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KAUNAS (Pol. Kowno; Rus. Kovno; Ger. under Nazi occupation, Kauen), city in Lithuania situated at the confluence of the rivers Viliya and Neman. Formerly in Poland-Lithuania, it passed to Russia in 1795, was occupied by Germany in World War I (1915–18), and became capital of the independent Lithuanian Republic from 1920 to 1939. In World War II it was under Soviet rule from June 1940 to June 1941 and subsequently under Nazi occupation to July 1944. Jews took part in the trade between Kaunas and Danzig in the 16th century. Their competition aroused opposition from the Christian merchants, and through their influence Jews were prohibited from Kaunas on numerous occasions. However, the ban was not strictly enforced, and gradually a small group of Jews settled in Kaunas. The ban was renewed in 1682, and Jews were not permitted to settle in Kaunas and engage in trade until the 18th century when they were permitted to reside in two streets. In 1753 they were expelled from land belonging to the municipality. The Jews were again expelled in 1761, when there were anti-Jewish riots. They found refuge in the suburb of *Slobodka (Vilijampole) on the other side of the River Viliya, where a Jewish settlement had existed long before that of Kaunas. In 1782 the expelled Jews were permitted to return to Kaunas.

After the partition of Poland in 1795 Kaunas became part of Russia. In 1797 the Christians in Kaunas again demanded the expulsion of the Jews, but the authorities in 1798 ordered that they should be left alone, and not be prevented from engaging in commerce and crafts. Restrictions on Jewish settlement there were again introduced in 1845 but abolished in 1858. The Jewish population increased as the town expanded. There were 2,013 Jews living in Kovno (Kaunas) and Slobodka in 1847; 16,540 in 1864; 25,441 in 1897 (30% of the total population); and 32,628 in 1908 (40%).

From the second half of the 19th century, Kovno became a center of Jewish cultural activity in Lithuania. Prominent there were Isaac Elhanan *Spektor (the "Kovner Rav,"; officiated 1864–96), Abraham *Mapu, one of the first modern Hebrew writers, and the literary critic *Ba'al Makhshoves (Israel Isidor Elyashev). The yeshivot of Slobodka became celebrated, in particular the Or Ḥayyim yeshivah, founded by Ẓevi Levitan about 1863, which attracted students from other countries. It was headed by noted scholars. Nathan Ẓevi *Finkel introduced *musar ideals there; from 1881 it was known as the Slobodka yeshivah. Subsequently there was opposition among the students to the musar method, and in 1897 the yeshivah was divided into two: the followers of musar established the Keneset Israel yeshivah, named after Israel *Lipkin (Salanter), while its opponents founded the Keneset Bet Yiẓḥak yeshivah, named after Isaac Elhanan Spektor. In May 1869 a conference was convened at Kovno to help Jewish refugees from northwestern Russia where the failure of the crops had led to famine and an outbreak of typhus. Another was held in November 1909 to work out a proposal for a law to establish Jewish community councils in Russia. The Kovno community maintained numerous ḥadarim, schools, and libraries. It returned Jewish deputies to the first and second *Duma (L. *Bramson and Sh. *Abramson). The Jews in Kovno underwent many vicissitudes during World War I. In May 1915 an edict was issued by the czarist government expelling the Jews from the entire province. When later the city was occupied by the Germans, about 9,000 Jews returned, and communal life was revived with the help of Jews in Germany. Many who had been expelled to the Russian interior returned after the 1917 Revolution.

After Kaunas became capital of independent Lithuania its community grew in importance. There were 25,044 Jews living in Kaunas according to the census of 1923 (over 25% of the total population) and 38,000 in 1933 (30%). The most important Jewish commercial and industrial enterprises in independent Lithuania were in the capital. Other Jewish institutions included a central Jewish cooperative bank, part of the share capital being held by the Jewish people's banks, which numbered 81 in 1930, and were directed from Kaunas. During the period when Jewish national cultural autonomy was authorized in Lithuania, at the beginning of the 1920s, Kaunas was the seat of the Ministry for Jewish Affairs, the Jewish National Council, and other central Lithuanian Jewish institutions and organizations. At the beginning of the 1930s five Jewish daily newspapers were published in Kaunas, the oldest being the Zionist daily Yidishe Shtime, founded in 1919. The network of Hebrew schools included kindergartens, elementary and high schools, and teachers' seminaries. There were also schools where the language of instruction was Yiddish. Many of the youth belonged to the Zionist associations and *He-Ḥalutz. Under Soviet rule from June 1940 to June 1941, the Jewish institutions were closed down. A Yiddish newspaper Kovner Emes was published.

Holocaust Period

During World War II, after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war and even before the Germans occupied the city (June 24, 1941), Jews were killed in Kaunas by Lithuanian Fascists. Immediately after the German occupation, large-scale anti-Jewish pogroms took place affecting some 35,000 Jews. At the instigation of Einsatzgruppe A, Lithuanian "partisans" carried out a pogrom in Slobodka (Vilijampole), in which 800 Jews were killed. Jews were also arrested in various parts of the city and taken to the Seventh Fort, a part of the old fortress, where between 6,000 and 7,000 of them were murdered in the beginning of July. An order issued on July 11, 1941, stipulated that between July 15 and August 15 all the Jews in the city and its suburbs were to move into a ghetto to be set up in Slobodka. This was followed by other anti-Jewish measures. On Aug. 7, 1941, 1,200 Jewish men were picked up in the streets and about 1,000 put to death. In these pogroms, as in the later persecution and Aktionen, the Lithuanians again took a very active part.

The Slobodka ghetto contained 29,760 people. Following an Aktion there, 9,200 Jews were killed at the Ninth Fort situated near Slobodka on October 29, 1941. Another 20,000 with their belongings were sent there from Germany, Austria, France, and other European countries – for "resettlement in the East" – and murdered. Another 4,000 ghetto residents were murdered in various other Aktionen between August and December 1941. Two "resettlement actions" took place in 1942 in which Jews from Kaunas ghetto were transferred to *Riga. On Oct. 26, 1943, approximately 3,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps in Estonia. The ghetto was then turned into "concentration camp Kauen." At this time the united Jewish underground, which had been operating in the ghetto from the end of 1941 and had 800 members, began sending people to the Augustova forests (74 mi. (120 km.) south of Kaunas) to join the partisan resistance against the Germans. Through lack of experience and the hostility of the local population many of the members of the underground were killed or captured. A group of them, who were employed by the *Gestapo in burning the corpses of the victims in the Ninth Fort, managed to escape on Christmas Eve of 1943. They were then sent by the ghetto underground to the forests of Rudnicka (about 90 mi. (150 km.) east of Kaunas) and were absorbed into the Soviet partisan units, which comprised various national groups. From the fall of 1943 to the spring of 1944, the underground, aided by members of the Aeltestenrat (see *Judenrat), especially its chairman, Elhanan *Elkes, and the Jewish ghetto police, managed to send about 250 armed fighters to Rudnicka and other forests, where more than one-third were killed in action against the Germans. The leader of the underground, Chaim Yelin, was captured and killed by the Gestapo. A group of Jewish partisans died in a clash with Gestapo forces on the outskirts of Kaunas in April 1944. On March 27–28, 1944, another special Aktion took place in which 2,000 children, elderly and sick persons were hunted down. When the Soviet attack began in July 1944, the Germans liquidated the Kaunas ghetto and concentration camps in the area, using grenades and explosives, to kill the Jews hiding in the bunkers. In this Aktion about 8,000 Jews and others were sent to Germany. The men were sent to *Dachau and the women to *Stutthof, and over 80% of them died in these camps before liberation. Kaunas was taken by Soviet forces on Aug. 1, 1944. Most of the Jewish survivors did not return to Lithuania, but chose to remain in the *Displaced Persons' camps, where they were later joined by other Jews from Kaunas who had left Lithuania after its liberation.

Contemporary Period

Most of the survivors from Kaunas eventually settled in Israel. Jews settled there from other places, however. The Jewish population numbered 4,792 (2.24% of the total) in 1959. There was a synagogue. In 1961 a Jewish amateur theater troupe (Yidisher Selbsttetigkeyt Kolektiv), consisting of a drama group, choir, orchestra, and dance group, was organized in Kaunas, holding public performances from time to time. In 1963 the Jewish cemetery was plowed up and Jews were ordered to bury their dead in the general cemetery. However, at their request, they were permitted a separate Jewish section. Several incidents in which Jews were beaten up in the streets were reported in 1968. In independent Lithuania (from 1991), the Kaunas Jewish community made efforts to reconstitute itself, renovating the synagogue and opening a museum. Around 500 Jews remained there.


S.A. Bershadski, Litovskiye Yevrei 13881569 (1883); D.M. Lipman, Le-Toldot ha-Yehudim be-Kovno u-ve-Slobodka (1931), 82–233; M. Sundarsky et al. (eds.), Lite, 1 (1951), index; 2 (1965), 641–72; Yahadut Lita, 1 (1959), index; 3 (1967), 273–83; J. Gar; Umkum fon der Yidisher Kovne (1948); In Geloyf fun Khoreve Heymen (1952); Algemeyne Entsiklopedye; Yidn, 6 (1969), index; L. Garfunkel, Kovne ha-Yehudit be-Ḥurbanah (1959); Z.A. Brown and D. Levin, Toledoteha shel Maḥterer (1962), with bibl. pp. 402–9; Edut Ḥayyah: Getto Kovna bi-Temunot (1958).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.