Written by Joseph Rosin
English Edited by Sarah and Mordechai Kopfstein
The town Shaki - this being its Yiddish pronunciation - is situated in the south-western part of Lithuania near the river Siesartis, one of the tributaries of the river Sesupe, about 24 kms east of the Prussian ( now part of the Russian ) border, and about 58 kms to the west of Kovno. This is one of the oldest settlements of Lithuania, already mentioned in old chronicles of the 14th and 15th centuries on the occasion of a visit of the head of the German crusader order in 1352. Another source maintained that in 1405 German crusaders had already built a wooden fortress in Shaki.
During the second half of the 16th century five families named Sakaiciai lived there and the small village was called after them, which is also mentioned in documents dating from 1599. The town named Sakiai was mentioned for the first time in 1719. In the 18th century it was owned by a family of princes named Chartorisky, one of whose sons, Mikolai, granted the town the rights of a city (the so called Megdeburg Rights) in 1776.
Until 1795 Shaki was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. The same year the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times - Russia, Prussia and Austria - caused Lithuania to become partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part of the state which lay on the left side of the Neman river (Nemunas), including Shaki, was handed over to Prussia who ruled there during the years 1795-1807.
In 1800 there were 574 inhabitants in Shaki, most of them Jews, living in 65 houses.
According to the Tilzit agreement of 1807, Polish territories occupied by Prussia were transferred to what became known as the "The Great Dukedom of Warsaw", which was established at that time. The king of Sachsonia, Friedrich-August, was appointed duke, and the Napoleonic code now became the constitution of the dukedom, according to which everybody was equal before the law, except for the Jews who were not granted any civil rights.
During the years 1807-1813 Shaki belonged to the "Great Dukedom of Warsaw" and was included in the Bialystok district. In 1813, after the defeat of Napoleon, all of Lithuania was annexed to Russia, as a result of which Shaki was included in the Augustova Region (Gubernia), and in 1866 it became a part of the Suwalk Gubernia.
During Russian rule (1813-1915) the town started to develop, and before WWI about 4,000 people lived there and it became a district center. Shaki was surrounded by woods and most of its inhabitants made their living from them.
When the First World War began many of Shaki's inhabitants left the town. In 1915 the town was occupied by the German army, who then erected a barbed wire fence surrounding it. Many men from Shaki were taken to work in Germany, the town suffered from a shortage of food and epidemics broke out.
The Germans left the town in 1919, at which time it was handed over to the newly created independent Lithuanian State, becoming a district center, where new streets were built and government institutions established. There were elementary schools, a Catholic High-School, a Regional Court, a Post Office, a regional Hospital, branches of the State and other banks, 3 doctors, 2 dentists, one veterinary surgeon, 2 pharmacies, several tens of shops, several restaurants and pubs, a power station, a workshop for agricultural machines, 3 flour mills, 2 saw mills, a slaughter house, a dairy, a plant for producing bricks and several workshops for processing flax and wool.
In the summer of 1940 Lithuania became a part of the Soviet Union and Shaki continued to serve as a district center. On the June 22, 1941 the German army invaded Lithuania and Shaki was occupied on the first day of the war, the Germans ruling there till the end of 1944, when the Red Army reconquered Lithuania.
The Jewish Settlement until WWI and afterwards.
Jews had apparently already settled in the village Sakaiciai at the beginning of the 18th century, and dealt in timber. In 1765 Prince Chartorisky allowed Jews to settle in Shaki and to open taverns, so that by the middle of the18th century Jews numbered already more than 80% of the total population. In 1856 out of 1,764 residents 1,473 were Jews (83%), in 1862 there were 3,038 Jews (88%) out of a total population of 3,443, and in 1885 - 3,000 Jews (81%) out of a total population of 3,700. The Jews made their living from commerce and crafts, among them small peddlers, carters, horse traders, one blacksmith, two tailors, one watchmaker and of course merchants and shop owners. The Jewish shops were concentrated around the market square in the center of the town, so that every Sunday the peasants from the surroundings would come to pray in the church, bringing with them products for sale and use this opportunity to buy all they needed in the Jewish shops. Several of the Jewish merchants would export agricultural products to Germany, mainly grain. Several Jews were landowners near the town, growing vegetables and fruit, and many families had a plot of land near their houses, on which they would grow vegetables and fruit for their own personal use and even for sale.
We can learn about the public activities of Shaki's Jews during this period from the "Pinkas haKehila" (the community book) from the years 1768-1776, which consisted of 248 pages of which 132 pages were filled out, and according to which the community had seven leaders who also represented it officially. Several sub-committees were responsible for the evaluation of taxes, for education, caring for the "Yeshivoth", for the elementary schools (the "Cheder"), the "Talmud Torah", the maintenance of the community's property, "Tsedaka Gedolah" which dealt with welfare issues and the "Chevrah Kadishah" who cared for the cemetery. There were also committees for the issues of the "Korobka" (meat taxes), for the synagogues and for Eretz Yisrael, for Yeshivoth and their students who were studying in the Holy Cities. In a list of donors for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael from 1899 several names of Shaki Jews appeared, the fund raiser being Shimon Shmuelovitz.
During the famine in Lithuania, at the end of the 1860s, the Shaki community received help from the Help Committee in Memel - 30 Rubles.
Later the Jewish community of Shaki became strong enough themselves to donate money to the hungry in Lithuanian towns. There are three lists from 1871 in which names of Shaki donors appear, the fund raisers being Zeev Glasberg, Feivush-Mordechai Shor, Yitzhak Segal. There are also two lists of donors from 1872 for the hungry in Lithuania, in which the fund raisers in the first list were Kalman Bloch, Yitzhak Epelbaum, and in the second list Z.J.Blumgarten, Yechiel-Ya'akov Etelson.
During those years, matters of marriage and birth, also of Jews, were within the authority of the local Catholic priest. A Jewish couple, before going to the "Chupa" with the Rabbi, was obliged to register with the priest, and children born to Jewish families had also to be registered in the same way.
During the years 1890-1894 the Lithuanian writer Dr. Vincas Kudirka, who wrote the text of the Lithuanian anthem, lived in Shaki. He recalled that he could neither find a flat nor patients in the town, because most of its inhabitants were Jews who had their own doctors. Finally he found a place to live in, it being the old house of the local priest, and named the town "The Jews' Fortress " (Zydpile in Lithuanian).
The educational institutions where Shaki's Jewish children studied were mainly the traditional ones: the "Cheder" and the "Talmud Torah". In 1869 a government school for Jewish children opened, whose budget was covered mainly by the Jewish community and by a small government grant, extending to 175 Ruble per year. Its teacher was Yavarovsky, who also established the library in town. A letter to "The Society for Spreading Knowledge among the Jews" in St.Petersburg, signed by 12 people from Shaki, was sent asking for support for the library.
In 1877 this school amalgamated with the Evangelic school, 94 out of 126 pupils were Jewish. For many years Avraham Duber HaCohen Aizendorf, who also wrote the Shaki news in the Hebrew newspaper "HaMeilitz" which was published in St.Petersburg, was the inspector of the school on behalf of the government.
In 'Hameilitz" dated the 22th of June1880, a letter to the "Society for Spreading Knowledge among the Jews" in St.Petersburg, signed by Shimon Gral from Shaki, acknowledged the 100 Ruble the society had sent to support the school which was in danger of being closed.
At the beginning of the 20th century a "Cheder Metukan" (an improved Cheder) was established in Shaki, where Hebrew and Talmud were taught as well. Religious fanaticism, boorishness and superstitious beliefs still dominated the community, with only a few reading books other than religious ones and very few studying in the Russian High School in Vilkavishk (Vilkaviskis), about 50 kms away. Only one Jewish family in Shaki subscribed to a newspaper. The Jewish youth of Shaki did not see their future in this backward place and many of them emigrated to America, England and South Africa, while others moved to other places in Lithuania.
In a list of Shaki immigrants to America in 1869/70 the following names appear: M.Gitelman, Roize Levin, B.Edelman, M.Kahn, S.Shneider.
In Manchester (England) there were already several tens of former Shaki Jews in 1879, who would send 100 Rubles every year for the "Talmud-Torah", the leader of this group being Gershon Shapir.
Some Shaki Jews emmigrated to Eretz Yisrael during the second half of the 19th century, probably being elderly people who wanted to die there in order to be close to the place where the "Mashiach" would come and the revival of the dead would take place. At the old cemetery in Jerusalem there are at least two tombstones with the inscriptions: Basha Reizel daughter of Eliyahu from Shaki 5653 (1893), Ya'akov Tzvi son of Moshe from Shaki 5655 (1895).
When WWI broke out in 1914 there were about 4,000 Jews in Shaki, but most left the town after the retreating Russian army instigated pogroms against them. Torah scrolls were burnt, Jews were mistreated and Jewish property looted. During the German occupation (1915-1919) some of the refugees returned to the town, others returned after the war.
The Period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940)
Society and Economy
With the proclamation of the establishment of the Lithuanian state on February 16, 1918 and the evacuation of the German army from Shaki at the beginning of 1919, the Jewish community in town started to organize again.
Picture supplied by Gita Anachovitz-Shmulovitz
The Market Square in Shaki (1927). The house opposite belonged to the Anachovitz family.
According to the autonomy law regarding minorities in Lithuania, elections for the Jewish community committee in Shaki were held, when 11 members were elected: 1 from the General Zionists list, 2 from Tseirei Zion, 2-Mizrachi, 6-undefined. The committee acted till the end of 1925, at which time the autonomy was annulled. During the years of its existence the committee collected taxes according to law, sometimes even with the help of the police, and was in charge of all aspects of community life.
According to the first census conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1923 there were then 2,044 people in Shaki, among them 1,267 Jews (62%).
During the twenties and thirties, Jews were in the majority in Shaki and played an important role in the economic and municipal life of the town. In the twenties 7 out of the 12 members of the municipal council were Jews, and in the elections of 1931 5 Jews were elected out of 9 council members (David Rabinov, Leizer Rubinstein, B.Papishker, Feivel Kotler, Sh.Kaspar). In the 1934 elections the Jews still kept their strength in the council, 5 Jewish members being elected: B.Papishker, J.Mosezon, J.Flaxman, M.Fainzilber and L.Rubinstein. The same happened in the elections of 1936 when 5 Jewish members were elected. During those years 4 Jews served alternately as Mayor: Alfeld, Igdelsky, Lubotzky and Ya'akov Flaxman.
Shaki Jews made a living from commerce, crafts, industry and from growing vegetables and trading with them. Market day, every Tuesday and Friday and the fair once in two weeks, played an important role in the economy.
According to the 1931 Lithuanian government survey there were 82 shops in Shaki, of which 68 belonged to Jews (83%), according to the following table:
Kind of Business
Owned by Jews
Grains and Flax
Butcher Shops and Cattle Trade
Restaurants and Taverns
Textiles and Furs
Leather and Shoes
Haberdashery and House Utensils
Medicines and Cosmetics
Watches and Jewels
Bicycles and Sewing Machines
Tools and Iron Products
Books and Stationary
According to the same survey of the 16 factories and workshops in Shaki, 12 belonged to Jews (75%). The data is presented in the following table:
Type of Establishment
Owned by Jews
Metal Works, Power Stations
Wool, Coloring, Knitting
Flour Mills, Bakeries, Candies and Chocolate
Bristle Processing, Jewelers Photo Shops
Additionally there were tens of artisans working in their crafts. In 1938 there were still 60 Jewish artisans in Shaki: 12 tailors, 12 butchers, 6 bakers, 6 hairdressers, 5 hatters, 4 stitchers, 2 tinsmiths, 2 shoemakers, 2 painters, 2 watchmakers, 1 oven builder, 1 electrician, 1 book binder, 1 blacksmith, 1 photographer, 1 carpenter and 1 unknown.
The Jewish "Volksbank" occupied a central function in the economic life of the town, and in 1927 had 137 members and by 1932 this had increased to 170 members. During Soviet rule in Lithuania in 1940 the bank was closed down. Among its directors Froman and Lax should be mentioned. There was also a branch of "The United Company for Financial Credit for Jewish Agrarians".
In the mid 1930s the economic situation of Jews in Shaki began to deteriorate, one of the reasons being the open propaganda led by the "Association of Lithuanian Merchants (Verslas)" against buying in Jewish stores. During those years many Jewish youths emigrated to America and South Africa and some of them to Eretz Israel. Because of "Aliyah" restrictions only a few managed to immigrate to Eretz Israel as Chalutzim, while many moved to other towns in Lithuania. In 1937 a fire burnt down 6 Jewish houses, including flats and shops. (The houses of K.Kelzon, P.Kruk, L.Ushpitz, Goldart etc.).
All this caused the decline of the Jewish population in Shaki, so that by 1939 only about 600 Jews lived there, about 20% of the total population. According to the official telephone book of 1939, Shaki had 60 phone subscribers, 11 of them being Jews (18%).
Education and Culture
The Jewish children of Shaki studied in schools of the "Cheder" type and in the elementary Hebrew school from the "Tarbuth" chain, which had 4 regular and 2 preparatory classes. Here Hebrew was taught in the "Ashkenazi" pronounciation, and 200 - 400 pupils studied simultaneously. Among the teachers were: Yerachmiel Goldberg, Broido, Kanovitz, Shor, Cohen, Smilg, A.Yerushalmi, the brothers Tsvi and Eliezer Hanin, Shmuel Golbort, Buchbinder, Varshavsky, Tsvi Vizhansky, Hamer.
Jewish children received their higher education in the government High School in town, with only very few studying in Hebrew high schools in nearby cities.
In 1931/32 20 Jewish pupils studied in the local High School while in 1939/40 only 3 Jewish girls graduated. (See pictures below).
Picture supplied by Bela Marshak-Shadchanovitz
The pupils and teachers of the government high school in 1931/32 with 20 Jewish pupils.
Picture supplied by Bela Marshak-Shadchanovitz
The graduation class 1939 with 3 Jewish girls.
Sitting in the first line, from right:fourth-Bela Marshak
(All the three: Bela Marshak-Shadchanovitz, Eng.Chemistry Gita Anachovitz-Shmulovitz,
Dr.Med. Leah Levinstein-Palunsky with their families are living in Israel in 1999)
The big Yiddish library sponsored by the society "Libhober fun Vissen" (Lovers of Knowledge) and a smaller Hebrew library played an important cultural role
Picture supplied by Gita Anachovitz- Shmulovitz
The drama circle in Shaki (1919)
Standing first from left: Dr. Sonia Levin-Anachovitz
Standing first from right: Moshe Kopilovitz, next to him Leib-Hirsh Anachovitz.
A local amateur group arranged theatrical plays from time to time, with great success. The Kovno Jewish theater would also visit Shaki sometimes and perform plays in the local cinema hall.
There were branches of most Zionist parties and youth organizations: "Tseirei Zion", Z"S, "HeChalutz" (from 1922), "HaShomer HaTsair", "HeChalutz HaTzair" (from 1932), "Betar" and at the beginning of the twenties also "Poalei Zion-Smol" (Leftist Zion workers). This party participated with a separate list in the elections for the "Nationalrat" (The National Committee of Lithuanian Jews) and for the municipalities. Despite the persecutions and arrests of members of this party by the Lithuanian security forces, a member of this party, Yudl Alfeld, was elected Mayor of Shaki.
We can learn about the comparative strength among the different Zionist parties represented in Shaki branches by looking at the election results for Zionist congresses:
Labor Party Z"S Z"Z
General Zionists A B
At the end of 1934 a combined club of the Z"S party, "HeChalutz" and HaOved" opened up in Shaki at a festive celebration with the participation of about 100 members and friends of these organizations (see Appendix I). The main Zionist activities in town took place in this club, and included lectures, shows etc.
There were also fund raising activities for the National Funds: Keren haYesod and Keren Kayemeth (KKL). In December 1934 a new committee of the Keren Kayemeth(KKL) was elected in Shaki : M.Shocht, Z.Oleisky, A.Marshak, Hamer, H.Gefen, Sh.Krurk, Sh.Golbort, M.Vilensky and Z.Mazitner.
An urban Kibbutz Hachshara (urban training kibbutz) existed, where some members trained in the local agricultural machinery factory.
Sport activities were performed in the local branch of "Maccabi" with its 48 members.
Religion and Welfare
There were two prayer houses in Shaki: the Beth-Midrash where prayers were held every day, and the grandiose Synagogue (Di Shul), famous in Lithuania for its internal ornaments, where prayers were held on Saturdays and Holidays only.
In 1928 a sharp controversy erupted between the two Rabbis who served in Shaki - Rabbi Anachovitz and Rabbi Fridman - on the issue of the "Beth-Midrash", as a result of which the congregation divided into two parties as well. This controversy brought about the intervention of the law enforcement authorities, so that 3 men were detained for 7 days, one man expelled from the town for 6 months, and the prayer houses were closed on and off for some time. The problem was eventually solved after the law officer passed the issue on to the "Association of Lithuanian Rabbis", who decided that a new Rabbi be elected. Later the punishments were annulled.
Among the Rabbis who served in Shaki during the years were: Shmuel Mohliver (in Shaki 1854-1860) one of the pioneers of "Chibath-Zion" (Lovers of Zion) and one of the fathers of religious Zionism; Moshe-Betzalel Lurie (in Shaki 1868-1875); Zvi Palterovitz; Shimon-Dov Anolik; Yirmiyahu Flensberg (in Shaki 1889 - till his death in 1914); Avraham-Leib Shor (1922-1926); Aharon Fridman (1926 till his death in 1934);Yosef Anachovitz (died in 1940);Yosef Goldin was murdered in 1941.
Most of these Rabbis published books on religious topics and recommended books written by other Rabbis.
All the customary welfare societies of the Jewish communities in Lithuania were active in Shaki as well.
A welfare volunteer collecting "Chaloth" for Shabbath for distributing among the poor (1937)
For a partial list of personalities born in Shaki see Appendix II.
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Last updated by JA on Aug 30, 1999