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Jewish Craftsmen in Kaunas Gubernia from the stand point of genealogy and local history

Jewish Craftsmen in Kaunas Gubernia from the stand point of genealogy and local history.
By Anatolij Chayesh, June 2000

Translated by Gordon McDaniel

A survey of typical documents preserved in the Russian State Historical Archives based on the files (fonds) of the Central Statistical Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the General Affairs Department of the MVD, and the Department of Management of the Tsarskoye Selo Palace, and also on the file (fond) of the Petersburg Crafts Administration preserved in the Central State Historical Archive of St. Petersburg.

Genealogists are interested in the concrete details of family history.Local historians are interested in the concrete data about a region or settlement.But the richness of the concrete is immense, while stories about a particular family or region are boring to all except relatives and people from the same region.This contradiction is decisive in the methodological or historiographical presentation of a topic, so that the experience of one researcher suits another.This is the key to the construction of this paper.

Craftsmen are a difficult topic for genealogists and local historians.There are few monographs about them.There is often nothing about them at all in reference books, in comparison to merchants, doctors or the legal profession.However, craftsmen constituted 35% of the productive Jewish population of Kaunas Gubernia, 41% in Vilnius Gubernia and 47% in Grodno Gubernia.1 Therefore, both the genealogist and local historian often greatly need information about this occupational category.We will attempt, using the example of Kaunas Gubernia, to show what and where there is information about Jewish craftsmen in the archives in Saint Petersburg.For the sake of brevity, we will speak henceforth simply about craftsmen.

A few words about published sources are helpful.The general history of craftsmen in Lithuania from the privilege given by Vytautas in 1389 to the Jews of Grodno, by which they were permitted to make or work at their trade up to the third partition of Poland in 1795, was elaborated by M. Vishnitser.2 Further information on this topic can be found in the Statute on the Jews 1804, in which craftsmen obtained complete freedom to work their crafts in the gubernias in the Pale of Settlement.

Authors such as I.A. Brafman, 3 I. Bliokh,4 S. Rabinowitsch,5 S. Prokopovich,6 B. Brutskus, L. Zak,7 A. Kasteliansky,8 and S. Margolin,9who later wrote about craftsmen essentially avoided writing about Kaunas Gubernia.Bliokh did, however, cite from the Works of the Kaunas Commission, established in 1881, the number of Jewish craftsmen in the Gubernia: 21,275 individuals, as well as the words craftsmen are almost exclusively Jews; by being so engaged they are of use to the entire population, although their products are characterized more by low price than high quality, as a result of great competition from their fellow Jews.10

During the Soviet period there were apparently no publications on this subject, since before 1940 Lithuania was not part of the USSR, and afterward the Jewish question was a closed topic.

Let me turn to the materials of the Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA).

The fullest information about the Kaunas craftsmen is found in fond 1290, the Central Statistical Committee of the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs).In 1893 an inquiry on crafts establishments with owners of all religions was carried out in Kaunas Gubernia.Its primary focus was apprentice craftsmen and the social conditions of their labor.At the same time, information was gathered about the establishment and its staff.For each establishment a four-page printed list of questions was filled out.We will call it a questionnaire.There are about 2,500 such completed questionnaires in the fond.Kaunas was surveyed, as well as all the district centers, and 28 small towns in all districts, from one in Vilkomir district to ten in Panevezys district.11 In 90% of the questionnaires the establishment is Jewish, that is, more than 10% of Jewish producers in the Gubernia are taken into account by name.

The questionnaire consists of a text heading followed by 11 questions. The owner of the workshop and its location is named in the text heading, as, for example, Questionnaire on the crafts establishment of Movsha Lemakhovich Strashun, located in the small town of Rokiskis, on Komai Street in the house of Bendel.

The first question is about the history of the establishment.In the answers are always given the year the present owner took over the shop. For example, Strashun answered: The establishment began in 1876.Occasionally there is more detailed information, such as, that the establishment was started by the present owner, or that it was bought, inherited from his father, etc.Very rarely is there an indication of the total number of years the establishment has existed, including all previous owners.

The second question is about the type of craft.In Strashuns case, it is bootmaking.

Next comes a table entitled Individual information about the owner of the crafts establishment, the masters, apprentices and workers. There are nine columns.In addition to the usual information about name, nationality (ethnicity), religion, year of birth and position in the establishment, there are also the following questions:

What language does this individual speak, and if more than one, which ones?

Is this individual literate? If he has studied in an educational institution, which one, and did he finish the course of studies?

In which craft or technical institution did he study for his mastership?

Strashun answered that he spoke Yiddish, Russian and Lithuanian, that he was literate in Yiddish, and he learned his craft from his father.

The column of the table relating to original is entitled: From which Gubernia and district?Thus the district is given in the answers, but rarely the city or town.Movsha Strashun, for example, answered that he was born in 1852 and came from Kaunas Gubernia, Novoaleksandrovskas district, but whether he was from Rokiskis or some other town is not stated in the questionnaire.

Eight more questions are about students: How much does each student cost the owner per year? Does the owner prefer literate students? How do they spend their holidays? When does the work day begin and end? How many hours are allowed for eating and rest? Is it necessary to work extra hours or at night? From Strashuns answers, typical for the majority of the questionnaires, we find that the owner finds it best to take literate students, that his students go to Jewish school on holidays, go for walks and are free from work, that each student costs Strashun 9 rubles a year, that his students work from 6 am to 8 pm with breaks at 3 pm for the midday meal, tea, and so on, but when there is urgent work, usually before holidays, they work two hours longer, and during the winter the students sometimes have to work at night.The owner probably prettifies reality, since from literary sources the living conditions of students at that time was much harder.

The final question relates to Information by name for each student of the crafts establishment, male and female.It is also in tabular form, but with 15 columns, half of which are analogous to those for masters, half different.From the questionnaire cited above we learn that the student Abram Shliomovich, son of Khaim, was born in 1877 in the district of Vilkomir, that he is not a relative of the owner, and was sent to the owner by his parents in 1892 to study for two years, that he had earlier been with another owner, but left by mutual consent, and that the student lives with the owner and receives from him 9 rubles a year.

In many questionaries, the children of the owner were listed among the apprentices and students, or the owner stated that he learned the craft from his father and thus inherited his establishmnet. From this we can see that among the craftsmen of Kaunas there had long existed what were pompously called during the Soviet period "workers’ dynasties."

I will mention three other points.

Masters and apprentices, when asked where they had studied the craft, usually named the first and last names of their teacher and the city where they studied.The majority of them had studied where they currently worked, but there were several who studied in Vilnius and Daugavpils, as well as some in Jelgava or Riga. As a result one finds information in the questionnaires about master craftsmen from Vilnius, Vitebsk, Courland and Livland Gubernias.There are also craftsmen who were born in these gubernias.

In giving the addresses of the shops in the questionnaires, especially of those in cities, the street and owner of the building were given.Some craftsmen had their own building.Therefore, local historians find in the questionnaires not only exhaustive information about crafts and craftsmen, but also about the concentration of craftsmen by street, and the names of many building owners.

Finally, it is well known that some Jewish surnames reflect the profession of the progenitor of the clan.While this connection with profession has long been lost among todays Jews, in the questionnaires of 1893 it was still maintained: there are bootmakers with the name Shuster, tailors with the name Shneider or even Portnoi, dyers with the name Malar, stovemakers with the name Muler, and so forth.

From what I have said above it should be readily apparent how valuable these questionnaires are.

Let us turn to the materials in Fond 487, the Court Administration of Tsarskoe Selo.Here there are interesting early documents about the Kaunas craftsmen who had left the Pale.

The Armys need for cloth cutters and tailors gave rise to the law of 1855 that allowed each regiment to hire one Jewish craftsman.In 1857, in a Tsarskoe Selo saturated with military units, the hat maker Mendel Gershenovich Bliudz from Panevezys was a resident, while in 1861 there was the tailor Girsh Yankel Movshovich Shchupak from Antolepta, and in 1864, the tailors Movsha Khaimovich Gutman from Panevezys and Girsh Yankelovich Liplavk from Telshe.Each of these men is mentioned frequently in various documents in the fond: in registration books, official correspondence, lists, requests, etc.Thus a great deal of biographical data is accumulated.

For example, it is known about Mendel Bliudz that his wife was Tauba Izraelevna, and that their children were born in Tsarskoe Selo: Izrail in 1858, Abram Yosel in 1866, and David in 1867.Mendel taught his sons the craft of hatmaking.They took the necessary examinations in the crafts office in Panevezys, obtained certificates for the rank of master and worked as apprentices for their father in his workshop on Stessel Street, having concluded with him a written contract.

As a long time resident of Tsarskoe Selo, Mendel Bliudz enjoyed a position of authority and trust among his fellow Jews.In 1880 he was chosen to be the treasurer of the prayer association.Mendels elder sons married and by 1889 he already had two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren, all listed by name.One of the sons, Abram Yosel, had opened his own hatmaking shop on Sredniaia Street, while two others (Izrail and David) continued to work in their fathers shop.

Mendel died 22 January 1891, and on 23 December 1895 his wife followed.What happened later we learn in a petition dated 1907 from their youngest son David to the director of the court administration in Tsarskoe Selo:

with the transfer of my fathers workshop after his death to his widow, my mother, I ran the workshop, then I had my own workshop in Tsarskoe Selo for several years, and in 1895 I went to live in Bialystok for family reasons ..., where I now reside.

Now I find it necessary to reside once again in Tsarskoe Selo for the purpose of carrying on as a master of hatmaking with my brother Izrail, who already has his own workshop here in the building belonging to Shishlo in Stesel Street.Thus wrote David Bliudz in his request for residency.

From the decision of the chief of police: although this Jew has the right of residency , we take into account the conditions in Tsarskoe Selo where even in winter the Jewish element is counted in permanent residency of about 200, including two hat makers, the brother Abram and Izrail Bliudz, and also not perceiving a special need to expand the production of hats by adding yet a third Jewish master, I would reject this petition.

The court administration paid no attention to this conclusion, typical of the police, but informed the chief of police that Major General Dediulin of His Majestys court sees no legal obstacles to permitting the Jew Bliudz to reside in Tsarskoe Selo.

No less interesting are details found in documents about the family of the tailor Shchupak from Antolepte.I will cite just one instance.On 12 August 1905 the president of the economic council of the Tsarskoe Selo Jewish prayer-house, Palepa, wrote to the administration of Tsarskoe Selo and the court that on 13 April 1902, in Tsarskoe Selo, Girsh Shchupak, Jewish tailor from Kaunas Gubernia, in the district of Novo Aleksandrovo, passed away, having resided in Tsarskoe Selo almost 40 years.On 26 June of the same year, his wife Dveira Shchupak died in the Tsarskoe Selo Court Hospital, and after the death of the parents there remained their daughter Leia Shchupak, who was born in Tsarskoe Selo, 21 October 1890.This Shchupak now found herself a complete orphan, without relatives, hearth or home, and so was taken temporarily under the guardianship of the Tsarskoe Selo homeowner, Sara Palepa, who intends to provide for the future fate of this orphan, if Your Highness finds it possible to allow Leia Shchupak to continue to reside in Tsarskoe Selo.

According to the petition for guardianship over Leia, the minor daughter of the widow Dveira Shchupak, daughter of Hillel, Sara Freida Palepa, wife of the Kronstadt resident stated:

The town administration of Tsarskoe Selo in its order dated 25 August appointed me guardian over Leia.Regardless of my own large family, and exclusively from a desire to do a good deed and not let an orphan die on the street, I decided to shelter the girl with my family and to finish raising her.

The petition was approved.

In 1865, the right to live anywhere in the Empire was given to master and apprentice craftsmen, non-shop artisans and mechanics and other technical workers, and to students no older than 18 for the period of a contract with a master.After the law was issued, migration of artisans from the Pale of Settlement increased somewhat.By 1889 twelve more artisans from Kaunas had arrived in Tsarskoe Selo: seven tailors, one female tailor, two watchmakers, a tinsmith and a baker, and the total number of artisan families hadreached 125.

From the materials in the Fond of the Court Administration one can follow the fate of Kaunas craftsmen to the beginning of our century and even up to 1917, as we have shown in part from the examples of long-time residents of Tsarskoe Selo.

Let us turn now to Fond 1284, the Department of General Affairs of the Ministry of the Interior.Here are found the case materials concerning petitions for right of residency sent to the Minister of the Interior beginning in 1906 (earlier cases were sent to GARF [State Archives of the Russian Federation]).

As we know, Jewish artisans could live outside the Pale of Settlement while they were engaged in their craft.Therefore, a Jew who was working for decades in Saint Petersburg remained only a temporary resident of the city.When old age or illness set in, accompanied by the loss of the ability to work, or the death of the provider, the family was threatened with rapid expulsion to the Pale of Settlement, where it had long ago lost a place to live, and sometimes even any family connections.According to the law of 1893, a family could stay in the city only with the permission of the Minister.

In the Fond there are hundreds of petitions from Kaunas craftsmen concerning this issue.Each one contains biographical information.For example, the Novo Aleksandrovo resident Sora Disenchik, daughter of Efroim, writes to the Minister in January 1906: My late husband lived continually in Saint Petersburg from 1875, engaged in bootmaking, and I lived with him from 1880 as his lawful wife.On December 14 of last year my husband died, leaving me a widow with two childrenMy older daughter, having finished her courses at the womens gymnasium, now provides me material assistance by giving lessons.My son, who is now 13, attends Jurgensons private school in Saint Petersburg.The widow explains that the police require her to carry on the craft of her husband, but her health does not allow her to do that.She and her children are threatened by expulsion.Disenchik asks permission for her family to reside in Saint Petersburg without being occupied in a craft.

The procedure for consideration of these petitions was always the same: first it was sent to the mayor of Saint Petersburg for findings.The findings, prepared in the passport department of the mayors office, contained information about the family of the craftsman, how long he had resided in Saint Petersburg, the type of craft in which he was engaged, trustworthiness, and sources of income after the craft occupation was no longer carried on.This information confirms, corrects, or adds to what is known from the petition.So in the finding with regard to the petition of Disenchik it is noted that she has resided in the capital since 1876, that is, she lived there for four years before her marriage, that her daughter is called Tsesia and is 20 years of age, her sons name is Yakov.The finding of the mayor usually ended with the words for approval of this petition, from my point of view, I do not see sufficient basis.However, the Minister Durnovo, and from 26 April 1906, the Minister Stolypin, rarely agreed with negative findings of the mayor.For 1906, of the 35 petitions of this sort by Kaunas craftsmen, the ministers approved 32, including that of Disenchik.Residents of Saint Petersburg from Kaunas grew markedly due to craftsmen.

Let us turn now to the materials of the Central State Historical Archive of Saint Petersburg (TsGIA SPb).For our topic, two of its fonds are the most important: Fond 422, the Saint Petersburg synagogue, and Fond 423, the Saint Petersburg Crafts Administration.While unfortunately this archive has been closed since 1992 for capital repair and is now not accessible to researchers, the author had worked with the fonds mentioned prior to 1992.

The fond of the Saint Petersburg synagogue is well-preserved and contains more than 500 metrical books for 1865-1920.For the years we examined, birth, marriage, and death records are entered in different books, so that the books for the lower middle class, the merchants, and the retired from the lower ranks of the civil service were maintained separately.So for each year there are usuallynine books.Sometimes there are more, if there are books registering divorce, and sometimes there are fewer, when the various records relating to one social class were entered in one book.

Craftsmen are encountered in the books for the lower middle class as well as for the merchants, since the law allowed a craftsman to enter a guild if he sold his own products.In the records it is always indicated to which community belonged those who married, had children, or died.Therefore, those coming from Kaunas Gubernia are discovered immediately.Since books of this type are well-known, we need not spend time on them here.The only difference in the Saint Petersburg books is that they lack a parallel text in Hebrew.

We next turn to Fond 223, the Saint Petersburg Crafts Administration.They contain about 14,000 acts.We managed to locate and study about 100 containing Jewish material.These mention about 200 craftsmen from Kaunas.We should note that, according to official data, in 1880-1881 there were 1422 Jews among the craftsmen of Saint Peterburg.12

We will begin with the personal acts of the craftsmen.There are about 8,000 of them, relating to practically every craftsman in the city.In the description of the fond these acts are arranged in alphabetical order by surname and type of request.But as the description does not include the indication of the community where the craftsman is permanently registered, it is impossible to choose directly those who came from Kaunas Gubernia.

The personal acts are sparse, usually three or four documents.First there is the letter from the Mayor to the Administration concerning permission for the craftsman arriving from the Pale of Settlement to live in the city for the month and a half required to obtain the diploma from the Administration.Then there were one or two pages of internal correspondence about the examination of the craftsman and his registration into a workshop.The last document was the response of the Administration to the Mayor.So we learn only from which community the craftsman came, his speciality and rank, whethermaster or apprentice.

But occasionally in the personal acts one finds copies of documents sent to the Mayors office in order to obtain the right of residence, as in this description the 1908 act of Sh. D. Strashun.The title on the binding is more exact: On enrolling the Vilnius resident Sholom Davidovich Strashun as an apprentice in painting.In the act were included: a copy of Strashuns permanent passport book with all passport data, a copy of the certificate of the Art School of the Odessa Society of Fine Arts about Strashuns studying there in 1899-1905, his marks on his final examinations, and a copy of the affidavit from the Vilnius police about their lack of jurisdiction.So it is useful to examine personal acts.

Let us proceed to the next large group of acts from that fond.

In the Industrial Law of Russia it was written: Regarding Jewish craftsmen, the Crafts Administration has the duty to ascertain from time to time whether Jews are actually carrying on their craft in their shops and to remove from the ranks of shops those Jews who have given up their craft.

In the fond of the Administration there are many acts called simply Paper warrants on Jews, or more precisely Information about masters whose operations were checked during such and such a year.In these acts are the results of the examination.They are filled out on printed forms with brief information about the master, the address of his workshop and questions such as:

Does the master have a properly organized workshop and tools?

Was the master himself found at work in the craft, and did he have documents giving him the right to produce in his craft?

Does he have apprentices or students, what are their names, when did their contracts begin and what sort of contracts were they?

We have examined more than a thousand of these forms.There weremany craftsmen from Kaunas.The largest groups were tailors, watchmakers, and jewelers.There are entire families, such as the beltmaking masters from Siauliai, Zaks.There are representatives of some relatively exotic crafts: the casemaker Paiur from Vidukli, the woodcarver Shatil and master of marble monuments Eizen, both from Panevezys, the parchment maker Pen from Novo Aleksandrovo.There were few bootmakers and furriers.

Bliokh divided all craftsmen into five categories: (1) those who prepare foodstuffs, (2) those who prepare clothing, (3) those who prepare household goods, (4) those in learned crafts, and (5) others.Of the learned crafts Bliokh writes: These include those whose practitioners, because of the nature of their work, have already joined the group which has received a broader knowledge and comprises, so to speak, the aristocracy of craftsmen.This category includes: piano tuners and makers of piano parts, watchmakers, farriers, barbers, gold- and silversmiths, carvers, musicians, painters, and weavers.13That is, those who went to Saint Petersburg were by and large representatives of the prestigious and well-paying profession of tailor, and representatives of the learned crafts.

In the acts of this fond there are many informative documents of other types: contracts, letters, petitions, minutes of meetings of the Administration, oaths with the personal signatures of voting craftsmen, even statements about the conversation of Jews.But I will stop here.

What is known about the subsequent fate of craftsmen from Kaunas Gubernia?

In 1915, after the disastrous defeat of the Russian Army in the Northwest, an order of the Chief of Staff, Grand Prince Nikolai Nikolaevich, laying the blame for the defeat on Jewish spies, expelled all the Jews from Kaunas Gubernia within 24 hours.Naturally, the craftsmen left, too.

Some went to Petrograd.From the material of Fond 1284 in the Russian State Historical Archives, one can see that it was difficult to obtain the right of residency in the city.One had to have family or close relatives who were ready to provide shelter and maintenance for the arrivals.Nevertheless, the seamstress Musia Eidelman, daughter of Abram, from the district of Novo Aleksandrovo obtained such permission.She wrote the Minister in October 1915 that she was forced to come to Saint Petersburg to her brother David Abramovich Eidelman, whereshe lives with him at Ligovskaia Street number 61 and earns her living by sewing.

After 1918, not all craftsmen returned to Lithuania.Some stayed in Russia.Those who returned encountered a situation rather similar to the present day state of affairs.The market of Lithuania, cut off from the former Empire, was drastically reduced.The state monopolized the most important articles of export, flax and wheat.The disposable income of the population fell and the demand for craftwork was greatly reduced.

The world economic crisis of 1929-1933 struck hard in Lithuania.According to the reports of the Lithuanian magazine Der Idisher Kooperator, the families of many Jewish craftsmen starved.

The last page in the history of Jewish crafts in Lithuania was turned by the Holocaust.

Notes :

  1. B.D. Brutskus.Professionalnyi sostav Evreiskogo Naseleniia Rossii.Po Materialam Pervoi Vseobshchei Perepisi Naseleniia, Proizvedennoi 28 Janvaria 1897 Goda (The Professional Composition of the Jews of Russia.From the Materials of the First General Census carried out on 28 January 1897).Saint Petersburg, 1908, p. 57.
  2. .M. Vishnitser. Evrei-remeslenniki i Tsekhovaia Organizatsiia Ikh (Jewish Craftsmen and Their Workshop Organization), Moscow, 1914, Vol. 11, pp. 286-299.
  3. I.A.Brafman. Evreiskie Bratstva (Jewish Brotherhoods).1868.
  4. I.S Bliokh.Uchastie Evreev v Sfere Remeslennoi Deiatelnosti (Jewish participation in the Crafts).Bg. Bm. S. 62.Library of the Russian State Historical Archives, Number 60463.
  5. Sara Rabinowitsch.Die Organisationen des Judischen Proletariats in Russland (Jewish Proletariat Organizations in Russia). Karlsruhe, 1903.162 pages.
  6. S. N. Prokopovich. K Rabochemu Voprosu v Rossii (On the Labor Question in Russia).Saint Petersburg, 1905.
  7. L. S. Zak.. Formy Ekonomicheskoi Samopomoshchi v Oblasti Remeslennogo Truda (Forms of Economic Self-help in the Area of Crafts work).Saint Petersburg, 1912.
  8. A. I.Kastelianskii. Stoliarno-mebelnoe Proizvodstvo v Cherte Evreiskoi Osedlosti (Furniture Production in the Jewish Pale of Settlement).Petrograd, 1915.
  9. S. O.Margolin. Portniazhnoe Proizvodstvo (Tailors Production).Petrograd, 1915.
  10.  I.S. Bliokh. op. cit., p. 62.
  11. Kovna, Vilki, Keidany, Ianovo; Vilkomir, Trishki; Novoaleksandrovsk, Antopepty, Dusiaty, Rakishki, Soloki; Panevezys, Aloizovo, Birzhi, Brunovishki, Vabolniki, Vlastki odnosele, Gelazhi, Kirbuli village, Korsakishki, Krinichin, Kukuchi village, Kuprelishki, Leitishki village, Nikolaev, Ogintsy area, Popivesi area, Raubany village, Smilgi village, Solomests; Rossieny, Kelmy, Retovo, Taurogen, Khveidany, Shvekshni; Telshi, Salanty; Siauliai, Kurshany, Novo-Zhagory, Radzvilishki, Starye Zhagory.
  12. Evreiskaia Entsiklopediia (Jewish Encyclopedia). Saint Petersburg, 1908-1913.Vol. 13, p. 947. 13. Ibid., p. 66.

about the author
Anatolij Chayesh


Anatolij Chayesh has been a scientific researcher since 1991 at the St. Petersburg Jewish University, where his area of interest is searching for materials and documents on the Jews of Imperial Russia in the libraries and archives in St. Petersburg.