Were There Ghettos in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania?

The Jewish quarter – isolation or privilege?

Quarters comprising of several streets that were designed along religious, ethnic or professional lines were a regular way of life in European cities during the Middle Ages.

Thus, the settling of Jews, who employed the use of a section of the city that was delegated to them by law did not go counter to the pattern that had developed for settling in cities. Orthodox believers, Germans, Jews, butchers, glass makers and others who established themselves in GDL cities divided up living space in a similar manner. Thus Jews brought traditions to the GDL that were typical for them in the quarters they lived, traditions that coincided with other trends that managed to express themselves in GDL cities. The 1389 privilege given by Vytautas to the Grodno community is the earliest historical source of the GDL where a Jewish quarter is mentioned and the borders of which were defined “starting from the bridge of the Grodno castle toward the market… until the street that goes from Castle Street toward Podolia, the plots whose ends go to the Orthodox church’s buildings and to Ivan’s House. While on the other side of that street – up to the cemetery, across until the monastery and church plots until the River Gorodnica itself…Their synagogue stands near the Gorodnica on those plots.” The fact that the Jews had settled in the part near the castle, and not in the part controlled by the city, defined their legal and social distinctiveness. When a greater number of Jews appeared in a city, they strove to get a privilege that allowed their community to live in the city, outlined their quarter and gave them the right to have a synagogue and cemetery (the synagogue was the main component of a Jewish quarter; the cemetery, in keeping with the demands of Judaism, were established farther away from the place where they lived). Society understood the provision of a quarter as a privilege (the streets of the quarter were called “privileged streets”).

The coexistence of the Judaism and Christian faithful

Jewish quarters were set apart more often starting at the beginning of the 16th century, and by the middle of the 17th century this form of living became universal. Generally the quarter was assigned with a street that already had the name of “Jews’ Street” – a place where the community could gather together spontaneously, which provided a basis for establishing themselves there. We see trends in choosing Jewish quarters in GDL cities: it was most often established on three streets that led to the market, further away from the main church of the city, striving to utilize the natural barriers that separated the quarter from the Christian city (for example, the River Smilga in Kėdainiai).

From the beginning of the establishment of Jewish quarters, there were doubts as to whether the quarter really had to ensure the separation of Jews and Christians, and limit possible contact.

These doubts are raised by the particular methods of forming the quarters, as one side of the street was allocated for Jews, while the other was allocated to the Christians. Most often the Jewish quarters in the GDL became a place in the city where there they lived in greater numbers, and served their religious needs, but was not the only residential area for Jews. Jews chose streets or market squares that were better for business and more comfortable for living. In addition, a number of Christians lived in Jewish quarters, and had property there. One rather curious example is the following: Stefan Józef Turczynowicz, the founder of the convent of the Mariavites that worked hard to convert Jewish women to Christianity, had buildings in the Jewish quarter that belonged to him. As the number of Jews grew in the city, Jews living next to Christians became ordinary. In attempting to rebuilt the cities and towns that had emptied due to plague, the owners of them depended upon the settling of Jewish communities at the beginning of the 18th century. The special characteristics of the houses and quarters of Eastern European Jews were determined by the “urban” way of life of the community and different understanding of comfort as regards residential areas in comparison to the dominant ethnic groups. The Jewish quarters in the cities were densely covered with structures of various functions. This tradition was recreated in towns, though in the towns there was more space for settlement and expansion.

The struggle for city space

Western European Jews, who had lived in quarters during the Middle Ages, found themselves in ghettos that limited and hampered them more in the early modern period. A decision by the inhabitants of Venice in 1516 to form a section that would ensure the separation for Jews which would become the only place allowed for them to live in the city became the prototype and common name for this form of living for Jews in cities. GDL city inhabitants also attempted to limit the spread of Jews in cities, and the idea of a ghetto seemed suitable and example for them as a tool to control the economic competition of Jews.

City inhabitants would say standard arguments in their complaints: the Jews established themselves in places that were the best for business, brought down the economic activity of the city inhabitants and harmed the Christians. The city inhabitants were not ingenious in their attempts to limit the expansion of Jews. Gradually there were universal methods in limiting the living space of Jews in the city that one could discern: a quota was set for the plots that could belong to Jews in the city, during negotiations between the city and the Jewish community, the status of Jewish expansion in the city was fixed at its current level and not allowed to grow past this fixed point, Jews were forbidden to live and do business on the main streets and market square.

Do You Know?

The 1633 privilege allocated streets of a quarter for Jews in the capital: Vokiečių (German) St., without the right for Jews to have their windows pointing toward the street, Žydų (Jewish) St. and Šv. Mikalojaus (St. Nicholas) St. as well as one side of Mėsinių (Butchers’) St., which bordered Žydų Street. The entirety of the living space for Jews in Vilnius was never strictly limited.

The cities’ weakness and inability to carry out a consistent policy in terms of the Jews led to the fact that not only was there no appearance of ghettos in the GDL, but that the regulation of the living space of Jews was not successful.

The most radical action by the city against the Jews was the expulsion of their community or not allowing them into the cities. There are just a few cases like this known in the GDL: Jews were driven out of Trakai, Kaunas, and Merkinė; the late settlement of Jews in the capital at the beginning of the 17th century can be explained by the privilege of de non tolerandis iudeis that the city inhabitants secured, which forbade Jews from settling in the city. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Kaunas inhabitants were persistent in following the idea of “a city without Jews,” declaring the driving out of Jews several times, and began to move Jews from the territories that were not under the control of the city, but rather to the clergy or boiars. These territories were usually beyond the borders of the quarter allocated to them. The fact that ghettos were not created is not a unique feature of the GDL. It was difficult for city inhabitants to control the expansion of Jews in many cities in Eastern Europe.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė