How was “Old” Zagare different from “New” Zagare?
Today, Siauliai, is the largest city in the Samogitia region in north western Lithuania and is the largest 4th largest city in Lithuania. The railway connects it with Riga, Liepaja (Libau), Dvinsk, Vilnius, Kaunas, Tilsit, Klaipeda (Memel) and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). A narrow railway connects Siauliai to Birzai. Siauliai is also a district in which Zagare is a city.
When our ancestors lived there in the 1800’s, life was hard for the Jews. They suffered from man-made and also natural disasters. However, they persisted.
Please keep in mind as you read this, that according to the 1827 All Lithuania Revision List Database in JewishGen.org, Mordekhl and Ber, our ancestors, were listed as living in “Old” Zagare.
First a brief summary:
Zagare is one of the very oldest settlements in Lithuania. The town stretches across the two banks of the the Shveta River divided Zagare into Old and New Žagarė. Because of this, the Jewish community was divided into Old and New Zhager. Each side of the river had its own community with its own rabbis, shochets (religious slaughterers), cantors, including separate cemeteries. The split meant there was also separate arguments over interpreting the Law, and separate deliberations about whom to call for an aliyah (blessing over the Torah), whom to choose as gabbai (head or treasurer of the synagogue), and over other matters.
New Zhager was more modern and well-to-do with better living conditions and nicer buildings, most of which were of 2 stories. New Zhagerers used to lightheartedly refer to the other side as the “Old Zhagerer corpses”. They felt Old Zagare had more poverty and negligence, and an overall lack of energy. The split between New Žagarė and Old Žagarė continued until World War II.
Both New and Old Zagare were considered Shtetls. What is a shtetl? A shtetl is a small market village where Jews lived in the town and non-Jews outside of it. The population in each shtetl ranged from several hundred to thousands. Each shtetl had its own personality with its own traditions from cooking to religion. To understand the role of each household member in a shtetl, read this article, http://rtrfoundation.org/shtetl-front.shtml
Because shtetls were market towns, Jews and Gentiles interacted on a daily basis. The relationship between the Jewish community and the “majority” Lithuanian community was dependent upon many factors, but probably economic conditions and outside political and historical trends were the most important.
Jews often performed functions that Christians were not permitted to. For example, there was a Jewish monopoly of establishments producing and selling alcohol, because under Russian rule, Christian peasants were not allowed to deal in alcohol.
Jewish writers tended to refer to the majority non-Jewish community as “Lithuanians” and themselves as Jews or “Litvaks” (which means Jews who speak a “Lithuanian” dialect of Yiddish).
For a more complete look at life in Zagare, including photos, visit these page:
Chronological Listing of Events
Here is a chronological listing of events that occurred in Jewish life in Zagare up until the time our ancestors were recorded as living there.
- 1495 – Zagare was granted a permit to conduct markets within its territory. One hundred years later, a church was erected on the right bank of the river, around which houses were built and roads were paved in a relatively modern, well-planned manner.
- 16th century until October 1941 – Žagarė (Zhager in Yiddish) had one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania. In its heyday. Zhager was known as a city of Torah and wisdom; it produced famous scholars, writers, and rabbis. “Chachmei Zhager” they were called: the wise men of Zhager.
- 17th Century – The Jewish community played a major role in Žagarė’s economic growth and development since they were engaged in significant commerce. They imported salt and metals, and exported flax, grain, honey, and wax. Also, the Jews had leased the right to charge import duty from the government. Their occupations ranged from artisans to tax farmers.
- Second half of the 17th century Jews settled in Siauliai. At the time of the existence of the Jewish autonomous body, ‘The Council of Lithuania’ (1623-1764), Siauliai was part of the Kedainiai region.
- 1665 -the Swedish armies invaded Samogitia, imposed heavy taxes on Siauliai and rioted against the Jews. During the ‘Northern War’, while passing through Siauliai the Swedes robbed the small Jewish community and left them destitute.
- 1681 – Jews lived in the city after receiving special permission to do so.
- End of the 17th century – there were 100 houses. This area became known as “New Zagare,” and the area on the left bank, the older section, was called “Old Zagare.” Both areas were governed by separate municipal administrations. Everyday contact between the two sections was maintained via a wooden bridge over the Svete River. In time, the population of New Zagare exceeded that of Old Zagare –and the economic, social, and standard and quality of living surpassed the level of their veteran sister-town as well.
- 1648-1649 – During the time of the pogroms when thousands of Jews perished at the hands of the Khmelnytsky bands in Poland and the Ukraine, many refugees arrived in Samogitia (Zhamut)
- 1705 – Zhager residents suffered many adversities including the Russian-Swedish war
- 1721– the Jews were given permission to build houses on church land
- 1731 – the city lord granted them permission to found a community, to build a synagogue and to purchase a lot for a cemetery. After that the community began to grow.
- 1748 – a Jewish cemetery was established on land bought by R. Yisrael Nurok. Until then, the Jews buried their dead in the nearby towns of Siaulenai and Lygumai.
- 1749 – a synagogue too was built in. This synagogue survived until the First World War when it was burnt down.
- 1766 – there were 840 Jews in Old Zager and 313 in New Zager. As a result of its proximity to *Courland, Zagare became one of the first centers of the Haskalah movement in Russia and gained renown as “a town full of scholars and scribes.
- 1775 – the city became a regional center with self-rule and the Jews were given the right to appoint their own judges with the right to rule in accordance with the laws in matters of conflict among themselves. A similar right was given also to the local rabbi. The Jews also had the right to appeal to a higher court.
- By 1790 – Žagarė’s market place was occupied by about 50 Jewish families, who owned 30 shops and taverns in and around the town. Jews exported linen, grain, and wheat to Germany
- 1803 – the market area was paved. Jews set up factories for processing bristles, candles, mead, wire, and hides; they did a brisk trade in flax, grains, metal, wines, and machines.
- 1812 – the Jews suffered from Napoleon’s armies as they invaded the city and also from the Tsar’s army as it retook the city after the retreat of the French.
- 1812 – the Napoleonic army conquered the city and 36 out of 220 houses were burnt down.
- 1831 – After the Polish revolt, the economic and political situation improved for the Jews.
- 1839 – the authorities published a regulation which allowed the Jews to participate in the elections to the town council with the intent to weaken the Polish influence.
- 1840 – the middle of the 19th century, most Jewish children were taught in crowded Kheders – 20-30 children in a small place. In an association called ‘Kneh Binah’ (acquire wisdom) was founded and it lasted for some 25 years. Its aim was to spread education among the Jews.
- 1840 – A governmental order in, ordering the expulsion of Jews from the villages, and the order of 1850, expelling them also from the towns close to the German border, was a heavy blow to the Siauliai community as many of the exiles found shelter in the city and competed economically with the local Jewish residents. The result was a further deepening of the poverty and need in the community.
- Until the middle of the 19th century the Jews made a livelihood of petty trade, peddling, carting, etc. Jews also owned inns, livery stables and taverns. Most of the Jews had sparse incomes and lived under difficult conditions.
- In 1843 – when Kaunas gubernia was formed, the Jews were administered by kahals (the term is used in the meaning of the administrative body of the Jewish community);
- 1844 – kahals were abolished and the administration of the Jewish population was entrusted to local municipalities, under the supervision of the gubernia administration; they were obliged to keep family lists, alphabetical lists of heads of households, lists of army recruitment districts, copies of revision lists and various records concerning taxation, including lists of taxpayers. This is now the main source for genealogical information for this time period.
- 1843-1845 – famine – the community received a loan from the government to be used to finance food for the hungry. Later, the council was unable to repay the money and to pay the annual poll tax. The government demanded repayment of the debts including interest and as a result the Jewish population was impoverished and many left the city.
- 1847 – The Jewish population grew to over 2,200
- 1848 – a cholera epidemic took many lives
- 1855 – After Tsar Alexander the Second took the throne in, the situation of the Jewish community in Siauliai improved. The government forgave the community the repayment of the loans granted during the famine years, as well as the taxes and imposts the community owed the authorities; the decree expelling the Jews from the frontier villages was canceled and the Jews who had lived there before 1858 were permitted to return to their previous homes as permanent residents.
- 1861 – Siauliai suffered a blood libel. The trial, in which the accused Jew was eventually vindicated and freed, lasted five years. Sundry plots against the Jews, such as the murder of Christian children or poisoning of wells continued to be bruited about for years thereafter.
- 1863 – another Polish revolt, which was suppressed by the Russians, resulted in many Jewish casualties.
- 1864 – Fires again. Also the sanitary conditions in Old Zagare were poor due to over-crowding. Most houses were wooden. The only stone structures were a synagogue, a school and a ritual bath.
- 1867 – -the “Somekh Noflim” society (a loan charitable society) was founded, which made interest-free loans to the needy with weekly repayments.
- 1867 – 1869 – after crops failed for two years running, there was again great hunger. The situation of the Jews, who suffered greatly from the famine, was eased somewhat thanks to the assistance extended them by the committee organized under the leadership of the rabbi of Kaunas, Rabbi Yitskhak Elkhanan.
- 1872 – a fire broke out in Siauliai and about 700 people lost their possessions. Another fire in 1884 burnt down some 50 Jewish homes.
- 1877 – -Haim Frenkel (1857-1920) built a small hide-dressing plant in Siauliai, which expanded within a few years to become one of the largest in Russia. Thousands of Jewish and gentile families earned a living from the plant. In 1905, in the World Exhibition in Paris, the plant won a gold medal.
- 1879 – the government opened a primary school, but only a few parents sent their children there because of the opposition of the ultra orthodox. The children of the wealthy and of the maskilim, studied at the Russian high school, active from 1851. In 1899 it had 386 students, 44 of them Jews.
- In the following years trade and industry began to flourish in the town. The paving of the St. Petersburg – Berlin road, and later the laying of the Liepaja – Romny railway line, contributed to the general welfare.
- In 1879– Ziv founded a plant for the production of soap and later two more such plants were built, belonging to M. Shapira and to M. Edlstein. Over the years Jews built plants for the processing of flax, iron casting, beer, chocolate
- 1881 – More massive fires caused extensive damage. 400 structures were destroyed, including three stores, the synagogue and beit midrash (house of study), and a community building.
- In 1881, due to the rampant high cost of living at that time, Jewish activists organized the opening of a free food kitchen for the poor, open to all without regard to religious affiliation. The authorities assisted the scheme with monies from the meat tax (Korobka). The Kitchen fed the needy bean soup daily and twice a week supplied bread and meat as well. Jews collected money and sold bread cheaply to the poor.
- 1880’s – wealthy women founded the “Women’s League” in the city. Its aim was to support poor women trading in the market and poor women after giving birth. At the same time, the “Gemilut Khesed” society was founded to make interest-free loans to any needy person against a pawn. A solid building was also built for the society with an office and a store room for the goods. The society “Ma’akhal Kasher” (kosher food) was also active in the city to provide kosher meals to Jewish soldiers stationed there
- 1880’s – 1890’s – Many left Zagare for South Africa and America.
- In 1882– Iserlis built a tobacco and cigarette plant in the town.
- In 1884 – The “Khibat Zion” association had followers in Siauliai from the very start. The list of “Volunteers for our Colonialist Brothers in the Holy Land” contained names of 8 residents from Siauliai., 75 pictures of Moshe Montefiori were sold, to raise money for the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael.
- 1887 – a trade school was opened for poor Jewish children.
- 1630-1893 – Siauliai suffered plagues 7 times, in which hundreds of Jews died. The reason, appears to be, contaminated water. It was only after the plague in 1893 that the town council dug 3 deep artesian wells which supplied the citizens with clean water.
- 1897 – one of the factories in Old Zagare manufactured candles. There were 27 shops and 90 artisans in Old Zagare, compared to 121 shops with 640 artisans in New Zagare.
- 1897 – Rabbi Beri Izkovitch was the rabbi of the town. The Jewish community had chadarim, kindergartens, a “Yavne” network school, a library and its charitable institutions, as well as a Jewish bank. Zagare was famous as a town of torah learning and its scholars were known as “the sages of Zagare”.
- It has been said that Jews and Lithuanians lived in harmony for many years and, in fact, for much of Žagarė’s history Jews and gentiles functioned reasonably well together in a shared economy. Towards the end of the 19th Century relations between the Jews and the authorities improved as a result of the community’s growing prosperity. But eventually came WWII . . .
- 1891 – a Jewish hospital with 12 beds was established in a wooden building. 3 Jewish doctors were called to tend to the sick. Money from the meat tax was used to build a new hospital.
- 1893 -when a cholera plague hit the town, Jewish women organized the voluntary delivery of hot tea to anyone requiring it from six o’clock in the morning until evening. Money for the project was raised from the sale of tickets to a great fete held in the city.
- 1894 – a Hebrew primary school for girls was opened at the initiative of the teacher Ash (Abramson). The school received support from the city administration which funded it from the meat tax.
- 1895 – local youths founded the league ‘Khovevei Sfat Hakodesh” (“Lovers of the Holy Language”) and opened a library. They also gave lectures in Hebrew.
- In 1896 – the “Zionist League” was founded in Siauliai
- 1897 – a solid two-story building was raised, with 24 beds for ordinary patients and another 10 beds for contagious diseases. The building also had an operating theater, a clinic and a pharmacy. The “Bikur Kholim” society was active in supplying medicines and money to poor patients. The old hospital building was converted into an old age home for 16 men and women.
- 1897 – there were 5,443 Jews in Zagare , 60 % of Žagarė’s total population.
- There were also many charitable institutions, including a home for the aged, Bikur Holim. There was a Jewish Peoples Bank. Cultural and intellectual life developed. For many years there was a large library and a bookshop in the town, with an emphasis on Yiddish and Hebrew literature. There were Jewish evening classes, Jewish sports clubs, and even a Jewish fire brigade
- There were also fires in 1909 and 1911; in one post-1900 fire almost all of Old Zhager was destroyed by fire
- 1905 – a Cossack unit dispatched to Zagare wreaked great havoc when they took control during the revolutionary events
- By the early 20th Century, Jews identified themselves with Lithuania’s struggle to free themselves from Tsarist oppression and to establish their long-suppressed cultural identity. Žagarė’s Jews demonstrated strong solidarity with their Lithuanian neighbors. For example, when the Tsarist authorities banned the publication of Lithuanian language books, local Jews helped to smuggle Lithuanian literature from abroad into the country.
- By this point in time, it appears that all of Ber’s offspring have now left Lithuania.
Sources for this page come from: