community” and came under Zionist influence, to the chagrin of “Agudath Yisrael”. Its financial condition was sound, because it collected taxes at a rate of 75% of the income tax its members paid. The community owned the cemetery, a bathhouse, the slaughterhouse and the “Synagogue”. Isidor (Asher) Hurwitz was the head of the community for many years, and in May 1937 the community celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Memel's Jews developed many businesses and industrial enterprises. According to the government survey of 1931 there were 471 shops and businesses in the city, among them 119 owned by Jews (25%). The breakdown according to type of business is presented in the table above.

[Page 104]

According to data of the 1939 “Directory”, Memel then had 330 industrial enterprises owned by Jews, which employed 70% of all the German workers.

There were Jewish landowners in the Memel region dealing with agriculture, who were evicted from their lands in 1938.

The Jewish “Folksbank”, established in 1925 and which by 1929 had 345 members, played an important role in Memel's economic life, so did the private banks of Konikov, Yavshitz and Zomer.


Education and Culture

Memel's Jewish children studied in a school where subjects were taught in the German language, and in addition there was also, as from 1927, a Talmud–Torah. On the initiative of Rabbi Dr.Schlesinger who came from Köln in 1933, a Hebrew elementary school and a kindergarten opened in the city despite the objection of veteran Memel Jews and the Yiddishists. 120 pupils studied in the school in 1937 and in the kindergarten there were 40 children. Thanks to the sound financial condition of the community the tuition fees paid by parents were very low. By chance most of the teachers were supporters of the “Mizrahi” party, but the orientation of the school was non–political.

The “Juedischer Kultur Bund” (Jewish Cultural Society) that was a non–political society, which influenced Jewish life in Memel. Because of changes in the composition of the Jewish population, the National–Zionist orientation penetrated into this society too.

Extensive cultural activities took place in “The Society of Hebrew Speakers” and in “The Society for Jewish History and Literature”, headed by writer Aryeh–Leon Scheinhaus. He tried to propagate Judaism among broad circles, and for fifty years made efforts to arrange at least six lectures by well–known people every winter. It is worthwhile mentioning an incident which occurred in Tilzit and Koenigsberg, when the President of the World Zionist Organization, David Wolfson, was not allowed by the heads of the local Jewish communities to give a lecture on a Zionist theme because they wished to be considered “neutral”, but in Memel he gave his lecture on the same subject, arguing that if “we are neutral, we may speak on Zionism as well”, this being possible thanks to A.L.Scheinhaus, the head of the Society.


Zionist activity

A “Kibbutz Hakhshara” (Training Kibbutz) of “Hekhalutz” (pioneer) had already been established at the beginning of the twenties, during the rule of the French Governor, and in 1927 the “Beth Hekhalutz” (House of Hekhalutz) was built with help of donations from wealthy Memel Jews. This was a three storey building equipped with all conveniences, including a kitchen with electric appliances, and it served as an intellectual center of all local Zionists and as a meeting place for members of the “Training Kibbutzim” of the area. In 1925,

[Page 105]

Fragments of the governmental survey of shops in Klapedia (Memel) and region in 1931


[Page 106]

there were 13 “Agricultural Kibbutzei Hakhsharah” in Jewish and German farms in the Memel region, with about 400 members. The “Beth Hekhalutz” also served as a dwelling for the urban Kibbutz in Memel, which during the thirties numbered about 600 members, of whom about 50 members belonged to “Hashomer Hatzair”. There was also an active sanatorium for “Hekhalutz” members. One of the methods to raise funds for these institutions was to publish a “Help Chain” in the movement's periodical, which meant that each donor would call several friends to donate too, each of these would add more donors, so that the numbers of donors were greatly increased. There was also a “Kibbutz Hakhsharah” of “Agudath–Yisrael” also in Memel.

The annexation of Memel and the region to Lithuania strengthened Zionist influence in Memel, a majority of whom became Zionist supporters, and as a result of which the community committee elected were all Zionists. All Zionist parties were represented in Memel. Details of the votes for the Zionist Congresses are given in the following table:

Year Total
Total Voters Labor Party
Revisionists General Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrahi
14 1925 80
15 1927 103 31 3 3 13 4 8
16 1929 296 96 16 6 29 18 27
17* 1931 363 176 41 12 73 27 23
18 1933 858 495 146 152 19 46
19 1935 1,005 629 64 83 66 163

*the elections took place in the committee's office in Kehrwieder Street.

The Zionist youth organizations working in Memel were “Hashomer HaTzair”, “Beitar”, “HaNoar HaZioni”, “Benei Akiva”, “Herzlia”, “Young Wizo”.

[Page 107]

A group of “HaShomer–HaTsair” 1926


Young WIZO in Memel 1934


Jewish youth sports activities took place in branches of “Maccabi” with its 123 members, also “HaPoel” and “Bar Kochva”.

[Page 108]

Conference of “Hakhsharah Kibbutzim” of Memel Region in 1931


Members of Urban Kibbutz of Memel working at a flax processing plant

[Page 109]

A farewell party for a group of members of the Urban Kibbutz of Memel before their “Aliyah”
(January 1st, 1933)


David ben Gurion visiting Memel in 1933
(Ben Gurion can be located above the word “in” of caption above)

[Page 110]

Religion and Welfare

The synagogues that existed World War I continued to serve the people as before.

In the old “Polish” synagogue, some German Jews prayed together with Polish Jews (Ost Juden). The big “Beth Midrash”, under the auspices of “Agudath Yisrael”, was called “Talmud Verein”, and “Agudah” people as well as the Orthodox prayed there. They had their own Rabbi and tried to avoid any contact with the community. The only prayer house belonging to the community (Gemeinde) was the so called “Synagoge”, where there were services mainly on the High Holidays, and since it was too small to accommodate all worshippers it was necessary to rent an additional hall for services which both German Jews and Lithuanian Zionists attended. During this period another Synagogue was established named “Ohel Ya'akov”, where the Zionists prayed.

The daily Kovno newspaper, “ Di Yiddishe Shtime” (The Jewish Voice), dated October 5th 1936, reported that during the last High Holidays all Jewish shops, including those run by owners of mixed marriages, were closed, something that had never happened before Hitler came to power.

The Rabbis who officiated in Memel at this time were: Eliezer Yehudah Rabinovitz, the son of Rabbi Mordehai Yitzhak, who served in Memel from 1920 till 1939, and published articles on religious issues in religious periodicals, also on daily matters in the “Yiddishe Shtime”. He was a member of the “Mizrahi” executive, and both he and his wife perished together in the holocaust in Keidainiai. The German Jews were administered by Rabbi Eliezer Halevi Lazarus and later by Dr.Schlesinger. The latter was a cultured man, skilled in Talmud, a scholar of languages, including Hebrew. In 1939 he immigrated to Eretz–Yisrael and became a teacher in the Teachers Seminar in Jerusalem. “Agudath Yisrael”, as mentioned before, had their own Rabbi, because Rabbi Rabinovitz was too much of a Zionist.

Those welfare institutions working before World War I continued their activity during this period as well (for example: Maoth Khitim, Tsedakah Gedolah etc.). The “Society of Jewish Women” headed by Mrs.Rosenberg were busy with social help, as was the “Organization of Zionist Women” (WIZO) headed by the ladies August, A.Hazan and Judith Leshem.

Because of the wealth of Memel's community many Lithuanian fundraisers came to collect money there, and only very few returned home with empty pockets.

A partial list of the men who were active in the community is given in Appendix 2 below.

[Page 111]

A Jewish family fleeing from Memel on the 21st of March 1939, uniformed Nazis standing by


During World War II and Afterwards

The German army invaded Lithuania on the 22nd of June 1941, occupied the whole country in a matter of days, which meant that the refugees from Memel were again under Nazi rule. Their fate was similar to the fate of the Jews of the towns and cities of Lithuania where they had lived for the last two years. Only a few managed to survive those terrible times.

In 1945 Memel (Klaipeda) and its region became a part of Soviet Lithuania and Jews began to settle there again. By 1967 there were about 1,000 Jews in the city, but there was no organized community, no synagogue and no cemetery.

At the end of 1989, when Lithuania began to regain its independence, a crowd incited by Lithuanians attacked a Jewish clerk named A. Lichtenstein and anti–Jewish leaflets were distributed in the city. On the 1st of January 1990 Memel's Jews numbered 681 souls out of a total population of 206,400. At that time a branch of “The Society for Jewish Culture”, centered in Vilna, and a Sunday School for Jewish children where Hebrew was taught, were established in the city. But many of Memel's Jews were waiting for the opportunity to leave the country.

The old Jewish cemetery had been destroyed during Soviet rule when a radio station with tall antennas was erected in this area. The purpose of this station was to disturb broadcasts from abroad and when leveling the area almost all tombstones were ruined and bones of the dead exposed on the surface. Some of

[Page 112]

the tombstones were incorporated into the huge concrete blocks that served as a base for the antennas.

On the 10th of May 1991, a funeral for these bones was arranged on the initiative of the “Society for Jewish Culture”, also a memorial wall was erected at the site of the old cemetery and several tombstones found at the site were fixed into this wall. The entire area of the former cemetery was converted into a park and a monument was erected with an inscription in Lithuanian, Hebrew and Yiddish saying: “In memory of the Jewish community of Klaipeda which was cruelly annihilated by the Nazis”. The architect of this project was S. Manomaitis. (see picture below).



[Page 113]

The Memorial wall with fragments of tombstones found on the spot incorporated into it


A general view of the memorial site

[Page 114]

The Lithuanian, Hebrew and Yiddish inscription reads:
In memory of the Jewish community of Klaipeda that was cruelly destroyed by the Nazis.

[Page 115]

Appendix 1


A picture of Rabbi Yeshaya Wohlgemuth and an appreciation of his personality after his death. “The Jewish Chronicle”, London, dated the 6th of January 1899.



[Page 116]

Appendix 2

A partial list of the men active in the Community.

Moritz Altschul – Representative of “Keren haYesod” and a member of the presidium of the Bureau of Commerce in Memel;
Leopold Alexander – Chairman of the community for 20 years;
Isidor (Asher) Hurwitz – Chairman of the community, chairman of the Zionist Organization and the patron of the “Khalutzim” in Memel, was murdered in Kretinga;
Ben–Zion Hanneman – A prominent elderly person, a pupil of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and a distinguished scholar;
Dr.Moritz Hanneman – Head of the Zionists–Socialists, was arrested by the Germans and murdered in jail;
Eliezer Tatz – Teacher and educator, devoted Zionist activist, died in Tel–Aviv in 1945;
Yeshayahu Hanneman – One of the leaders of the religious Jews, murdered together with the Jews from Telzh;
Dr.Herman Jakobson – Chairman of the “Bar Kokhva” sports club, immigrated to South Africa;
Leon Kalenbach – Director of the Jewish Hospital and founder of “Bar–Kokhva”;
Avraham Meler – Representative of “Keren Kayemeth leYisrael” in Memel;
Nathan Naftal – Member of the community committee and chairman of “ORT” in Memel, Consul of Portugal, perished in Dachau;
Leon Rostovsky – Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Hospital, with his financial help a new big wing of the hospital was erected, perished in the Kovno Ghetto;
Yehoshua Rubin – Member of the community committee and an active Zionist, lived in Israel;
Yosef Shulman – Member of the community committee and the Board of Directors of the Jewish Hospital;
Leon (Aryeh) Scheinhaus – Writer and journalist, founder of the “Kiryath Sefer Society” and of the “Hebrew Speakers” Society, one of the editors of the “Memeler Dampfboot” newspaper;
David Wolfson – Herzl's successor as President of the World Zionist Organization, grew up and was educated in Memel.
Feivush Yavschitz – Member of the community committee and chairman of the Zionist organization, died in France;

[Page 117]

Appendix 3

Association of Jewish soldiers participants in the liberation of Lithuania. Klaipeda branch.
List of donors for the Yiddish–Lithuanian periodical “Apzvalga”, the journal of this Association

[Page 118]


Yad–Vashem archives–M–1/21–238,728; 0–4/1,51; 0–33/773,2182,2539; 0–3/1887,3578; 568; TR–2; TR–10/32.
YIVO, Collection of Lithuanian Communities, New–York, Files 1390, 1530, 1677.
Ish Shalom, M.– Besod Khotsvim U'Bonim (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1989.
Mireishith Vead Akharith (From the Beginning to the End), The book “haShomer–haTsair” in Lithuania (Hebrew), Tel–Aviv 1985.
Ruelf I.–The History of the Jews in Memel (German), 1900.
Ruelf Isaak, Meine Reise nach Kovno (German), 1869.
Sheinhaus A.L.–Iden in Memel fun Farzeiten bis jetzt (Jews in Memel from olden times till now) (Yiddish)– YIVO Archives, pages 63778–63786.
Yiddisher Lebn (Yiddish), Kovno–Telsh, 25.1.1924; 26.8.1938.
Amerikaner (Yiddish) New–York, 13.9.1939.
Bulletin of Yita–8.3.1935; 8.4.1935.
Bemisholei Hahinukh (Hebrew), Kovno Nr. 5–6, December 1937.
Dos Vort – daily newspaper in Yiddish of the Z”S party, Kovno 4.3.1935;6.12.1935.
Di Yiddishe Shtime – daily newspaper in Yiddish of the General Zionists–Kovno, 26.2.1928; 22.10.1928; 24.2.1931; 26.5.1936; 25.8.1936; 5.10.1936; 5.5.1937; 6.5.1937; 9.5.1937; 26.5.1937; 15.6.1937; 10.11.1937; 6.7.1939.
Di Zeit (Yiddish) Kovno, 4.12.1933.
HaDoar (Hebrew) New–York, 11 Nissan 5699.
HaMeilitz, Odesa–St.Petersburg, (Hebrew), 30.5.1867; 4.5.1880; 26.10.1880; 22.2.1881; 28.6.1881; 4.10.1881; 6.6.1882; 18.9.1885; 5.10.1885; 15.9.1886; 28.2.1893; 2.12.1895; 30.12.1896.
Vegveizer (Yiddish) Pitsburg, 19.4.1940.
Yerushalaim D'Lita (Yiddish) Vilna, Nr. 2, December 1989.
Volksblat – daily newspaper of the Volkists, Kovno (Yiddish), 21.4.1933; 17.1.1934; 21.5.1936; 14.8.1936; 30.3.1937; 10.11.1938; 24.11.1938; 27.11.1938; 28.11.1938; 2.3.1939; 26.3.1939; 7.5.1939; 4.7.1939; 6.9.1939; 28.11.1939.
Volkshtime (Yiddish), Warsaw, 18.3.1964.
Aufbau (German) New–York, 18.5.1984.
Mazoji Lietuva (Lithuanian) Klaipeda, 8.5.1991.
Vakaru Ekspresas (Lithuanian) Klaipeda,19.2.1991; 21.3.1991; 7.5.1991.


« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose
of fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without permission of the copyright holders: Josef Rosin z”l and Joel Alpert.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation.The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Preserving Our Litvak Heritage     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Jason Hallgarten

Copyright © 1999-2021 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 05 Dec 2018 by JH