MEMEL (Lith. Klaipėda), a Baltic port in W. Lithuania. The town was founded in the 13th century; the earliest existing document in which Jews are mentioned is dated April 20, 1567, and refers to an edict expelling the Jews from the city. In 1664 the elector of Brandenburg permitted a Jewish merchant from the Netherlands, Moses Jacobson de Jong, to settle in Memel, and eventually Jews were allowed to visit the city for the annual trade fairs. Only after the emancipation of Jews in Prussia (1812) were they able to settle freely in Memel.
In the 19th century the community consisted of Eastern European and Prussian Jews. The former had settled in the port in connection with their trans-Baltic business and formed the majority of the Jewish population (in 1880 they accounted for 80% of the total number of Jews). In later years there was an increased influx of Jews from Germany. The number of Jews grew from 887 in 1867, to 1,214 in 1900, and to over 2,000 in 1910. Each group had its own synagogue and communal institutions, but the official community administration was run by German Jews. Israel *Lipkin (Salanter), founder of the Musar movement, lived and taught in Memel 1860–80, founding a bet midrash and societies for Torah study, and publishing here the short-lived periodical Ha-Tevunah (1861). Isaac *Ruelf, one of the spiritual leaders of German Jewry, was rabbi of Memel from 1865 to 1898 and devoted much effort to alleviating the plight of Russian Jews. Ruelf was succeeded by Emanuel Carlebach (until 1904), M. Stein (until 1915), L. Lazarus (until 1932), and S. Schlesinger (until 1939).
After World War I, the League of Nations adopted the Memel Convention (1924), whereby it became an autonomous region under Lithuanian rule. As the country's only port, it played an important role in the economic life of Lithuania, and there was a steady influx of Jews into the city in the interwar period. In March 1939 it had a Jewish population of approximately 9,000 (17% of the total). Most of the Jews were engaged in commerce but there were also a few industrialists. The Memel district also had a few Jewish-owned estates, some of which were made available for hakhsharah. On March 22, 1939, the Germans occupied Memel and incorporated it into the Reich. Most of the Jews managed to flee to *Lithuania, where they later shared the fate of their coreligionists. In 1970 the estimated Jewish population was less than 1,000. There was no synagogue, cemetery, or organized religious life.
I. Ruelf, Zur Geschichte der Juden in Memel (1900); Gringauz, in: Lite, 1 (1951), 1427–38; Shulman, in: Yahadut Lita, 3 (1967), 281–3; A. Carlebach, Adass Jeshurun of Cologne (1964), 25–28; L. Scheinhaus, in: Memeler Dampfboot (Aug. 15, 1928).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.