Lithuanian Jews: what were they like?

There is a typical image of clever, prudent and frugal Jew formed in traditional Lithuanian folklore. This image perfectly describes the Jewish group historically-formed in current Lithuanian territory – Litvaks. Litvak’s main feature is a rational outlook, a realistic assessment of the world, practical approach to daily matters. Although for Lithuanian Jews religion was an integral part of everyday life, while making their decisions, they usually relied on their own rational thinking rather than folk wisdom and advice.

Seeing Jewish success in many professional businesses, some people began to create stories about this relatively closed community. The truth is much simpler. The Jews paid special attention to education: knowing that science and education is the best investment that pays off they tried to fully educate children from an early age. Jewish economic well-being was caused by their distinctive approach to work: according to them all kind of work is honorable and valuable; there could be no business or a trade degrading someone so they got engaged in a variety of works ranging from trade to handicraft and agriculture. Czarist Russian Empire introduced a ban on Jews to dispose private property, so the ability to work in agricultural field has become very limited. Thus the Jews settled down mainly in urban areas where they could have the flexibility to work in trade, or later in industry.

Simplicity and pragmatism accompanied the Jews in all walks of life – that you can see them perfectly at home: both in appearance and lifestyle and home environment witnessed Jewish modesty. Because of the poor economic situation of the Russian Empire and the restrictions on the Jews, Jews who lived in this area, have developed frugality, prudence and rational features, know today.

Settling of the Jewish people in Jonava

It is known, that before the Second World War, most of the residents of Jonava were Jews – for almost two centuries, they ranged from 50 to 80 percent. Why did the Jewish community love Jonava? Jonava is not a unique case – at that time Jewish people did not have their own national state so they settled down in major European cities.

It is believed that the first Jews moved to the Lithuanian cities in the fourteenth century, when Grand Duke Vytautas the Great granted privileges, and by the sixteenth century their communities were settled in state cities.

Jewish input to the city budget was huge so the landlord of private cities has also become interested in attracting as many Jews as possible to their own town. In 1750 Mariana Kosakovskiene got the privilege of Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland ruler Augustus III to establish private town of Jonava. The right to accommodate people of various nationalities and religions was also mentioned in this document. A bit later son of Mariana and Dominic Kosakovski – the Bishop Joseph Casimir Kosakovski became Jonava’s guardian and announced the right for the Jews to dispose the private property – land and real estate. This legal act was named ‘The Privileges of Bishop’.

To encourage Jewish people to move to Jonava, Kosakovski granted a salary for Rabbi, took care of the construction of synagogue and bathhouse and has provided a plot of land for the Jewish cemetery. Jewish townspeople become fond with town located at the crossroad of important roads, which has guaranteed good conditions for trading, so the number of Jews in Jonava had grown. Jews paid much attention to educational and social activities, had their own schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly, a library, a kindergarten, there were a dozen of social clubs in Jonava.

Jewish lifestyle and businesses

Major Jewish business in Jonava, as well as in other cities, was trade. Therefore, Jews used to settle around the market square and in main streets leading to it. There were two markets in Jonava held on different days of the week: food was traded in the very center in front of St. Jacob’s church (where now ‘Panerio’ elementary school is) and the cattle market was on the outskirts. Small businessmen were usually trading foods while wealthier merchants had stores of radio technology, bicycles, large household items. Neris river, flowing through Jonava town, was used for shipping goods across the county, so Jonava was famous for trade of agricultural products for many years. Only merchants of Kaunas could compete with Jonava’s Jewish businessmen in trade of grain.

Some Jews of Jonava were also engaged in crafts. They were known and valued for their diligence and good knowledge of crafts. In the fourth decade of 19th century St. Petersburg – Warsaw postal road, connecting the old capital with Central European cities, was built. Soon it began to buzz with cargoes, passenger and mail transport. Local Jews were quick to provide horse transport and maintenance related services, increasing numbers of cabmen, wheelwrights, smiths and carpenters. Wooded surroundings of Jonava influenced wood manufacturing crafts, leading them to industry in the beginning of 20th century.

Connections inside and outside the city have improved in a result of Jewish entrepreneurs developing public transport facilities. “Taxi” predecessor was in service every day except Saturday – the holy day for Jewish people. The city buzzed with a dozen of passenger coaches and few tens of carriages transporting passengers and goods to the railway station or main cities – Kaunas, Ukmergė, Kėdainiai.

What did the old Jonava look like?

The special Jewish way of life influenced the cityscape of Jonava old town. The government of Czarist Russian Imperia banned Jews from owning any land, so they were forced to live in small rented plots. They worked in trade business, so it was important to develop a good strategic location for business and trade, to have access to main streets with greatest flows of potential clients. Current Kaunas, Vilnius, Klaipėda streets were mostly populated by Jewish people, so the sites here were smallest and buildings were crammed.

In the remained fragment of Kaunas street it is possible to see how did the central part of Jonava looked like a hundred years ago: streets were full of one- or two-storey small, long buildings facing the street. Home owners lived on the second floor or the attic, the first floor was for business and the basement was for storage of goods.

Larger houses and sites were located further from the city center, where agricultural fields were cultivated by people of other religions and nationalities – Orthodox Christians, Poles and Lithuanians. Remaining buildings do not reflect a precise image of the ancient Jonava, because almost all of the town was wooden; only wealthier merchants had brick houses which were located in the city center.

Poorest Jews were settled in wooden shacks in present Klaipėda street – far away from main commercial places. During the World War II city was destroyed, most wooden houses burned down and later were replaced with block houses of the Soviet period.