Telz (Telsiai)

Written by Yosef Rosin

English edited by Sarah and Mordechai Kopfstein

Telz, one of the oldest towns in Lithuania, is situated in the north-western part of Lithuania - the Zemaitija region - on the shores of Lake Mastis, and was already mentioned in the chronicles of a Crusader Order in 1320. During the second half of the 15th century a royal estate was established in this place and merchants and artisans began to settle around it. The growing settlement suffered badly during the Swedish invasion in 1710, and two thirds of its population perished from epidemics at this time. In the middle of the 18th century a court was established in Telz, contributing to the development and growth of the town.

Telz was granted the Magdeburg rights of self rule by King Stanislaw-August in 1791.

Until 1795 Telz was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, when the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times - Russia, Prussia and Austria - caused Lithuania to become partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part of Lithuania which included Telz fell under Czarist Russian rule, first from 1802 as part of the Vilna province (Gubernia) as a district center and from 1843 as part of the Kovno province.

The Main Street (about 1916)

In 1812 Napoleon's retreating army passed through Telz, leaving behind desolation as well as a big gun, which can still be seen in the town park.

The town was damaged during the Polish rebellions of 1831 and 1863. In 1907 a fire lasting two days caused much damage, when the center of the town was burnt down. After some time the town was rebuilt, but brick houses were erected instead of the old wooden houses.

During WW1 Telz was occupied by the German army who ruled there from 1915 till 1918, after which the Bolsheviks ruled for a short period.

Until 1931 Telz was the district center without the rights of a town, and only then was a municipality elected. The Telz district included the towns of Seda, Zidikai, Skaudvile, Salantai, Kretinga, Plunge, Varniai, Gargzdai.

At the beginning of the thirties a railway was constructed which connected Telz to the port of Klaipeda as well as to the Lithuanian railway network. This was a dominant factor in the economic development of the town.


Jewish Settlement till after World War 1.

Apparently Jews settled in Telz at the beginning of the 17th century. At the time, during which the "Va'ad Medinath Lita" (1623-1764) was established, the Telz community was a subject of the "Kahal" of the Keidan district.

According to the order of the Russian Senate of the 1st of January 1800, a municipal council was established in Telz, which included three Jewish delegates. In 1804 the Jews were removed from the municipality at the request of the Christian delegates.

2,500 people lived in Telz in 1797, of them 1,650 were Jews (66%).

Telz Jews also suffered from "Blood Libels", one in 1758, the second in 1827. In both cases the so called "accused" were released by the court, but as a result the Jewish population passed through a period of fear. There was also plotting by estate owners who saw the Jews as competitors in producing and selling alcohol, and in 1825 the nobles asked the Tsar to expel the Jews because they "spread diseases" and threaten to "rob and to steal".

During the Polish rebellion of 1831 Telz Jews suffered both from the rebels and from the Cossacks. A Jew called Monish (Menashe) Lukniker was accused of helping the rebels and was hanged by the Russian rulers.

When the authorities in Telz started to arm the population and to enlist men to fight the rebels, local Jews suggested to the authorities that they should not conscript Jews into the army, as they had no arms and also did not know how to use them. Instead they offered to supply the army with the necessary materials, such as steel, leather, gunpowder etc. to which the authorities agreed, and a document was signed to this effect.

Telz was not spared the years of famine 1869/72. A help committee for Telz Jews, established on behalf of the Gubernator, included the following: Dr. Mapu, Yehudah-Leib Gordon, the merchants Leib Kantsel (Gordon's father in law), and Berman. Later on Izik Rabinovitz and wife, Idel Gordon, Meir Atlas, Yehoshua-Heshl Margalioth, Yitskhak Elyashev, Khayim Rabinovitz and his son in law Broide, Rabbiner Khazanovitz, Yeshaya Bai, Shabtai Raseinsky, Aharon Neimark, Gershon Meirovitz were also active. In the Hebrew newspaper "HaMagid" of the years 1872 and 1874, there are lists of Telz Jews who donated money for hunger victims in other Lithuanian towns.

In 1870 Telz had 6,481 residents, including 4,399 Jews (68%), and in 1897 there were 6,000 residents and of them 3,088 were Jews (51%).

During the persecutions and pogroms against Jews in the eighties of the 19th century in Ukraine and other places, the self confidence of Telz Jews was damaged, as a result of which and also because of conscription into the army for six years, many young Jewish men left Telz and immigrated to America, Argentina and South Africa. This wave of immigration lasted till WW1, and during the years 1870-1923 the Jewish population of Telz decreased by 2854 people. The cholera epidemic of 1893 took many victims, especially among poor Jews, who lived in overcrowded and bad hygienic conditions. The local rabbi, Eliezer Gordon, initiated the establishment of a committee which collected money from the rich in order to supply the sick with medicines, disinfectants and medical help. Around this time the Telz Jewish hospital was established.

The local Jews made their living from commerce, crafts and peddling. In 1841 there were 25 Jewish artisans: 14 tailors, 10 shoemakers and one watchmaker, not counting wandering artisans. Until WW1 there was a strong organization of Jewish artisans, which helped its members with loans for buying raw materials and tools. Among the Jewish merchants there were several who had big businesses of grains and flax and made a good living. There were also several textile merchants who imported merchandise from Germany, one of them being Ya'akov Rabinovitz.

"The Great Yeshivah" was a source of income of many families, who supplied living quarters and food for hundreds of its students. Many families maintained small farms beside their houses as additional income. In the eighties many Jewish families earned their living while residing in the surrounding villages.

The economic situation of most Telz Jews - the small shop owners, the artisans, the peddlers, the coachmen and the carriers - was hard. There were also poor people who subsisted on welfare support and some who collected alms by going from house to house.

Telz had four synagogues (Beth-Midrash): the "great", of the tailors, of the butchers and of the soldiers, where Jewish soldiers would swear the oath of allegiance to the Tsar. The great "Beth Midrash" in particular was impressive because of its dimensions, having beside it a large backyard, the "Shulhoif", where the "Chupah" of wedding couples would be arranged, as well as lamentations during funerals. In addition to prayers, these synagogues were the centers of activities for various societies dealing with "Torah" studies, such as "Talmud", Mishnah", 'Ein Ya'akov" etc.

The Telz "Yeshivah", which had been established in 1880 by three young men (Avreikhim)-Yitskhak Ya'akov Openheim, Meir Atlas, Zalman Abel- with the help of a German Jew - Ovadyah Lakhman from Berlin - developed and prospered, and after Rabbi Eliezer Gordon was nominated as its head in 1884, it became the main institution of orthodox education. At the end of 19th century it had about 400 students and was counted as one of the greatest in the world. Next to it there was a preparatory class (Yeshivah Ketanah) for boys aged 10-16.

The "Yeshivah" Building

(Picture supplied by "The central Archives of Lithuanian Jews in Israel")

The Dormitories of the "Yeshivah" Students

(Picture supplied by "The central Archives of Lithuanian Jews in Israel")

Amongst the graduates of this "Yeshivah" were rabbis and spiritual leaders of great Jewish communities in the Diaspora and in Israel, such as Rabbi Professor Simchah Asaf, Rabbi Yekhezkel Abramsky, Professor Ben-Zion Dinur, Avraham Hartsfeld, M.Bar-Ilan and others.

The Great Beth Midrash

For a partial list of Rabbis who studied at Telz Yeshivah and their ultimate place of appointment see Appendix 2.

Rabbi Shimon Shkop



Rabbi Yosef Leib Blokh........ Rabbi Eliezer Gordon

Rabbi Eliezer Gordon and Rabbi Shimon Shkop determined the specific Telz system of learning, which was accepted in most Yeshivoth of America, where many of their heads were of Lithuanian origin. Rabbi Eliezer Gordon was one of the delegates to the Homburg conference in 1909, where the decision was taken to create the "Agudath Israel" party.

In 1910 Rabbi Eliezer Gordon died of a stroke when in London in order to collect money for the Yeshivah. After his death his son in law Rabbi Yosef-Leib Bloch (1849-1930) was nominated to be the town's rabbi and head of the Yeshivah. He was considered ‘great; in Torah, resolute in his judgments and one of the most fanatic rabbis of Lithuania. His influence caused the Telz Yeshivah to become the stronghold of "Mitnagduth" (Anti-Chasidism) and of radical orthodoxy in Israel.

In 1859 a school was established in Telz, its first teachers being Avraham-Simchah Mapu and Meir Shapira, and in 1866 a school for girls was opened. These two schools were partly financed by the government.

In 1879 Jewish women established a vocational school for girls and nearby a boarding school for girls from poor homes. The head of the founding committee was a rich woman named Feige Lurie who donated the money for maintaining this institution. Poor children studied at "Talmud-Torah" schools and others at institutions of a "Cheder" type, where they learned reading, writing, Bible with Rashi commentaries and "Gemara" (Talmud). Two such schools were active till WW1, one run by Shimon Moshe Viner and the other by Moshe Fridman.

During the eighties of the 19th century a Jewish-Russian school for boys and two classes for girls, were established by the poet Yehudah-Leib Gordon (Yalag). The orthodox proclaimed war against this school and its headmaster, who answered with his witty pen, but after seven years (1865-1872) in Telz he left the school and the town.

Despite the strong influence of the "Yeshivah", whose directors were against Zionism, there was quite a noticeable activity of "Khibat-Zion" and later of the Zionist movement. In 1889 the "Khovevei Zion" (Fans of Zion) society was already active in Telz, and in 1901/02 one hundred "Shekalim" were sold. The first activists of this movement in town were Gershon Epshtein and Yosef-Hilel Berman. The Hebrew newspaper "HaMeilitz" of 1898 published three lists of donors aid settlement of Eretz Yisrael, and in 1899 an additional two lists were published. In the same year there were 41 members of the Zionist organization in Telz. In 1898 Telz Zionists were invited to send a delegate to Odessa for electing the Central Committee of "Khovevei Zion".

A delegate from Telz participated in the conference of Zionist societies from Kovno and the Vilna Gubernias, which took place in 1909.

But already before the "Khibat-Zion" movement, Jews from Telz immigrated to Eretz-Yisrael. In the old Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem there are eight headstones of Telz Jews who died there during the second half of the 19th century:

Chanah, wife of Izik, died 1862;

Leib, son of Ya'akov, died 1863;

Izik Nagar, died 1866;

Ya'akov, son of Benyamin-Ze'ev, died 1868;

Eta-Gishe, wife of Moshe -Yehoshua, son of Yekhiel, died 1876;

Zlata, daughter of Moshe, died 1890;

Sheina, daughter of Ya'akov Mendilsh, died 1891;

Avigdor, son of Rabbi Avraham,

Avraham-Yitskhak Epelman, born in Telz, came to Eretz-Yisrael in 1883, lived in Jerusalem and made his living from bookbinding.

For a list of correspondents from Telz who wrote in the Hebrew newspapers of these times see Appendix 5.

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