During the Period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940)
As a result of the change of rulers, the Germans, the Lithuanians, the Bolsheviks and later the Polish occupation with its anti semitic atmosphere as well as the big fire of 1921, Jewish economic life was undermined and many families were in danger of starvation. Only due to the help of "The Jewish American Aid Committee" did the Jews of Meretch manage to survive these difficult years. Bread was sold at half the price to those in need and many got it free of charge; also a kitchen was established which provided free meals for the needy. In these difficult times there were some additional 200 homeless refugees from Poland, which made problems harder. After life became more normal, they left the town. Help for Meretch's Jews also came from the "YEKOPO" (Russian initials for Jewish Aid Committee) organization, in which a native of the town, Dr Kovarsky, was active. Over the next few years the Jewish community recovered and life returned to its normal course, in which commerce, industry and crafts were entirely in Jewish hands.
A street in Meretch were many Jews lived
According to the government survey of 1931 Meretch had 3 Jewish grain merchants, 5 textile shops and 12 various other shops. The Jews also owned 6 flour mills, 2 sawmills, a cloth painting workshop, a soft drinks factory, a leather processing workshop, a brick factory, a candy factory, a sewing workshop, a tinkers' and a locksmiths workshop. In addition there were tailors, seamstresses, stitchers, shoemakers, bakers and others. By 1937, 105 members were registered in the local branch of the "Association of Jewish Artisans ," including 23 tailors, 22 shoemakers, 12 butchers, 9 blacksmiths, 8 bakers, 3 stitchers, 3 leatherworkers, 3 carpenters, 2 watchmakers, 2 barbers, 2 glaziers, 2 oven builders, 2 hatters, one locksmith, one tinker, one painter, one wood engraver, one photographer, one book binder and 6 others, 2 families being farmers.
In order to make the life of the Jewish shop owners more difficult, two Lithuanian consumer co-ops, supported by the government, were set up. Nevertheless, the Wednesday market day was an important source of income for the Jewish shops nearby.
The Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank), whose basic capital came partly from Jewish American funds, was the center of the town's economic life. In 1927 it had 416 members, but in 1929 only 325. The director of the branch was Moshe Shumacher, a public worker and one of the leaders of the local "Hitachduth".
According to the official phone book of 1939, there were 34 telephone owners in Meretch, 12 of them Jewish.
A Group of Bachelors in Meretch 1936
First line above, from right: Chayim-Shlomo Pugatzky, Simchah Kaplan, ____.
Second line from right: Chanah Krivorutzky, Chayah Pugatzky.
Third line from right: Shalom-Yitzhak Romanov, Chavivah Rudnitzky, Beile Slonimsky, ---Noach, Yehudah Karpas.
Fourth line: ----Kaplan, Chayah Krikshtansky, Shtishe Amerikansky, Golda Zalutzky.
Fifth line:Aharon Bendenzon, Ya'akov Klibansky.
Education and Culture.
In 1920, before the political situation in Meretch had stabilized, a Yiddish school with two classes was established. Several years later the "Tarbuth" chain set up a school of five classes, with Yiddish as the teaching language as well, and with Hebrew being taught as one of the school's subjects. The school had a library with Hebrew and Yiddish books and in its reading room there were also children's periodicals of the period, such as "Di Grininke Boimalach" (The Green Trees) in Yiddish and "Olami HaKatan" (My Small World) in Hebrew, and others. For the "Hanuka" and "Purim" holidays, pupils would prepare shows, mostly in Hebrew.
The Hebrew elementary school 1928 or 1930
The Hebrew Kindergarten
Throughout the years of its existence the headmaster of this school was Avraham Sidransky, and among the teachers there were Moshe Ilivitzky, Efraim Yeverovitz, Nadia Milner, Sonia Finan, Shimon Rubinstein, Kalman Vasilisky, Moshe Pilvinsky and Rabbi David Goldoft.
In addition a school for boys of the religious "Yavneh" stream was active in the town. It was located in the "Ezrath Nashim" of the "Klois". The teachers were R' Kalman, Aba Beker, Moshe Yechezkel, Milner and others. There was also a Hebrew kindergarten.
The fourth class of the "Yavneh" school 1932
Standing in the first line above from right the teachers Shimon Rubinstein and Aba Beker.
Graduates from the schools continued their studies in the Hebrew pro-gymnasium in Alite (Alytus) or in the Hebrew high schools in Kovno and among the graduates there were some who continued on to Kovno University. Very few continued their studies in universities abroad, thanks to the scholarships granted by the philanthropist Azriel Tchais, a native of this district. There were also Meretch youngsters who studied in the Yeshivoth of Telsh and Ponevezh.
The library, which contained about 3,000 Hebrew and Yiddish books, was an important cultural institution, and Motl Miklishansky, a member of the "Poalei Zion Smol" (Leftists Zionist Workers) party, was its director for many years.
Zionist and other Activities.
All Zionist parties were represented in Meretch., and in 1933 a branch of "WIZO" (Women International Zionist Organization) was active as well. The dominant party was the "ZS-Hitachduth", as can be seen from the election results to the Zionist Congresses:
Labor Party Z"S Z"Z
General Zionists A B
Activists of "Hitachduth" 1925
The committee and the activists of KKL in Meretch on the celebrating the 25th jubilee of the fund 1927
There were fund raising activities for the National Funds - Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael (KKL), Keren HaYesod, also for Labour party funds in Eretz Israel, from which later on Bank HaPoalim developed. The Lithuanian centers of these funds were in Kovno and from there instructions were given for their activities. >From time to time evening parties were arranged, the income of which was transferred to the above mentioned funds and sometimes to the local library too. Donations for KKL were given also on the occasion of an "Aliyah LaTora" at the synagogue.
"Gordonia" in Meretch 1930
Zionist youth organizations were very active in Meretch and most youths belonged to one of them. The first was "Gordonia" with its 70-80 members who were divided into three age groups, with the eldest being affiliated to the local "HeChalutz" branch.
Many of this group immigrated to Eretz-Israel and joined the "Kibbutzim" Mishmaroth, Givath Brenner, Dafnah, Huldah, Yagur and others.
"Hashomer-Hatzair" branch 1930
A branch of "HaShomer HaTsair" was established in Meretch in 1928 by several members who had studied in other towns having absorbed the ideology of that movement, and during these years about 250 boys and girls were members of this organization. The adults of "HaShomer HaTsair" who immigrated to Eretz Israel joined the "Kibbutzim" Beth Zera, Amir, Mizra, Kefar Masarik and others.
In addition there were the "Dror", "Bnei Akiva" and "HeChalutz" organizations, the latter being a federation of all left minded youth organizations.
"Hechalutz" in Meretch 1931
In 1934 an urban Kibbutz of "HeChalutz" existed, and there was also a branch of Betar.
The String Band of "Maccabi"
Sport activities were performed in the local "Maccabi" branch. It had also a string band.
The "Maccabi" branch 1926
Several entire families immigrated to Eretz-Israel, among them the Kreiners in 1924 and the Zimans in 1925. Yosef Ziman was among the founders of "Nachlath Yitzhak", now part of Tel Aviv, named after Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector, the famous Rabbi of Kovno.
For many years the members of the "Voluntary Fire Brigade", who were all Jewish, also served as a "Self Defence" group in case of trouble, and its commander was Yehudah Smolnik for a long time. The hangar of the brigade also served as a cinema.
In 1936 the President of the State decorated three Jewish men - B.Kadish, M.Drezner and Sh.Kotnitzky, having fought for the independence of Lithuania during the years 1918-1919, with the medal of independence. At the local Jewish cemetery a modest monument for fallen Jewish soldiers in Lithuania's war of independence was erected.
Religion and Welfare.
The prayer houses that existed before WW I, continued to serve their purpose as before. Rabbi Michal David Shtupel, who officiated in Meretch before WW1 and was known for his harsh opposition to Zionism, continued to hold his position until he was murdered in the Holocaust. There were no "Hasidim" in Meretch and no children with long "Peoth" could be seen in its streets.
These were its welfare institutions: "Gemiluth Chesed" (from 1928) for loans without interest, "Mathan BeSether", "Bikur Cholim", "Linath HaTzedek", "Ezrah" and "Chevrah Kadisha". The "OZE" organization cared mainly for school children, and also ran a clinic for the public. All Meretch Jews were partly insured for the use of the Jewish hospital in Kovno "Bikur Cholim", and people of means made a regular monthly payment for this purpose. In the winter of 1939-1940 the community took care of the many refugees who had arrived from Poland.
Go to the next section of this article
Last updated by JA on Nov. 2, 1999