Klaipeda (Memel)

Written by Joseph Rosin

English edited by Sarah and Mordechai Kopfstein

Memel is situated on the site where the Kurish Bay (Kursiu marios-in Lithuanian) meets the Baltic Sea and the river River flows into the bay. In olden times this site was a port and a civilian settlement, it being here that in 1252 the Livonian Order erected a fortress which secured the strategic axis Riga-Memel-Koenigsberg-Danzig, this route maintaining the connection between the Livonian and Prussian Orders. In the years 1323, 1379 and 1409 the fortress as well as the settlement were destroyed by the Lithuanians, who took revenge for the invasions of Lithuania by the Order. In 1540 the town was ravished by a great fire. During the years 1629-1635 Memel was under Swedish rule and from 1701 the town came under Prussian rule. In 1709 the pest caused the death of about 2,000 of its population. In 1722, some 1,900 people resided in the town and another 1,500 in the fortress.

In 1756 the Seven Years War started and the Russian army and its fleet occupied Memel, controlling it from 1757 till 1762. The border with Lithuania was opened and commerce in Memel developed.

During the American war with England in the years 1776-83, the need for timber, flax etc. increased and Memel grew fast. In 1782 the town's population numbered 5,500 people and about 800 ships sailed into its harbor annually.

Memel became the capital city of the Prussian Kingdom between the years 1807-1808, but after the defeat of Napoleon in the years 1812-1813 the Russian Army occupied Memel.

In 1853 the road to Tilzit was completed, in 1892 the railway to Kretinga was inaugurated, telephone communication arrived in 1888, and in 1900 the first power plant was built in the town.

After WW1 Memel and its region (Gebiet) were cut off from Germany, and in accordance with the Versailles Treaty the Allies (the Entente) ruled this area with a French garrison headed by a French general as from 1919. On January 10, 1923 the Lithuanian army entered Memel and its region, upon which the French garrison left. On February 16, 1923 the Entente representatives approved Lithuanian's sovereignty over Memel and region. The population won an extended autonomy and interior issues were governed by a local Parliament (Landtag) whose resolutions had to be approved by the Lithuanian Governor who was appointed by the President of the Republic. During Lithuanian rule (1923-1939) Memel was the center of the region.

In December 1938, during elections to the local Parliament, the local German Nazis received 26 out of 29 seats, as a result of which the city became in fact a part of the German Reich. On the 22nd of March 1939 the German army entered Memel and the city and region were officially annexed to Germany, the city Memel serving as a base for the German navy during WW2.

On January the 28th 1945 Memel was liberated by the Red Army from Nazi rule. About 28% of its houses were totally ruined and more than 36% of the others badly damaged. Since then Memel (Klaipeda) and the region is part of Lithuania.

Jewish Settlement till after World War I

Apparently Jews began to settle in Memel in the 15th century, but the first document about a Jewish presence in the city is from 1567. On the 20th of April 1567 Count Albrecht, under the influence of priests, issued an order stating that all Jews had to leave Memel within 21 days, since then and for the next 76 years it being forbidden for Jews to live or even stay overnight in Memel. It was only in 1643, when commerce in the city was developing, that Jewish merchants who arrived on Fridays in the city and in particular during the short winter days, were allowed to stay over Shabbath, but on Sundays they had to leave. In those days the rules issued in 1613, according to which it was forbidden for a Memel citizen or merchant to have any contact, open or secret, with Jews, because Judaism was opposed to Christianity, were not treated seriously any more, despite the fact that fanatic clergymen were still propagating these orders.

In 1662 Friedrich Willhelm, the Kurfuerst of Brandenburg, who wanted to expand trade with Memel, granted privileges to several Jews to settle in the city. One of them was a Dutch Jew named Moshe Jacobson de Jonge (The Young), a commercial genius who settled in Memel in 1664. He developed trade with timber, furs and in particular with salt, organized shipping lines and established a workshop for repairing and building ships. He got permission to employ Jewish workers, among them a slaughterer and a Jewish teacher for his children, and was also allowed to establish a prayer room in his house. After several years Moshe Jacobson lost all his property as a result of too much speculation with salt and was forced to return to Holland with all his staff.

Jews were banned from Memel for many more years, and were not even allowed to peddle goods there. This ban was proclaimed publicly once a year, and until 1670 announcements to this effect were attached to the municipal building. It was only during the yearly fair, which took place in the summer and lasted 14 days, that Jewish tradesmen were allowed to import merchandise from Lithuania and Russia, such as agricultural products and expensive furs, and to buy German merchandise. Among the buyers were the rich Polish farm owners and Barons from Kurland. During the Crimean war, when Russia was closed on all sides except for the border with Prussia, 14,248 Jews were registered at the fair of 1854.

A special item sold to Russian tradesmen during the fairs were Hebrew books, among them the "Talmud" and rabbinical literature from the times when they were printed in Germany, or from private libraries of German Jews who did not need them anymore. The few Jewish printing presses in Russia as well as the difficulties caused by the censor, created a market for Hebrew books. In 1720 J.M.Friedlaender received permission to sell Hebrew books at the fair. After some time a Jewish publisher from Berlin, Avraham Goldberg, opened a book shop at the fair.

When rabbinical seminars opened in Germany the need for religious books there increased, and the book trade in Memel stopped. After the Polish rebellion in 1863 and the construction of the railway to Memel the importance of the fair diminished.

The system of privileges for "protected" Jews (Schutz Juden) was prevalent even during the times of the liberal King Friedrich the Great (1740-1798). When in 1777 the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn visited Memel on a business matter, he stayed in Koenigsberg, because he did not have permission to remain in Memel overnight. Only at the beginning of the 19th century, did the liberal legislation of Stein-Hardenberg bring about the cancellation of the severe restrictions affecting the Jews which had existed since the middle ages. But several tens of years passed till Prussian Jews began to settle in Memel which was located in a remote corner of the Kingdom and far from the main traffic arteries. In 1815 there were 35 Jews in Memel among a population of about 10,000 people.

Russian Jews, who came to Memel for their businesses, could not settle there because of lack of prayer houses and other religious institutions which were only allowed for Jews who held Prussian citizenship. As time passed, more and more Russian timber merchants would come to Memel before the High Holidays, staying there until January. They would arrive in the city by carts and even by carriages harnessed to horses, bringing with them cooks and slaughterers, but only for poultry, whereas meat, sheep and cattle would be smuggled in from nearby Lithuanian towns.

Ber Cohen with his three sons Yosef, Aharon and Shmuel were the first Jewish family to receive citizenship in Memel, they brought in the first resident slaughterer by the name of Yosel Vald, all of them coming from the Lithuanian town of Tavrig (Taurage). Several years later, Mr. Vald transferred his position to his son in law Yeshaiah Wohlgemuth, who after some time received rabbinical ordination. Later the sons of Yosel Vald became great flour and timber merchants.

In 1855 there were 289 Jews in Memel, and in 1867 this had risen to 887. 11 Jewish babies (9 boys and 2 girls) were born in Memel in 1856, and one died. 16 babies were born (7 boys and 9 girls) in 1857, 3 of them died. Before the Jewish cemetery was established in Memel, local Jews would bury their dead in one of the towns in Prussia or, albeit with great difficulty, in one of the Lithuanian towns. The story goes that a Jewish merchant having died suddenly in Memel, was transferred to Lithuania for burial sitting in a carriage dressed in his coat and a pipe in his mouth, and escorts on either side.

In 1858 the Prussian government demanded the unification of the Russian and German communities in Memel. According to a Prussian law dated July 23rd 1847, which granted autonomy to the Jews, every Jew had to belong to the community and pay taxes, which amounted to a certain percent of his income tax and was collected in some cases with the help of the police. Anyone who did not pay income tax, was also exempted from paying taxes to the community. The community was headed by an assembly of representatives of 16 persons which was elected for 6 years. The assembly elected the community committee of 3-5 from its members, who had to be German.citizens to run the community's affairs and maintain contact with the government The united community was officially approved on the 9th of May 1862, as were the regulations of the "Chevrah Kadishah". But in fact two different communities continued to exist, Russian Jews and German Jews, and each of them dealt with its own religious and educational issues. Members of the first committee were Dr.Lazar, S.Glazer and Meir Levi, and later on were joined by Moritz Kon and Julius Abelman.

Until 1900 the chairmen of the committee were Dr. Lazar, Julius Hirsch, Dr. Fuerst, J.Levental, S. Borchardt and Leopold Alexander.

In 1875 1,040 Jews resided in Memel.

Although relations between the Jews of Memel and their Christian neighbors were usually normal, Jews were unable to find employment in municipal and commercial institutions. Due to the fact that anti Semites could not fight against Prussian Jews who had equal rights, they plotted against those Jews who did not possess Prussian citizenship, and in 1880 several of Memel's Jews who did not have Prussian citizenship were expelled from the city. The number of those expelled increased from year to year until 1885, when the government published an order that all foreign citizens had to leave Memel within a short time, before the 15th of October of that same year. Among the people affected by this order were Jews who had lived in Memel for 20 and even 40 years, but had not bothered to request Prussian citizenship in time, although then it was not difficult to obtain it. According to a source, had this order been carried out to the letter, only about 200 Jews would have remained in Memel. The man who was very active in thwarting this harsh decree was the Rabbi of Memel Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf (1834-1902), who contacted many people in Berlin, but only Chancellor Bismark could help. The Rabbi applied to him three times, resulting in a compromise according to which the city commercial institutions would prepare a list of Jewish merchants acting in Memel and these people would be allowed to stay.

Due to the expulsion of part of the Russian citizens from Memel during the years 1880-1886 the number of Jews decreased from 1,214 in 1880 to 861 in 1890. About 100 families, Jewish merchants from Lithuania, remained in Memel, and these were amongst the most important people in the city maintaining trade connections with Russia. But the rights of these Jews were restricted and they were under constant supervision by the authorities. About 700 people, men, women and children, were expelled from the districts of Memel and Heidekrug (Silute in Lithuanian), most of them workers and artisans. Many of them could not return to their Russian homeland for various reasons and it became necessary to help them emigrate overseas. In order to carry out this goal a large sum of money was needed, which was collected from Jews in Germany and other countries.

Memel Jews traded mainly in timber and grains, but many Jewish timber merchants from Minsk, Pinsk, Vohlin, Grodna and Bialystok would also stay in Memel, and although they were only provisional residents, they played an important role in the community.


The old city of Memel with the Friedrich Market (1915).


Mainly Jewish merchants resided in this quarter

When WW1 started in 1914 an order was issued that all Jewish Russian citizens be expelled within one week to Ruegen Island in the Baltic Sea. The Jewish community, the local commerce bureau, the Mayor of the city and the Governor of the region, made efforts to mitigate this harsh decree, and as a result any Jew who was able to produce a guarantee and a recommendation from two German citizens showing that he was not a spy, was allowed to stay on in the region. Thus most of the "strangers" were saved from expulsion.

Education and Religion.

The first religious institution established for Memel's Jews was the cemetery, where in 1823 the first Jewish deceased was buried. In the course of time this cemetery was enlarged three times. In 1835, on the initiative and with the management of Mordechai Vazbutzky and Meir Lifshitz, the "Polish" synagogue and the "Mikveh" were built in order to serve the rich timber traders from Poland and Russia who lived in Memel during the autumn months and also during the High Holidays. For forty years the head of this synagogue was S.Bloch, who was also active in the community.

Rabbi Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf, who served in Memel as the rabbi of the German community from 1865-1898, was the initiator and involved in all educational, cultural and welfare activities in the city during those years.

Prior to the establishment of the autonomic community according to Prussian law, Jewish children , mainly those possessing Russian citizenship, studied with "Melamdim" who came from Lithuania. The rich hired a private "Melamed" for their children, the less rich hired a "Melamed" for two or three families and the poor sent their children to a "Cheder" which was financed mostly by the community with parents only paying a small sum. Only at the beginning of the sixties of the 19th century did the Jews start to send their children to public schools.

In 1879 Rabbi Ruelf established a school for poor children (Armenschule), most of them having no other way of obtaining some education. The committee for helping Russian Jews in Berlin donated 50,000 Mark for maintaining this elementary school, which was recognized by the authorities, where Hebrew and its grammar, German, Mishna and Talmud were taught. At the beginning many of Memel's Jews related to this school with reservation, since they were worried about the growth of a Jewish Russian proletariat in the city. A suitable building for the school was erected with the help of a big donation by the Baroness von Hirsch from Paris.

In 1898 Rabbi Dr.Y.Ruelf left Memel and Rabbi Dr. Imanuel Carlebach replaced him.

Then the community established a " Religious School for Jewish Children"

(Israelitische Religions Schule), consisting of two classes for boys and two for girls.

Many rich parents initiated the establishment of a private religious school and were ready to finance it. It had four classes for boys, five for girls and one common preparatory class. In the preparatory class one learnt for one year and in the other classes, for two years.

The teachers in the above mentioned schools were: Dr. I. Carlebach (director), Heineman, Dobrovolsky, Berman, Mrs. Carlebach and Mrs. Gitkin. In this school Hebrew, Bible, Mishnah and Gemara was taught. These two schools were under the supervision of the community by way of an education committee whose members were S.Bloch, Moritz Cohen, A.Aizenstadt, Dr. Med. Hurwitz and Ch.Schlos.

Financial issues of this private school were assigned to a funding committee, whose members were Max Berelowitz, Ch.Sher and D.L. Wolfson.

In 1896 "The Kiryath Sefer" society was established in order to provide Memel's assimilated German Jews with knowledge of the literature and history of the Jewish people. Those active in this society were Rabbi Ruelf- chairman, L.Sheinhaus - his deputy, the teacher Arndt and the pharmacist Lichtenstein.

In 1875, when due to the immigration of the Lithuanian Jews the Jewish population in the city increased, a "Beth-Midrash" was built. The Lithuanian and Russian Jews could not finance this building by themselves, and were therefore helped with funds collected by Rabbi Ruelf among German Jews. In 1886 a third prayer house, the "Synagoge", was erected in Memel for the German Jews, initiated by Rabbi Ruelf, who also collected the money for its construction. During the High Holidays all three prayer houses were full to capacity and it was necessary to rent an additional hall for the overflow audience.

In 1861, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (Lipkin), who then lived in Memel, established "The Society of Gemara Students" as well as publishing a weekly pamphlet named "Hatvunah" (Wisdom)) in which famous Rabbis published 'Chidushey Torah'( new commentaries). As many as twelve booklets were published, printed by a Jewish printing press in Memel. In the summer of 1886, the 25th anniversary of this "Society" was celebrated at the Beth haMidrash on the occasion of completing the 3rd cycle of the "Gemara" (Talmud). At this celebration, which lasted for three days, the speakers were Rabbi Gavriel Feinberg from the Lithuanian-Polish community and Rabbi Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf, the representative of "The Society of the Fans of Zion" in Memel. Rabbi Ruelf was a delegate on behalf of Vilna to the second Zionist Congress which took place in Basel in 1898. He was the only western rabbi who opposed the "Protest Rabbiner" (this was a disparaging nickname Dr.Herzl had given to those German rabbis who had prevented the first Zionist Congress from taking place).

The Rabbis of the German Jewish Community were: Dr.Yitzhak Ruelf - who did much to bring Jews from the east closer to Jews from the west, helped Lithuanian and Russian Jews very much during all the disasters and pogroms they experienced and published articles on them in the international press. He was also the editor of the newspaper "Memeler Dampfboot" and published a book on philosophy in five volumes. He died in 1902 in Bonn at the age of 72. Then there were Dr.Imanuel Carlebach, who died in Koeln in 1928, Dr.Yitzhak Stein who died in 1915, and Dr.F.Schlesinger.

The Rabbis of the Lithuanian-Polish Jewish community were: Yeshaiah Wohlgemuth, who died in Hamburg in 1899 (see Appendix 1); Gavriel Feinberg, who published the books "Be'er Ya'akov" and discussions on "Choshen Mishpat" and "Yoreh Deah" (Berlin 5653); Meir Yoselovsky who died in Memel in 1915, and Mordechai Yitzhak Rabinovitz, who served in Memel from 1917 and published many books.

Welfare and Help.

During the eighties of the 19th century a "Permanent Committee for Helping Russian Jews" was established in Memel, headed by Rabbi Dr. Y. Ruelf, M.Lurie and A.Vitenberg. In the Hebrew newspaper "haMeilitz", published in St.Petersburg on June 28th 1881, a world wide appeal to Jews was published asking them to send donations to help victims of pogroms which had occurred then in southern Russia. The money collected was sent through the " J.S. Feinberg's Successors - Koenigsberg and Memel" bank for distribution in Kiev .

Nor did these public spirited workers forget the poor, "haMeilitz" from the 22nd of February 1881 reporting that one Sunday a group of respected men of the community gathered and collected 1,500 Mark, as well as dresses and wood for heating for the poor of the city.

Most of the news from Memel published in "haMeilitz" was written by David Eliezer Tubiansky and A.L.Sheinhaus.

During the years 1868-1869, years of great famine in Lithuania, Rabbi Ruelf saved about 30,000 Jews in the Kovno Gubernia from starving, with money he collected in Germany. During a year and a half he transferred 630,000 Mark in weekly payments to 230 settlements in Lithuania, an immense sum in those years.

When Russian Jews were forced to leave Memel in the years 1880-1886, as mentioned above, Rabbi Ruelf arranged a fund raising event, and every family forced to leave received a sum of money for travel expenses and first arrangements, according to the number of its members.

The " Gemiluth Chasadim Society ", which gave interest free loans to the needy, was established in Memel in 1894. 229 donors raised its basic capital, and during the first year of its activity it distributed 133 loans to the tune of 6,529 Mark. There were 10 members on its board of directors (Ehrenrat): Rabbi Dr.Ruelf - chairman, Rabbi Gavriel Feinberg, Dr.B.M.Hanneman, D.L.Wolfson, A.L.Sheinhaus, Sh.Ch.Bernstein, T.Lieberman, O.Ratner. W.Naftal, M.Gitkin.

The managers of the society were Gershom Millner, L.Hanneman, A.Kaplan, Akiva Pinkus, Ch.L.Shtronin, M.Altschul, the supervisors being of A.Joffe, Yosef Gilis, the brothers Hanneman and the accountants were M.Ch.Meisels and A.L.Sheinhaus.

In 1897 the Memel "Tzedaka Gedola" society was established whose aim it was to support the poor.

The proximity of Memel to Lithuania enabled many Lithuanian Jews to come there in order to consult the many doctors who were in the city. At the initiative of Rabbi Ruelf, Shaul-Zvi Bloch and Dr.Pindikovsky, a Jewish hospital was built in Memel in 1871, with donations from German Jews and timber merchants from Russia. Some years later this hospital was already too small to accomodate all the patients, and thus in 1896 a big new building was erected surrounded by gardens. It was situated on a high place with a spectacular view. The plot for the building was acquired by the banker Leopold Alexander, using his own money, but the building was erected with the help of additional donors, such as the Baroness Klara von Hirsch from Paris who donated 40,000 Mark and Ya'akov Plaut from Nizza who donated 20.000 Mark. The hospital which had 32 beds, fulfilled its purpose till the liquidation of the community in 1939.

The southern part of Memel where most of the Jewish institutions were located.

Go to Next Section