« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 50]

Kelmė (Kelm)

5538' 2256'

Kelme (Kelm in Yiddish) is situated in the center of Lithuania, on the west bank of the Krazante River, about 23 km. (17 miles) northwest of the district administrative center, Raseiniai. The village began to develop in the fifteenth century alongside an estate of Lithuanian princes. In 1591 this estate along with the nearby village was acquired by a Polish noble family named Gruzhevsky.

After the third division of Poland in 1795 by the three superpowers of that time, Russia, Prussia and Austria, this part of Lithuania including Kelm was handed over to Russia. During the Russian rule (1795-1915) Kelm was first included in the Vilna Province (Gubernia) and later in the Kovno Gubernia. During the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, large fires damaged the town. A cholera epidemic ravaged Kelm in 1848, claiming many victims.

The construction of the Siauliai-Tilzit road traversing Kelm in the years 1836-1858 made it an important trade center, famous for its fairs, and in particular for its horse trade. At the end of the nineteenth century it already had several light industry enterprises. During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940) Kelm was a county administrative center.


Jewish settlement until after World War I

The Jewish community in Kelm was probably established in the sixteenth century. During the period of Va'ad Medinath Lita (1623-1764) the Kelm community was part of the Keidan district (Galil).


A street in Kelm, 1916
(Picture courtesy of the Archives of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel)


1019 Jews lived in Kelm in 1764, 519 men and 500 women. In 1784 there were 839 Jews, but by 1816 this number had dropped to only 248, 101 men and 147 women. In 1880 the total population numbered 1,800 residents, of whom 1,600 were Jews (89%).

According to the all-Russian census of 1897, there were 3,914 residents in Kelm, 2,710 (69%) of them being Jews.

The Jews were the majority in this town up to the end of the nineteenth century, most of them making their living from commerce and crafts, and their economic situation was sound. They traded in grains, timber, leather, textile, seeds and pig bristles and, to a great extent, were also involved in the processing of skins and bristles. The great weekly market days and the annual fairs supplied a fair livelihood to the Jewish shop owners, whose businesses were concentrated around the Market Square. The skin craft workshops employed five to eight workers and the bristle processing workshops 50 and sometimes more workers. In 1887 there were 28 Jewish grain traders and 85 Jewish shop owners in town.


Another street in Kelm
(Picture courtesy of the Archives of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel)


The grocery wholesalers were Zalman Ziv and Refael Grinberg, the textile wholesaler from 1886, Avraham-Mosheh Hurvitz.

There was a soap factory owned by Girshovitz. M. Lifshitz was the pharmacist and a station for post horses was run by B. Leizer. During the years 1909-1914 the printing press of M. Das (Dath) served the town.

There were Jewish tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths and builders who supplied both peasants and the estate owners. During these years there was a Jewish commercial bank and a smaller bank that provided loans to artisans at low interest rates. In the years prior to World War I, the economic situation of most of Kelm Jews was stable, but they suffered from the restrictive edicts and intrigues of Czarist rulers. This resulted in many of Kelm's Jews emigrating to America and South Africa.

Early in the 1880s hoodlums planned a pogrom against Kelm Jews. The Bishop of Zamut (Zemaitija), M. K. Beresnevicius made great efforts to prevent Lithuanians of his domain taking part in this atrocity.

Kelm was not damaged during World War I and its Jews were not exiled to Russia as had occurred in so many other Lithuanian towns. During the German occupation the town housed thousands of Russian prisoners of war as well as German field hospitals and big provision storehouses. The nearby town of Shavl (Siauliai) had burned down almost completely and thus Kelm became the commercial center of the surroundings.

Jewish children of elementary school age studied at the Talmud Torah and youngsters from Kelm at the Great Yeshivah, while many students came from far and near because of Kelm's unique moral atmosphere and because it had become a seat of learning. Many students were without means and the community looked after their needs.

The Great Talmud Torah, a Yeshivah of the Musar (Ethics) trend, was founded in the second half of the nineteenth century by a pupil of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Simhah-Zisl Ziv-Broida. This was an upper Beth Midrash for selected pupils, aiming for perfection in their knowledge of the Torah, in morals and in behavior. The task of this Yeshivah was not to produce rabbis, but rather to produce regular citizens who would achieve high personal standards and serve as role models. This institution and its activities became famous throughout the entire Jewish world, as a result of which the Kelm community too became well known.

Zionist ideas had already infiltrated Kelm during the second half of the nineteenth century, even before Jews emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in order to be buried in Jerusalem. There are at least seven tombstones of Kelm Jews in the old cemetery in Jerusalem:

Hode daughter of Yehiel, died 1863
Hilel, died 1826
Shemuel Beharav son of Ya'akov, died 1827
Bath-Sheva daughter of Hilel, died 1874
Leah daughter of Eliyah, died 1979
Yits'hak son of Yehudah
Barukh son of Ya'akov Broide, a teacher in several Yeshivoth died 1896

In a list of donors for the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael from 1896, the names of eight Kelm Jews are mentioned (see Appendix 1). The local rabbi, Eliezer Gordon, who served between the years 1874-1884, was among those who approved (Haskamah) the book Josef Khen written by Nathan Fridland which discussed the issue of settlement of Eretz-Yisrael.

A delegate from Kelm participated at the conference of the Russian Zionists of the Vilna and Kovno Gubernias in Vilna in 1899. Another Kelm delegate participated at the conference of the Zionist societies of the Kovno and Suwalk Provinces (Gubernias) in 1909.

The Correspondence Center of the Zionist societies, in Kishinev at this time, had postal contact with the society in Kelm, one of thirteen in the Kovno Gubernia. The Talmud (Shas) society Sha'arei Zion accepted a custom whereby each member had to purchase the Zionist Shekel. At the conclusion of each Sabbath its members would gather to read the Galil Keidan circular and news of happenings in the Zionist movement.

In a list of donors for settlement of Eretz-Yisrael (1896), eight Kelm Jewish donors were mentioned (Appendix 1); in 1909 there were seventy. During that year the Kadimah society planted trees in the Herzl grove in the Yizrael Valley in memory of its friends Josef-Reuven Shnitz and Zelig Cohen.

124 names of Kelm donors appeared (See Appendix 3) in the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz of the years 1894-1902 while in another Hebrew newspaper HaMagid #299 of 1872 there is a list of 101 Kelm Jews who donated money to the victims of the Persian famine (see Appendix 4).

The first synagogue in Kelm was built in the middle of the eighteenth century with the help of the estate owner Gruzhevsky. He vowed that if Jewish prayers would help and a son would be born to him after the five daughters he already had, he would relieve them of taxes for three years and also build a synagogue. This wooden structure was one of the biggest and most beautiful synagogues in the entire area. One hundred and twenty years later, his great grandson fortified its walls that were beginning to warp. In 1775 Kelm's wealthy Jews donated a new Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark), a work of art carved from white timber, created by an artist named Ya'akov, the son of Shelomoh Marsin, who worked on it for two years. In 1820 a candelabrum with 49 columns, planned and produced in Vilna by the same Ya'akov son of Shelomoh, was installed in the synagogue. All Kelm's Jews helped finance this candelabrum, donations being collected in charity boxes in every home.

In addition to the synagogue three Batei Midrash were built: “the Great,” “the Small” and a Kloiz, and later a house for Gemiluth Hesed. A large fire, which ravaged three quarters of the Jewish homes in the 1880s, did not affect the prayer houses. These buildings, including the house of the rabbi, were concentrated in the Shulhoif (the yard of the Shul), the center of social life in town. After prayers these buildings served as a place for studying the Torah according to the capability of each Jew.


The Synagogue in Kelm


The Bima in the Kelm Synagogue


Chandelier   Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark)
Above four images by Balys Buracas (1897-1972), were provided courtesy
of A. Buracas. For higher resolution images contact anbura@lrs.lt


Among others there were the Talmud society and the societies for studying Hayei Adam, Mishnah Ein Ya'akov, Midrash, Menorath HaMaor and others.

The Shulhoif also served as a place for weddings. When a wedding took place in town most of the Jewish population participated.

Between the years 1839 and 1914 there were 109 subscribers of rabbinic literature in Kelm.

These were the rabbis who officiated in Kelm in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

Eliezer Gutman, the first Rabbi of the community, from 1810
Rabbi Yehezkel (died in 1855)
Elyakum-Getsl haLevi Hurvitz, known by his nickname Shulhan Arukh (died in 1873)
Eliezer Gordon
Tsevi-Ya'akov Oppenheim, who was rabbi in Kelm for 43 years till his death (1884-1926)
Kalman son of Yehezkel Beinushevitz (1893-1941), rabbi in Kelm from 1926, murdered by the Lithuanians in 1941.

The welfare institutions included Malbish Arumim, Linath HaTsedek, Gemiluth Hesed and others, with many women helpers.

In a list of donors for the Agudah Fund, Agudath Yisrael, in 1913 the names of sixteen Kelm Jews are mentioned (see Appendix 2).


Kelm during the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940)

Society and Economy

Following the law of autonomies for minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister for Jewish affairs Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections for community committees Va'adei Kehilah to be held in the summer of 1919. In Kelm the elections took place in autumn 1919, and almost 99% of the accredited voters participated. Most of the votes were given to candidates of Agudath Yisrael and Tseirei Agudath Yisrael, who were in no hurry to activate the committee. This was because the rabbis had reservations about its establishment, which they believed to be competing with their influence. Due to disagreements within the committee, the minority representatives resigned and only the orthodox remained.


The market place
(Picture courtesy of the Archives of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel)


The elections in 1921 resulted in fifteen members being elected to the committee: four Akhduth (Agudath Yisrael), three General Zionists, two Tseirei Zion, two Artisans, one worker, one non-party man, two not defined. The committee was active until the end of 1925 when the autonomy was annulled. During these years, it was involved in all aspects of Jewish community life, but only at the discretion of its members. For example, the Hebrew school did not receive financial help from the committee because boys and girls studied together.

According to the first census taken by the Government, Kelm had 2,890 residents in 1923 with a majority of 1,599 Jews (55%). Several of them built new houses, after being helped by relatives from abroad.

Relations with their Lithuanian neighbors were good and generally anti-Semitism was not felt except for a few isolated incidents. For example, in the spring of 1923 anti-Semitic proclamations were widely distributed, and in 1934 there was an attempt to create a blood libel. In the winter of 1937 Lithuanian hoodlums attacked a few Jews, causing protests resulting in a court case which continued for many years. The Jewish population also believed that due to its Jewish majority, Kelm did not obtain the status of a town, but only that of a county administrative center.

During this period Kelm Jews made their living from commerce, crafts, light industry and a few from agriculture. According to a survey performed by the government in 1931 Kelm had 55 shops, 51 (93%) Jewish owned. The distribution according to type of business is given in the table below:


Type of the business Total Owned
by Jews
Grocery stores 4 4
Grain and flax 16 16
Butcher's shops and Cattle Trade 8 7
Restaurants and Taverns 7 6
Food Products 2 2
Beverages 2 2
Textile Products and Furs 4 4
Leather and Shoes 3 3
Haberdashery and house utensils 2 2
Medicine and Cosmetics 3 2
Watches, Jewels and Optics 1 1
Hardware Products 2 2
Bicycles and electrical equipment 1 0


According to the same survey there were 33 factories, 28 (85%) of them Jewish owned according to the division in the table below:

Type of Factory Total Jewish owned
Power Plants 2 2
Concrete products 1 0
Textile: Wool, Flax, Knitting 4 3
Sawmills and Furniture 1 1
Flour mills, Bakeries 12 10
Dresses, Footwear 4 4
Leather Industry: Production, Cobbling 5 5
Others 4 3


In 1937 there were 63 Jewish artisans: eighteen tailors, thirteen butchers, nine shoemakers, seven bakers, three barbers, two hatters, two watchmakers, two stitchers, one oven builder, one carpenter, one printer, one tinsmith, one painter and two others. In 1925 there was a Jewish doctor and a Jewish dentist (although before World War II there had been four Jewish doctors), two Jewish lawyers as well as a Jewish judge (Heiman).

There were Jewish farmers in Kelm and its vicinity (the families Luntz, Milner, Zax, Asher, Holozin, Berman, Kushelevsky, Mendelovitz, Gelman, Meirovitz). Another source of income was the Yeshivoth. Their students came from all over Lithuania and even from abroad, so that they needed housing and food, which the local Jewish population supplied.

The Jewish Folksbank comprised 82 members in 1920, and by 1927 the membership had risen to 197. It played an important role in the economic life of Kelm's Jews. There was also the Gemiluth Hesed society, established by a donation of $1,000 from former Kelm Jews in Chicago. The Broide family who acted within the framework of the Folksbank donated much help to the needy. In 1939 a Gemiluth Hesed society for artisans was established with the help of funds donated by former Kelm citizens living in America.

Over the years, efforts by the Lithuanian merchants association (Verslas) to organize a boycott of Jewish businesses became more effective. They established their own bank and cooperatives for marketing goods, and as a result the income of Jewish shop owners decreased. Jewish artisans also suffered from heavy competition and their living standard dropped too. Since there was no alternative, the Jews developed new sources of income, such as leasing vegetable and fruit gardens and establishing transportation companies for people and goods. They owned twenty buses and trucks, and all transportation to and from Kelm was in their hands. This provided Jewish porters and coachmen with a living. But previously felt economic security had disappeared and concern for the future prevailed.

Kelm had seventy telephone owners in 1939, of whom 28 were Jews.


« 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 Lance Ackerfeld

Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 20 Mar 2018 by JH