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The Jewish Community of Siauliai

by Jeffrey Maynard

Chapter One - Historical Outline

Jewish settlement in the city of Shavel began at a much later period than the settlement in other cities in Lithuania and Zamot. The reason why the community was not an old established one like the other communities is unknown.

There is a legend which was told in Shavel as follows: 1 

Until approximately the year 5500 (1740) the city of Shavel was a village, and generally Jews were not permitted to live there. One day the Christian residents of this village were bringing a big bell for their church to the village. The bell fell into the river and they could not get it out. A Jew risked his life, the honored Reb Zev Nurok Ka"tz who had special permission from King Jan the Third in 1681 to live in Shavel, together with all his household. He got the bell out of the water. They said that they would give him whatever payment he requested and he answered that he didn't request anything for himself, just that they would let his brothers, the Jews, live here. This they did. Soon many Jews from the surrounding area collected in Shavel and founded a small community. 

The honored Reb Zev Nurok was killed. One of his children was the great leader Reb Israel Nurok (died in 1796) who was very famous in the whole region and by whose efforts the Jewish cemetery was founded in 1748. Before the Jews were allowed to settle in Shavel and to buy a field for a cemetery, they buried their dead in the nearby towns of Shaulenai and Lygumai, which already had Jewish communities. The first to be buried in the new cemetery was a youth, Gershon the son of Simcha, who came from another town and died in 1749. From then until the First World War, on the day of his death, a memorial candle was lit and the prayer of kaddish was said for him in the Kloiz of Gemilas Chesedim shel Emes (the synagogue of true loving kindness towards the dead) which was burnt down in the First World War. 2 

Around the year 1749 a fine wooden synagogue was built, with windows high in the walls, shining with color, with a holy ark made by an artist. By the south wall a big brass menorah (candelabra) stood on a cup-shaped base. 

The reason that the synagogue was not built of stone was that the city of Shavel was under the supervision of Keidaniai and it was necessary to get the agreement of the Rabbi there. He would allow only a wooden synagogue to be built. This was because the city of Keidaniai was the regional center for the committee of the communities (Vaad HaKehilos) and the city of Shavel was then at the beginning of it's settlement. It had few people who did not have sufficient resources for the great expense of a stone building, and the Rabbi thought that this situation would continue for some time. Therefore, he would only let them build a wooden building. They prayed there until 1881 when it was shut by the government until 1889 when repairs had been carried out. It existed until it was burnt down during the First World War. 3 

Disturbances in Shavel during the war with Sweden 

The small Jewish community suffered greatly from the invasion of the Swedes between 1710 and 1715. 

The Napoleonic War of 1812 

The local headquarters of Napoleon's army was in the little town of Koltinian, near Rasein, close to Shavel. Shimon Cohen relates a story that General MacDonald wanted to see a Jewish wedding and the community notables acceded to his request. They found a bride and groom and conducted a wedding ceremony under a Chupa (wedding canopy) in the presence of the French generals. They gave the happy couple many presents. One of the descendants of the couple was living in Shavel in 1938, known as "Leibtshe Bonapart". 4 

The Polish uprising in 1831 

In 1831 the Poles rose up against the Russian government. Most of Lithuania was conquered easily because the Russian army was still stationed on the Turkish border after the Russian-Turkish war of 1828. Only in Shavli were there 3,000 Russian soldiers, who were overwhelmed by 15,000 soldiers of the uprising after hard fighting. The conquerors first act was to take Jewish property and to hang those suspected of being against the Polish government. Then the Russian General Shirman came from Ponevich to put down the uprising in Shavel, and the Jews were caught between the two forces, and were killed regardless of who they supported. 5 

In these times a terrible thing happened. A group of Jews travelling from Shavel for a wedding celebration were killed by insurgent soldiers. This murder was written about in "Toldos HaYehudim beLita-Zamot" (history of the Jews in Lithuania and Zamot) by Lipman, volume a. 

The famine of 1843-5 

In 1843-5 there was a terrible famine in the whole of Russia. This famine had a great influence on the Shavel Jewish community. Rain fell unceasingly from the summer of 1843 until the month of Kislev, making it impossible to harvest crops and sow for the new year. The following year there was no rain at all during the summer and the harvest failed. The Russian government loaned the citizens money to buy food. However, the Jewish community was unable to repay its loans to the government, together with the head tax and interest. The Jews sank into poverty and as a consequence many natives of Shavel left for other towns, and the Jewish community was greatly reduced. 6 

The second revolt of 1863 

In the second uprising of 1863 the city of Shavel was once again a military headquarters, but a less important one than in the first uprising. However, there were still quite a few Jewish victims. The Russians won and the Poles suffered a great defeat. The Polish rebels were hanged on a small hill at the edge of the city going towards Kurshan, where there are graves of German soldiers who fell in the First World War. At the beginning of 1864 the uprising was quietened, but the situation of the Jews got much worse. 

At that time the writer Yehuda Leib Gordon was a teacher in the Hebrew school in Shavel. In his memoirs he states that he was saved twice from death during the revolt. He was travelling from Shavel to Kovno and a friend in Shavel gave him a letter to take to the county minister in Kovno. On the way he slept at an inn in Baisagola when two rebels appeared and started to search the rooms. They wanted to enter the room where he was sleeping but the innkeeper blocked their way and promised that he knew his guest well. When he was on the way home from Kovno and was close to Shavel he was arrested by a platoon from the Russian army who thought that he was a spy. However, he managed to escape. 7 

The famine of 1867-9 

There was famine again in 1867-9, this time just in Lithuania-Zamot. At the beginning of 1867 there was a grain shortage in Prussia, and the local grain was exported there. At the end of 1867 there were heavy rains, but in 1868 there was a drought. The harvest failed two years running, and there were many victims of hunger. The Shavel community received help from a Jewish committee that was formed for this purpose. 

The epidemics of 1838, 1849/50, 1853, 1866, 1872 and 1893. 

The city of Shavel suffered many times from epidemics which came one after the other. As well as epidemics which affected all of Lithuania, the city had its own epidemics in the years listed above. In 1893 there were many victims, and families took refuge in other towns. The Jews were affected in all these epidemics, but not to the same degree as the non-Jews, with the exception of the year 1849, when 26 Christians died in the epidemic, compared to 316 Jews. Following the epidemic of 1893 the municipality drilled three wells to a depth of 300 feet for the use of the citizens. 8 

The fire of 1872. 

One third of the city of Shavel was destroyed in this fire. Many left the city destitute and many families were impoverished. Money was donated from other towns in Russia to aid the Jews of Shavel and this is documented in the Hebrew newspaper Hamagid. 

The First World War. 

When Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, the frontier between the German and Russian armies was the border of Lithuania. The Russian government expelled the Jews to central Russia. Most of the center of the city was burnt down by the retreating Russian army. 

On May 7, 1915 One-hundred and eighty Jews were reported abducted by the Germans in Shavel. Two daughters of the government rabbi (presumably Rabbi Aharon Leib Heller) were taken as hostages by the Germans, because he refused to act as Mayor. 9 

After the war, some of the Jews who had been exiled into Russia returned and started to rebuild. A new modern city was built. The prominent Freinkel family (see below) returned and revived their business. They opened new markets in England and other countries and set up a shoe factory. 10 


[1]. Cohen 
[2]. Cohen 
[3]. Cohen 
[4]. Cohen 
[5]. Cohen 
[6]. Cohen. 
[7]. Cohen 
[8]. Cohen 
[9]. American Jewish Year Book 5676 (1915 - 1916) p268. 
[10]. Yahadut Lita. 

Copyright@1997 Jeffrey Maynard. This material may not be used for commercial purposes.