LITHUANIA, The Old Country
Click here to open a map of northeastern Lithuania and the adjacent portion of Latvia. From west to east, the map spans the area from Kupiškis to Rokiškis to Daugavpils / Dvinsk. The towns described below can be found on this map.
The BAYL ancestors lived in several villages and towns in what today is northeastern Lithuania. The Lithuanian and corresponding Yiddish names of these communities are Kupiškis / Kupisik), Pandelys / Ponidel), Rokiškis / Rokisik), and Kamajai / Kamai). The patriarch of the family, Laibe Krok, lived in the hamlet of Čelkiai / Chelkay, a community which is to the south of Rokiškis and just to the north of Laibgaliai but so small that it does not appear on the map below. According to one source, families with the surname Krok were living in this area as early as the mid-1700s.
Until 1881, Henech and Pessa Leba Romm Yatovitz had a mill on the Šetekšna (Shetekshna) River, which flows north from Kamajai / Kamai. They then moved to nearby Daugavpils / Dvinsk, which is in modern Latvia. By 1906, some of their children had emigrated to Baltimore, some to had emigrated to South Africa, and they and the remaining children settled in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.
The Lithuanian Jewish special interest group (“LitvakSIG”) of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, http://www.jewishgen.org/Litvak/, has established web sites for many Lithuanian Jewish communities, including Kupisik, http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/kupiskis/kupishok.htm, the birthplace of BAYL founder Myer Smith, and Rokisik,http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/rokiskis/rokmain.htm, the home of Rella Krok Romm Abramson.
Lithuania Through the Ages
The area where our ancestors lived, which today is in northeastern Lithuania, was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for several centuries. For more than five centuries, beginning in the 1200s, the Grand Duchy developed increasingly close ties with the Kingdom of Poland. Ultimately, the two countries united to become the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania.
The Commonwealth was a tolerant, multi-cultural society. Jews who were exiled from countries in central and western Europe often considered relocating to Poland or Lithuania. By 1700, most European Jews lived in the Commonwealth.
In 1772 and 1793, the Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires annexed portions of the Commonwealth (the First and Second Partitions). In 1795, the remaining part of the Commonwealth, including all of Lithuania, was annexed by Russia. As a result, throughout the 19th Century, and until 1915, the czars of Russia ruled the area where our ancestors lived.
Prior to 1795, virtually no Jews were permitted to live in the Russian Empire. As a result of the partitions, large numbers of Jews came under Russian rule. To preserve the pre-annexation status quo, Jews were generally required to live within the annexed territory and could not move into Russia itself without special permission. The area of confinement came to be known as the "Pale of Settlement." The modern-day Lithuanian-Latvian border was part of the northern boundary of the Pale.
Jews who emigrated from Lithuania during the 19th Century would occasionally say that they were "from Russia." Although it is true that they were subjects of the Russian czars, in virtually all cases they had never lived in Russia, per se, but rather in Russian-occupied Lithuania.
As the Russian Empire expanded west into Lithuania and Poland, the authorities divided the the annexed areas into gubernyas. A gubernya is a province that is administered by a governor appointed by the czar. A province was usually named for the city which served as the provincial capital. The Rakisik-Kupisik area was initially within the Vilna Gubernya (the province governed from Vilna / Vilnius). In 1842, the area was transferred to the jurisdiction of the newly created Kovna Gubernya (the province governed from Kovna / Kaunas). The founding generation of the BAYL emigrated from Russian Empire's Kovna Gubernya.
World War I erupted in August 1914 and a German offensive in the Spring of 1915 permanently forced the czarist army out of Lithuania. The German military administered Lithuania until the November 1918, when, under the terms of the Armistice, Germany was required to withdraw its forces from all territory conquered in the war.
In February 1918, while the country was still under German control, a new, independent Republic of Lithuania was declared.
When the German army withdrew later in 1918, Lithuania was invaded, first by the Soviets and then by the Poles. The Soviet Union soon entered into a peace treaty with Lithuania, but Poland did not. When the fighting finally ended, in November 1920, Poland was in control of Lithuania's capital city, Vilnius / Vilna, and to the east of Lithuania Polish territory extended northward to Latvia.
Latvia and Poland entered into a peace treaty under which, among other things, Latvia recognized Poland's occupation of Vilna / Vilnius. Lithuania, in turn, closed its borders with both Latvia and Poland. The economies of Rakisik, Kupisik, and other communities in northeastern Lithuania were severely harmed by the closure of the nearby borders. As a result, some relatives relocated to Kovna / Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania, in the years prior to World War II.
Philip Shapiro and his brother David visited our ancestral communities in northeastern Lithuania in 1997. They returned in June 2007 with their sister Judy Auerbach and her husband Avi. For more, see the links and photos below: As Phil writes:
The photo that is embedded in the article was taken by a reporter for the local Rokiškis newspaper, Gimtasis Rokiškis. There were two articles, the first discussing our visit and the second discussing our dismay with the condition of the Jewish cemetery. The original of the articles, in Lithuanian, follows the translation made by Aldona Sudeikienė (Shapiro), who came to Baltimore in the summer of 2006.
In the late 19th Century, Rella Krok, her second husband Rabbi Abraham Abramson (Abramovitz), and many close relatives lived in Rokiškis. Her grandson, who came to be known in America as Myer Smith and who is deemed the founder of BAYL, was born and raised in nearby Kupiškis (pronounced in the family as KOO-pih-sihk, pronounced in Lithuanian as KOOP-ish-kis) but occasionally lived in Rokiškis with Rella and Abraham before moving to the US.
Rokiškis (pronounced in the family as ROK-i-sik; pronounced in Lithuanian as RAWK-ish-kis) is a regional government center. The nobility who once owned the area had a mansion and outbuildings near the Rokiškis town center known as the Tyzenhaus. Today, the Tyzenhaus is the Rokiškis regional ethnocultural museum. David, Judy, Avi, Aldona, and I visited Nijolė Šniokienė, the director of the museum, and presented her with a copy of the family society's 100th and 105th anniversary bulletins.
We also went to Chelkay (Lithuanian: Čelkiai), where Rella Krok's father, Leibe Krok, once operated an inn. The hamlet is very small, and indeed the only sign noting it is on a bus stop. When David and I visited the hamlet in 1997, we spent time talking with two older men and one of their wives. In the subsequent 10 years, both men had died but we found and spoke with the woman.
Both Nijolė and her staff at the Tyzenhaus and the elderly woman in Chelkay remembered David and me. It was quite heartening.
Kamai (pronounced kah-MAHY; Lithuanian Kamajai, pronounced kah-mah-YAY) was the home of the Silverman, Shapiro, and Yatovitz families. Henech Yatovitz operated a mill on the Šetekšna (pronounced sheh-TEHKSH-nah) River until 1881.
The article on the visit in general from the local paper, translated into English
The article on the visit to the Jewish cemetery from the local paper, translated into English