“Troki” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VIII
(Trakai, Lithuania)

54°38' 24°56'

Translation of
“Troki” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem


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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 358-361, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem


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[Pages 358-361]

Troki

(Trakai, Lithuania - called Trok or Traka by the Jews

Region of Vilna-Troki, district of Vilna)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

Year Population Jews
1765 - 150
1834 - 192
1880 2,474 585
1897 3,240 1,112
1925 ~8,000 425

Troki is situated on a peninsula on Lake Troki[1], about 20 kilometers west of Vilna and 5 kilometers from the Warsaw-Petersburg railway line. During the 11th century, Count Jaroslav Kiev I built the castle, and old Troki was built around it. The fortified castle withstood the attacks, but the city was destroyed. At around that time, Duke Caistum [Kęstutis] of Lithuania built a new castle on the peninsula, and New Troki was built around it as a capital of the duchy. His son Vytold [Vytautas] expanded the bounds of the duchy and the capital Troki. At the end of the 14th century, 383 Karaite families from the Crimean Peninsula settled there. In 1415, he [Vytold] encouraged Benedictine monks to settle there and set up a monastery. In 1441, King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk granted Troki the rights of a city in accordance with the Magdeburg Charter. This was reconfirmed by the kings Zygmunt I, Stefan Báthory, and Jan Sobieski III. Troki benefited from accelerated growth until the middle of the 17th century. This growth stopped during the latter years of that century due to war and other disasters. With the third partition of Poland in 1795, the district of Vilna was incorporated into the Russian Empire. Troki and its area was conquered by the Germans during First World War. They occupied it from the autumn of 1915 until the signing of the Warsaw agreement at the end of 1918. After their retreat, Troki passed through many hands – first the Bolsheviks entered; Polish legionnaires ruled in April 1919; the Bolsheviks returned in June 1920; Troki passed to the Lithuanians on July 12; and the Poles conquered the entire district of Vilna in October 1920. The district was officially annexed to independent Poland in 1922.

 

The Jews Until the End of the First World War

Several Jewish merchants lived in Troki even before the arrival of the Karaites at the end of the 14th century. They are mentioned in a document connected to the Jews of Brest Litovsk (Brześc). At the end of the 14th century, Grand Duke Vytold granted the Jews and Karaites a bill of rights covering 19 sections. (In this document, the Karaites were also referred to as Jews.) This bill was confirmed and broadened by other kings of Poland-Lithuania. It detailed their rights and duties toward the government, their economic and judicial status, as well as their relationship between them and the Christian citizens. They were considered as free residents, and promised independence in religious life and other internal matters, including the right to internal adjudication. The Karaites, who also worked in commerce, attempted to squeeze out their Jewish competitors, and claimed that the bill of rights applied to them solely. The Jews, on the other hand, claimed that it applied to both communities. The authorities at times supported one side, and at times, the other.

With the accelerated economic and demographic growth of Troki during the 15th century, both the Karaites and the Jews became firmly based, and some became wealthy. In 1495, however, when the coffers of the state dried up due to the war with the Tatars, Duke Alexander I Jagiellon expelled the Karaites and the Jews from the country. This expulsion was sudden, and the deportees did not have time to sell their houses and property. A few ignored the edict of expulsion and remained in various places in Lithuania, but the majority went to Poland, where King Olbracht welcomed them willingly. In 1501, Alexander Jagiellon was coronated as king of Poland and Lithuania, and the edict of expulsion was repealed. The Karaites and many of the Jews returned to Troki. Zygmunt I, who ruled after him, responded in 1516 to a joint request of the Jews and Karaites to permit two annual fair days in Troki, and even obligated the merchants who were traveling from Vilna to Kovno to travel via Troki. In the latter half of the 16th century, joint activity between the Karaites and the Jewish community increased. Tax collection was conducted jointly, through the Council of the State of Lithuania and the Karaite Council of Lithuania (of which several Karaites of Troki were among its leadership).

Additional Jewish merchants settled in Troki in 1625. With the increase of competition in business, the bite of the Karaites in their struggle against the Jews increased. Through pressure from the Karaites, King Wladislaw IV published an edict of expulsion of the Jews from the city on December 4, 1646, under the pretext that the privileges of 1441 and 1507 only applied to the Karaites. However, the expulsion did not take place, and the Karaites sent a constant stream of new complaints to the king and his officials. The king reissued the edict of expulsion, but the mayor ignored it that time as well. The tension between the two communities spread to other communities in Lithuania in which Karaites and Jews lived side by side.

The population of Troki declined in the wake of the wars with the Muscovites and the Swedes in the middle of the 17th century and the Northern War of the 18th century, as well as the epidemics that came in their wake. In 1765, only 150 Jews and 300 Karaites remained. In 1804, after Czar Alexander I issued the edict on the expulsion of the village Jews, some Jews from the villages settled in Troki. The Karaites reacted by bringing a petition to the supreme court of Russia to deport the Jews from the city. When their petition was rejected, they presented it to Czar Nikolai I, but the senate

[Page 359]

in Moscow rejected it in 1830. The Czarist council repealed the decision of the senate from 1830[2] and issued an edict of expulsion of the Jews of Troki. The edict was carried out within a year. The Jewish settlement of Troki was reestablished in 1862, in the wake of the repeal of the restriction of the settlement of Jews in several cities in Russia, and on their freedom of movement. After the expulsion of the Jews from the villages of Russia based on the edicts of May 1882, the Jewish population of the city reached its pinnacle of 1,112 individuals.

The sources of livelihood of the Jews of Troki during the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries included wholesale commerce; and small-scale commerce, including shop keeping, peddling, and various trades. Several large enterprises and businesses involved in the manufacture of iron implements, tools, wheat wholesaling, jewelry, sewing utensils, liquor, cosmetics, and small shops, including grocery stores, haberdasheries, and others were in Jewish hands. Jewish peddlers sold sugar, salt, fuel, salted fish, and haberdashery items in the villages, and purchased agricultural products from the farmers. The Jewish tradesmen included tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, smiths, glass makers, locksmiths, bakers, and butchers. At the end of the 19th century, three Jews leased the lakes around Troki, and from that time, fishing became a source of livelihood of the Jews. At around that time, a local Jew set up a small factory for soda water and soft drinks. The Karaites were primarily merchants, while some were farmers who owned lad or government officials.

The Jewish community was set up in Troki already during the 16th century. At the end of the 18th century, several Jews of Troki made aliya to the Land of Israel in the aliya of the Perushim[3] (see Vilna entry). The Jewish community of Troki was disbanded with the expulsion of 1834. It was reestablished in 1862, and a synagogue and Beis Midrash were built. In the sanctuary of the synagogue, there was a large brass Chanukkiah, artistically decorated with lions and eagles. The synagogue building also housed a Talmud Torah, a guesthouse for poor people who were visiting, and two Hassidic shtibels. The residence of the rabbi of the community was put up in the courtyard. The Beis Midrash was situated outside of the bounds of the synagogue, and belonged to the Chevra Shas [Talmud study group] of the householders. The simple folk studied Ein Yaakov and Eitz Chaim in groups. From among the rabbis of the community, we know Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Salant, the father of Rabbi Shmuel Salant, the founder of the Lithuanian Mussar Movement[4]; Rabbi Meir Heller; Rabbi Binyamin Freidman (1865-1870); and Rabbi Nachum Greenhaus (died in 1914), who was one of the founders of Mizrachi and a delegate to the fourth Zionist Congress.

The boys of the community studied in the cheders of the melamdim [teachers]. Approximately 20-30 children of various ages studied in a single room. The younger ones studied chumash with an Yiddish translation. The intermediate ones studied chumash with Rashi's commentary, and the older ones studied Mishna. Only a few of them continued their studies in Yeshivos. Most of the cheder graduates studied trades, and then joined the family business. The Talmud Torah of Troki was maintained through a stipend from the community. The students, who were children of the poor for the most part, were not asked to pay tuition. The girls also learned to read and write in Yiddish, and some of them studied in the Russian public school. Parents of means also sent their children to study Hebrew, Russian, arithmetic, and other general subjects with private teachers. The Karaite children of Troki studied in the Karaite school or the public school.

With the spread of the ideas of the Haskalah [enlightenment] during the 1880s, many of the local youth joined the Chibat Zion movement. The Zionist movement arose in Troki at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century, and two young people made aliya to Israel during the Second Aliya. A young teacher and several of his friends set up a library in Troki, which became a center of cultural and social life for the youth. Zionist activity, and political activity in general, was forbidden after the failure of the 1905 revolution. Activists were persecuted, and some were imprisoned.

Jews and Karaites were drafted to the Czarist army at the outbreak of the First World War. The town was full of Jewish refugees from other places. The community opened a public kitchen for them, and turned the Beis Midrash into a center of activity for the assistance of the refugees. With the front approached Troki in the spring of 1915, many Jews fled to Vilna (see entry) and other places. After 30 days of difficult battles, the Germans conquered Troki. When the battles ended, many of those who escaped returned to Troki. The Germans imposed decrees and restrictions on the local residents. They forbade them from working in business, and confiscated the harvests of the farmers. Shops were closed due to the shortage of food and merchandise, and bread was distributed to the residents at a ration of 100 grams daily per person. Many Jews endangered themselves and engaged in smuggling, even though they might be liable to harsh punishments. Jews and gentiles, including children from the age of 12, were drafted to forced labor.

The Germans closed the local Russian school, and did not open any other in its place. However, two youths from Vilna brought several teachers from the large city to Troki, and opened a Yiddish school in the abandoned Russian school. The Germans, who opened German schools in other places to imbue the locals with their culture, did not interfere with the Jewish school in Troki, and even assisted it monetarily to help with the salaries of the teachers, hygiene, and heat during the winter. They made their assistance contingent on the inclusion of several hours per week of German studies. At the conclusion of the war at the end of 1918, the school remained with no source of financing. Classes were closed, the number of teachers and students dwindled, and it closed after some time.

The war and regime changes in the district during the first years thereafter caused general impoverishment in Troki. Many of the houses of the town had been destroyed or damaged. Most of the Jews who had escaped during

[Page 360]

the war did not return to the town. During the 1920s, only 425 Jews lived in Troki, in contrast to the 1,112 who lived there at the peak in 1897.

 

The Jews Between the Two World Wars

A sewing course for Jewish girls in Troki between the two world wars.
From Troki, 1954

 

When the government became established, the Jews started to renovate their houses and businesses. With the assistance of the Yekopo[5] and family members overseas, stores and workshops were reopened, and peddlers once again made the rounds to the villages with their merchandise. In 1926, the Yekopo society in Troki set up a loan funds, which granted interest-free loans to shopkeepers, peddlers, small-scale merchants and tradesmen. A chapter of the cooperative National Bank was also set up in partnership with the American JOINT. Despite this great assistance, the economic situation of the Jews declined relative to the former era. The farmers, who had been their customers for a long time, also became impoverished during the war, and their purchasing power was harmed. Gradually, local tradesmen popped up in the villagers, bankrupting the Jewish tradesmen. The breadth of business of the Jewish shopkeepers and peddlers was also restricted. Even the activities on the market days were reduced due to the shortage of parking for the wagons and room for the animals that were brought for sale. The high lease fees of the city council did not leave much space for the stall owners. The economic steps initiated by the government, such as raising the tax burden on the independent sector, support for the entry of Poles into commerce, and new stringencies regarding permits for tradesmen, primarily affected the Jews. For example, the tradesmen were obligated to fill out government permits that required fluency in Polish, and businesses in the food sector were obligated to undertake renovations. Jewish businesses closed after this, and unemployment constantly increased. Jews who had formerly leased the lakes continued in their businesses, and other Jews were employed by them as fisherman, however, the profits in this sector declined due to the high government taxes. Jews who were pushed out of their former businesses tried their luck at new businesses, not always with success. Some grew cucumbers and did business with pickled cucumbers. Even before the war, cucumbers from Troki became famous (at that time, the Karaites were involved in that sector). The Jews who entered that business saw success. Some Jews sold souvenirs to the many tourists who visited the historical sites of Troki. The economic depression in Poland worsened during the 1930s. The increase in anti-Semitism during the latter half of that decade led to an economic boycott. Jewish emigration from Troki, especially among the youth, increased due to the economic stress and anti-Semitism.

Despite the economic stress and anti-Semitism, there was an awakening of Zionist activity and communal life in Troki during those years. In 1921, a Zionist rabbi, Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Perecowicz, who continued in his tenure until the community was liquidated, ascended the rabbinical seat. He perished in the Holocaust in the fall of 1941. In 1922, a chapter of Hechalutz was founded in Troki, through the efforts of the movement in Vilna, and youth began to go to the Hachshara kibbutzim[6]. In 1923, four pioneers from Troki made aliya to the Land of Israel, and in 1925, an additional group went forth. A local chapter of Young Hechalutz was set up that year. In 1923, a chapter of Hechalutz Hamizrachi was established in Troki, and a chapter of Beitar was established in 1930. In 1936, a Maccabee sports center was set up. Fifty young men and women made aliya from Troki to the Land of Israel between 1923 and 1938.

After the closing of the Yiddish school in Troki due to lack of funds, the cheders also closed, and most of the children of the community studied in the Polish school opened by the government. Several children from families of means studied in the Jewish school in Vilna, and some of the children also studied Hebrew from private teachers. At the end of the 1920s, Rabbi Perecowicz opened a religious Hebrew school in Troki; but most of the Jews kept their children in the government public school, which did not charge tuition and imparted comprehensive general knowledge and a recognized certificate to its students. Only relatively few transferred to study in the Jewish school. There was also a government teachers' seminary in Troki at that time.

[Page 361]

After the war, the Jewish library in Troki opened once again with funding from the Yekopo society. A choir, a mandolin band, and a drama club also operated in the library building. The income from the performances was used for the purchase of books. General meetings and elections to the communal council took place in the Beis Midrash, which served as a center of communal life. The new bathhouse built by the Yekopo society after the war turned into a sort of unofficial social gathering place.

 

During the Second World War

With the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Jewish refugees from areas of Poland under Nazi occupation streamed to Troki. After the entry of the Red Army to the city, it was transferred to Lithuania along with Vilna and a portion of the district. In June 1942, the district returned to Soviet hands, and Sovietization of economic, communal, and cultural life too place. Tradesmen continued their work in the rubric of a work cooperative that was headed by a Jew. Private business was liquidated, however. Jews who were pushed out of their former jobs trained for new jobs. Official government positions were kept primarily for younger people. New opportunities opened for the youth to continue their secondary and higher education in Vilna, or to study in professional training courses.

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Soviets suddenly retreated eastward in the direction of Minsk. Many young Jews followed behind them, however only a few succeeded in crossing the front. The remainder returned along the same path. Approximately 300 Jews remained in Troki when the Nazis took over. The Germans conquered Troki a few days after the Soviets left. When they entered the city, they directed the Jews to remain in their houses, and demanded a list of their names. After a few days, the Jews were taken from their homes and transferred to the ghetto that was set up around the synagogue and Beis Midrash.

At first, the Nazis treated the Karaites like the Jews and did not differentiate between them. Later, Kalmanowicz, a researcher from the JIVO institute in Vilna, was given the task of adjudicating their claim that they were not Jews by lineage. Kalmanowicz had mercy on the Karaite community and presented proofs to the Nazi genealogical researchers that they were of Mongol-Tatar extraction. Thus, the lives of the Karaites were saved. They were ordered to give the Germans a list of names of members of their community. From that time, it became impossible for Jews to save themselves by impersonating Karaites.

The Troki Ghetto was liquidated in September 1941, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, 5702. That morning, the Germans hauled the Jews of Troki to an island in Lake Troki, where they were held under the open skies, in the cold and without food, along with Jews from several nearby settlements who were brought in with them. In total, approximately 2,500 Jews were concentrated on the island. About 300 were from Troki, and the rest were from the tows Radzishke (see entry), Wysoki Dwór, Landwerów, and several others. On September 30, 1941, the eve of Yom Kippur, approximately 30 men of Lithuanian murderous brigades arrived, almost all drunk. They gathered the men first, hauled them all to pits that had been prepared beforehand, and read the death sentence to them at the edge of the pits. A Jew from Wysoki Dwór was permitted to deliver a final statement, and said out loud, “We are guiltless, and you murderers will pay dearly for our innocent blood.” The Lithuanians beat the Jews angrily as they heard his words, and then shot them until they fell into the pit. They then brought the women to the pit, and after that, the children in a third group. Most of the Jews held on the island were shot to death at the edge of the pits, and the rest were drowned in the lake. Nobody survived. The Troki Ghetto was burnt down.

Only a few Jews who escaped to the Soviet Union just before the German conquest survived until the end of the war.


Bibliography

Yad Vashem Archives 8355, 03/2589, M33/983.
Troki, Organization of Troki
Lithuania, Volume I, editors: M. Sudarsky and others, New York, 1951, p. 75.
Sefer Hamizrachi, Jerusalem, 5706 / 1946, p. 63.
Spector, Sh., The Karaites in Europe Under Nazi Rule from the Viewpoint of Nazi Documents, Peamin 29, Jerusalem, 1986, pp. 90-108.
Pinkas Yekopo, pp. 475-476.
Dos Vort, May 22, 1937.
RG'P

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Generally known as Lake Galvë Return
  2. The text here says 1930, which I suspect is a typo. Return
  3. This is the aliya of disciples of the Vilna Gaon. Return
  4. There may be an error here. The founder of the Mussar Movement of Lithuania was Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (or Rabbi Yisrael of Salant). Rabbi Shmuel Salant was the chief ashkenazic rabbi of Jerusalem for almost 70 years. Return
  5. Yekopo: Evreysky Komitet Pomoshschi Zhertvam Voiny – Jewish Relief Committee for War Sufferers. Return
  6. Camps for preparation for aliya Return

 


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