The port, the trade, the good conditions for industrial development, the opportunity to learn a trade and the easier opportunities to emigrate motivated many Jews to settle in Memel after 1923. The glass merchant Rabinowitz from Plunge came to the town with his family. Among the newcomers were Jews who came from Kaunas and had obtained their diplomas in Germany, such as the doctor Leon Rostowski, who then headed the Jewish Hospital, but also Jews who came from Russia, such as the family of the flax merchant Boris Segalowitz (from Vitebsk). Another group consisted of Lithuanian Jews who had been exiled to the interior of Russia during the World War and were now free to choose their place on the occasion of their return, such as the merchant Zalman Hillmann. In the 1930s, mainly workers came from the province, who were glad to find jobs in Memel industrial enterprises during the general crisis.
The Lithuanian government was pleased with the increase in the Jewish population because, in its opinion, the Jews, together with the Lithuanians, significantly weakened the German majority. In 1928 the number of Jews had already reached 4,500, i.e. the number of those who had immigrated had already prevailed. However, when evaluating these figures, one must also take into account the city’s general lively growth (1918: 20,884 inhabitants, 1.1. 1936: 47,412 inhabitants). The city experienced an amazing upswing.
Different statistics give different figures. For example, there is already a number of 2008 Jews for 1910, while Prussian statistics for the same year cite 851 Jewish persons. As of 20 September 1920, 1,350 Jews were reported for the entire Memelland, a figure which Rudolfas Valsonokas, a lawyer living in Memel, considers to be implausibly low. The same author notes that until the beginning of 1932 about 2,000 Jews from Great Lithuania moved in, who had settled mainly in the city of Klaipeda, and adds that the statistics of the Jewish community of Klaipeda for the beginning of 1932 reported a total of 888 Jewish families as members.
Various sources mention for 1938 – 6,000 Jews (12, 5%) and for 1939 – 7,000 Jews (14%) with a total urban population of 51,000. 9,000 Jews are said to have left the entire region in 1939. Since the emigration of Jews from the city and region demonstrably began as early as 1938, the figures for the Jewish population increase 1938-1939 must be questioned once again. It could be conceivable that during this period many Jews were temporarily in the city in order to undergo training for emigration to Palestine (Hashara). Mike Rabinowitz, on the other hand, states that many Jews from Germany and Austria were temporarily in Memel before 1939.
As early as 1 December 1938, the Directorate prohibited all sales; nevertheless, the dissolution of Jewish businesses increased. Soon the newspaper headline in Kaunas read: “Jewish companies are liquidated in Klaipeda”.
The “Credit and Commercial Bank” of Jawschitz liquidated at the end of 1938 and moved its headquarters to Kaunas.
A merchant’s wife reports: “In Memel, the National Socialist character increasingly came to the fore. More and more calls were heard on the streets to discard the Lithuanian yoke and join the Führer; Nazi songs were sung quite loudly. These were certainly not pleasant sounds for us Jews. I, who had many friends among the Christian Memlers, had to realize that some of them turned their heads away in order not to greet me. But I have by no means forgotten that some, because I now turned my head away myself, shouted ‘good day’ to me and parked to show that I had remained the same in their eyes. My sixteen-year-old daughter, who is blond and blue-eyed, was often shouted at by young people: “Heil Hitler, come to Ferdinand’s Square today, there’s a meeting.” That frightened me very much. My husband had already gone to England on business and never returned. I alone had to make all the decisions.”
The majority of Jewish refugees were concentrated in Kaunas. The helplessness was great, and the search for alternatives was hectic. Already on March 26, 1939, Dr. Martin Rosenblueth of the Central Bureau for the Settlement of German Jews wrote a letter to the Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency for Palestina in Jerusalem:
“We send you a copy of today’s letter to Kaunas Palestine Office, which wrote us a desperate letter about 3000 refugees from Memel.
We really believe that one must help in some way, and that the Refugee problem in general is now assuming such dimensions that a Refugee quota of 25 or 35 certificates in no way does justice to the demands.”
There were opportunities for young people to leave for Palestine, but the number of them was not able to meet the demand at all. A few months later the Second World War began and a wave of Polish Jewish refugees sloshed to Lithuania, especially to Vilnius, but also to Kaunas, where more and more Jews hectically inquired about escape possibilities from Lithuania. In the meantime, the Memel Jews needed new passports because the Memeländische passports lost their validity at the end of 1939. As early as 23 March 1939, Germany enacted a law stating that those Memel countries which had become Lithuanian citizens on 30 July 1924 and had their place of residence in the Memel region or in Germany on 22 March 1939 would again be granted German citizenship. During the negotiations on the treaty between Lithuania and the German Reich on the citizenship of the Memel countries, which were concluded in Kaunas on 8 July 1939, both parties finally agreed that all persons who wished to have Lithuanian citizenship could apply for it within a period of time. The Lithuanian government was generous to the Memelländic Jews and issued them with Lithuanian passports.
In 1940 Soviet troops occupied Lithuania and the country became a Soviet republic. Hebrew lessons were now forbidden or replaced by Yiddish, Jewish scientists arrested. Foreigners and capitalists were considered suspicious, including the wealthy Memel refugees. Numerous family businesses were expropriated. Boris Segalowitz, for example, was ordered to move from Panevezys to Kaunas, he was considered a suspicious German. In July 1940, the Soviet government ordered all diplomatic missions to leave Kaunas. Only the Dutch and Japanese consuls did not follow the order directly. In the remaining 20 days, the Japanese consul Sugihara issued exit visas to Jewish refugees in Kaunas. Among the 2,139 visa holders recorded to date, 2% were German Jews, including Memeler. How many of the Memeländische Jews fell under the Soviet reprisals of 1940/1941 has not yet been evaluated.
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