The Shtetls the Norwegian Jews Originated From

Published: 27 June 2023 – Updated: – 2023 at  –.–.

About two-thirds of Norwegian Jews have their origins in the area of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. We call this area the Lithuanian-Yiddish cultural area. The map shows places in the Baltics where the first Norwegian Jews came. First wave of migration took place in the period 1870 to 1914. At this time, the Baltics were under oppressive Russian rule. The Jewish emigration took place during the European exodus to America. Some Baltic Jews chose instead to settle in Scandinavian countries. Almost all who came first were men. The Jews sought a better life, greater personal freedom, escape Russification, avoid years of military service, and get the opportunity to start a family. Consequently, particularly many women and children moved due to family reunification.

Below we present some shtotls and shtetls; that is, Jewish settlements in cities and towns from which many Norwegian Jews came. A typical shtetl consisted of low-rise wooden housing around the town square, while the non-Jewish territory lay beyond. Jews were traders and shopkeepers, while Lithuanians were farmers or workers for Jews.

Many Jewish families have their origins in several places. A person who has moved from one area may have a surname from a completely different place, e.g. Gordon, which means Grodno. Yiddish place and family names are often spelt differently since the names were not standardized.

If one visits today the shtotls and shtetls from which the Norwegian Jews left, it will be possible to find Jewish memorabilia, even if much has been lost.

Source with references (Norwegian-languaged):
Jan S. Krogh (2022): Hvorfor innvandret østjøder til Norge, og hvor kom de fra?

The shtetls in northwestern Lithuania

In about 1885, the first Jews left the village of Leckava, simultaneously as a migration from Vilnius. It was from here that most of the Norwegian Jews came from. A more significant wave from the Leckava area occurred around the turn of the century. Around ten years later, many Jews also arrived from Skuodas and Žagarė. Migration flourished due to the construction of railways at the same time as shipping routes were established from Liepaja to Sweden and Denmark, but also further to England and the USA.
On the map, the shtetls with the most significant Jewish migration are marked in red; compare the map above. The place names are given in Lithuanian above and Yiddish below. This map is partly a digitization of a section of Dr Henry Lange's map of the Baltics, the third edition published in 1898 in Riga.

A general store in Leckava which, before the Second World War, was run by a Jewish family. Photo: Jan S. Krogh, 2022.

Russian territorial planning map of Leckava from 1867. Jews inhabited the area by the marketplace in the northern part, while Lithuanian farmers lived around the fields in the southern part.


Leckava (Yiddish: Latskeve) is the place in Western Lithuania with the highest emigration to Norway concerning the population. The name Leckava is attributed to landowner Jonas Alfonsas Liackis in Leckava, and supreme elder of Samogitia from 1643–1646, who built a wooden church here. The village suffered through centuries of wars, fires and destruction.

During the rebellion in 1863, the Leckavans fought against the tsar's army. The population supported the 1863 rebellion against the Russians. At the census in 1897, Leckava had 1,176 inhabitants. The place had three cobbled main streets. Plan maps from 1867 have been preserved. The map clearly shows the dense Jewish settlement at the marketplace in the north. Here was the synagogue and the beth midrash, a place of study dedicated to the Torah. Lithuanian settlements with agricultural land can be found in the southern part.
The Jewish cemetery has tombstones from the period 1840 to 1938. In 1905, a rebellion against the Russian government and the monopoly trade occurred in Leckava.

On 1 September 1913, the place got a post office. In 1915 Leckava burned down; over half of the town's houses disappeared in the flames. Until the First World War, Leckava was famous for the Jacobin market, which attracted visitors from the region on both sides of the border. The market was held where the stream Vadakstis flows into Venta. The market was held in July for three consecutive days, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Beyond the turnover of goods, the market also had an important cultural and social significance.

Zalmanas (Zalė) Bekeris was a Lithuanian Jewish painter born on 10 November 1896 in Leckava and died in 1941 or 1942 in Kaunas. In 1914 he was deported to Russia with his parents. In 1921 he studied art in Moscow, 1925–29 at the Kaunas Art School. Zalė participated in exhibitions from 1924; individual exhibitions in Kaunas (1933, 1935 and 1937). The pictures depicted the life of the Jewish poor: domestic scenes and people, but also painted portraits of Kaunas. Realistic works in a dramatic mood; they highlight moments of poverty, depravity, and tragedy. The works are owned by the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum, the National Art Museum of Lithuania and the Vilnius Gaon State Jewish Museum.

Norwegian families who originated from Leckava: Becker, Bekker, Bermann, Fischer, Glick, Isaksen, Kraemer, Krim, Krimm, Krupp, Millamed, Selikowitz and Smith.


Skuoda's (Yiddish: Skud) Jewish population in 1897 of 2,292 people comprised 60 per cent of the total population of 3,814 people. The old town is on the left bank of the river, while the new town is on the right bank with a bridge connecting the two districts. The nearest train station was three kilometres from the town. Jewish settlement in Skuodas is mentioned in 1648-1649 when Jewish refugees escaped from pogroms in Ukraine. Even before that, in 1638, Jewish taxpayers were registered in Skuodas.

Until the end of the First World War, the Jewish community was self-governed by an elected committee of twelve called the "The Dozen". At the beginning of the 18th century, a synagogue was built, one of the three oldest synagogues in the country. It was a wooden synagogue with a height of 15 meters. Inside, it was very beautifully decorated. The old cemetery was at the end of the old town and was maintained by the Jewish Burial Committee, Chevra Kadisha. The poor were buried in the new part of the cemetery, the rich in the old part and the middle class in the middle.

The Jews in Skuodas engaged in trade and crafts. Parts of the trade were with Riga and Libau (Liepaja) in Latvia. In 1888 there were 200 Jewish merchants in Skuodas. In 1879, an honours school was established in the town with Russian as the language of instruction. In 1884, teaching also started in secular subjects (Hebrew: heder metukan). The school was still active in 1894. In 1910, the twelve leaders helped set up a Russian school with four classes.
The Skuodas Jews were active, promoting municipal services such as the postal service, delivering mail (1903), maintaining the bathhouse (mikveh), overseeing the slaughterhouse and operating the fire service. In 1905, the resistance to the tsarist regime in the Jewish Skuodas resulted in the young people participating in demonstrations against the tsarist authorities.

Norwegian families who originated from Skuodas: Bodd, Braude, Gordon, Joseph, Katz, Kirschner, Mollet and Reiff.

The marketplace in Skuodas old town. Port card from approx. 1915-17. Source: Skuodo kraštas.

Bebyggelse i gamlebyen i Skuodas.
Older wooden housing development around the former square in Skuodas' old town (2022). Photo: Jan S. Krogh, 2022.

Photograph probably from the interwar period in the marketplace in Židikai. Shtetler was often located around the market square, probably the one we see here. Photo: Lietuva senuose nuotraukose.

A short distance from the market square was the Židikai Synagogue. A memorial stone has been erected there with an inscription in Samogitian (translated): “The Jewish prayer house-synagogue was at this place from 1780–1940”. Photo: Jan S. Krogh, 2022.


Židikai (Yiddish: Zhidik) is about 20 km west of the municipal centre Mažeikiai. Most of the town’s houses were built on a hill. The village’s history can be dated back to the 16th century. At the census in 1669, 69 families lived here, but no craftsmen were mentioned. The first Jewish family one hears of in Židikai rented a mill at the beginning of the 18th century. Immigrating Jews settled in a marketplace built from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. Here they built residential houses, craft shops and a school. In 1765, the Židikai kahal was mentioned as comprising 31 families with 115 Jewish members.

In 1789, Bishop Giedraitis allowed the construction of a synagogue in Židikai. A little away from the square, it was built in wood and a mikva (ritual bath). More than 80 years later, in 1847, the Mosaic congregation had grown to 361 families with 1,387 people. The Jews were businessmen and craftsmen who often moved between places to keep abreast of market demand and supply continuously. From the tax man count, the so-called candle tax in Židikai in the same year, we read that while a very wealthy merchant paid 12 rubles in annual tax, 90 rich citizens paid a total of 720 rubles, 90 middle-income citizens paid 405 rubles, 90 with a low income paid only 180 roubles, and 90 Jews in impoverished circumstances were exempt from paying taxes. It was the Kahal who decided the tax rate.

A violent city fire in 1852 caused significant damage to the centre and the Jewish quarter. The square was first renewed around 1872-73. According to the Russian census in 1897, there were 1,243 inhabitants in the town, of whom 914 were Jews, 73 per cent. The town had three leather processing companies and 20 shops in the same year and held regular market days and fairs. The population among the Jews also increased at the end of the 19th century, and they dominated society. Still, just before the First World War, many emigrated to Palestine, America, and South Africa. You could take the train from Lušė station to Liepaja harbour from where the Amerika boat left. Others were exiled to Siberia by the Russian authorities. After the war, the more prosperous who remained moved into the towns of Mažeikiai and Šiauliai.

Norwegian families who originated from Židikai: Levin, Bodd, Joseph/Joseff and London/Londin.


Liepaja (formerly Libau) is the southernmost Latvian port city. Jews settled in Courland earlier than in other parts of Latvia. According to the historian Reuven Wunderbar, Jewish settlement arose in the 16th century, first as a migration from East Prussia. They came by sea as merchants and eventually established their homes in Aizpute (Hasenpot) and Piltene (Pilten). But the majority of Jewish immigrants to Courland came from Lithuania. Courland, like Lithuania, was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1795 when the Jewish population of Courland was less than 5,000 people. Of these, only 20 per cent lived in cities. As much as 80 per cent thus lived in the countryside, on the large estates of the German barons, as small craftsmen, innkeepers, landlords and merchants.

By 1850 the Jewish population of Courland had grown to 22,000, and by the end of the century, in 1897, it reached 51,000. In the second half of the 19th century, Russian exports were primarily channelled through the Baltic Sea ports of Riga, Libau (Liepaja) and Windau (Ventspils). Two essential railway lines were laid to export Russian grain through the latter two ports. Courland was not part of the Jewish settlement area, and only those born there automatically received the right of residence. Despite restrictions, there was a significant influx of Jews from other parts of Russia, initially from Lithuania, throughout the 19th century. There had always been neighbourly ties between Courland and the adjacent parts of Lithuania. There were no yeshivot (Talmudic academies) in Courland. The Jewish population of Courland experienced favourable economic development in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The prosperous port towns of Libau and Windau attracted Jews from neighbouring communities. However, Libau, Windau and the big city of Riga could not absorb all the immigrants. At the end of the 1890s, emigration began to the United States of America and partly also to Great Britain and Scandinavia. Emigration expanded considerably with the terror and persecution following the failed revolution of 1905.

Even though Courland barely had an organized workforce among its Jewish population, Jewish youth actively participated in the uprising against the Russian government in 1905. The revolution was crushed with an iron fist. Against the rebellious Latvian peasants who rebelled against their landlords – the German barons, the Russian government sent a punitive task force consisting of Cossacks and dragoon detachments to Courland. Latvian peasants, by the hundreds, were executed on the spot. While Jewish revolutionaries—actual or suspected—were not spared either. Fearing pogroms, Jews and Latvians organized a collective self-defence that did not refrain from attacking the government forces where possible. High officials, and representatives of the tsarist regime, were murdered.

The First World War broke out in August 1914 and immediately affected life in Courland. On April 28, 1915, it was announced that the Jewish population would be expelled within 24 hours.

Liepaja today has a small Jewish museum. Outside the city, there is a more significant Holocaust memorial.

Norwegian families who originated from Liepaja: Scheer, Levin, Blomberg, Gettler, Gorvitz, Heyman, Jelaawitz, Mendel, Rosenberg, Rubinstein, Schles, Steinfeld and Waldstein.

Liepaja store koralsynagoge (1872–1941) var et landemerke i byen. På stedet står i dag et minnesmerke utformet som en miniatyrmodell av det opprinnelige gudshuset. Illustrasjon: Wikimapia.

The marketplace of New Žagarė. The picture was taken around 1910. Source:


Žagarė (Yiddish: Sagaren) is an old Lithuanian settlement located on both banks of the Svete River, near the border between Lithuania and Latvia. The population at the census in 1897 was 8,129 people, of which 67 per cent were Jews.

Around a manor house, in what is now Gamle Žagarė, a town had eventually formed where the centre of gravity came to be in New Žagarė. In the middle of the 19th century, the place experienced economic growth. In 1861, three factories produced buttons, belts and other sewing accessories, and further small food factories. The town’s growth was probably reduced since the railway route came to pass outside Žagarė.

Žagarė’s inhabitants also had to endure considerable hardship from natural and man-made disasters: e.g. cholera epidemic in 1848, rebellion in 1863, famine in 1867 and significant city fires in 1880, 1909 and 1911. A Cossack unit sent to Žagarė in 1905 created great chaos when they took control during the revolutionary events of 1905. For a very short period, the city ruled as an autonomous state, the Žagarė Republic.

Norwegian families who originated from Žagarė: Abrahamsen, Borøchstein, Buchmann, Fischer, Grusd, Kahn, Ramm, Ramson and Schapow.


Kaunas (Yiddish: Kovno) is today Lithuania’s second largest city. Jews received formal permission to settle in Kaunas only at the beginning of the 18th century. But individual Jews began arriving in Kaunas much earlier, at the end of the 14th century. After Grand Duke Vytautas defeated the Tatars, some of the first Jews to come were prisoners from Crimea. He took many prisoners, and among them were Jews and Karaites, some of whom were taken to Lithuania. Vytautas wanted to develop trade in his country and considered bringing Jewish merchants to Lithuania, who were seen as a critical factor in business. But his policies created a situation that, for 300 years, prevented any attempt by Jews to settle in cities like Kaunas. This was because Kaunas was given the status of a Hanseatic town. In 1776, Kaunas was one of eleven cities where the bourgeoisie continued to enjoy self-government, even after these rights were annulled in 150 other cities in Lithuania. Although the rulers of Kaunas, as in most Polish-Lithuanian cities, wanted Jews to come to their towns, they nevertheless submitted each time to the pressure of the bourgeoisie, who feared that the Jews would outcompete them. They did everything to prevent the Jewish settlement in the town. Another factor that made it difficult for Jewish merchants to come to the city was that, unlike the Polish and Russian merchants, they did not have a tax exemption on their business.

In contrast to Kaunas, which had only a few Jews, a Jewish settlement developed in Slobodka, a suburb of Kaunas – today's Vilijampolė, where Jews were allowed to settle. The first Jews who settled in Slobodka came from Kedainiai, who, like Slobodka, belonged to an aristocratic family, the nobility of the Radzivil family. The bourgeoisie of Kaunas succeeded in preventing the Jews from participating in the city council elections for more than 20 years. But thanks to Jewish lobbying, the bourgeoisie was won over. In 1839 it was legislated that Jews could participate in the city council elections, and the struggle ended. In 1843, the year Kaunas was declared the administrative city of the province, Tsar Nikolai the First passed through the city, and he was surprised to see that very little building work was going on in it. When asked why, the local governor pointed to the restrictions imposed on the Jews. There were also non-Jews who advocated removing these restrictions. In 1846 such a request was presented to the Tsar, and 42 landowners and other Christian dignitaries signed it. Historian Atamukas says that in 1858 Tsar Alexander II gave the Jews of Kaunas the right to settle in the entire city.
In October 1861, a decree was published that invalidated the existence of the ghetto in Kaunas. When the Russian authorities forbade Jews to live in the villages, many settled in Kaunas and trade and work slowly passed into their hands. The authorities also imposed a tax for wearing a 'kapota' (a long coat) and a yarmulka (kipa). Merchants in the first "guild" had to pay a total of 50 rubles a year, from the second "guild" 30 rubles, and from the third "guild" 20 rubles a year. All others paid 10 rubles a year and another 10 rubles for permission to wear the kipa. Jewish Kaunas grew and developed. Jews from the surrounding villages and towns flocked to the city. In 1897, Kaunas's number of Jewish residents reached 25,448, making up 36 per cent of the population, 25.6 per cent Russians, 22.8 per cent Poles, 6.8 per cent Lithuanians, and 4.7 per cent Germans. The Jews enjoyed a relative majority in this multicultural city and left their mark on it. The Central Jewish Bank (Centralinis žudų bankas) operated in Kaunas in the interwar years. The bank was among the largest in Lithuania and was founded by the Jewish National Council. The bank was established as a financing and settlement centre for Jewish folk banks. The bank controlled 85 such local banks with several branches. Among the main customers were large forestry companies, contractors and suppliers. One of the managers in the bank was Alexander Zisel Macht. Internal bank communication took place in Yiddish.

Norwegian families who originated from Kaunas: Bermann, Bernstein, Braude, Goldmann?, Hurwitz, Schattenstein and Weinstock.

The Kaunas branch of the Jewish Soldiers’ Association marches on May 15, 1938, to hand over rifles purchased for the 2nd Algirdas Regiment with raised funds. Photo:Lithuanian Central State Archieves.

The Central Jewish Bank in Kaunas was photographed in the interwar period. The bank was located where the Kaunas Tadas Ivanauskas Zoological Museum is today. Photo: Init Ekstra TV, 2020 (screenshot).

The marketplace in old Raczki. Figure: Raczkowskie Archiwalia.


Raczki (Yiddish: Rotzk, Ratskij) experienced economic stagnation in 1850 and a lack of prospects for development. Numerous fires mean that 28 fewer houses than in 1799 remain. In 1863, the rebellion in the Russian army began. In 1870, Raczki lost its city rights. In 1886, the place had two breweries, tanneries, candle makers and 19 trading companies. People lived far more cramped than at the beginning of the 19th century. There were 16 streets; only one was paved. A new fire in 1888 burned down 98 houses, half of all the dwellings on the site. The Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War resulted in the weakening of the tsarist regime and the outbreak of revolutionary struggles in the area. In 1907, a large part of the town, with 73 residential buildings, burned again. At the start of the First World War, in 1914, Raczki got a train connection with Suwalki and the Prussian border.

Norwegian families who originated from Raczki: Dworsky, Hirsch, Isaksen, Koritzinsky, Krasnipolsky, Rosenbaum, Savosnick and Schilofsky.


Vilnius (Yiddish: Vilne), as a big city compared to the small towns in Samogitia and Suvalkia to its population size, has experienced a very modest emigration to Norway. The population of Vilnius increased tremendously throughout the second half of the 19th century, from 64,000 inhabitants in 1869 to 154,000 in 1897. Vilnius was then a city dominated by the Jewish population, which comprised about half of the people. Most migrants who came to Norway from Vilnius were specialists in the tobacco industry. Unfortunately, an incredible amount has been lost due to the war and the Holocaust. But several Jewish monuments are preserved in Vilnius. The capital has a synagogue, a mosaic research centre at the national library, a Jewish library, two Jewish museums, and several Jewish restaurants (kosher) that serve traditional food.

Norwegian families who originated from Vilnius: Behak, Goldberg, Jaffe, Kaaran, Kazerginski, Leimann, Meszansky, Oster, Petlitz, Prusan, Samersav, Tarschis and Weinstock.

Antokolskio Street in the Jewish part of the old town of Vilnius in 1940. Photo by Mečys Brazaitis. From the private collection of Valentinas Gylis.