Lithuanian Jewish Communities Collection
Scope and Content Note
The records in this collection reflect Jewish life and activity within the region corresponding to the borders of Lithuania in 1923-1939, the time-period when the collection was assembled. The majority of materials date from the declaration of Jewish national autonomy in Lithuania in 1919 to the dissolution of the kehilot (Jewish communities) in 1926.
Series I covers Jewish political activity in Independent Lithuania at the national level. It incorporates materials documenting the gestation, implementation, development, and gradual abrogation of Jewish national autonomy. Much of the material pertains to the three centralized political institutions which coordinated Jewish autonomy at the national level: the Ministry of Jewish Affairs, the Jewish National Council, and the Jewish Seimas faction. The activities of the central organs are discernable from their reports and correspondence to the Jewish communities.
Only a few folders come from the archives of the central institutions. The rest of the folders in Series I are comprised of printed material removed from the folders of the Jewish community archives.
The contents of those community archives comprise the largest section of the collection, Series II. Of the 155 Vaadei Hakehilot in existence in 1921, 103 are represented in this series. The records from the archives of the Vaadei Hakehilot (community councils) reflect nearly every aspect of Jewish life in this period. An addendum to Series II, containing more material from Jewish community councils, has been included in the collection since at least the completion of the original catalogue in December 1957.
Series III contains material from the general archives of the YIVO in Vilna, pertaining to the geographical region of the independent Republic of Lithuania but over a much broader time period, from the mid-19th century to the Soviet Occupation of Lithuania in 1940. Subseries 1 is arranged by town according to the Yiddish alphabet and is similar in content to Series II; much Kaunas communal material can be found here. Subseries 2 and Subseries 3 relate, respectively, to political organizations and socio-economic organizations. They contain primarily printed ephemera, as well as correspondence and administrative material. Similar material generated by cultural and educational organizations are located in Series IV Subseries 2.
Series IV contains materials of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society (JHES) in Kaunas. This society was founded to continue in independent Lithuania the work of the Ansky Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society in Vilna, during the period in which Vilna was part of Poland. Subseries 1 reflects the administration and activities of the Society. The main body of collected materials are located in Subseries 2. Subseries 3 contains materials related to the end of Jewish national autonomy in Lithuania and antisemitism in Lithuania in the 1930s. Finally, Subseries 4 contains photographs, some collected by the JHES in Kaunas and some originating from OZE (Obschestvo zdravookhraneniia evreev/The Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population).
To better represent the nature of Jewish autonomy, effort has been made to refer to communities by their Jewish name, drawn as often as possible from the records in the collection. When multiple variants are present, as is frequently the case, the most common or prominent spelling is used. All Jewish communities are identified by both Lithuanian and Yiddish names in folder titles, and by only Yiddish name in folder descriptions (beneath folder title). Jewish communities that do not appear in any the title of any folder are identified by both Yiddish and Lithuanian name. To differentiate instances when a place name is not identifying a Jewish community or organization, only the Lithuanian name (or the common English name, e.g. Warsaw) is provided. A list of all names used for each community referenced can be found here.
It is important to note that the majority of folder descriptions are not intended to comprehensively describe every item within the folder. Due to the large range of activities and subjects undertaken by the institutions of Jewish national autonomy, it was not possible to list every topic addressed in every folder. Thus, language such as "including" or "subjects include" should be taken to indicate that what follows is a selection of the folder contents, not the entirety.
- Creation: 1860-1941
Language of Materials
The collection is primarily in Yiddish, Lithuanian, and Hebrew, with some German, Russian, French, and occasional English, Polish, Latvian, Dutch, and Italian.
The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.
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This collection concerns the Jewish communities which were within the borders of the Republic of Lithuania during the years 1923-1939. The history of Jews in the region was long entwined with the surrounding regions of (modern day) Poland, Belarus, Latvia, Russia, and former Prussia. In the Medieval era the Grand Duchy of Lithuania extended far beyond the lands of ethnic Lithuania throughout modern day Belarus and into Ukraine, parts of Poland and Russia. Beginning in 1386 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland were linked by the Jagiellonian dynasty, and in 1569 were united into a single state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The late 18th century partitions of Poland brought most of the Lithuanian territory into the Russian Empire, supplemented in 1815 with the creation of Congress Poland. The region remained under imperial rule until World War I, when the Russian retreat in 1915 allowed the most ethnically Lithuanian governorates to come under German control. Lithuanian nationalists seized the opportunity, declaring independence on 16 February 1918. The nascent state lost Vilna (Vilnius) and the surrounding region to Poland in 1920, achieving its fixed interwar borders with the addition of the Klaipeda region in 1923.
Grand Duchy of Lithuania
The territory of interwar Lithuania roughly corresponds to the 13th century duchies of Lithuania and Samogitia (Zamut). There is little evidence of Jewish settlement in the region in the late 14th century, when Duke Vytautas the Great granted charters to the Jews of Brest and Grodno and the Karaites of Trakai. The communities that subsequently developed in the 15th and 16th centuries in Kedainiai, Alytus, Merkine, Utena, Vilkaviškis, Pakruojis, Palanga, Šeduva, Žagarė and Kaunas-Slobodka and other towns benefited from the judicial rights and religious autonomy those charters granted. Despite hostility from burghers that resulted in occasional blood libels or expulsions, Lithuanian Jews encountered far less religious persecution and economic competition than their Polish brethren. In this era Jews in the region operated primarily as traders, leaseholders, and tax-collectors. Following the union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569 they turned in addition towards managing noble estate, money-lending, and running rural taverns, as well as expanding into crafts and other occupations.
The highest form of Jewish centralized self-government in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth was the Vaad Arba Aratzot (Council of Four Lands). Formed in the mid-16th century as an extension of the ad hoc meetings of rabbinical courts, merchants, and community leaders, its initial primary purpose was tax administration. By 1623 the communities within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which maintained a separate treasury, had broken off to form the Vaad Medinat Lita (Council of the Land of Lithuania). The council was controlled exclusively by the principal communities, at that time consisting of Brest, Grodno, and Pinsk. Smaller communities were grouped into districts subordinate to one of the principals. Vilna achieved the status of principal community of the Vaad Medinat Lite in 1664.
The area corresponding to modern-day Lithuania (henceforth Lithuania) contained only a small fraction of the Grand Duchy’s Jewish population, but the communities there were enlarged by refugees fleeing massacres by the Cossack forces of the Chmielnicki uprising in 1648 and the Russian army in 1655. Relative stability later in the 17th century and especially in the 18th century brought growth and the formation of about 100 new communities in Lithuania between 1650 and 1795. Jews were drawn to remote villages to fill the roles of artisans, lessees, middlemen, shopkeepers and merchants. By 1720 Zamut had been divided into three administrative districts by the Vaad Medinat Lite (Kėdainiai, Birzai, and Vyzuonos) and was responsible for 13 percent of the Jewish tax burden in the Grand Duchy. The census of 1765 indicates a total Jewish population in Lithuania of approximately 66,500. The largest Jewish communities were in Vilnius, Jurbarkas, Kalvarija, Birzai, and Kaunas.
World War I and aftermath
The German occupation government permitted a Vilnius Conference to convene between September 18 and September 22, 1917, with the demand that Lithuanians declare loyalty to Germany and agree to an annexation. The Conference elected a 20-member Council of Lithuania (Taryba) and empowered it to act as the executive authority of the Lithuanian people. On February 16, 1918, the Council adopted the Act of Independence of Lithuania, proclaiming the restoration of an independent Republic of Lithuania, governed by democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital. However, Germany hindered from forming an administration. Only after Germany officially lost the war and signed the Armistice of Compiègne on 11 November 1918, could Lithuania form their first government, adopt a provisional constitution, and start organizing basic administrative structures.
The Provisional Government of Lithuania included 3 Jewish representatives, delegated by the Zionist conference which took place in Vilna in December 1918. They were: Simon Rosenbaum ( Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs), Nahman Rachmilewitz (Deputy Minister for Trade and Industry), and Jacob Wigodski (Minister for Jewish Affairs). By the end of December 1918, the Red Army advance in the wake of German withdrawal reached Lithuanian borders, forcing the Lithuanian government to flee to Kaunas. Jacob Wigodski remained in Vilna. Hundreds of Jewish men joined the Lithuanian army to defend Lithuania against the Soviet forces. Fighting between Lithuania and the Soviet Union largely ceased by late summer 1919, but conflict with Poland over the Vilnius and Suwałki regions continued into late 1920, with the regions ultimately remaining under Polish control. As a result, neither region participated in Lithuanian Jewish national autonomy.
Jews in Lithuanian national politics
The Constituent Assembly of Lithuania (lit. Steigiamasis Seimas) was elected in 1920 to draft and adopt the 1922 constitution of Lithuania. 6 of the 112 representatives were Jewish: Ozer Finkelstein, Naftali Friedman (replaced by Samuel Landau after Friedman’s death in 1921), Abraham Popel, Nahman Rachmilewitz, Simon Rosenbaum, and Max Soloveichik. 3 Jews (Julius Brutzkus, Leyb Gorfinkel, and Josef Berger) were elected to the First Seimas, the parliament that would replace the Constituent Assembly. However, the Prime Minister was unable to form a majority coalition and the Seimas was dissolved in March 1923. Elections for the Second Seimas were held in May. 7 out of 78 seats went to Jews: Isaac Brudny (later Joseph Roginsky), Simon Rosenbaum (later B. Berger), Jacob Robinson, Leib Garfunkel, Meshulem Volf (later Isaac Holzberg), Yosef Kahaneman (later H. Abramovich), and Ozer Finkelstein. The Second Seimas was the only interwar Seimas to complete a three-year term. The elections of the Third Seimas took place in May 1926, resulting in 3 Jewish deputies: Ozer Finkelstein, Leib Garfunkel, and Jacob Robinson. Following a military coup d'état in December 1926, the Third Seimas was dissolved on April 12, 1927 and new elections were not called until 1936.
Jewish National Autonomy
In June 1919, Max Soloveichik was chosen to replace Wigodski as Minister of Jewish Affairs and a provisional law was passed defining the scope and establishing a budget for the Ministry of Jewish Affairs, the first formal institution of Jewish autonomy in the Republic of Lithuania. Provisional regulations for community council (Vaad Hakahal) elections quickly followed, and the first Vaadei Hakehilot were elected in July, though only 13 communities participated.
On 5 August 1919 the Lithuanian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference presented to the Committee of Jewish Representatives “The Declaration on the Rights of the Jews in Lithuania.” The declaration promised equal rights and proportional representation; the right to use Jewish languages in public life and government; state support for Jewish schools; a cabinet-level department to handle Jewish concerns, autonomy in internal affairs; internally elected bodies to administer autonomy in the form of local communities and a communal union, and the rights for those bodies to issue laws, tax their members, and receive subsidies from the state.
Political parties, education, and culture
Decline of Jewish autonomy
44 Linear Feet
The Lithuanian Jewish Communities Collection is comprised of documents relating to Jewish cultural, religious, social, political, and economic life in approximately 150 towns in Lithuania. The bulk of the collection pertains to the period between 1919 and 1926, when elements of a system of Jewish national autonomy existed within the Lithuanian state, including a Ministry of Jewish Affairs and governmentally empowered Jewish community councils. Smaller parts of the collection relate to the periods before (1860-1918) and after (1927-1940) the autonomy.
The arrangement of this collection was generated by YIVO archivists in the 1950s, according to the provenance of the material. A small quantity of formerly unprocessed material was integrated during the Edward Blank Vilna Online Collections project; such items are indicated as "not microfilmed" in this finding aid.
The collection is arranged in the following series:
Series I: Jewish National Autonomy in Lithuania, 1919-1939
Series II: Jewish Communities during the period of Jewish National Autonomy, 1911-1939, bulk 1919-1926
Subseries 1: Records of community councils, 1919-1926
Subseries 2: Addendum, 1911-1939
Series III: Records of Jewish Communities, 1860-1940
Subseries 1: Historical community records, 1860-1940
Subseries 2: Political parties and movements, 1885, 1918-1940
Subseries 3: Occupational-economic activities, 1910-1911, 1921-1940
Series IV: Records of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society in Lithuania, 1884-1941
Subseries 1: Internal records, 1918-1940
Subseries 2: School systems, youth organizations, theater and cultural activities, 1912-1941
Subseries 3: Antisemitism in Lithuania, 1915, 1922, bulk 1939-1940
Subseries 4: Photographs, 1884, 1903-1939
Other Finding Aid
A Yiddish catalogue was created by YIVO archivists in 1957 and has been translated into English.
These records were part of the YIVO Vilna Archives which were looted by the Nazis during World War II and recovered by YIVO New York after the war.
Physically oversize items have been removed from their folders and placed in special oversize storage for preservation purposes. Most of these items were microfilmed in their original positions with their respective folders. Digital images of physically separated oversize items can be found at the end of the digital files for their respective folders.
The first segregation of material was worked out by J. Shteinbaum and Leyzer Ran. Processing was carried out by E. Lifschutz and Z. Szajkowski, who compiled the first catalogue of the collection in 1957. Further processing was performed in 2017 by Jessica Podhorcer and Agneška Avin in the course of preparing the collection for digitization.
Genre / Form
- Business records
- Bylaws (administrative records)
- clippings (information artifacts)
- Financial records
- Lists (document genres)
- Minutes (administrative records)
- Official documents
- Political posters
- Printed ephemera
- Receipts (financial records)
- Tax records
- Vital statistics records
- Antisemitism in the press
- Autonomy and independence movements
- Banks and banking, Cooperative
- Child care
- Economic assistance
- Jewish families
- Jewish old age homes
- Jewish refugees
- Jewish theater
- Jews -- Charities
- Jews -- Economic conditions
- Jews -- Education
- Jews -- Legal status, laws, etc
- Jews -- Lithuania
- Jews -- Lithuania -- History
- Jews -- Migrations
- Jews -- Politics and government
- Jews -- Social conditions
- Jews in public life
- Jews, Lithuanian
- Minorities -- Legal status, laws, etc
- Postwar reconstruction
- Guide to the Lithuanian Jewish Communities Collection, 1860-1941
- Originally processed by Ezekiel Lifschutz and Zosa Szajkowski in the 1950s. Materials further processed, described, prepared for digitization and finding aid encoded by Jessica Podhorcer in 2017-2018.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Additional work funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.