View of Kaunas from the north, from the park in Wesoluwka, ca. 1922. (YIVO)

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City in central Lithuania. Part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1795 when it came under Russian rule, Kaunas (Yid., Kovne or Kovna; Pol., Kowno; Rus., Kovno; Ger., Kovne) was occupied by Germany during World War I, after which it served as the capital of Lithuania between 1920 and 1941. Occupied by the Nazis until 1944, Kaunas again came under Soviet domination until Lithuania regained its independence in 1991.

Street scene, Kaunas, ca. 1930s. (Right) L. Fainas drugstore. (YIVO)

Kaunas was founded as a fortress site in the eleventh century, and it began to develop as an urban center following the defeat of the Teutonic knights in 1410. From the sixteenth century, the neighboring settlement of Vilijampole (Slobodka) was a private town owned by noblemen (notably the Radziwiłłs); it eventually became a suburb of Kovno. The city developed substantially during the nineteenth century when its population increased tenfold, reaching 87,986 by the eve of World War I.

Jewish merchants visited Kaunas in the fifteenth century and some settled there, notably Daniel of Troki, who leased a local customs station in the 1500s. The succeeding centuries were marked by intense competition between Christian and Jewish merchants and were punctuated by periodic expulsions, for example in 1682 and 1753, of the Jewish population, who moved to Slobodka.

Music class at a kindergarten maintained by the Society to Support the Poor Jewish Child, Kaunas, 1930s. (YIVO)

In 1761, there were violent attacks on Jews and their property, and Jews were once again expelled from the town. This time, Slobodka’s rabbi, Mosheh Soloveichik, responded by suing the municipality before the royal court. The case was not resolved until 1782 after intervention by Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł (1734–1790). In the end, the city’s mayor, who had directed the events, was sentenced to a short imprisonment, and the municipality was required to pay restitution and an indemnity to the Jewish community. Megilat Kovno, a recounting of the story, was read annually on Purim in the old study hall—the first place of prayer established in Kovno.

When the city was incorporated into Russia in 1795, its population was roughly 8,500, of whom 1,508 were Jews. The Jewish population of the town began to grow in the early decades of the nineteenth century—reaching roughly 2,000 in Kovno and 3,000 in Slobodka in 1847—but expanded dramatically in the second half of the century, rising to 16,560 by 1864, to 25,448 (totaling 36% of the town’s population) in 1897, and to 32,628 in 1908 (40%). Early in the second half of the nineteenth century, all residential and occupational restrictions on Jews in Kovno were lifted. The city’s increasing prosperity was stimulated by its location on the new road from Warsaw to Saint Petersburg (1850s) and on a major rail line (from 1863).

After 1850, Kovno began to take its place as a major center of Jewish cultural activity. The number of synagogues, study halls, and other institutions grew, yeshivas were founded, and welfare institutions benefited from the patronage of a growing number of prosperous merchants: for example, a modern hospital was founded in 1854. In 1862, the Kovno community acquired land for a cemetery, and a burial society was founded. Yisra’el Lipkin Salanter founded a Musar yeshiva in about 1848, remaining its head for nine years. From 1864 to 1896, Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor was rabbi of the community. His enormous erudition was complemented by his leadership skills not only for the community but also for Russian Jewry as a whole, and he came to symbolize Kovno’s growing greatness. Although his associate, the educator and historian Ya‘akov Halevi Lifshits (Jacob Lipschitz; 1838–1921), was a zealous opponent of both the Haskalah and its partisans and the nascent Zionist movement, Spektor maintained positive—or at least correct—relations with both. He founded what became a renowned yeshiva (Kolel Avrekhim) in Kovno, to train rabbis and teachers.

TOZ Clinic for Infant Care, Kaunas, 1938. (YIVO)

In Slobodka in 1882, Natan Tsevi Finkel (1949–1927) founded a second Musar yeshiva—known as the Slobodka yeshiva—which became one of the largest in Russia, particularly after the closing of the Volozhin yeshiva in 1892 (a rival non-Musar yeshiva, Keneset Bet Yitsḥak, named for Spektor, was founded in Slobodka in 1897). In the 1920s, Finkel’s yeshiva was attended by hundreds of students, including a significant number from Western Europe and the United States. In 1871, a new, large choral synagogue, Ohel Ya‘akov, was built and became a venue not only for worship but also for cantorial and orchestral concerts.

Although it was not a major center of Haskalah activity, Kovno was home to a group of maskilim by the 1840s, among them Avraham Mapu (1808–1867), author of the first Hebrew novel composed in Russia. By 1889, there were 219 Jewish students at the city’s Russian gymnasium: 104 boys and 115 girls, comprising nearly one-third of all students. Jews were prosperous merchants, building contractors, and industrialists, and began to enter the free professions as well, totaling (for example) 15 of the 24 doctors and 12 of the 23 lawyers in Kaunas. At the turn of the century, however, 10 percent of the Jewish population depended on communal welfare institutions for relief. The number of emigrants, mainly to South Africa and the United States, was also significant.

Matchmaker (right) with a customer in front of “Elyoshkevitsh’s Fancy Goods,” Kaunas, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

Beginning in the 1880s, the Jewish labor movement evoked a strong and positive response in Kovno, and the city became a major center for the Bund after its founding in 1897. Because of its proximity to the Russian border, Kovno became an important transit station in the distribution of antiregime propaganda printed abroad and smuggled into the country. There was considerable collaboration between Jewish and non-Jewish activists in this regard, as there was in the planning of strikes and demonstrations. In mainstream politics, there was also growing cooperation between Jews and their neighbors. Consequently the delegates elected to the first and second Dumas, both of them Jews—Leon Bramson (1869–1941) and Shakhne Abramson (affiliated with the Kadets)—had wide support.

On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Mapu’s birth, a Hebrew library was opened and named for him in 1908. A private library was also operated by Abba Balosher, and OPE supported a library in Slobodka. Numerous cultural groups existed in the community, including the Jewish Musical and Dramatic Society and the Society of Lovers of the Hebrew Language.

When World War I began, several thousand Jews fled the city for Vilna and other destinations. Almost all who remained were expelled in May 1915 by the Russian Command, which accused Jews collectively of collaborating with the German enemy. About 9,000 Jews returned to the city after the invaders occupied it. A number of German Jews were involved in the administration of the city, including the Jewish community. A German-language Jewish high school opened, becoming a Hebrew-language school after the war. In the waning days of World War I, Polish, Lithuanian, and Jewish leaders, including Max Solieli (1883–1957), Meshulam Volf (Wolf; 1877–1942), and Leyb Gorfinkel (Garfunkel; 1896–1976), formed an ad hoc municipal administration that was the basis of an elected municipal government, based on a coalition of all parts of the population. 

The census of 1923 indicated that 27 percent (25,044) of the city’s population was Jewish. In municipal elections the following year, Yosef Roginski was elected as vice mayor and Meshulam Volf chaired the municipal council. Jews served on all important committees, and the city and its institutions employed a significant number of them. This short blossoming period in which the Jewish population was accepted reflected a broader national trend for several years after the founding of the Lithuanian state. Kaunas was the seat of the Ministry for Jewish Affairs, and of the Jewish National Council as well, with its elaborate bureaucracy. Progressively from about 1924 and culminating with the change in the state regime in 1926, the institutions of Jewish communal autonomy were dismantled on a national level, and the Jews’ participation in the Kaunas municipality—both as elected officials and as employees—waned.

Despite an increasingly inhospitable environment, the intensity of Jewish communal and cultural activity in Kaunas reached unprecedented proportions. The heterogeneity of Jewish ways of life was richly reflected in Kaunas, from numerous yeshivas to two Hebrew high schools (and the Kovner Folks-Universitet), and five Yiddish daily newspapers including the Folksblat, edited by Mendel Sudarski and Yudl Mark, and the Zionist Yidishe shtime, initially edited by Gorfinkel. The head offices of the central Jewish cooperative bank, which led a network of 81 Jewish people’s banks in 1930, were in Kaunas. Plays were produced, hospitals and other welfare institutions were founded, and youth movements of all stripes had branches in the town. In the 1930s there was a decline in the natural increase of the Jewish population of Kaunas, but numbers once again began to increase because of migration from smaller towns and villages and because refugees from Germany and other countries came to the city. In 1939, Jews formed 23 percent of the town’s population (numbering 32,000).

In June 1940, the Soviets occupied the city, remaining there until June 1941. Hundreds of Jews suspected of capitalist or bourgeois nationalist activities were exiled to Siberia. During the summer of 1940, Dutch and Japanese Consuls Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara took extraordinary measures that enabled several thousand Jews to escape Europe.

The Kovno ghetto, 1941–1944.

During the Nazi occupation of the city on 24 June 1941, armed Lithuanians carried out a bloody attack on Jews in Slobodka and other parts of the city. The precise number of deaths is unknown, but it exceeded 1,000, perhaps by a large margin. The ghetto, now confining 30,000 Jews where 6,000 had lived previously, was sealed in August 1941. An Ältestenrat (or Judenrat) was formed, with Elkhonen Elkes, a physician, at its head and Mendel Kopelman as director of the Jewish police. A series of aktions began immediately and continued until the end of October. In the largest of these, 9,200 Jews were slaughtered at the Ninth Fort, a tsarist-era fortress on the outskirts of the city. In November 1941, there were 17,412 Jews in the ghetto. They experienced a period of relative calm, although under conditions of persecution and oppression, until autumn 1943.

Alongside functioning Jewish institutions, an underground developed that had the sympathy of the Ältestenrat. Several hundred Jews succeeded in escaping the ghetto and joining Soviet partisans in the forests. Transfers to labor camps, mass shootings, and roundups resumed in October 1943. When the Soviet army arrived at the beginning of August 1944, it found 90 Jews in Kaunas. About 2,500–3,000 Kaunas Jews survived German concentration camps, with another 500 among the partisans or hiding in Christian homes.

The census of 1959 noted 4,792 Jews in Kaunas, and in 1979 there were 1,359. In 2005, as a result of emigration and low birthrates, there were approximately 300 remaining. In addition to a communal organization, there were three synagogues, including the Choral Synagogue and a Hasidic prayer group.

Suggested Reading

Leah Alexandrov, “Toldot ha-gimnasyot ha-‘ivriyot be-Kovnah ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam, 1918–1940” (M.A. thesis, Bar-Ilan University, 1983); Abraham Zvie Bar-On and Dov Levin, Toldoteha shel maḥteret: Ha-Irgun ha-loḥem shel yehude Kovnah be-milḥemet ha-‘olam ha-sheniyah (Jerusalem, 1961/62); Leib Garfunkel, Kovnah ha-yehudit be-ḥurbanah (Jerusalem, 1958/59); Dennis B. Klein, ed., Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto (Boston, 1997); Hillel Levine, In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust (New York, 1996); Avraham Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary, ed. Martin Gilbert, trans. Jerzy Michalowicz (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Yidn in Kaunas (Kaunas, 1939).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 116, Territorial Collection: Baltic Countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), , 1919-1939; RG 1160, Lionel S. Reiss, Papers, 1920s; RG 1295, Victor Packer, Papers, 1920- ca. 1950; RG 225, Hersch Wasser, Collection, 1939-1946; RG 2, Lithuanian Jewish Communities, Records, 1844-1940; RG 245,5, HICEM Main Office in Europe, Records, 1935-1953; RG 454, David and Leah Tomback, Papers, 1930s-1960s.



Translated from Hebrew by the editorial staff