Back to Site Map



A brief history of the shtetl

Early history:

Kvedarna is near the western boundary of Lithuania, on the coastal plain about 35 miles from the Baltic sea.   The countryside between Kvedarna and the coast is low-lying and marshy, and the area is known as Samogitia (Zamut), which means "low land".  The original inhabitants of this area were a pagan people known as the Samogitians (lowlanders), in contrast to the other early inhabitants of what is now Lithuania who lived in the "high land".

The history of the area goes back to the middle of the 13th century, when  knights of theTeutonic Order began making regular forays from their castle at Memel into the interior of Samogitia.  Sporadic fighting went on for about a century, with  the local inhabitants abandoning their homesteads and retreating deeper into the interior.   In the vicinity of Kvedarna, on the left bank of the Jura River, there are still traces of a hill fortress known as Piliute, which is believed to be ruins of a fortress destroyed by the knights  in 1319.    After the local inhabitants withdrew, the area became covered with dense forests.  It was only after 1422, when they  regained control of Samogitia, that the locals began to drift back.    A settlement known as Kvedarna was established on the site of the fortress destroyed by the Crusaders, and by the 16th century had developed into a regional centre.

The  Samogitians did not embrace  Christianity  until 1413. The first church in Kvedarna  was built in 1569


The Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Until  the end of the 18th Century, the area formed part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania .  Although  strictly speaking a distinct state, and an equal partner with Poland in a Polish-Lithuanian confederation, the Grand Duchy was in fact a subordinate member, and politically an integral part of  Poland.until, in 1795, and as part of the third and final partition of Poland,  it became part of Czarist Russia. 

Most of the land was held by "counts" under a sort of  feudal system.  Later historical sources mention an estate in the Kvedarna area which at the end of the 16th Century belonged to the Sapieha family. 

The first record of Jews living in Kvedarna dates back to 1662, and relates to 3 men and 4 women.   Jews were attracted to Lithuania by the relatively  liberal attitude of the authorities.  The 1784  Census of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania records 37 Jewish households in Kvedarna and the immediate surroundings, comprising  137 persons.

Czarist Russia and the Pale of Settlement

When Russia annexed large portions of Poland in the three partitions in 1772, 1793 and 1795, it found that a large number of unwanted Jews were being introduced into the Russian population.  Prior to this there had not been many Jews in Russia, and the need to adjust to this sudden influx presented a problem to the Czars, who did not want the new arrivals to mingle with the rest of the population.  This resulted in a number of decrees restricting their rights.  First. there were three decrees by Catherine the Great in 1783, 1791 and 1794 which restricted the commercial rights of Jews to the areas newly annexed.  Then in 1804  Alexander I issued the first of a series of statutes regulating where the Jews could live (the Pale of Settlement) , and what they could do there.  By 1812, the Pale of Settlement had taken its final form, comprising 25 provinces stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. 

The Jewish population, with few exceptions, was now restricted to living in the Pale.  They could not own land, and could no longer live in the villages.  They had to move into the small towns that we now know as the shtetlach .  They were living in what was primarily an agricultural economy, but could no longer engage in agriculture.  They had to become tailors, cobblers, peddlers and small shopkeepers. 

In 1827 Nicholas I introduced the "Cantonist" decrees, ordering each Jewish community to deliver a quota of conscripts of young males, aged from 12 to 25, to serve in the Russian army for 25 years.  The younger boys were placed in Cantonist schools where attempts were made to force them into baptism.

By 1897  there were nearly 5 million Jews living in the Pale, but because of the restrictions on them, most of them were living in great poverty.  

The Pale lasted until World War I, when large numbers of Jews fled to the interior to escape the invading Germans, and was formally abolished by the Provisional Government in 1917.


The Jewish community  in Czarist times:

The 1816  Revision List drawn up by the Czarist authorities (which may not have been exhaustive) shows 34 Jewish households in Kvedarna, numbering some 150 persons.  9 of those households are recorded as having moved to Kvedarna in the 5 years since the last Revision List.

In 1861, the Kvedarna community asked for a subsidy from the box tax collections.  The community’s tax collector Movsha Shliomovich Kaplan, and representatives Kolman-Ber Abramovich Mesha and Shmuel Girshovich Shur explained that their shtetl "is quite small, it has no commerce nor any trade going, it is far removed from the Gubernia’s center (184 miles), and from the main town of the uezd (district) (100 miles). There are no major traveling routes or even a postal road nearby. Therefore, the inhabitants… survive just by renting a few houses, menial jobs, and get by with just meager provisions."

By 1897, the Jewish community made up 56% of the total population of the town (671 Jews out of a total population of 1190).  Because of the idea that Jews were smugglers, a Ukase of 12 May 1843 prohibited them from living within 50 versht from the Western border. This affected everybody  in  Kvedarna, but Kvedarna was one of the 19 communities in Lita which did not observe this prohibition.

Many of the Jewish population made their living out of trades related to wood, and there were a number of prosperous wood merchants.  Others worked in trade (flax, chickens and grains) and in crafts.  The town had 3 cheders, a Talmud Torah, a Tarbut school, a Jewish Peoples' Bank, a charitable (interest free) loan society, and Linat Hazedek.  Building of the beit midrash was completed in 1898. 


During the years 1864 - 1904, when the Russian authorities banned the written Lithuanian language, and also the use of the Latin alphabet, an active smuggling trade developed, bringing in banned publications from across the Prussian border.  Towns like Kvedarna, being so close to the border, became centres for the book-smugglers.

Kvedarna was linked by road to Rietavas in the north, to Laukuva in the east, and to Shilel (Silale) in the south.  Prior to the establishment of the independent state of Lithuania in 1918; the nearest rail station was 12 miles away to the west, in Svekshna. 


Thick forests surround the town, and in the previous century nearly all the houses were built of wood.  This rendered the town very vulnerable to fires.  It was originally situated on the left bank of the River Jura, but a great fire of 1843 caused so much damage that the whole town had to be rebuilt.  The new town was built  about two kilometers away from the old site.  There were only 4 brick houses in the new town, two of them double-storied;  the rest were still wooden. 

In 1880 half the town was again destroyed by fire, and after yet another fire a year later, only 2 houses survived. The situation of the Jewish inhabitants was so bad that the Rabbi of Memel organized a collection for their assistance amongst the neighbouring communities, and a sum of 500 roubles was raised.  100 roubles was distributed amongst the inhabitants, and the balance was set aside for the building of a beit midrash.  Fifteen years later, in 1896, another large fire destroyed 100 houses out of 110.   The town was again destroyed during World War II, and again rebuilt.


 Click here for an illuminating   contemporary report (1872) on the legal position of the Hebrews in Russia by the American Charge d'Affaires in  St Petersburg at the time, Eugene Schuyler.


The 1914-18 war and after

The Eastern Front of the First World War was opened on 17 August 1914, when Russia's First Army invaded Eastern Prussia .  The Russian invasion was a disaster; the Russian army was soon beaten back, and in 1915 German troops occupied Lithuania.  Kvedarna was close to the border.  The Jewish community now found itself experiencing greater freedom.  Access to Memel was easier, and they were able to extend the scope of their trading.    The end of the First World War saw the establishment of the independent state of Lithuania.  The Jewish community continued to enjoy this greater freedom until World War II, although their relationship  with their non-Jewish neighbours was not always a happy one.


World War II  -  The extermination of the community by the Nazis

On Monday 22 June 1941 the German army invaded Russia.  Close behind the troops came four Einsatzgruppen - units formed specially to implement the drastic new policy of exterminating Jews which had been adopted only a few months previously by Hitler.  Kvedarna, being close to the border, was one of the first towns to suffer the consequences of this new policy.  It had at the time a Jewish population of 65 families, about 200-300 persons in all.

Yad va-Shem has on file the testimony of five survivors which gives an account of the extermination of the Jewish community of Kvedarna.  The five survivors who testified were Motel Druzin (born 20 March 1903), Chaim Nadel (born 7 May 1905), Berel Levit (born 3 May 1917), Gershon Jung (born 15 October 1923) and Rosa Rachmel (born 13 September 1924). 

According to this account, the civil administration was placed in the hands of the local leaders of the Lithuanian "partisans".  On Sunday 29 June armed groups of these partisans began rounding up Jewish males.  The Shul and Bet Midrash were desecrated, and in the course of that day and the next, most of the men were driven off to Heidekrug, a small German village near Memel.

Their testimony gives the  names of 11 people who were publicly executed on 30 June 1941.  These were  Reb Bernish Joffee, his son Abba Joffe, David-Isaac Aron, Lezer Aron,  Avraham Bareznik, Shabtai Bloch, Moshe Flecher, David Jung, Meir Katz, Shmuel-Chaim Melt, and Berel Leib Skolne.

Apart from this, there have been reports of women members of the community being taken to a spot in the forest near Silel and shot there. 


There are also references in the Ritavas Yizkor Book to members of the Kvedarna  community being collected into one group with inhabitants of Ritavas and other nearby villages, and the account that follows is based on the assumption that members of the two communities (only 13 miles apart) were basically treated as one group, and in the same way .   According to this account, by the second week, the men were separated from the women and were sent to Heidekrug, a small village near Memel, together with the men from a number of surrounding shtetlach. After three weeks, the old were separated from the young, and were killled in Neustadt.  (For a fuller account of the events at Heidekrug, see the Neustadt website

After Rosh Hashana, there was another selection, and of the remaining men, the weak were put to death.  Approximately 750 remained in Heidekrug for about  two years, and were then sent to Warsaw, Auschwitz and Mildorf.  By the time the war ended, there were only 30 survivors.

According to the accounts in the Ritavas Yizkor book, the women were sent first to Telz, and later to Vishtivian, a small village nearby, and then to Giroli together with women from other villages.  After six weeks, on 7 Ellul (September 1941), 500 of the women were selected to be sent back to Telz, and the others were killed by machine gun fire.

Those who were taken back to Telz were housed in a barbed wire compound, but many were sent out to work as farm hands in the surrounding area.  On 2 December 1941 their employers were told to send them back, but a number managed to escape to the Siauliai ghetto.  On 14 December those remaining in Telz were taken to Rayin, where they were all executed.


References: Nancy and Stuart Schoenburg:  Lithuanian Jewish Communities, Jason AronsonInc 1996;  Dov Levin, Pinkas Hatekufot Lita, 1996:  Berl Kagan, Yiddisher Shtet und Shtetlach (New York 1991).  The Yizkor book for Ritavas edited by Alter Levite.  (The first edition, published in Israel in 1977, was largely in Hebrew and Yiddish.  A revised  edition, edited by Dr Dina Porat and Ronib Stauber, translated into English and supplemented by additional articles, was published by The Kaplan-Kushlick Foundation in 2000);  T he website of the Samogitian Cultural Association

 Back to the  top of the page


Site map
Family Finder
Contemporary Records

  JewishGen Home Page    /   LitvakSIG Home Page   /    JewishGen Lithuania Database

Copyright 2016 – Alan Nathan

Webpage compiled by  Sam Aaron   February 1999    Last  Revision: Jan 2006

Co-ordinator Alan Nathan