In 1600, King Sigismund III Vasa granted a privilege authorizing the organization of markets and fairs; however, the town rights were not granted until 1792. Some historians consider Gorżdy (Gargždai) to be one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania; mention is also made of centuries-old matzevot in the local cemetery. However, this information has not been confirmed.

According to the census from 1764–1765, 103 Jews lived in the settlement. In the 19th century, the community grew significantly, even though Gorżdy was deprived of its town rights in 1862. In 1827, there were 648 Jews living in the township, and in 1897 - a record 1,455, which constituted approx. 60% of the total number of inhabitants. There was a synagogue. The town was famous for its three annual fairs, and many inhabitants made a living from smuggling goods to Prussia. One of the most prominent figures in this period was the local rabbi Izaak Jakub Rabinowicz (1854–1919). A descendant of a wealthy merchant family from Belarus, in his teaching Rabinowicz deviated from the traditional method of studying the Talmud, known as pilpul (casuistic), in favour of logic and text analysis. In 1889, he took a job as a teacher in the yeshiva in Słobódka. Therefrom, in 1894, Gorżdy moved to the position of a rabbi. After a few years, he left for Poniewież (Panevėžys).

In the interwar period, at the beginning of the 1930s, there were 2,194 people living in Gorżdy, including 1,148 Jews (52.3%). The community earned its living mainly from work in nearby Klaipeda (80% of local Jews), and also from transporting timber to Germany by rafting it down the Mina River flowing to the Nemunas. The annexation of Klaipeda by Germany in 1939, completely broke this economic model. Many Jews opted for emigration. Especially in the last years of independent Lithuania, many young people decided to emigrate to Palestine, the United States and South Africa. There was a camp preparing settlers for Palestine.

The community life in the interwar period was very rich. Jews were the leaders in commercial activities, they also owned manufacturing plants, a mill and a brickyard. Religious services were provided by the synagogue and Beth Midrash, there were also charity societies (including Lechem Anijim, Bikur Cholim and Linat HaCedek). Immigrants from the United States helped create a loan fund for those in need. Children studied in the Talmud Torah. As for the organizations, the Orthodox Tiferet Bachurim association was active, there were also Zionists, including the Maccabi sports club. There was even an Esperanto class, founded by Lejb Szewis (1915–1967). Moreover, there was a dramatic society in the town, led by Zalman Rubinsztein; even the spectators from Klaipeda came to its performances in Hebrew and Yiddish.

The murder of the Jews from Gorżdy was the first mass killing of the operating unit from Tylża, under the command of Sturmbannführer Hans Joachim Bohme. On June 23, 1941, the Gestapo officers from Klaipeda arrested all Jews and "communists". About 200 men were driven westward towards the border with Germany, while 100 women and children were locked in a barn by the Minia River. On June 24, 1941, they all perished in a mass execution.

Bibliography

  • Gargždai, [in:] Mūsų Lietuva, Vilnius 1991, pp. 348–349.
  • Gargždai, [in:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life before and during the Holocaust, vol. 1, New York 2001, p. 416.
  • Holokausto Lietuvoje atlasas, ed. Milda Jakulytė-Vasil, Vilnius 2011, pp. 78–79.
  • Levin D., Rosin Y., Pinḳas ha-ḳehilot Lita, Jerusalem 1996, pp. 187-191.
  • Schoenburg N., Schoenburg S., Lithuanian Jewish Communities, New York 1991.
  • The Census of Lithuanian Jewry in 1764-65 and Historical family Demography. Structure, Categories, Context, eds J. Šaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė, Cracow – Budapest 2015.

Based on the text obtained from the publisher of the Žydai Lietuvoje portal https://zydai.lt/ [access: June 24, 2019, inaccessible: April 10, 2020]

 

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