Jewish life in Lithuania before the Holocaust

The project Lost Shtetl tells the story of Jewish Shadeve: "I want to showcase the dazzling vibrancy and richness of Lithuanian-Jewish life before the Holocaust".

Šeduva – The lost shtetl is found (photo credit: Courtesy)
Šeduva – The lost shtetl is found
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you ever wanted to step back into the past and know what a shtetl really looked like, you need go no further than Šeduva, Lithuania, a town in which Jews – including some of my wife’s ancestors – had lived for more than 250 years. The only difference is today there are no Jews left in Šeduva – only in the age-old cemetery and in the three slaughter pits just outside the town.
Those pits hold the remains of 230 Jewish men, 275 Jewish women and 159 Jewish children – a total of 664 Jews – in one, the remains of 27 Jews in another and others in the third; all of whose families had lived and worked in the town for nearly three centuries alongside their Lithuanian countrymen, as peaceful and productive neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, partners, teachers, citizens, friends. Nearly 300 years of peaceful coexistence – destroyed in just two days of slaughter, carried out by Lithuanian Nazi collaborators – many of them the same neighbors, who either participated or turned a blind eye to the wholesale slaughter that took place in August 1941, not 10 kilometers from the town center.
The rural town of Šeduva – known in Yiddish as Shadeve – lies 40 km. southeast of Siauliai (Shavl) and about 180 km northwest of Vilnius. It seems to have been frozen in time. Small houses, narrow streets, a town square, open fields... one can easily imagine exactly what life was like here over the centuries.
The town was first mentioned in documents from the 16th century when it received funding from King Sigismund I the Old in 1529. Notwithstanding legends about an individual named Moyshe/Meyshe Ha-Gole hailing from the town of Shadeve in the 15th century, the first actual recording of Jews living in the town is dated from the 1765 Census carried out by Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth officials. From a broader historical perspective, shtetls began to develop after the Union of Lublin in the late 16th century, which marked the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, coinciding with growing export markets for timber, livestock and other commodities. Jewish merchants, managers, and entrepreneurs who could help the nobles with the development of their estates, were welcomed and the growing community lived relatively trouble-free.
By the end of the 19th century there were 2,513 Jews in the village – 56 percent of the total population. Due to emigration – a large number to South Africa and the US – Czarist deportations during WWI and other factors, this had dropped to fewer than 1,000 during the 1920s. Jews were involved in commerce, crafts, small industry and agriculture. The village had a preparatory yeshiva, a Hebrew school and a small Jewish public library. Many residents belonged to Zionist groups. In 1940, with the annexation of Lithuania to the USSR, some Jewish-owned shops were nationalized in Shadeve. The Jewish community there was considered too poor for the Soviets to nationalize much, as they were doing with private enterprises throughout Lithuania. Shadeve was, however, home to the socialist and the liberal branches of Zionism. All the Zionist parties were banned and the Hebrew educational institutions, along with Christian political, social and religious organizations, were closed.
On June 26, 1941, the German army entered Shadeve as part of Operation Barbarossa. Many locals saw them as liberators from the Soviets. Jews and a number of Lithuanians who were suspected of having participated in Soviet rule were immediately arrested and executed. One particularly poignant incident tells of a 15-year-old Jewish girl from Shadeve – Chane Vismont – who was executed for her alleged communist activities, although no evidence has ever been found to prove this. She did, however, belong to a local socialist/communist Zionist group, which was probably enough for the Nazi invaders.
By the beginning of July, Jews were compelled to wear the yellow Star of David. On July 22, 1941, all the Jews were ordered to gather in the market place with only a small package each and to hand over the keys to their houses to the police. Under guard, they were escorted at night to the village of Pavartyčiai, five km. northwest of Shadeve, where they were crowded into two unfinished Soviet barracks surrounded with barbed wire. The Jews were ordered to hand over all their valuables and cash. Some were shot in the next few days.
In mid-August 1941, 27 Shadeve Jews were taken to the forest at Pakuteniai about five km. out of the town, shot by Lithuanian collaborators and buried in a pit. On August 25, the remaining 664 Jews of Shadeve were loaded on trucks and taken to Liaudiškiai, 10 km. southwest of the town where activists of the Lithuanian Activist Front (popularly known as the “White Armbanders”), members of the nationalist Rifleman Union, the Lithuanian police, and volunteers – mostly local people – were waiting for them. Their orders to kill came from the Nazi administration, but during the two-day shootings only one German officer was known to have been present for a very short time. Over the coming two days the entire Jewish community of Shadeve and its nearly 300 years of peaceful coexistence, was annihilated and buried in pre-prepared mass graves.
Three Jewish families from Shadeve were spared, at the behest of Christian townsfolk: the Nols, the Kupers, and the Paturskies. The first two Jewish families included war veterans who fought in the wars for Lithuanian independence, while Patursky was the town’s doctor, loved and cherished by both Shadeve’s Jews and Christians.
The numbers may be small in comparison to the total Holocaust count but are more poignant because of that. Imagining 6,000,000 people as individuals is very difficult, but imaging 700... that’s more real; that’s your town, village or community. The mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends, neighbors, the local dentist, tailor, shoemaker, shopkeeper and grain merchant are people you see and interact with every day – these numbers are tangible and therefore so much more painful.
But now, against the backdrop of these horrific events, Jewish Shadeve is slowly rising from the bitter ashes of 80 years ago. The ambitious and majestic Lost Shtetl (http://lostshtetl.com/the-project/) project, carried out by the NGO Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund, is taking shape alongside the centuries-old Jewish cemetery. It will see the establishment of a unique Lithuanian Jewish Culture and Heritage Center. The project includes the restoration of the old Jewish Cemetery, the dedication of three monuments at the town’s mass murder sites; a monument in the center for the Jews of Shadeve, the Lost Shtetl Museum and other components.
The Lost Shtetl museum will tell the story of the shtetl civilization. Lifestyle, customs, religion, politics, the social, professional and family life of the Jews of Shadeve will serve as the centerpiece of the museum exhibition. Museum visitors will be taught the town’s Jewish history, the vibrancy of Jewish life before WWII and the Holocaust so visitors – particularly Lithuanian citizens mostly born after WWII and do not know much, if anything, about their town’s Jewish story –understand what was lost during the war.
The interior for the Lost Shtetl is being designed by the New York-based firm of Ralph Applebaum Associates, whose portfolio includes the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The architect is Rainer Mahlamaki, responsible for the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The project is unique on a European scale and is already included in the prestigious list of European memorial sites compiled by the Berlin Holocaust Memorial Information Center.
There are two remarkable elements to the project. One is it is entirely privately funded, supported exclusively by a group of anonymous Swiss donors with Šeduva roots. The other is the project is almost entirely staffed by young non-Jewish Lithuanians, eager to play a role in this mission of healing. The only Jewish member of staff is Sergey Kanovich, the Vilnius-born author, who leads the project. His father, Grigory Kanovich is an accomplished Lithuanian-Jewish writer whose books have been translated into multiple languages.
“Visiting the Lost Shtetl will be a history lesson which will allow national and international visitors to learn about the lost Litvak shtetl history and culture,” according to Kanovich.
During our recent visit to Lithuania, searching for family roots in the region of Šeduva and Siauliai, we were privileged to meet two of these extraordinary young women in their office in Vilnius. Milda Jakulyte-Vasil, chief curator of the exhibition of the Lost Shtetl Museum, and Jolanta Mickute, senior researcher and content writer. They both epitomize a refreshing new spirit emerging among the younger generation of Lithuanians: honoring and paying tribute to the country’s Jewish heritage and wanting to make amends for the actions of their countrymen who collaborated with the Nazis in their program to exterminate Jewish life.
 Jolanta Mickute Jolanta Mickute
According to Jolanta: “I want to showcase the dazzling vibrancy and richness of Lithuanian-Jewish life before the Holocaust. My paternal grandfather had very fond memories of his one-time boss, a Jewish mill owner. So did my father (born after WWII), whose boss was, as I guessed later, a child of Holocaust survivors, and whom my father really liked. My mother also had a close friend who was Jewish and later immigrated to Israel.
“So I started my Jewish learning experience by juxtaposing my grandfather’s and parents’ personal stories about Jews, with those I encountered in Christianity-infused folklore and the mainstream media. I am eager to recover the parts of Lithuanian history that have been buried for so long and tell the Jewish story, making it integral to Lithuanian history, because I deem the Jewish narrative as part of Lithuanian history and identity-making. I want to celebrate Jewish life before the war and show what the country has lost.”
Milda told us more than 1,300 headstones had been found in the age-old cemetery, many dating back to the earliest years of Jewish settlement. To date, 300 or so have been restored and secured in the locations in which they were found. We asked if it was possible to know where the graves of members of the Sher/Šer/Szer family were located, but were told so far there is no accurate way to trace the actual location of any specific headstone not standing in its original space.
Milda Jakulyte-VasilMilda Jakulyte-Vasil

Milda explained even if the engravings on the stones were more legible, there would be some difficulty in finding where a particular individual had been buried. Traditionally, Jews were buried under their Hebrew names; engraving a surname on the gravestone is a relatively recent tradition, having started only at the beginning of 20th century – so Leib Sher, born around 1795 – our family’s earliest identified ancestor from Shadeve  – could have been buried as Leib ben “Shmuel” (we don’t know his father’s name) with the surname “Sher/Šer/Szer” nowhere in evidence. Furthermore, many names were either the same or similar: thus “Moshe Ben Chaim” or “Chaim ben Moshe” could have been common names among many of the town’s residents.
Notwithstanding, the remainder of the gravestones discovered so far, many of which were brought from other locations in and around Shadeve, are gathered within a large steel Star of David, laid in the grounds of the cemetery. The cemetery itself has been carefully and respectfully cleaned up and is slowly being restored.
Jolanta is shtetl-born in Shilel in Western Lithuania. She studied at the University of Oxford, where she gained her MA in Jewish Studies, and received her PhD in Jewish History from Indiana University. On her return to Vilnius to be with her aging parents after 10 years abroad, she started working for the project as a freelance script writer and joined the project full-time in 2018. She added that this fall she turned down a much-more lucrative job opportunity in Warsaw to remain part of the project. Jolanta speaks English with a slight Irish lilt – probably gained she said, from some of her professors.
Despite not being Jewish, she also speaks and lectures in Yiddish, which she studied in Vilnius and Oxford to get a solid grasp of Yiddish culture in the region and to research her book manuscript on feminist Zionists in interwar Poland. Jolanta is a true polyglot – speaking English, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish and some Hebrew. (See some of her work at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jewisocistud.22.3.04?seq=1; http://politicalcritique.org/cee/2017/lithuania-holocaust-book-review/)
“This is something of a badge of pride for me. I love the Yiddish language and the world it represents. I was born in the region where this language once flourished, so I understand the joys and woes it conveys, its laughter-through-tears humor, its richness of expression. I see traces of Yiddish in Lithuanian and other regional languages; I hear its echoes in the works of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Leonard Cohen, and other artists whose ancestors came from Lita,” she added.
Milda is currently earning her doctorate in history from the University of Amsterdam. Before that, she worked at the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition, known as the “Green House” in Vilnius.
“The Holocaust was never taught in Lithuanian schools until after Lithuanian independence from Soviet rule in the 1990s. So I knew nothing about what had happened in my country during those terrible years. It was only after I began working at the museum that I started understanding the events of the time.
“At first it was just work after studies…but then I become obsessed with it.”
She added: “I needed to find answers for myself. To fill in all the gaps in my school education. To understand what, how and why it happened. Apart from being a historian, I am also very interested in geography, so I put the two together – to match history and location. I raised money for research, and then went across the country, visiting, identifying and taking photographs at killing sites.”
Her work culminated in the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania (http://holocaustatlas.lt/EN/), of which she was project coordinator. Among other detailed information, the website documents and maps the nearly 200 killing sites throughout the country. She was recently in Israel to participate in Holocaust educational workshops.
Milda joined the Lost Shtetl project in 2014, two years after it was founded.
“The project is moving ahead very quickly, and fortunately, as we are privately funded, we do not have to rely on any government assistance or special permissions, committees, oversight or anything apart from standard building procedures. This is an exciting and very valuable project – for the Jewish people, the descendants of all Lithuanian Jewry and for the Lithuanian people. It signifies a closing of the circle, hopefully some healing, and most importantly, education.”
Jolanta added: “I believe our generation has grown tired of the homogenized version of Lithuania’s history. The Lithuanian youth wants more—and they don’t want to live like previous generations. They know foreign languages; they have travelled and lived elsewhere; they seek a better education and more fulfilling jobs. They don’t want to be spoon-fed a national ideology, turned into popular myth.
“Rather, many want a nuanced, multi-layered rendering of their country’s history. They want to learn about what happened to Lithuania’s Jews and why there are parts of Lithuania that exhibit traces of Polish, Yiddish, and German cultures, among other things. I believe they want to explore Lithuania’s history in all of its glory and all of its shame, to hear all sides of the story. They want to move beyond the old legacies and fears…because how else is Lithuania going to advance?”
On a very personal level, although the entire experience in Lithuania, drenched as it is in Jewish blood, was painful and very emotional for our family, we found it absolutely necessary to gain a perspective. Even though visiting the various sites of some of the massacres, in Shadeve as well as the Paneriai forests (https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/silent-forest.html) outside Vilnius (where 70,000 Vilna Jews, along with Soviet, Romany and Polish prisoners were murdered) was painful, it gave us a deeper understanding of what actually happened and an appreciation of the new attitudes hopefully emerging in this land of sorrow.