Jewish citizen in East Prussia

While the history of the Jewish citizens in other German cities and regions has already been researched, there are many open questions for the province of East Prussia, for here the population was radically replaced after 1945 and much information was lost about the previous population.

East Prussia was a region whose politics were controlled by Berlin; however, it was  located relatively far away from the first Prussian and then later German capital. The entire province was shaped from time immemorial by its close neighbours, Russia and Poland. The boarders had great significance from an economic, social and cultural perspective for the inhabitants in all classes and minorities, thus for Jews too.

Dr. Robert Traba (Warsaw) dedicated a project to the East Prussian boarder region in the 19th and 20th centuries and thus this work shall be central to the research planned, presented here, in particular for the East Prussian-Lithuanian boarder region for the same period.

Since the end of the Second World War the boarder that had existed for 700 years and where numerous traditions developed due to this duration is no longer visible by the union of the Memel to Lithuania. Jews lived in this area which included the district of Memel, Heydekrug, Tilsit, Ragnit and Pilkallen of the government district. These have been important locations since the 16th century for commercial activity as in Russ at the mouth of the Memel, a central location for the timber trade. There was always a constant flow of immigrants from the neighbouring Russian (more precisely, Lithuanian) and Polish regions.

In contrast to the districts beyond the boarder in which Jews rarely lived in the country and primarily concentrated in the small towns, the Jews of East Prussia settled in a disperse manner, thus in villages, solitary farms and single farms (called: Abbauten). According to the level of their economic success they migrated further to larger locations and towns.

The number of the Jewish population grew slowly but constantly in the region near the boarder of Prussia after 1871. Many became German citizens and fought in the First World War. After the Treaty of Versailles when the geo-political term for the Memel area was born and this was separated from the German Empire, many Jews left this area in order to move to the interior of Germany, for their national identity appeared more important than their ties to the region. Thus this only concerns a very short phase in the history of the German Jews.

Indeed the National Socialist were able to get a hold of no other region so rapidly as East Prussia; this can be explained by the isolation of the region after 1919 and the attitude of the inhabitants that was the result of it.

On the 17 May 1939 a census took place in the German Reich. The Reich's central administration for clans (das Reichsippenhauptamt) collected separately the registration forms of the Jewish citizens and then had them filmed. Using these documents it is possible today to make precise statements concerning the demographics of the Jewish population in East Prussia on the eve of the Second World War.

In particular it is clear that there were almost no Jews left living in villages and small towns, for the anti-Semitism had become so pervasive that those who didn't have the possibility to leave fled at least to the protection of the cities.

Furthermore one can make precise statements concerning average age of the remaining citizens.

Only a tiny amount could still escape successfully. The last emigrant from Königsberg was the chairman of the Jewish community, Prof. Dr. Hugo Falkenheim who escaped to the USA by way of Spain and then Cuba in October 1941.

"Go or stay?" This question was raised here very quickly and clearly. In the neighbouring area that became part of Lithuania in 1923 and in which all the inhabitants with Lithuanian passports ( with the entry "citizen of Memel country") there was a significant influx from Kaunas that included many Jewish investors too. Their visit lasted only a short time. To the extend that the National Socialist tendencies strengthened in the Memel area, owners of firms and of factories returned. When at the beginning of 1939 Lithuania had to cede the area by ultimatum to Germany a Jewish tidal wave rolled over the boarder into Lithuania. For the most part it concerned citizens whose parents or great grandparents had immigrated at that time from Lithuanian cities and yet kept contact with their families too. Indeed it was the last short breathe before the Shoah. In July 1940 Lithuania was incorporated into the USSR and in June 1941 there was a large deportation to Siberia. Of the circa 250,000 Jews that made up about eight percent of the entire Lithuanian population, 6000-7000 were deported by the (NKWD). Just after the invasion of the German army there took place executions of Jews, mass deaths by firing squads and violent excesses in 226 Lithuanian cities, towns and villages in the Summer of 1941. The first murders of Jewish civilians by German hands was carried out by the recently founded task force of the Gestapo Tilsit that had to "cleanse" the boarder area of Jews and on the 26 June 1941 they shoot dead 200 Jewish men in the Lithuanian boarder location of Gargzdai. Executions followed in Kretinga and Palanga. Just before the invasion of the Germans and the first days of occupation in 1941 over 40 pogroms were conducted by Lithuanians against Jews.

Beginning in August 1941 there were no longer any Jews on the northern side of the German-Lithuanian boarder, whereas there was a concentration camp in Heydekrug on the German side. The inmates had to do construction work on the roads in the district ( in sections: Verdaine - Pasyse and Pasyse - Katyciai).

Today the history of Jews on the boarder remains as a mere literary subject for local works of literature. Synagogues and cemeteries no longer exist, there is not even a trace of a memory of them. In the coming year the local museum in Heydekrug (now: Silute) will receive a new building. Then there will be place for the history of the Jews in this district.

An additional chapter will include documents and analysis of interviews with Eastern European Jews that was conducted in November 1999. Along with biographical reports the participants provided information concerning the following questions:
family origins, regional identity, significance of the boarder area, contact to the other side of the  boarder and the experience of exclusion starting 1933 

Seeking primarily sources and reports of experiences of Jews in East Prussia after 1938
 

For inquires, commentary and contact for research, please send to: ruth@leiserowitz.de

Bibliography:
Brocke, Michael, Heitmann, Margret, Lordick, Harald (eds.): Zur Geschichte und Kultur der Juden in Ost- und Westpreussen
Fürst, Max: Gefillte Fisch. Eine Jugend in Königsberg
Kabus, Ronny: Juden in Ostpreußen
Schüler-Springorum, Stefanie: Die jüdische Minderheit in Königsberg 1871-1945
Wieck, Michael: Zeugnis vom Untergang Königsbergs. Ein Geltungsjude berichtet
 

Translation from German by Mark Lekarew

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