Kaunas, Lithuania (ALTSCHULL, SHNAYDER)

Kaunas, Lithuania



Jewish Population:

1897:  9,468 (60% of 15,780 population)

Family Members:

Rabbi Barukh Leyb Altschull, 5x GGFather (father of Reizel Kriger)

B ~1760 Latvia; M Khana Reyza Altschul ; D 1855 Vilkija, Kaunas

Gershon Shnayder, 5x GGFather (father of Morkhel Shnayder)

B ~1785 Kaunas


Kaunas is the second-largest city in Lithuania and the historical centre of Lithuanian economic, academic, and cultural life. Kaunas was the biggest city and the centre of a county in Trakai Municipality of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since 1413.

The town of Kovno was established in the year 1030 by the Lithuanian prince Koinas. Jaroslav, a Russian prince, ultimately defeated Koinas, however. Koinas originally established a fortress and palace on a peninsula in the area where the river Vilya joins the Nemun, in the west. 

This eventually became Kovno. From 1031 until 1280, no written records regarding Kovno exist. For the duration of the wars between the Lithuanians and Germans – wars that lasted from 1280 to 1420 – Kovno was a battlefield, and, according to extant records, the town was demolished and rebuilt fourteen consecutive times. 

Only in the year 1410, after the prince of Lithuania Vytovet (Vytautas) defeated the Germans near the villages Grunwald and Tannenberg in Prussia, did the building of the town started progressing independently.

In 1795, during the third division of Poland, the Kovno area was annexed to the Russian Empire. During World War I, in 1915, the town was conquered by Germany, although it was soon liberated from the German occupants and became part of Poland. Kovno became the temporary capital of Lithuania in the years 1919-1939. 

Already at the beginning of the fifteenth century, during the days of Prince Vytovet (Vytautas), Jews started arriving from Ukraine and Poland to settle in Kovno. Coming first to Vilna, they then moved on to Kovno. 

Original historical documents – the Lithuanian metrikai, the statute, and the books of the state of Lithuania - all record that the first Jews to arrive in Lithuania settled in Trakai, Grodno, and Brisk, among others, and came to Kovno as merchants, settling there temporarily. 

Soon, however, a few Jewish families settled there permanently. German merchants who came from the Union of Hanza towns had a monopoly on commerce in Kovno from before the rule of Prince Vytovet, and they now fought the Jews viciously, forbidding them to settle in the town. In those days, Kovno contained huge warehouses, owned by residents of the Hanza, and the owners had close business ties with Gdansk and Konigsburg. 

It is reasonable to suppose that the first Jews to arrive in Kovno came from Trakai, as Trakai is located on the main road from Vilna to Kovno. Other than these, Jews from Keidan (Kedainiai) also arrived in Kovno, and it appears that it was the latter who established the Jewish settlement in Vilijampole, or Slobodka. Kovno’s original Jewish inhabitants, however, came from Trakai. 

The Trakai Jews were renowned for their business skills and ambitious nature. Some of them were in contact with well-known princes and thus received leases granting them taxation rights. 

It is difficult to say with certainty who the first Jewish settler in Kovno was, but according to the Lithuanian metrikai, it was Daniel, originating from Trakai. 

He leased the taxation station in Kovno between 1450 and 1470 and was considered extremely wealthy man by local standards. His son Zev, known in the metrikai as Zov, inherited his holdings. Daniel’s house in town was estimated to be worth around two hundred shek of coins, an amount equal to 250 dollars, that was considered exorbitant amount Daniel also had other possessions and holdings outside of town. Amongst these was a hill later known as at that time. 

Mount Napoleon; historians investigating Kovno’s history say that this hill was previously known as Jewish Mount (Zydu Kalnas). In fact, Kaunas' Jewish Mount was renamed after Napoleon to commemorate the illustrious French commander, as it marked an important success in his campaign against Russia. 

It is believed that from the top of this hill Napoleon stood proudly watching his army cross the Nemum, which at the time delineated the border between Poland and Russia. 

At the time the hill was still called Jewish Mount, the Kings of Poland-Lithuania forbade Jews to settle en masse in Kovno. They permitted certain Jews with special rights, like Daniel from Trakai and his sons, to settle there as leasers of property from the King. 

Such Jews brought with them servants, agents, clerks, and other Jews who were registered as their assistants. We can see evidence of the prominence of the Jewish merchant Zajev, for instance, by looking at the special permit that King Kasimir obtained for him. 

This concession was obtained in spite of the Teutonic Order, which prevented Jews from traveling in Prussia at the time. King Kasimir obtained special permission for Zajev to visit Gdansk and other areas of Prussia for business reasons.

Vilijampole did not belong to Kovno at that time. It had its own jurisdiction and the land belonged to the Radziwil family, the princes of Keidan. Jews had an easier time obtaining permits to live there. The Vilijampole Jewish community was greatly enlarged by inhabitants coming from Keidan. It became a satellite of the Keidan community and during the days of the Committee of the Jews of Lithuania, Vilijampole belonged to the Keidan district in regards to taxation. 

The Jews of Kovno were periodically exiled by the town’s leaders and were forced on many occasions to leave Kovno. Their good fortune was that they did not need to go far; they were allowed to settle in the nearby Vilijampole. Usually, they would stay there for some time before returning slowly to Kovno, only to start the cycle again. During almost every new ruler, they were once again expelled from Kovno.

In 1464, a plague swept through Vilna and Grodno and many Jews came to settle in Vilijampole. The first Polish king to forbid the settlement of Jews in Kovno was Jegaila Kasimir. This sanction was not diligently observed, and many Jews succeeded in living in Kovno despite it. In 1492, Alexander the First again ordered the expulsion of Jews from Kovno. 

In 1495, an expulsion of all the Jews of Lithuania took place –Jews of Kovno and Vilijampole, as well those from all other settlements of Lithuania, were sent away, and Lithuania was rid of its Jewish inhabitants. We must note here that at this time the governor of the region was a man of Jewish decent by the name of Avraham Josefovic, a Christian convert. He subsequently became the minister of the Lithuanian treasury. 

Even during the expulsion of Jews, he remained the governor of the town, controlling the taxation, which had earlier been under the control of Zejev. Avraham Josefovic diligently tried to help the Jews of Lithuania, and after a while they were allowed to return to their homes. 

In 1795, Lithuania was annexed by Russia, and Kovno became a regional central town in the Vilna Gubernija in 1796. It was also a border town, as the suburb Elkost belonged to Prussia. In 1808, the town Elkost was annexed by Napoleon to the Warsaw Princedom that split from Prussia. However, the anti-Semitism did not quell in Kovno during Russian rule. In 1797, the Christian residents complained to Czar Paul the First, asking him on their behalf to expel the Jews according to the old rules that were still written in the books, and to take their possessions away. The Czar began an investigation. 

The leaders of the Jewish community did not sit idly, proving instead that the Christian complaint was unfounded and, as instructed by the minister of the region Rafnin, the Czar ordered to let the Jews stay in town and continue with their business without any molestation. He recognized that the Jews were numerous in the city’s population, and their part is taxation was significant, and this blind hatred toward them could lead to a destruction of the town from a financial point of view. The Jews decided to use these special privileges that they received from Russian authorities to settle outside of the ghetto. 

Many of the town clerks did not understand the new rules and they kept asking for bribes from the Jews. In addition, new rules were implemented making it difficult for Jews to receive real estate from gentiles who owed them money. There were occasions where the authority had to intervene when Christians did not repay debts to the gentiles. The news laws hoped to prevent this.

At this time, the Jewish community contained 1508 souls. They had a syngaogue – a beit midrash known as the Old Beit-midrash – although they could not support it for an extended period of time, requiring the services of the Jewish community in Vilijampole. Jews wanting to settle in the town of Kovno had to pay a certain amount of money to the Jewish community in Vilijampole for the permission to leave.

In 1812, Napoleon conquered the area. On June 2nd, his large army crossed the Nemun river from the side of Elkost. The Jews found themselves between the battling armies and suffered greatly during this war. When the Russians returned to town, a big celebration occurred. There was a celebration in the central town square, and during the reception some of the Jewish representatives greeted the Russians with Torah books, bread, and salt.

During the days of Czar Nikolai the First, the Jews received more restrictions. This occurred according to the request of fourteen Christian citizens of Kovno. The Jews were only allowed to build in certain suburbs like Slobodka on Janova Street and between Karmelita and Rumsiskes. They were not allowed to fix their wooden homes and were ordered to replace them with homes built of stone. In 1846, they were only allowed to sell their wooden homes to people who vowed to replace them with houses made of bricks. The public servant Reb Tsvi Hirschl Navizar worked tirelessly to change the new rules. 

These were difficult years for the Jews since new rules forced Jewish families to give a certain amount of young boys for long army service. A practice of kidnapping poor Jewish boys to fulfil the draft began. 

After the failed Polish rebellion in 1831, the Russian administration improved its treatment of the Jewish residents in Lithuania. Nothing was changed in the books, but they allowed the Jews to settle in all parts of the city and, with the help of the Jewish public servant, in 1839, they were allowed to take part in the elections of town government. Still, they limited the Jews’ capability of buying real estate in certain areas of the town. In 1842, Kovno became the capital of the region and split from Vilna. This occurred in spite of the fact that the town was fairly small and not sufficiently developed. 

On one occasion, the Russian czar crossed Kovno and was shocked to find it in such neglected condition. The explanation offered for this neglect by the governor of the region was that the cause of this was the limitation of the rights of the Jews to buy real estate. The Czar wanted to receive detailed information about the issue and in 1846, he received detailed documents, which contained an appendix asking him to cancel all the restrictions imposed upon the Jews. This was signed by forty two gentile owners of estates, merchants, clerks, and important residents. 

Upon reading the recommendation of the minister of the region and the general governor, the Czar cancelled in 1858 all the limitations placed upon the Jews of Vilna. In reality, all of these limitations were cancelled in 1864. From that point on, quick progress of modernization of Kovno began, and the Jewish population became more prominent.


Kovno was also a center of Jewish learning. The yeshiva in Slobodka, an impoverished district of the city, was one of Europe's most prestigious institutions of higher Jewish learning. Kovno had a rich and varied Jewish culture. The city had almost 100 Jewish organizations, 40 synagogues, many Yiddish schools, 4 Hebrew high schools, a Jewish hospital, and scores of Jewish-owned businesses. It was also an important Zionist center.

Kovno's Jewish life was disrupted when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in June 1940. The occupation was accompanied by arrests, confiscations, and the elimination of all free institutions. Jewish communal organizations disappeared almost overnight. Soviet authorities confiscated the property of many Jews. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Activist Front, founded by Lithuanian nationalist emigres in Berlin, clandestinely disseminated antisemitic literature in Lithuania. Among other themes, the literature blamed Jews for the Soviet occupation. Hundreds of Jews were exiled to Siberia.

Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Soviet forces fled Kovno. Immediately before and following the German occupation of the city on June 24, anti-Communist, pro-German Lithuanian mobs began to attack Jews (whom they unfairly blamed for Soviet repression), especially along Jurbarko and Krisciukaicio streets. These right-wing vigilantes murdered hundreds of Jews and took dozens more Jews to the Lietukis Garage, in the city center, and killed them there.

In early July 1941, German Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing unit) detachments and their Lithuanian auxiliaries began systematic massacres of Jews in several of the forts around Kovno. These forts had been constructed by the Russian tsars in the nineteenth century for the defense of the city. Einsatzgruppe detachments and Lithuanian auxiliaries shot thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, primarily in the Ninth Fort, but also in the Fourth and Seventh forts. Within six months of the German occupation of the city, the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators had murdered half of all Jews in Kovno.

The Nazis established a civilian administration under SA Major General Hans Kramer. Between July and August 15, 1941, the Germans concentrated the remaining Jews, some 29,000 people, in a ghetto established in Slobodka. It was an area of small primitive houses and no running water. The ghetto had two parts, called the "small" and "large" ghetto, separated by Paneriu Street. Each ghetto was enclosed by barbed wire and closely guarded. Both were overcrowded, with each person allocated less than ten square feet of living space. The Germans continually reduced the ghetto's size, forcing Jews to relocate several times. The Germans destroyed the small ghetto on October 4, 1941, and killed almost all of its inhabitants at the Ninth Fort. Later that same month, on October 29, 1941, the Germans staged what became known as the "Great Action." In a single day, they shot 9,200 Jews at the Ninth Fort.

The ghetto in Kovno provided forced labor for the German military. Jews were employed primarily as forced laborers at various sites outside the ghetto, especially in the construction of a military airbase in Aleksotas. The Jewish council (Aeltestenrat; Council of Elders), headed by Dr. Elchanan Elkes, also created workshops inside the ghetto for those women, children, and elderly who could not participate in the labor brigades. Eventually, these workshops employed almost 6,500 people. The council hoped the Germans would not kill Jews who were producing for the army.

In the autumn of 1943, the SS assumed control of the ghetto and converted it into the Kauen concentration camp. The Jewish council's role was drastically curtailed. The Nazis dispersed more than 3,500 Jews to subcamps where strict discipline governed all aspects of daily life. On October 26, 1943, the SS deported more than 2,700 people from the main camp. The SS sent those deemed fit to work to labor camps in Estonia, and deported children and the elderly to Auschwitz. Few survived.

On July 8, 1944, the Germans evacuated the camp, deporting most of the remaining Jews to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany or to the Stutthof camp, near Danzig, on the Baltic coast. Three weeks before the Soviet army arrived in Kovno, the Germans razed the ghetto to the ground with grenades and dynamite. As many as 2,000 people burned to death or were shot while trying to escape.

Throughout the years of hardship and horror, the Jewish community in Kovno documented its story in secret archives, diaries, drawings, and photographs. Many of these artifacts lay buried in the ground when the ghetto was destroyed. Discovered after the war, these few written remnants of a once thriving community provide evidence of the Jewish community's defiance, oppression, resistance, and death. George Kadish (Hirsh Kadushin), for example, secretly photographed the trials of daily life within the ghetto with a hidden camera through the buttonhole of his overcoat.

The Kovno ghetto had several Jewish resistance groups. The resistance acquired arms, developed secret training areas in the ghetto, and established contact with Soviet partisans in the forests around Kovno. In 1943, the General Jewish Fighting Organization (Yidishe Algemeyne Kamfs Organizatsye) was established, uniting the major resistance groups in the ghetto. Under this organization's direction, some 300 ghetto fighters escaped from the Kovno ghetto to join partisan groups. About 70 died in action. The Jewish council in Kovno actively supported the ghetto underground. Moreover, a number of the ghetto's Jewish police participated in resistance activities. The Germans executed 34 members of the Jewish police for such activities.

The Soviet army liberated Kovno on August 1, 1944. Of Kovno's few Jewish survivors, 500 had survived in forests or in bunkers; the Germans evacuated an additional 2,500 to concentration camps in Germany.





  • Synagogue

Kaunas Synagogue (Lithuanian: Kauno choralinė sinagoga) is one of two operating choral synagogues in Lithuania.[1] It is located in Centras eldership, Kaunas. The Neo-Baroque synagogue was built in 1872.[1] In 1902, before the Holocaust in Lithuania, it was one of over 25 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in the city.