Port city on Lithuania’s western border with Germany. After World War I, Klaipėda (Ger., Memel) and its surrounding district were severed from Prussia by the Treaty of Versailles. In 1923, Lithuania annexed the entire area, most of whose population (141,000 persons) was German. The town became part of an autonomous region until it was captured by German troops in 1939 and turned into a military port.
Despite legal prohibitions on settlement, Jews lived in Memel from 1567. In 1643, Jewish merchants were given permission to stay overnight in the town for the Sabbath. In 1664, the ruler allowed a Dutch Jewish merchant, Mosheh Jacobson de Jonge to settle there, and eventually Jewish merchants began to arrive at the town’s trade fairs. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, new legislation permitted Jews to settle in this northwestern point of the Prussian state. By the mid-nineteenth century, 400 Jews were living in Memel. A Jewish cemetery became operative in 1865, and a Jewish hospital was founded in 1870. Famine had struck Lithuania in 1868–1869, and the town’s rabbi, Isaak Rülf (Rilf) collected funds in Germany to help save 30,000 Jews of Kovno guberniia from starvation. In the course of a year and a half, he distributed 630,000 marks (a very large sum for those times) in monthly payments. In 1879, Rülf founded a school for Jewish children from poor families; the institution was recognized by Prussian authorities.
While just 488 Jews lived in the city in 1905, the Jewish population grew dramatically in the period after World War I, as did the number of Jewish-owned businesses. The Jewish population of Klaipėda was employed mainly in commerce. According to a government survey of 1931, there were 471 shops and business premises, of which 119 belonged to Jews. The survey also listed 151 factories, 31 of which were owned by Jews. The Jewish population was substantially of German origin joined by a number of Lithuanian Jews.
On 22 March 1939, the region was annexed by Nazi Germany. Almost all of Klaipėda’s 7,000 Jews managed to escape to Lithuania, and the Nazis seized all Jewish property in the town. Jews returned in 1945, and by 1967 the Jewish population numbered about 1,000, although there was no synagogue or Jewish cemetery.
More recently, a Lithuanian mob attacked a Jewish clerk in 1989, and anti-Jewish leaflets were disseminated in the town. A year later there were 681 Jews living in Klaipėda. In May 1991, a monument commemorating the Holocaust was erected at the town’s cemetery, inscribed in Lithuanian, Hebrew, and Yiddish with the words: “In memory of the Jewish community of Klaipėda that was cruelly annihilated by the Nazis.”
Dov Levin, ed., Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah (Jerusalem, 1988), pp. 64, 347; Dov Levin, “Memel (Lith., Klaipėda),” in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, ed. Israel Gutman, vol. 3, pp. 969–971 (New York and London, 1990); Leni Yaḥil, Ha-Sho’ah: Goral yehude Eropah, 1932–1945, vol. 1, p. 168 (Jerusalem, 1987).
Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson