by Virginija Vasiliauskiene 


            It is not difficult to find the small Lithuanian town of Zeimelis, famous for its unique architecture, which lies in the most northern part of the Pakruojis district of the Siauliai region - just at the border with Latvia. Its brick houses are situated on the left bank of the stream Berztalis.
            The original name of Zeimelis was Zeimys. It is thought that the change might have been caused by the Latvian words ziemelis (“northern wind”) and ziemeli (“the North”). The origin of the old name Zeimys is not clear. It might have derived from a personal name, cf. last names Zeimis, Zeimys, etc., or common nouns. In both cases the root of this place name ziem- is connected with the Lithuanian word ziema (“winter”). The word used to mean cold, freshness and the like. The name form Zeimelis established itself firmly as a norm after World War II.
            Zeimelis was first mentioned in historical sources relatively late - in about 1500. At that time Zeimelis was a large estate owned by a Livonian knight Otto Grothus. Later the center of the area estates moved to Glembava, while only a small estate remained in Zeimelis. 
            There is no data on the development of Zeimelis prior to the beginning of the 16th century. It is not clear whether it was a small town or just a rural settlement in the 16th century. Because of its convenient location in terms of roads, Zeimelis could have been the center of local trade at that time. The development of the town was determined by the fact that it was located on the crossroads of two major roads - the road which led from Kaunas to Riga, and the other one, which ran along an east - west axis that joined various settlements. In 1542 Zeimelis was first referred to as a town. In 1586 it became the center of the rural district, and in 1600 a branch of the Kaunas Customs Office was founded there. On the crossroads of the main roads the market square must have been laid out. In 1613 the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Sigismund Vasa, granted the town the privilege to hold a trade fair twice a year. Zeimelis actively engaged in trading flax and other kinds of agricultural produce with Riga and other towns of Livonia. Zeimelis was a border town, and therefore there were a number of inns and pubs there.
            There is no authentic data about the buildings of the 16th century. Small one-storey houses must have predominated the area.
            With the expansion of the Reformation in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Zeimelis must have been one of the centers of reformation in the north of the country.
            The first Lutheran Evangelist Church was built in the town in 1540 by Kaspar von Tyzenhauz. It was made of wood and it did not have a tower. The present brick Lutheran Church was completed in 1793. In 1890 a tower was added to the church and its interior underwent reconstruction. The exterior of the church is Gothic; the walls are not plastered, and the roof is covered with red tiles. On December 27, 1761, field marshal M. Barklay-de-Tolli, a famous Russian Army commander who led the army against Napoleon, was baptized in this church.
            The Calvinist Church was opened in the town in 1595. It was closed in 1696. In the period 1592-1674 a Calvinist school functioned there.
            The town must have suffered severely in the wars with the Swedes in 1655-1660 and in 1700-1722. The chapel in Bauskes Street is thought to be a heritage from the wars with the Swedes.
            In 1670 there was not a single Jew in the town. Eight citizens owned pubs at the time. A pub was frequently used as a place where numerous trade bargains were concluded.
            In 1754 several Jewish families were living there, and there was a Jewish bathhouse in the town. In an inventory from the same year, five streets are registered: Linkuva, Joniskis, Latviai, Birzai, and Pasvalys Streets. In the 18th century the population could have been about 550-600.
            At the end of the 18th century, Prussia, Russia, and Austria divided the United Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth among themselves. The greater part of ethnic Lithuania became part of Russia. After the partitioning, Zeimelis maintained its trade and transit importance.
            At the beginning of the 19th century Zeimelis became the center of the rural district.   A Post Office Station was built, and the population increased. Many Jewish traders and craftsmen moved to Zeimelis from the districts of Gedeikoniai and Geduciai. In 1840 11 Jewish families lived there, and in 1847 there were 52 families, and a synagogue. The newcomers settled in the center of the town. They either built new houses or repaired old ones. In the middle of the 19th century a brickyard was founded, and it functioned until 1962.
             In 1828 the owner of the Glembava estate, Peter Petrowski (Peteris Petrauskis), built a classical Catholic Church of brick, in the north of the town. It was the first building with a tower there, and it became the main attraction of the town. In 1863 a parish school was founded under the Church.
            With the abolition of serfdom in 1861, the decayed town started growing again. The Catholic and Lutheran Churches, and a Jewish Synagogue were functioning there. In 1866 a primary school of Evangelist Lutherans was founded, and in 1867 a State primary school was established.
            The inhabitants of the Zeimelis region took an active part in the revolts against the Czarist Russia in 1831 and 1863. In the period 1864-1904, Russia prohibited Lithuanians from using the traditional Latin alphabet and attempted to make them use the Cyrillic script. The schools of Lithuania had to use the Russian language for teaching. At that time Zeimelis became an important center of distribution of Lithuanian books and newspapers.
            In 1888 the northern part of the town burnt down. At the end of the 19th century 53% of the Zeimelis population engaged in crafts and trade. There were two practicing doctors in the town. Since 1890 a Post Office and a branch of a bank, have been operating in the town.
            In 1905 there was a huge wave of national and revolutionary resistence against the Russian authorities. The Czarist government resorted to force and sent a punitive squad to Zeimelis. Many activists of the resistence movement were imprisoned.
            During World War I, the Germans occupied Zeimelis in 1915. However, there were practically no fierce combats in the Zeimelis region. In 1917 the Germans built a narrow-gauge railway from Joniskis to Zeimelis: they felled the wood in the Zeimelis vicinity and transported it to Germany. After the war there was an acute shortage of wood for local construction.
            With the establishment of the independent Lithuanian State in 1918, the economic significance of Zeimelis fell into decline. Some traders and craftsmen moved to bigger towns. Nevertheless, Zeimelis was a border town; therefore, the government spared no effort to tidy it up for prestiges reasons. The streets were paved, and sidewalks were built. In 1939 the narrow-gauge railway connected Zeimelis with Panevezys. The majority of houses were constructed of brick in the town before World War II. There were three primary schools: Lithuanian, Latvian, and Jewish. For some time there functioned a private Latvian school. In 1937 an Agricultural School and Home Economy Courses were founded there. In 1931 there were 10 pubs, 10 or 12 shops, a lemonade factory, a steam mill, and an electric power station. There was also a library, an out-patient department, a veterinary station, and a drugstore. The Zeimelis sports club was famous for its football team. In addition, there were many craftsmen shops with the total of 30 craftsmen, there was a Jewish bank and 10 private Jewish shops. In 1940 the population of the town was about 1,500.
            During World War II, Zeimelis was not destroyed. However, a number of its inhabitants were killed, and later many people were deported to Siberia by the Russian authorities, which resulted in a decrease in  its population.
            After the war new Soviet agencies were founded in the old buildings.
            The Lutheran Evangelist priest Erick Layer (Erikas Leijeris) became famous both in Zeimelis and beyond, for his courage and devotion to the Church and its people. When the USSR occupied Lithuania for the second time in 1944, the priest refused to emigrate to Germany. In 1948 or 1949 he did not yield the keys of the Church to the representatives of the Russian authorities who wanted to turn the Church into a corn warehouse. Erick Layer (Erikas Leijeris) complained to Stalin about the actions of the local authorities, and soon the Church was returned to the people, but the priest was arrested and sent to the Siberia, where he died in a camp of compulsory labor, shortly afterwards.
            In 1959 the population of Zeimelis was 1100. A School of Agricultural Mechanization was opened there. Since 1960, the town developed rapidly. The center of the collective-farm “Komunaras” was established in the town. In the period 1963-1965 a canteen, a department store, and a consumer service establishment opened there. In 1969 a new bus station, a secondary school, and a municipal building, were built in the town. According to 1970 population census data, there were 1,300 inhabitants in Zeimelis and 1,679 in 1979.
            The oldest buildings in Zeimelis are of stone and clay, while in later times bricks were used. The oldest surviving building is that of the Post Office (it must have been built in the 18th century). The Big and the Small pubs were built at the very end of the 18th century or at the beginning of the 19th century. The Jewish Synagogue must have been built at the same time. The latter was knocked down in 1952. Since the middle of the 19th century the majority of the buildings in Zeimelis were built of stone, bricks, or clay, and the roofs were covered with tiles. Zeimelis was famous for the thoroughness and longevity of the construction.
            The old part of Zeimelis is one of the most original monuments of Lithuanian urbanisation. Radial planning was characteristic of the central part of the town from the 16th century. Few elements of this radial planning have survived.. In the 17th century the center of the town underwent reconstruction, and the lay-out became rectangular. The architectural plan of Zeimelis finally settled at the end of the 19th century. There is a quadrangular square at the crossroads of the four main streets of the town. On the North-east corner of the square, there is a narrow gothic crossroad. Similar squares of town centers are found in Kedainiai and Kaunas. The appearance of the Zeimelis square changed greatly in 1947, when the pavement was taken apart, and trees and bushes were planted instead.
            One can find  buildings characteristic of the architecture of north-western Lithuania, in the town. e.g. the Big and the Small Pub. The Big Pub is an example of classicism, while the Small Pub is notable for its forms, characteristic of its folk architecture. They both were restored in 1985.

1. Lietuvos TSR urbanistikos paminklai [The Monuments of the Urbanisation of the Lithuanian SSR], vol. 1, Vilnius, 1978.
2. Lietuviu Enciklopedija [Lithuanian Encyclopedia], vol. 35, Boston, 1966.
3. Musu Lietuva [Our Lithuania], vol. 3, Vilnius, 1991.
4. Sliavas J.” Zeimelio apylinkes” [The Vicinity of Zeimelis], Kaunas, 1985.
5. Tarybu Lietuvos enciklopedija [The Encyclopedia of Soviet Lithuania], Vilnius, 1988.
6. Vanagas A. Lietuvos miestu vardai [The Names of Lithuanian Towns], Vilnius, 1996.

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Copyright ¿ 2000, Barry Mann