The History of the Jewish Community of Siauliai
The Jewish Community until the 20th Century
Siauliai was established as early as the 13th century, and the first Jews settled in the city four hundred years later, during the 17th century. Some of them arrived as refuges from the pogroms conducted under Bohdan Khmelnytsky against Ukrainian and Polish Jews during the Khmelnitsky Uprising (1648 – 1649). At the beginning of the 18th century, Jews were granted permits allowing them to settle in the city and build houses and public buildings. The Jews made use of these permits to construct a magnificent synagogue, which was destroyed during the First World War. In the middle of the 18th century there were some 700 Jews living in the city, constituting about a fifth of its total population. At the end of the century, Jews were granted a certain amount of self-rule. In 1812 the city was conquered twice, first by Napoleon and then by the Russian Army. The city, however, recovered. New roads were paved, and a railway was built as well. As a result, the city’s importance grew and its population increased at a growing rate.
During the 19th century Siauliai was the urban and commercial center for the entire region. The city’s economy was based on trade in agricultural products, which were shipped to the ports cities of Riga and Liepāja. Most of the city’s Jews were smalltime merchants, peddlers and wagon drivers. Some owned and operated inns, stables and public houses. At the end of the 19th century, trade in hard liquor, which had previously been free, became a monopoly of the Russian government. As a result many Jews lost their source of income. However, the community was not hit too hard, as Jews from Siauliai succeeded in establishing large factories for leather tanning, one of which employed thousands of workers. Other important factories were established as well, including tobacco and cigarette factories, soap factories, flax processing factories, and factories for metal casting, for beer, for chocolate and for sweets. At this time the city’s Jews also established large trade emporiums which specialized in the export of flax, animal hides and grains.
Within 50 years the Jewish population of the city increased fourfold, and by 1902 it had reached 10,000 – more than a half of the total population in the city, despite the fact that this period was marked by heavy famines, epidemics, and fires all of which claimed the lives of hundreds of Jews. Part of the increase in the number of Jews was due to official edicts which expelled Jews from neighboring cities and villages, bordering on the western front of the Russian Empire. Some of the refugees found shelter in Siauliai, thereby aggravating the already difficult situation in which the city’s Jews found themselves. Housing and work opportunities were particularly bad. Conditions were made more difficult by a heavy tax which the Russian authorities levied against the Jews of Siauliai. Faced with these difficulties, Jewish entrepreneurs set up a public kitchen for the poor. The kitchen, established at the end of the 19th century, catered to all impoverished residents of the city, regardless of their faith. Another factor which drove the rising numbers in the Jewish community was the return of many Jews who had immigrated to South Africa. After having succeeded abroad, many of them chose to return to Siauliai, establishing new businesses in their home town.
Jewish children studied in the traditional, and crowded, cheder (religious primary school). But gradually more and more institutions for general education sprang up, among them Jewish associations, Russian gymnasiums, Jewish schools for professional training, private Jewish schools, and even government sponsored schools for Jews. One of the latter was established by the renowned Jewish poet, Judah Leib Gordon. In addition, Siauliai was home to a number of adult education classes.
At the end of the 19th century a Jewish hospital with 12 beds was established. A few years later, the hospital was moved into a new two-storey building which had an operating theater, a clinic and a pharmacy. The Bikur Cholim and Leinat Tzedek charitable associations supported the hospital financially, providing medical supplies and aid for impoverished patients. Meanwhile, the former hospital building was converted into an old age home. Siauliai also had a building owned by the Hachnasat Orchim (hospitality) association as well as an orphanage, and a number of organizations which provided interest free loans for the needy. Finally, Siauliai operated an organization known as Maachal Kasher (Kosher Food), which provided kosher meals for Jewish soldiers in the Russian Army stationed in the city.
Important figures in Jewish 19th century life who were born in Siauliai included; the writers Joseph Lazar Epstein and Jacob Tzvi Sobel; the rabbi and educator Abraham Baruch Rhine; Tuvia Danzig – later a professor of mathematics at Columbia and John Hopkins universities; Victor Brenner – a sculptor, engraver and medalist made famous by designing the United States Lincoln Cent; and the Zionist philanthropist Raphael-Shlomo Gutz.