Jewish Life in Skuodas (Shkud) to the Present
The town of Skuodas, Lithuania, lies just south of the border with Latvia, about 40 kilometres from the coast of the Baltic Sea. The town is situated on the Bartuva River, which divides it into the Old Town (on the left bank) and the New Town (on the right), the two joined by a bridge.
Skuodas first appeared in historical documents in 1253. The first Catholic missionaries arrived in 1567. In 1572, Skuodas was granted municipal powers, permitting the construction of a town hall and law court; it was also permitted a coat of arms and seal.
Skuodas suffered during the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia in 1700- 1721, and was the site of a rebellion against czarist Russia in 1831. Between 1769 and 1909, the town was badly damaged by fire four times. The railroad from Klaipeda to Riga was built through the town in 1914, opening new possibilities for travel and commerce.
Jewish settlement began in the 17th century – possibly even earlier – but until 1747, Jews were not allowed to work or live in the New Town, settling instead in the Old Town across the Bartuva River. In 1766, the Jewish community had 576 taxpayers. The population grew steadily over the next 100 years. During the 1890s to 1920s, large numbers of Lithuanian Jews, including many from Skuodas, emigrated to the US, Canada, South Africa, the UK, and other destinations. In 1939, the Skuodas Jewish community totalled about 2500, perhaps 50% of the general population, although the exact number is unknown.
Until the end of World War I, the Jewish community was ruled by an elected committee of 12 people known as “The Dozen” (Di Tsvelftlech). After that time, an elected board was given broad administrative authority over the community until its replacement, in 1926, by the “Ezra” (“Help”) association, which ran the community’s affairs until its destruction in 1941. “Ezra’s” activities included overseeing the ritual slaughter of food animals; paying the rabbi, other religious officials, and schoolteachers; leasing agricultural land; supervising the baths; and loaning money to needy Jews.
The Jews worked in trade, agriculture, industry, transportation, and crafts. The shoe industry was particularly important, producing 400 pairs of shoes a day, which were marketed throughout Lithuania. Other industries included tanneries, weaving and dying, the manufacture of chains and nails, and a button factory. By 1931, there were 81 stores and businesses in Skuodas, 66 (80%) Jewish-owned.
The synagogue was the centre of Jewish life. Skuodas had two synagogues, one in the Old Town and the other in the New Town. The Old Town synagogue was built at the beginning of the 18th century. It was one of the three oldest in Lithuania, and celebrated for its architecture, particularly its elaborate interior wood carvings. Other important institutions included a number of prayer houses and the Jewish cemetery. Between the world wars, there was a Hebrew kindergarten, a Yiddish pro-Gymnasium, a Hebrew pro-Gymnasium, a religious folk-school, and a Talmud Torah. Classes for adults were also held. Other community and cultural organizations included a charity fund, a number of organizations for assisting the sick and poor, youth clubs, sporting associations, a choir, a dramatic circle, and a library. There was a Jewish Folksbank. Medical services were provided by Jewish doctors and pharmacists. The town was active in supporting Zionism, with a number of active Zionist funds, youth groups, and business associations.
All this ended with the coming of the Second World War to Lithuania.
On June 22, 1941, the German army entered Skuodas. The next day, Jews were ordered to turn in their arms. Many were forced into hard labour. Looting and violence occurred, often at the instigation of local non-Jewish Lithuanians. On Saturday, June 28th, armed warfare broke out as the Soviet Army, which had been ousted by the invading Germans, attempted to retake Skuodas. Vicious combat erupted in the centre of the New Town, much of which was destroyed by weaponry and fire. Many civilians were killed.
The next day, Sunday June 29th, with the Soviet Army in defeat and Skuodas firmly in the hands of the Germans, the once-vibrant Jewish community of Skuodas came to a horrifying end.
That night, June 29th, hundreds of Jewish men, after suffering imprisonment and torture in the meeting hall of the nationalist militia, the Riflemen’s (or Shaul) Hall, were led into the fields and shot, their bodies tossed into pits which they had been forced to dig. Women and children were rounded up and locked into the Old Town’s synagogue.
By mid-July, most of the remaining Skuodas Jewish men had been murdered in the town or in the gravel pit at the edge of the nearby village of Kulai. The few male survivors, together with the women and children, about 500 in all, were forced on a two-day march to a concentration camp near the village of Dimitravas, 75 kilometres from Skuodas. There were beatings, rapes, and murders on the way. Those who lagged behind or could not walk further were shot on the spot.
On reaching the Dimitravas camp, the surviving women and children were housed in barracks and forced to work in the fields for about a month. In mid-August, armed men arrived from Skuodas. They drove the women and children in large groups to nearby Alka Hill, where they were ordered to undress and forced into pits. When some women tried to resist, they were viciously beaten. Many of the women and children were killed by shooting, but when the gunmen ran out of bullets, they were buried alive. Altogether, 510 women, children, and infants were killed in four pits on and at the bottom of Alka Hill. Of these, 289 were buried alive.
All of these atrocities were carried out not by the Germans, but by local collaborators, non-Jewish residents of Skuodas (whether or not they were acting under direct German orders is unclear). It should also be noted that a number of non-Jewish Skuodas citizens met the same or similar fates as their Jewish neighbours, also at the hands of these same collaborators.
After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, a committee of Soviet medical justice experts exhumed the pits at Alka Hill. They counted and examined the bodies and determined how the victims were killed. The report was housed in a museum in Dimitravas. Later, two memorial stones were placed at Alka Hill, one to mark the graves at the top and another to mark those at the bottom.
On June 13, 1963, the bodies from the mass murder sites in Kulai, in and around Skuodas, and along the road to Dimitravas camp were disinterred for reburial in the centre of town. This event was commemorated in the local newspapers and was attended by Skuodas residents and guests from Lithuania and other countries, some of them Jewish former residents of Skuodas and their relatives. The remains of about 500 people, in 15 coffins carried on 30 trucks, were escorted with a guard of honour down Vilnius Street. There were wreaths of flowers, bouquets, and speeches. The bodies were reburied in the town centre, near the present-day Skuodas Museum, and a memorial marker was placed over the grave.
About a year later, in March 1964, seven of the collaborators who participated in torture and mass murder in Skuodas were put on trial. Those found guilty were sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, the maximum penalty then allowed under the Soviet penal code.
Today, Skuodas is a peaceful, modestly prosperous small town. The town centre, largely destroyed in World War II, has been rebuilt. There are small shops and streets lined with wooden houses with gardens and fruit trees. The Jewish Cemetery, destroyed in Soviet times, its headstones carted away for building material, is now being maintained by the municipality, its grass trimmed and paths gravelled.
The few remaining headstones have been formed into a memorial marker, and another stone marker, inscribed in Lithuanian and Yiddish, stands by its gate. The mass murder site near Kulai is marked with a fence and memorial, and the new burial site in the centre of town, well-kept-up behind its evergreen hedge, likewise has its monument.
As far as I know, no Jews live in Skuodas. A few of the older residents still remember the Jewish community. One man I met remembered a few words of Yiddish, chanting for me the Friday night call to synagogue, “In shul arein.” The Skuodas Museum has a small collection of Jewish memorabilia, among them two photographs I donated of my father and his family, and a binder devoted to the history of the Jewish community, gathered from published sources and oral testimonies of Skuodas residents.
This website also stands as a memorial to the Jews of Skuodas. We cannot recreate the past, but we can learn from it, and in so doing, honour those who are gone and transmit their inheritance to those who are yet to come.
Jews in the Memories of Skuodas People. Skuodas Museum Archive. (Translated from Žydai Skuodo Gyventojų Atsiminimuose. Ed. Brone Rusinskiene.)
Memorial Book of Skuodas (Lithuania). (Translated from Kihilat Shkud: Kovets Zikaron. Tel Aviv: Former Residents of Skuodas, 1948.) JewishGen, Inc.
Schoenburg, Nancy, and Stuart Schoenburg. “Shkud (Skuodas).” Lithuanian Jewish Communities. New York: Garland, 1991.
Shaf-Brener, Hana. Testimony on the Murder of the Jews of Shkud, Lithuania. (Translated from HaEdut al Retsah Yehude Shkud. Quick Printing: Haifa, 2001). JewishGen, Inc.
“Shkud”: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Lithuania. Esther Etinger and Josef Rosin. (Translated from Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania. Ed. Dov Levin and Yosef Rosin. Yadvashem, Jerusalem). JewishGen, Inc.
Skuodas Museum Home Page. Web.