First Jewish presence: 1811; peak Jewish population: approximately 800 in 1928; Jewish population in 1933: approximately 640

In early 1840, when Jews formally established a community in Tilsit (present-day Sovetsk, in Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia), they immediately found themselves in dire need of a large synagogue, as the Jewish population had swelled to 265 and was rapidly growing. Construction of a synagogue on the corner of Kirchen and Rosenstrasse began in 1841; the house of worship was completed and inaugurated one year later. On holy days, Jews from the surrounding villages attended services in Tilsit. A Jewish cemetery was consecrated there in 1825. The unusually rapid growth of Tilsit’s Jewish population was in part due to the geographic location of town: after the realignment of national boundaries following World War I, Tilsit found itself on the Lithuanian border. Many Lithuanians, among them Jews, brought cheap goods from Russia and sold them in Tilsit. These merchants used the synagogue regularly and many decided to settle in the town. They were joined by tens of thousands of Russian and Lithuanian Jews fleeing from pogroms who, seeing that Jews lived in Tilsit peacefully, decided to build their new homes there instead of immigrating to Palestine or to the United States (Tilsit was a transfer point on the immigration route); the Association of East Prussian (Jewish) Communities opened an office in Tilsit to assist these Jewish migrants. Anti-Semitism escalated in Tilsit during the early 1930s: the synagogue and cemetery were desecrated on many occasions, a curfew was imposed on the Jewish population, Jews were humiliated and assaulted on the streets and Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted. The leaders of the community saw the writing on the wall and joined the German Zionist movement in urging Jews to immigrate to Palestine. Recruitment centers were set up, and courses in language, culture, industry and commerce were offered with the aim of preparing Jews for a new life in Palestine. Those Jews who had not left Tilsit by the early 1940s were deported; in 1944, only 31 Jews—they were, presumably, married to Christians—lived in Tilsit. On Pogrom Night, the synagogue was set on fire and destroyed, as were a number of Jewish-owned businesses. The synagogue was eventually converted into a Russian Orthodox church.
Moshe Finkel
Copyright: Pogrom Night 1938 - A Memorial to the Destroyed Synagogues of Germany/


Sources: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, Shmuel Spector [Ed.], [publisher] Yad Vashem and the New York University Press, 2001., Lexikon der jüdischen Gemeinde in Deutschen Sprachraum, Klaus Dieter-Alicke, [publisher] Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2008.

Have additional information, photos, connections, or other resources to contribute?

Help Us in the race against time to time document Jewish history!