Jews in Merkinė, Lithuania
Merkinė is a small town in the south of Lithuania with a population of 1.2 thousand people. It was first mentioned in written sources under 1359. In the 16th century, the city received the Magdeburg rights. Then Jews began to settle in the city. A document about the litigation of a Christian with a certain Jew Konyuk over a debt, dated 1539, has survived. It is considered the first mention of Jews in the city.
In 1551, the Merkinė community was exempted from paying a special tax by the decision of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania. By 1765, there were 444 Jews in the city who paid the poll tax. By 1847, the number of Jews had increased to 1.5 thousand, and after half a century it reached 1.9 thousand. They accounted for 73% of the total urban population. The city had three houses of prayer and several educational institutions. Jews played an important role in urban craft and trade. According to sources, the community could maintain not only several schools and a library with a fund of 3 thousand books, but also its own fire brigade and an orchestra.
In independent Lithuania (1918-1940), the Jews of Merkinė had three secular and one religious schools. In addition to trade, Jews were engaged in timber rafting, owned a flourmill and a sawmill. There was a Jewish bank in the city, which played an important role in the economic life of the city.
Zionist and Jewish communist organizations operated in Merkinė. Before the start of World War II, 350 Jewish families lived in the city.
By the end of the summer of 1940, Lithuania was occupied by Soviet troops. In June 1941, the German invaders ousted them. Due to the rapid advance of the Nazis, the Jews were unable to leave the city.
Local nationalists organized the first killings in the city. In July 1941, several more extermination aktions took place. Some of the Jews were shot, and some were drowned in the Neman River. The Nazis organized a ghetto in the city. It was located in the courtyard of the local synagogue, which was surrounded by barbed wire. The Nazis divided women, children and men.
Ghetto prisoners were forced to clear the ruins of the city and clean the streets. Lithuanians were allowed to use prisoners as gratuitous labor in subsidiary plots.
At the end of August 1941, the invaders organized an extermination aktion. The ghetto prisoners were forced to dig long trenches along the wall of the Jewish cemetery. On the night of September 8, 1941, the local Lithuanian police surrounded the ghetto. The Jews knew about the extermination aktion and spent the night in prayer. In the morning, the ghetto prisoners were shot. A total of 854 people died in Merkinė.