Jewish economic life in Kėdainiai and vicinity before WWII

By Aryeh Leonard Shcherbakov and Moshe Girshovich

The purpose of this study

In 2011, the director of the Kėdainiai Regional Museum, Rimantas Žirgulis, compiled a list of Jewish enterprises active in Kėdainiai in the interwar period (Source #1). Here we extend his work, using newly found materials, including: the “All Lithuania Information Book, 1931” (Source #2); Lithuanian telephone directories from 1924 to 1940 (Sources #3-8); a list of Lithuanian enterprises nationalized by the Soviet government in 1940 (Source #9), and the Keidan Memorial (Yizkor) Book (Source #10). We thus attempt to profile the Keidan Jewish community’s economic life before WWII.

Historical background

Jews were likely in Kėdainiai from the 15th century, although the earliest written records date from 1624. For centuries, Jews lived relatively peacefully alongside the other national and religious communities there. On May 17, 1915, with the First World War raging, Russian military authorities ordered the Jews of Kėdainiai, and other Lithuanian towns and villages, to leave their homes with only those belongings they could carry. Most were sent by train to various parts of the Russian Empire; a few managed to drive carts to Vilna. The Jews’ property left behind was looted, and their houses occupied by other people.

A small number of refugees who had stayed in Vilna during the war were allowed by the German occupation authorities to return to Kėdainiai between 1916 and 1918; The rest remained in Soviet Russia until 1920 or 21. While most reclaimed their homes, they had to start life again practically from the scratch. It was tough at first, but step by step, brick to brick, a new foundation was built. Some were helped by relatives already living abroad in South Africa or the U.S. A new Jewish People’s Bank helped many to restart businesses. Over the next 20 years, people built themselves anew, benefitting not only their families and their community, but also the wider population of the Kėdainiai district. The economic status of the Keidan Jewish community before the Second World War is depicted in the Keidan Memorial Book (Source #10), p.133.

Looking at the “All Lithuania Information Book” (Visa Lietuva) for 1931 (Source #2), published in 1932 in Lithuanian and German, it is striking to see how many enterprises were created, owned, and managed by Jews. This is not surprising since: 1. Jews were forbidden to possess land in the Russian Empire, and were also constrained from pursuing government and academic careers. To create a source of income they most often became traders or artisans; 2. Like other minorities in the world, they had to be active, productive, and mobile; 3. They were on average more educated than the rest of the local population.

Under the Russian Empire, Lithuanian people were oppressed. Most were rural, attached to the estates of landlords and later on their own farms, making their living from hard agricultural work and generally traveling no farther than the nearest market town. Jews provided mobility, services, and merchandise. After Lithuania became an independent state in 1918, education and urbanization began to rise, with Lithuanians moving from villages to small and large towns. The emerging Lithuanian middle class began to view Jewish businesses as undesirable competitors. New Lithuanian cooperatives were organized, aided by a nationalist Lithuanian government, whose laws and regulations increasingly restricted Jews. By the mid-1930s, anti-Jewish sentiment, based on traditional religious prejudice, was being amplified and inflated by the poisonous Nazi propaganda flowing over the border. The Jews’ economic situation deteriorated, but it was still possible to survive.

The economy for Jews and non-Jews alike was upended following the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in June 1940. Many private enterprises were nationalized (see Source #9). The invasion by Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941, terminated Jewish economic life in Lithuania. In Kėdainiai, all that had been achieved by hard work and persistence lost its meaning when the entire Jewish community was murdered on August 28, 1941. The Jewish presence in Kėdainiai ended, probably forever.

What can be seen in the data

We have tried to collect all available data from the sources listed below, to show what Jewish businesses existed in Kėdainiai between 1924 and 1940. Naturally, not all of them were active at all times during this period. To see when a particular business was active, the source column in the tables below provides such information, as each telephone directory reflects the situation in a given year.

The collected data confirms that Kėdainiai Jews played a major role in the town’s economy. We have counted more than 200 businesses in Kėdainiai town, and more than 150 in the wider Kėdainiai district. Following the Soviet annexation of Lithuania, 33 enterprises were nationalized in 1940 (we do not have data for 1941, when many more were nationalized). All the data is shown in the tables below. Since quite a number of small businesses had no telephones, this list, based on telephone directories, must be seen as incomplete. Based on those we know of, a cursory analysis shows how many were involved in the following activities:

Specialization Kėdainiai town Kėdainiai district
Food trade 25 4
Grain trade 17 15
Meat trade 15 9
Textile and clothing trade 11 25
Leather and footwear 10 10
Sewing and hat making workshops 7 1
Mills 7 16
Ironmongers 7 11
Haberdasheries 6 1
Restaurants 6 5
Hotels 6 0
Beer and wine production and trade 5 0
Doctors 4 3
Fuel trade 3 0
Mechanical workshops 3 1
Transportation means 3 4
Pharmacies 3 1
Power stations 0 2
Trade in agricultural products 2 8
Trade in forest materials 1 4
Sawmills 1 5
Movie theaters 2 0
Lawyers 2 0
Bakeries and confectioneries 2 + 5 2 + 2
Carbonated water production 2 2

Among the enterprises not included in the table, notably, are a printing house and a bookstore.

The identification problem

We cannot be certain that all Jewish enterprises are identified as such here. As a rule, we looked for Jewish-sounding names and surnames. (Some family names are well known to us.) Some businesses were recorded without the owner’s name, while the ethnicity of others can’t be determined based on their family or personal names. Those where the owner’s identity is uncertain are marked with an asterisk (*). We included such businesses in hope that some readers will be able to help identify and correct these entries. For example, there was a “Naftproduct” firm in Kėdainiai, dealing in fuel/gasoline products. From early phone directories the ownership is unclear, but later directories clarify that it belonged to three Jewish partners — Volpertas, Šapiro, and Gadienė. The Lithuanian-sounding movie theater “Svajone” (the “Dream”) listed between 1935 and 1940, appears to be the same “Rekord” movie theater that belonged to the Berger brothers. We assume that the “Birutė” hotel on 43 Gedimino Street was also under Jewish ownership; first, because it was in a predominantly Jewish area, and second, because Raudonis, the owner of the “Vilnius” hotel, had announced that his was the “only Lithuanian hotel in town.” (Some accounts [see Keidan Memorial Book p.232], suggest he participated in the August 28, 1941 massacre.)

Our study relies heavily on telephone directories. As the telephone was still rather new and unusual at that time, we assume that practically everybody possessing a phone needed it for business. Thus, all Jewish telephone owners are included in our list, even when they do not specify their occupation or business. For instance, Movšovičius and Kaganas in 1930 still indicated their enterprise just as “butas” (apartment), although we know that even before 1930 this was a popular publishing house, known not only in Kėdainiai, but throughout Lithuania.

On the other hand, we know quite a number of existing businesses that did not posess a telephone and were not included in the phone directory. Mainly these were small businesses, such as tailors, hatters, shoemakers, locksmiths, etc., that were either family businesses or employed very few hired workers. They didn’t need and were not used to a “new” method of advertising (telephone directories).

Our multiple sources sometimes revealed overlapping names in different directories with variant spellings. We selected the one that sounded more correct. It is interesting to watch developments over time, as some owners closed their businesses, while others expanded or started in new directions. When at a certain time a person decided to change his business to a new one or changed address or phone number, we include them all, indicating all sources. While we do not specify when a business profile, address or phone number were changed, this information can be found in the linked sources.

A note about the Lithuanian language

Since all the owners’ names, addresses, business names, and their profiles in the sources are provided in Lithuanian, we present them here in Lithuanian, to enable easy search in other Lithuanian sources. English readers must keep in mind how Lithuanian family names of foreign origin (Yiddish, German, Russian, and others) are constructed. For men, names include the suffixes –as, -is, or –us. When a married woman uses her husband’s name (not a “must” in Lithuania) – it takes the suffix –ienė. Names of unmarried women end in – aitė, -ytė or -ūtė. Thus, a man named Levin would be called Levinas; his wife – Levinienė, and his daughter – Levinaitė. English renderings of all names and surnames appear in round brackets. Business names and their profiles appear in a separate column.

Guidelines for counting

To determine the total number of Jewish enterprises, we decided on several guidelines.

  • We count each enterprise as one, even if two or more owners shared the same business (e.g. Blumzonas and Levinas)
  • When one person owned different kinds of businesses (or changed from one occupation to another), we count each business separately, especially when these had different addresses (e.g., Alterienė Chaya), but also when different businesses were registered at the same address (e.g., Blumbergas Chaimas)
  • If two or more members of the same family held different businesses, each business is counted separately. If they were registered with the same business, we count it as one (e.g., Bergeliai Leizeris and Jankelis)
  • Some businesses were registered at different addresses at various times (e.g., Fridlandai Vigdoras and Michelis). We count them as one.
  • Some people were included in the table below because of the Jewish-sounding name or because of their location in the Jewish quarter, although we are not sure whether they actually were Jewish-owned. They are marked by (*) and not counted. As noted above, we hope that if a mistake was made, readers will be able to correct us.

While we have tried to be consistent with these guidelines, errors can occur.

Explanations for the tables

  • Table 1 includes Jewish enterprises in Kėdainiai town.
  • Table 2 includes Jewish enterprises in Kėdainiai district.
  • Table 3 shows those Jewish enterprises in Kėdainiai district that were nationalized by Soviet authorities between September and December of 1940 (based on Source #9). There were 33 of these in Kėdainiai and vicinity. Unfortunately, we do not have such information from March to June 1941, when nationalization became much more aggressive and widespread, reaching its culmination in June 1941.

Tables 1 and 2 can be viewed as follows:

  • Column 1: the serial number in the alphabetic list of businesses (when the business is considered as already counted, this place is left empty).
  • Column 2: The family and private name in Lithuanian and English. (The latter in round brackets.)
  • Columns 3 and 4: The specialization and the name (if any) of the business in Lithuanian and English.
  • Column 5: The business address and the phone number (if it exists. We do not specify when the phone number was received.)
  • Column 6: The source of information, as listed at the end of the article.

Notes:

  • When data is taken from one of the telephone directories (Sources #3-8), we provide the source and page number, e.g. 4 (p.228)
  • When data is taken from Source #1, we provide the page number and the number of the corresponding entry, e.g. 1 (p.1, n.11)
  • Data from Source #2 (“Visa Lietuva”) can be found in two formats (since they are not always identical, we provide references for both):
    • In the Excel file. Here we provide the entry number, e.g. 2 (975)
    • In the book. Here we provide the page number, e.g. 2 (p.300)

Table 3 is similar, only here column 2 provides nationalization case/file number (as registered by the NKVD), column 7 – nationalization date, column 8 – page number in Source #9.

  • Those looking to identify a family house or enterprise should note that some street names and number sequences have changed.

Table 1

Table 2

Table 3

Sources:

  1. Rimantas Žirgulis, “Kėdainių žydų įmonių sąrašas (tarpukario laikotarpis)”, 2011 [Kėdainiai Jewish enterprises (in the interwar period)]
  2. Ruzgas, “Visa Lietuva/Litauen, Informacinė knyga, 1931m”, išleista Kaune 1932 metais. [“All-Lithuania Information Book, 1931”, published in Kaunas in 1932 (Excel file here )
  3. Lietuvos Telefono Abonentų Sąrašas 1924 [Lithuania Telephone Directory for 1924] (Kėdainiai only)
  4. Lietuvos Telefono Abonentų Sąrašas 1930 [Lithuania Telephone Directory for 1930]
  5. Lietuvos Telefono Abonentų Sąrašas 1935 [Lithuania Telephone Directory for 1935]
  6. Lietuvos Telefono Abonentų Sąrašas 1938 [Lithuania Telephone Directory for 1938]
  7. Lietuvos Telefono Abonentų Sąrašas 1939 [Lithuania Telephone Directory for 1939]
  8. Lietuvos Telefono Abonentų Sąrašas 1940 [Lithuania Telephone Directory for 1940] (Kėdainiai only)
  9. LTSR Prekybos Liaudies Komisariato Nacionalizuotų Prekybos Įmonių Alfabetinis Sąrašas, Kaunas, 1941 m. [Alphabetic List of Nationalized Enterprises, LTSR People’s Trade Komisariat, Kaunas, 1941] (a list of the Lithuanian enterprises nationalized in 1940)
  10. Keidan Memorial (Yizkor) Book, 2018 (translation from the Hebrew edition of 1977)

2 Responses to Jewish economic life in Kėdainiai and vicinity before WWII

  1. Jeff Silverman says:

    Wow!! Kudos on this monumental work!! For me this is like magic. I’ve never known much about Keidan as my paternal Grandmother came to the USA from Keidan in the early 1900’s. She told me the name of her town in the late 1970’s in her last years. I value knowing more about the town she came from. Always seemed unknowable. Thank you for giving definition to Keidan. I very much appreciate knowing more.

  2. Michael Franch says:

    Impressive and valuable. Thanks for this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.