Kaunas County Archives

Jews in Kaunas guberniya



Megillat Esther (Book of Esther), a caligram bear,
drawn in Kaunas, Lithuania, circa 1870 by Rabbi Elijah Shliomovich,
donated to Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York.
Copy donated to Kaunas County Archives by the Hoffman family.


          The Kaunas County Archives holds the records of various administrative agencies of the former Kaunas guberniya (province), which was formed in 1843 and encompassed the larger part of modern Lithuania.
         The number of the Jewish population of Kaunas guberniya at that time, according to official sources, was more than 80 000, but this number is not based on reliable sources. The data of the census of the Russian Empire of 1897 reveals that the Jews constituted about 12% of all the population of Kaunas guberniya, and this relatively small number was concentrated in towns, especially small towns (shtetls), and constituted a majority there.
         Russian administration considered Jews to be untrustworthy subjects, suspected them of having bad influence on local Christian population, and tried to control, regulate and reform the traditional way of life of the Jewish communities. A negative attitude of Russian administration towards Jews was also conditioned by the prevalence of Jewish tradesman in economic life of Kaunas guberniya, and this posed and obstacle to expanding Russian influence in Lithuanian provinces. This policy of restrictions, strict control and forced integration into society of the Russian Empire was reflected in many legal acts . The policy of Russian government towards the Jewish pouplation was implemented by local agencies, such as Kaunas guberniya administration, local municipalities, police, etc.
         The Jews of the Russian empire belonged to the unpriviledged class of tax-paying population, which had to pay direct capitation tax, was subject to military service, suffered from restrictions on geographic mobility. Legal status of the Jewish population was regulated by the Statutes of 1804 and 1835. Like all the unprivileged classes, Jews had to be registered in revision lists (revisions took place in 1811, 1816, 1834, 1850, 1858) where all the members of each family had to be listed and their age indicated.
         From 1827 Jews had to serve in the Russian army, which was formed on the basis of recruitment of a certain number of men from each thousand of males of unpriviledged classes; at that time service lasted 25 years. Jewish children as young as 12 years old could be conscripted, and in the holdings of the archives there are many files on the complaints of the Jewish parents about the illegal conscription of their children. In 1874 recruitment was replaced by universal compulsory military service , so lists of Jewish conscripts, certificates issued to them, files on putting fines of 300 rub. on the families of men who avoided conscription constitute a large part of the records pertaining to military service.
         In 1844 Jewish kahals were abolished and Jewish communities were formed (in Kaunas guberniya 74 communities were formed instead of 119 kahals ); control of their fiscal and adminstrative matters was entrusted to local municipalities under the supervision of guberniya administration. At the same time new regulations on the payment of box tax (a tax on kosher meat, used for the needs of the Jewish communities and local municipalities) and candle tax (a tax on Sabbath candles used for the needs of Jewish education) were adopted. To estimate these taxes lists of taxpayers of Jewish communties were made, where heads of households were listed and their occupation and financial status indicated. The government also decided to establish state schools for Jewish children, tried to control the election of state rabbis and building of Jewish prayer houses, even imposed tax on wearing traditional Jewish outfit. In 1851 it was decided to distribute Jews into 5 categories – merchants, farmers, craftsmen, “settled town – dwellers”(those who had real estate or business) and the 5th category of so called “useless” Jews who suffered from greater discrimination than other groups; though this formal division did not last long, during this process a comparatively large amount of records was created.
         By decree of April 20, 1843 , all the Jews living within 50 “versta” (linear measure equal to 1,067 km) from the border with Prussia had to be expelled from this zone. In Kaunas guberniya that meant expulsion of almost all the Jewish population of Raseiniai county and many towns in Kaunas and Telsiai counties. To carry out this decree proved to be impossible and finally in 1858 Jews were permitted to live in 50 ”versta” zone near the border, if they were registered as members of local Jewish communities.
         Statute of the Jewish farmers, adopted on December 26, 1844, encouraged Jews to settle as farmers on state land in Kherson and Jekaterinoslav guberniyas and also private and state estates of Kaunas guberniya. The statute was greated with enthusiasm and many Jews expressed their wish to become farmers, but because of the lack of funds and poor organization this policy was not very successful and did not last long. Already in 1859 Jews were forbidden to settle on state lands in western guberniyas, in 1864 Jews were forbidden to buy land from the noblemen and peasants in guberniyas under the authority of Vilnius governor general, in 1867 they were forbidden to rent estates and even plots of land and in 1882 Jews were altogether forbidden to settle outside towns and many Jews still living in the villages had to be evicted .
         At the beginning of the 20th century subjects of the Russian Empire were granted the right to establish political and social organizations, and various Jewish social organizations were registered in every town.
         With the onset of the WWI, Russian governemnt suspected Jews of treason and support of the enemy, so at the beginning of May of 1915 expulsion of the Jews from Kaunas guberniya started and about 150 000 of them were forcibly evacuated to Poltava, Jekaterinoslav and other guberniyas.
         Records created by state agencies in the course of implementation of the policy of Russian government towards the Jews provide a better understanding of the Jewish life in the 19th century Lithuania. Samples of such records are dispalyed in this virtual exhibition.