Jewish life in Vilkaviskis under the Russian Rule

This material has been collected from personel memories and archival materials.

Social Order and the "Draft"

A small town in Southern Lithuania
Where the Jewish Community is no more

This site was built by Ralph Salinger of Kfar Ruppin, Israel
It is built to the glory of the Jewish Community of Vilkaviskis
You can contact me with any comments at,il
Compulsory military service

Until 1827, Jews in Russia were forbidden to serve in the military. Instead they were taxed for being denied the right to serve their country, but this is simply another discriminatory variation of the Jew's tax.

In 1827, personal military duty for Jews was first introduced in Russia, with recruits being from 12 to 25 years of age.  The fact that 10 Jewish males were selected each year for every 1,000 Jews in the population, while only 7 non-Jewish males were selected every two years for each 1,000 non-Jews in the population shows that the conscription had an important discriminatory purpose.

How to avoid military service

The main idea was to appear at the examinations for military service being underdeveloped and underweight for a man of twenty-one. Many subterfuges were employed to fool the Russian authorities, such as recording the infant son older than he actually was, so that he could present himself at eighteen, presumably aged twenty-one, and not meet the physical standards. Many a father was in a quandary about how to register his little one. To record his son younger than his actual age, was an advantage when it came to evading military service, but a handicap when it concerned marriage. It is told that a confused father once came to the rabbi for advice in regard to this matter. When the good man told him that the best thing to do was to register his son at his true age the father conceded that he had never thought of such a simple solution.
When a Jewish young man emigrated before he reported for military service the family was forced to pay a five hundred ruble fine, a very considerable amount in those days.



In the community, grievances among Jews were usually settled by a rabbinical court. The court in the late 1800s was composed of the dayen [judge of religious law], a rabbi, the synagogue caretaker, and at times some uninvolved people. The court determined a compromise between the disputing parties. Verdicts were considerate of the guilty party, such that the loser of a given case was not arbitrarily forced to meet outrageous demands, but was given fair and sound rulings. All decisions were based on the principles of Jewish law in the Torah and Talmud, which were interpreted thoroughly and explicitly by the rabbinical court. Before the trial started, the dayen spread out a large red handkerchief that both parties were asked to touch. This ritual signified that they would abide by the rulings of the court. When a compromise was reached, it was customary to conclude with a handshake and say, ―Sholem biyisroel” [Peace among Jews‖]. An example of a grievance brought before the rabbinical court consisted of the following: A boy worked for the bookbinder, but his parents were displeased with the training. So they apprenticed him to a photographer, a profession more to their liking. The bookbinder called the boy‘s father to court, claiming the craftsman had lost money on training the boy. The judge ruled in favor of the bookbinder and ordered the father to pay him 25 rubles as compensation. This was a huge sum, yet the father complied with the ruling and paid as ordered.


There were two jails, one for serious criminals and the other, the city jail, for minor violators. Jewish recruits for the army were also jailed here before they were sworn in so that they would not run away. Most violators were imprisoned for bringing contraband merchandise across the German border. Some of these prisoners had relatives in town who brought them home-cooked meals. In all political systems, there are enforcers who are strict and those who are lenient. There was a well-known story about the zhandarm [policeman] named Fedorov, the likable Russian government official who had a flowing beard and patrolled the town wearing a uniform. Fedorov was a known entity and shared a house with a Jewish family. He spoke Yiddish fluently and was aware of the secrets of the Jews. He knew when a young man was damaging his body to make himself ineligible for the Russian priziv [army conscription]. He knew about these breaches but seldom interfered. Instead, he warned them when he sensed danger to the young man or his family. If a young man of 21, military age, tried to free himself from priziv and leave for the United States or another country, the Russian law fined his parents 300 rubles. Often it was necessary for the family to auction off many of their belongings to satisfy the claim. When someone such as Fedorov made allowances for individuals, he often saved the family this financial hardship. Vilkaviskis was a law-abiding and orderly town, yet on occasion, individuals as well as the community resorted to graft. Laws were enforced against Jews more vigorously and often more cruelly than against non-Jews. Specific laws applied only to Jews, which policemen enforced erratically, as they could be bribed to look the other way. For example, the government taxed cigarettes, but some Jews rolled their own cigarettes and sold them, which was against the law. The Russian strozhnik [Tsar‘s officer and royal guard] was the boss in old Vilkaviskis. He was the ruler of the town. His word was law and he was not averse to a little gift. When a new official arrived in town, Jews attempted to discover his modus operandi. ―Tsi nemt er?” [―Is he taking (bribes)?]‖ After the officer accepted his first ―gift,‖ the people breathed more easily. Minor offenses were dismissed with the aid of a few rubles.