Jews performing the rite of tashlikh (the ceremonial casting away of sins on Rosh Hashanah), Šiauliai, 1930s. (YIVO)

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(Yid., Shavli), town in northern Lithuania, center of Jewish learning and Haskalah. Šiauliai was a royal town during the period of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Jews were permitted to settle there under a charter from King Jan Sobieski in the second half of the seventeenth century, and the first synagogue was built in the early eighteenth century.

Students with their teachers at a Jewish school for girls financed by the wealthy industrialist Khayim Frenkel, Shavli, ca. 1905. (YIVO)

At the time of the Polish partitions, the Jewish population numbered 687. Šiauliai was later annexed to Russia, first as part of the Vilna province, and then was transferred to the Kovno province, where it served as the district town of the uezd (district) of Shavli, which contained 11 other Jewish communities (including Zhagore [Zagare], the birthplace of both Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter [Lipkin] and the father of the poet Osip Mandel’shtam). By 1847, the Jewish population had grown to 2,565, to approximately 7,000 by the end of the nineteenth century (representing roughly 43% of the total population), and to 12,000 by the outbreak of World War I. Under tsarist rule, Shavli—connected by train to the interiors of both Russia and Germany—grew into an important center of the tannery and leather industry. Khayim Frenkel’s leather factory was one of the largest of its kind in the region. Its most prominent rabbi was Yosef Zekharyah Stern, author of commentaries on the Talmud, agadah, the Shulḥan ‘arukh, the Five Scrolls, and the Passover Haggadah. In the poem “Kotso shel yod” (The Tip of the [Hebrew letter] Yud), Stern was parodied as a soulless fanatic by the Hebrew poet Yehudah Leib Gordon, who from 1860 until 1865 was the head of the government-sponsored Jewish school in the town, and the founder of a school for Jewish girls.

During World War I, Shavli was the site of a battlefield, and many Jews and other residents fled, never to return. In interwar Lithuania, Šiauliai’s Jewish population of about 8,000 was second only to that of Kaunas; its leather industry expanded and an important Bata shoe factory, owned by Jews, was located there, as well as linen, furniture, and chocolate factories. There were 15 synagogues in Šiauliai, including prayer houses of carters, merchants, tailors, shoemakers, butchers, and grave diggers as well as of Hasidim; a yeshiva; and both traditional and modern Jewish schools. Its Jewish residents were active in both internal Jewish cultural life and civic affairs; indeed, a Jew served as vice-mayor.

In 1940, Šiauliai and the rest of Lithuania were annexed to the Soviet Union, and then was occupied by the Nazis. A ghetto was established in Shavli, and most of its Jewish residents, as well as Jews from neighboring towns, were murdered there. After the war, the Jewish population reached a peak of approximately 4,000, but declined significantly during the waves of emigration of Lithuanian Jews to Israel. Šiauliai has thrived since Lithuania achieved independence in 1990; its population reached 133,528 in 2004, but only a tiny number of Jews remain.

Suggested Reading

Yosef Rozin, “Shevl / Šiauliai,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Lit’a, pp. 658–672 (Jerusalem, 1956); Eliezer Yerushalmi, Pinkas Shavli (Jerusalem, 1958).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 2, Lithuanian Jewish Communities, Records, 1844-1940.