True Lithuania

History of Klaipėda (Memel)

The city ruled by German states (1250-1918)

Klaipėda was established on an empty shore by the Teutonic Knights in the 1250s. Invited by the duke of Masovia to convert or destroy pagan Baltic tribes the Order chose this place for its castle. They called it Memelburg. Memel is the German name for Nemunas river and the early settlers mistakenly believed that the straits linking Curonian lagoon to Baltic Sea are in fact the mouths of that mighty river.

Around the castle, a town of primarily German craftsmen sprung up. The castle itself was constantly upgraded and managed to withstand all the wars against Lithuania leaving Klaipėda and its immediate surroundings the only area of modern Lithuania that has never been ruled by any Lithuanian state until the 20th century.

Klaipėda in the 16th century when it consisted of a castle (right) and a small town (left).

The agricultural countryside remained predominantly ethnic Lithuanian through ages and the Lithuanian name for the city "Klaipėda" was thus born in the 16th century as a pejorative, literally meaning "Bread eater" and referring to the castle garrison. The region was considered to be part of Lithuania Minor. With the secularization of the local branch of Teutonic Order (1525) Klaipėda (Memel) became part of Prussia's "Lithuanian kreises". During the Napoleonic wars, it even briefly held the status of Prussia's capital as the royal family retreated here from danger (1807-1808).

The 19th century brought growth (5000 to 20000 people), even if hampered by the dangers of Russia's proximity. To the likes of Richard Wagner or Heinrich Schlieman Klaipėda was a temporary career step. Others (among them more and more Lithuanian ex-villagers) arrived for good, however, staffing the burgeoning trade and lumber industries. It was lumber what fuelled the devastating fire of 1854 which caused 2/3 of the city to be rebuilt.

A sketch of the Klaipėda Old Town in 1880 after it has risen from ashes. Towering churches of different denominations and ethnicities reflected the diversity of a frontier merchant city.

Klaipėda region and Lithuania between the wars (1918-1945)

After the Germany‘s loss of World War 1 its non-German areas were annexed to other countries, such as Denmark or Poland. While Klaipėda city's population of 45 000 was 70% German, its more populous surroundings were 70% Lithuanian, therefore the entire region had a slight Lithuanian majority and was detached from the German state. Lithuanian state was however not yet born as the Western powers were reluctant to recognize it due to its disputes in the east. Therefore Klaipėda region was left to be ruled by the League of Nations.

Lithuania received a wide international recognition by 1922. The status of Klaipėda region changed in 1923 when a Lithuanian-supported revolt took place and the region was captured by the Supreme Salvation Committee of Lithuania Minor that asked to be accepted into the Republic of Lithuania. All the nations recognized the annexation of Klaipėda but only as an autonomous territory where German and Lithuanian languages would enjoy equal status.

The New Town bank of Danė river with the Market of Klaipėda (left) and the Market (Biržos) Bridge. This is just one of many important buildings demolished by the Soviets after the war. Atgimimo square (New Town borough) was laid in this place.

The autonomy was established but this did not solve every problem. With the rise of nazism in Germany in 1930s this ideology became popular among Klaipėda's German population as well. This led to acts of terror and subsequent arrests of the local nazi groups. In fact, this clampdown against national socialist organizations was the first anti-nazi trial to take place anywhere in Europe (later it was nicknamed "Little Nuremberg").

Germany, a former ally of Lithuania, started pressuring Lithuania for a return of the Klaipėda region. This culminated in 1939 March when Germany annexed the region after an ultimatum, very similar to the one presented to Czechoslovakia for Sudetenland. Adolf Hitler himself then visited Klaipėda.

Buses and new buildings in interwar Klaipėda (modern Herkaus Manto street). Technologically advanced and more Western in its culture, Klaipėda had a profoundly different feel than other Lithuanian cities in the 1930s as it was the only one not to have suffered Russian Imperial regime.

After the World War 2 (1945 and beyond)

The history of old Klaipėda/Memel ended in 1945 when the city had been overrun by Soviet armies in late World War 2. The invading soldiers found only 20 inhabitants left in the city. Others, both Germans and Lithuanians, swiftly evacuated after hearing of Soviet massacres elsewhere. Klaipėda was then repopulated by Russians in the late 1940s. Since the 1950s, the Russians were joined by Lithuanians from other parts of the country. In 1950 Klaipėda became more populous than it was before World War 2 (~50 000 people), in some 1962 it was already double that size.

The total change of population was coupled with a devastation of Klaipėda old town. Soviets decided to demolish all the city's major churches. Many houses in the Old Town and especially the New Town were destroyed as well during the 1940s and 1950s Sovietization of the city. These changes left Klaipėda without some of its original character that once made it unique among Lithuania's cities. People of Klaipėda usually have little connection with the history of their city as their parents or grandparents moved in from somewhere else - some from Samogitian villages, some others from Moscow or Saint Petersburg. So the history now may only be seen in old bricks and sporadic attempts to recreate it by adopting historical names for shops and services. Much of this is to appease German tourists who still make a large share of Klaipėda's visitors.

Klaipėda destroyed fire office

The demolition of the fire department HQ in 1981 was the last of the historical building demolitions in Klaipėda. On the left a Soviet propaganda poster declares: Our work is for thee, oh Fatherland. ©Albinas Stubra.

After Lithuania‘s independence, Klaipėda became the second city in terms of foreign investments (yielding only to Vilnius). The first free economic zone in the country was quick to attract industry from as far away as Japan while the port continued to be a major impetus for economics.

Largest completed projects of the era include a gas terminal, "Akropolis" mall (once the largest in Baltics), arena (where matches of Eurobasket 2011 took place), major roads and more.

Klaipėda destroyed fire office

The project of Gandrališkės residential district of 2008. While it was scaled down after the economic downturn, tallest-in-Baltics residential tower has been constructed

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Klaipėda, Klaipėda by Topic Leave a comment
Comments (49) Trackbacks (0)
  1. There are some relatively minor errors in the English of this article. I am prepared to do a rewrite if this would help.

    Brian Walker
    La Rochelle France

    • Thank you.

      Feel free to note the mistakes here and I will edit the article.

      Or you can post the entire text without mistakes here if you so prefer and I will move it to the article.

  2. Fascinating history. Truly a city buffeted by 20th century events. The Soviets had no respect for the past anywhere. They wanted to brainwash people and make them forget about anything that wasn’t Communist. I hope the Lithuanians try to rebuild or recreate more of the historic architecture of the city. Thanks for posting this.

    • Thanks for the comment. The campaign to destroy “unsocialist” architecture and way of life indeed has been immense. Ironically after free market returned in 1990s it turned out that people prefer to live in the historic old buildings to the newer Soviet buildings (apartment prices in the former increased greatly). What was done in Klaipėda is still better than what was done in Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad) where pre-Soviet history was erradicated almost entirely, even all the placenames changed and the whole population replaced by an ethnicity which never previously lived there (Russians).

      Klaipėda attempts recreating history (some sculptures have been rebuilt, some buildings restored at least partly to previous shapes). But this is difficult and costly. One example: new churches have been built in Klaipėda – but all of them in the new districts rather than downtown and on a more plain and cheaper design than ones demolished (after all most people of Klaipėda now live in Soviet boroughs outside downtown). There is an idea to rebuild St. John by the local Lutheran community but due to the Soviet ethno-religious cleansing there are few Lutherans in Klaipėda today, meaning little funding, so the design is likely to be simpler. At least the location of St. John’s is empty now; many other lots have been built up by Soviet functionalist plain buildings. Buying out and demolishing these premises would incur additional costs and rebuilding small meticulous pre-WW1 buildings in their place would not help recoup them. A dictatorship, such as the Soviet one, may destroy or construct at will (sadly, destroying prevailed over constructing, save for plain functionalist buildings and propaganda statues). A democratic country must count the costs for the taxpayer into the equation.

  3. MEMEL = GERMANY!

  4. My father-in-law, Jonas “Jonilas” was Governor of Memel before his death in the 1920’s. He was a poet and statesman and helped gain Lithuanian independence. He was slandered and then poisoned by Freemasons.

  5. Nice historical information. My great great grandfather was born in memo but orphaned a terrible fire that occurred in about 1856. The city by his diary accounts was basically destroyed and all the childrenwere sent to the countryside to survive on the farms were at least there was food. He found his way to New York as a teenager and wrote a wonderful diary of his experience and Memmel. If anyone was interested, I could post it here. I am planning to visit for sentimental reasons but what an unspeakable tragedy that they’ll said he described by my great-great-grandfather first destroyed by fire was really destroyed by Stalin.

    • Thanks for the memories. Indeed you can indeed post the diary here.

      You likely mean the great fire of 1854, which is well known in Klaipėda history. Because of this fire Klaipėda Old Town is unique among Lithuanian major cities to date largely to the late 19th century with no Medieval or 17th-18th centuries buildings. As the government and people remained the same after fire however, the city was rebuilt then likely as beautiful as it was before fire.

      Not so in 1940s. However, while much was indeed destroyed by Stalin (churches, cemeteries, statues…), much more has survived in Klaipėda than in e.g. Koenigsberg/Karaliaučius/Kaliningrad and many East Prussian cities. In numerous places of old Klaipėda you can still look around seeing only the old (i.e. built between 1856-1944) buildings near you, even if the skyline lacks the iconic church towers. The grid of straight narrow Old Town streets has also remained unchanged. So, a visit should be interesting. Our online travel guide to Klaipėda is here, while here you may find the top 10 sights of Klaipėda.

  6. that’s encouraging and I will look at your Memmel recommendations for sure.my great grandfather’s diary of his experience there and the fire and the subsequent accounting of going to the farm where he survived this about five pages long typed word document I transcribed. The family name was Rumple. They had originally come from Sweden. I’m certain you’ll find the story interesting but I worry that it’s a bit long to post here perhaps it should be a link that readers could click to but tell me what you think is best.

    • You can post it here, I’ll move to a sub-page if it will be necessary.

      • Circling back after several years; I will try to cut and paste the transcription of Carl Friedrich Rumple’s Memel experience before and after the great fire:

        To write one self’s biography is generally a harder task than many imagine; what is less important might be brought to light, while real important events might be overlooked. However, I write this mainly to satisfy the interest that my family has taken in my personality, hence it does not matter so much whether my description is quite complete in detail.

        I am the eight child of my beloved parents Johann Gottlieb Rumpel and Caroline Susanna Rumpel, nee von Boswell and was born in Memel, East Prussia, on April 7th in the year 1843. There were eleven children in the family; however, three of them died young, hence, to my parents was left the care of eight children, six girls and two boys.

        My father was a wealthy dealer in hardware, farm implements, hunting rifles, coal, leather, etc., and his trade was well established far towards the Russian border. He had served in the Prussian Army under Therdt Koermer against Napoleon and had a bullet wound, which once in a while would break open.

        I remember the stately residence we lived in, a two-story mansion, sculptured inside and finished in that artistical style of days gone by, when nearly every workman was master of his trade. We children had our own separate playing room, and the grand music piano would entertain us, the best she could. The great hall, parlor, and dining room combined were beautifully decorated; the walls and ceilings were painted by an artist representing some sunny scenery. My sisters, of course, nearly all older than myself, received music lessons and very seldom were that magnificent piano at rest.

        We had a garden, with flowers and fruit trees, where we passed in the lovely spring of Prussia over so many nice days and thought that this world was a paradise. Of course, father was the possessor of two fine horses and carriage and Sundays, especially were the times when one enjoyed a ride into the country.

        My father was a self made man. He enjoyed schooling only until his 12th year of age. In those days, during war times, most of the schools were broken up; however, by self-study he accomplished to be one of the more vigorous newspaper writers, besides conducting his business. He was also a poet* by chance and a well respected citizen being honored with the duty of a justice, which position in that country is only given to the best man and for the period of a year at a time.

        My mother was the daughter of General von Boswell, a picture of beauty and of a very kind character. I suppose, she was too good to us children, and that spoiled us; that is, we wanted to have our way just all of the time. I was one of them and I have often imagined in late life, why I was not more affectionate to my mother, as the good soul would knit stockings for me and send them to me, when I was afar away, and did all in her power to aid me.

        A coat of arms of French and English origin was in the possession of her brother,
        Robert von Boswell, where he served in the Franco-Prussian army as a Prussian major

        * “BORUFFIADE” by Johann Gottlieb Rumpel, Berlin 1826.
        general. My daughter Annie possesses that seal. The Boswells immigrated to Germany from Scotland about 150 years ago, about 1760.

        Alas happiness is often only a ray through a dark cloud. The fortune of my father and his happiness and that of his family was turned in one night into darkness and gloom from which he never would recover.

        It was the 4th of October in the year 1854. A strong north wind swept the water of the Kivi and the lake made waves and it made the Baltic ocean roar. The little river Dpim, crossing the city was rising rapidly and every creature felt, that the elements were like hot lava.—-Fire, Fire,——these words were shouted stronger than the tune of the howling winds and the banging of all the city bells mingled with these horrific voices.

        Bordering on the Kinivshe Haff from North to the South, about twenty saw mills with a vast amount of lumber, were on fire and one after the other, with the surging flames were more startling than a dragon whose tongues were after the city. Street after street were enveloped in smoke and in that fiery element, which has no pity. It was dangerous for man and beast to be near that blazing furnace. Burning timbers and sparks were flying on the wings of boreas and set houses on fire, a quarter of a mile apart. All those men, women and children could do was to flee from the raging element and sacrifice everything.

        The clock of the magnificent steeple of the Lutheran Church struck three, mournfully, solemnly. It was its last peal—then the steeple fell and clock and all were buried beneath the debris of this grand building. The opera house, the city hall, all the schools, all public buildings, all business houses and residences were rapidly enveloped in flames. The ships in the river, some loaded with petroleum caught fire, the drawbridges had to be opened, and the fleeing mass of humanity looked to heaven for help—but no answer came.

        In the harbor were anchored some English man- of- war, and these offered their cannons (dynamite was not yet invented) to shoot down some frames of the burning houses, intending to stop the spread of the fire.

        It would have been well, if that advice had been followed at once. After three days surviving with the fury of the flames, the mayor asked the English gunners to master the fire with their cannons.

        The fire was smoldering and partly burning for four long weeks, leaving ruins every where and the firey coal yards mining their black and gray ore lent a muddy color mixed with the columns of burning timber.

        All the fine residences, the public buildings, theatres and opera house, all the school houses and other institutions of learning were burned down, with the exception of a four houses in the outskirt and the Jewish Quarter.

        My grandparents and we children moved to a neighboring farm. My father was stricken with typhoid fever and although he recovered—he was broken in health and broken in spirit on account of his irreparable loss and died about one year later. Mother and our guardian undertook to run our extensive business longer, but they failed, and did not recover any insurance money to amount to anything as the fire insurance company went bankrupt—we were about penniless.

        All my sisters had had a good education and one had studied painting, and the others music or school teaching, but alas none of them could make her own living or support the family as all the branches were well filled.

        My brother Arthur, a young man of 18, had died in the meantime and mother was left alone to take care of the large circle of children. I was that time about twelve years old and went to school and could hardly be of any assistance. Besides I was a dreamer and had a poetical vein and did not try like our American boys to take hold of something practical. One Christmas, which is fresh in my memory, was especially very sad for us all. We were used to having such a joyous time, when our good father was living, but this very Christmas we were in want for everything and mother looked mournfully and worm out. However, the sadness and want, should be changed in joy and plenty, one good Samaritan had sent us Christmas meal not only eatables and clothing but little tokens for everybody. How glad and thankful we all were to that unknown kind giver, even mother smiled and forgot her troubles.

        Time went one. My sister Johanna and Marie got married; Louise was painting pictures, Agnes got a position, Franchiska went to America as a teacher and Anna stayed with mother. My good uncle, Robert von Boswell, the brother of my beloved mother, who was at that time major general in the Prussian army assisted her a great deal and sent her every month some expense money.

        To talk of myself again, I must state that I had quit school on account of my health at the age of fourteen. I had received a good foundation of knowledge in the Normal Real School, had studied besides my mother tongue, Latin, French and English and parted from school with the certificate of Prima, which is there the highest class.

        My tutor wanted to make a business man out of me and put me as apprentice in a dry good business which I had not only to works during the regular hours, that time till 8 o’clock p.m., but after supper to attend to some minor duties, as assorting yarns, etc. until 10 o’clock. This position proved too hard for my physical frame, my limbs would swell and I got completely worn out—therefore I left.

        After a while I entered a wine commission and fire insurance business. I learned to fill wine in bottles, to cork them, seal them and label them. This was merely a pastime. My main occupation was to write fire-policies, take inventory from would be insurers, then go on horseback to fires, sometimes miles sway and help to access the damage. My boss and his wife were very kind to me; we made tea together, and read English books to get more perfect. I got a good salary, and nice Christmas gifts. Alas, my soul was yearning for science, I despised the dusty business books, and told Mr. St. Francis, this was his name, that I was not cut out for a businessman. He gave me the nicest kind of recommendation—I left and became a schoolteacher soon enough.

        I was now 16 years old and had a little private school. I studied besides preparing myself for the teaching profession. Financially my position was not terrible and therefore I became a tutor in private families. Although I had improved my condition and through experience and study had make myself more perfect, and although I had fulfilled every task, which was put to me, even as assistant clerk as much as I could combine it with teaching, always will zeal and faithfulness—my fatherland with the political and religious movements at that time—did not open any avenues for advancement to me.

        It would be meaningful for me to pass a very pleasant incident to my young life. I had made the acquaintance of Rev Schrader and his family who resided in a small village of the name Johnievenhavse, if I remember right. I very often visited there. His amicable wife was as kind as a mother to me and their daughters treated me as a brother. This friendship was the shinning star in all my later life, but alas, I never was able to repay their kindness, nor was I able to embrace them in any way..

        Teacher’s wages were in those days very small, hence I was not able to save some money, which would carry me to old England or the United States of America, as I was longing. My good uncle, Robert von Boswell, agreed with my plans and sent me 200 Thaler to pay my traveling expenses for the voyage to America. So I got a passport for the German military authority at Danzig, as my name appeared in their record, for one year dating back to 1867. Soon afterward, I procured a ticket on a sailing vessel, which left the harbor of Bremen with several hundred immigrants, including myself about May the 10th. That time I was 24 years old, today I am 41 and still this voyage is vivid in my mind. The name of the ship, a tree master, was Amaranthe, the captains name Neylorn. A same purpose and close quarters and equal dangers made friend especially in those days, when the heart beats with the fire of youth. Therefore, we all knew each other and formed a singing club The men folks also formed a company to help the captain if need be. I was made assistant to the ship’s doctor, as I did not become seasick and had all hands full to do.

        The voyage, a journey of about four weeks passed off fairly pleasantly, although we some times had an aggressive high sea, strong winds and fog, and we were in eminent danger. On some days, we could not walk upon the deck of the ship; we were tossed about and baptized with the salty brine. The captain tied himself to a mast not to lose his balance; the waves rolled over the deck, the women and children in the cabin and steerage room shrieked and besought God the Almighty for help. The ship sank way down into the ocean and the next movement was riding upon the crest of gigantic waves. However, this was not the worst, a dense fog was hiding a big steamer from us and only the presence of mind of the captain saved us from a watery grave.

        As to our well being, if must be said, that we did not suffer, however our meals were very scant and sometimes uneatable—some, which angered the captain, when we spoke it. Water got scarce and coffee and tea could not very much replace it at times, when we were really thirsty. Beside the old ship was rocking more than a cradle, and the cup of tea, coffee or water, which we brought to our lips, was by the motion of the craft tossed away from us, and we often experienced difficulty to taste some of it.

        We had formed a ships aid-company. Of course, I was the captain of same. One day we went down to the bottom of the lower deck, where all the provisions were and succeeded in casting all the rotten potatoes into the sea, which angered our captain again. However, we were a jolly crowd, and serenaded the captain, when we arrived in the harbor of New York, which was in the beginning of June. Old differences were smoothed over and the captain gave us a banquet to be remembered in a friendly way.

        Soon we were in New York in castle-garden, that time the immigrants had more liberty than they have now. As soon as the health officer was satisfied that there was no contagious disease among us, we could scatter and go where we please.

        Some of us kept good company and we stayed together in the neat boarding house. A little boy, whom I had nursed the during the voyage gave me his poodle dog as a token of his thoughtfulness. The English over which I commanded helped me a great deal. As I could not keep the little fellow, I put a sign upon his back with the wording, “Dog for Sale”, walking Broadway up and down, I found soon an animal lover, and disposed of that pet of mine for a very small sum—alas, my little friend was gone.

        New York is quite a city. At that time, I presume, it was more over crowded with mankind seeking employment than now, where the immigration laws are so strict. No matter how early I would arise in the morning, I found the office where help was wanted, always filled with human humanity fighting for existence. Day after day, week after week went by, my resources grew smaller, and finally I lived off the money my good boarding house mistress, who would give me each week. After wearisome toiling for work–the schools were all closed for a period of four months, hence an occupation as school teacher was out of the question—myself and some of my comrades, concluded to go to a bureau, where farmhands were wanted. Farmers hiring from the neighborhood of Sommerville were waiting there to engage some farm boys. My friends, who were robust looking fellows suited him right well—as to me, he had some objection. My hands and feet looked too small, my body too tender. Finally, he agreed, when I assured him, I would work as hard as the rest of the boys. Off we went on a train to an unknown state, the state of New Jersey and to strange people. On the whole, the farmer I worked for and his family treated us right well. It was the month of July. We had to rise with the sun and started work at 6 a.m. and work late, sometimes till dark. It was the harvest time and the work was pressing. An old grandpa would say the prayer at the breakfast table. We were treated to about 6 dishes, every morning but, alas, each contained but little eatable food and made me hungrier than wolfs. At dinner and evening meals, we underwent the same procedure. Rainey weather, was our past time, then we were allowed to climb upon the cherry trees and eat as many cherries, as we wanted.

        The good lady of the house and her daughter would attend to our underwear, mend stocking, patch holes and bring us some ginger bread and cooling drinks on the burning hot afternoons.

        I learned to drive a team of four horses, how to bind the sheeves, to make hay and pitch it to the storage place in the loft, and also to dig out the stumps of willow trees in a swamp. My comrades, who did the same work would whistle and sing. However, I did not feel like singing as the skin of my hands were scratched to pieces by the work. My limbs were often swollen and I often could not sleep. However the vigor of youth, helped over all obstacles and I did not lose my humor and the hope for better times.

        Our foreman, was a regular dare devil and he would curse us, when some blunder was made. The old man, Shavey, was kind and only said on some occasion, “Charley, you had better carry milkto the market, and drive a four horse team. That all was make up again, when I taught his children at night. At that time, they called me, Professor.

        Indeed this rough time belongs to the cherished reminiscences of early life in America. When Fall came the very same year, I received a position as teacher at a parochial school in Brooklyn. Some of my pupils, boys and girls, were as tall as myself, but I made them mind, but not before I had demonstrated to them, that I was master in snow balling. The principal of the school carried on a lonesome life, as he was and old bachelor. We kept house together and divided the kitchen work. I learned to fry steak with onion, to wash dishes, and so forth. Our comfort in that hot summertime, when the thermometer would reach 110 degrees in the shade, was a bathing tub, which had to be filled by means of a yoke, carried with the dangling pails of water for some blocks—that time water works, with pipes and hydrants did not exist. We accomplished this work alternating. I was now a full-fledged schoolteacher, was teaching in Williamsburg, New York, Brooklyn and then for a period of about eight in Hoboken, where I was principal of a private school, of 5 classes, including a Kindergarten. My position was very pleasant, but also of a very arduous character. I gave besides teaching the full hours. I’d make lessons not only in Hoboken, but also in far off Staten Island. In stormy winter days, I was snowed in and could not return to Hoboken before the next morning.

        There was a fine class of Germans in that little town on the Island, who were enthusiastic for a good education and learning, also quite a number of good French and Irish people. Great interest was shown in this institution and our classes, and our commencement festivities were out of the ordinary. Now the public schools began to put in their work and to accommodate the German citizens who embraced the German language in their curriculum. The days of the private school more now numbered and hindered me in my onward march. I quit my position to embark for Austin, Texas.

        The good people of Hoboken arranged a farewell banquet, and the next morning came a great number to the pier, when the steamer was in waiting to take me to Galveston, to bid me goodbye. I was sad in my heart to leave so many friends, such a large field of usefulness and such a happy time behind me.

        The short sea voyage was pleasant, the balmy island of Key West, where we stopped for a little while, was of friendly in habitants, who bought us beautiful tropical flowers and sea shells, merely for a song. The Gulf of Mexico at this point was near azure blue and so transparent, that one could recognize the in habitants of the sea and its vegetation way off. And especially more the coral formations were beautiful to behold.

        We soon landed in Galveston. I, with some of my acquaintances took the train for Houston that time merely a large village, and from there to Austin, the capitol of the Lone Star State. This all came to pass in the month of May 1876.

        I was disappointed. The description, I had received was, that Texas was a tropical country. Far from that in many respects. I did not find palm trees and luxurious tropical vegetation. Instead of that, there were live oak trees, hackberry, elm, and cedar trees fighting for their existence. The mesquite tree was the only one, which seemed to flourish. Of course, towards the creeks where the scenery changed, and all the trees, which merely existed in the hills were clad in new freshness and even pecan trees grew in abundance.

        • Thank you for sharing your great grandfather’s story, that was interesting to read! It’s great that such first-hand accounts are posted online, as otherwise they would remain inaccessible to the general public.

  7. My two sisters, myself and a niece are going to visit Lithuania in May. This information is wonderful. My family roots are from Memelland, Lithuania. My father was born in Rumschen on May 1, 1912.

  8. Maybe you can help me further with something. I already mentioned to you my sisters, myself and a niece are going to Lithuania in May. Do you know where the following places are located and/or have a good map for Roebsden & Breslav.

    Ugnaten Cemetery in the Schiesze River area approx 6 km from Rumschen.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with the names: Oselies, Storost, Gritz or Gritzas, Peljus, Gibisch, Grigugees, Wolenches. They are all from the area by the Schiesze River near the school. When we come there we would like to retrace some of the areas where these people lived.

    • In general, as this is Lithuania Minor where Soviet deportations and genocide were especially fierce (both against Germans and local Lithuanians), there is less connection left between the pre-WW2 population and current population, much of which has been brought from elsewhere to repopulate “dead villages”. The decline of Lutheran faith indicates the scale population replacement: up to 95% Lutheran before WW2 the area has under 5% Lutherans now. Those locals that survived retreated to Germany and elsewhere and few remained.

      Anyways, the surnames you write are mostly Germanized versions of Lithuanian names so should these families live there today, they likely now use the Lithuanian versions: Wolenches – Valančius, Gritzas – Gricas, Storost – Storostas (as you probably know famous Lithuania Minor philosopher Vilhelmas Storostas / Wilhelm Storost / alias Vydūnas had this surname), Grigugees – Grigas(?), Gibisch – Gibišas.

      Maybe you are more lucky in talking to people in the area, however, as many families may be post-WW2 settlers from elsewhere, the luck might not be immediate. Additionally, people are not very likely to speak English there.

      As for the placenames you provide, they exist or existed in the same area:
      Roebsden – Rėbždai. The village doesn‘t exist anymore, probably since WW2 / Genocide of Lithuania Minor. It had 103 inhabittants in 1910.
      Breslav – I don‘t know. Rings a bell to me as Braslau in modern-day Belarus near Lithuania, but this is far away from Lithuania Minor.
      Ugnaten cemetery – I don’t know; if you could mean “Jonaten” then at the village of Jonaičiai. In general Soviets destoryed many Lutheran cemeteries and the rest have felt into disrepair as there were few Lutherans to care for them. So it may be partly overgrown / derelict.
      Schiesze River – Šyša River, it flows near those areas.

    • Hello Joan:

      Please give me your e-mail address! I am a Gibisch who returned to Lithuania 20 years ago. Been searching around Gnybaliai were my dad and grandpa are from. Will fill you in on more!

  9. In addition: Meineiker Schule and Russner Brucke

    Thank you

  10. This comment is not restricted to the topic of one particular subject.
    I enjoy your entire site…especially the section on Lithuanian
    parishes. Your photos and historical accounts can’t be touched.

    Did I miss the area on where to give donations via PayPal
    to keep your work going?

    Aciu,
    MaryAgnes Mikalauskas

  11. Hi
    My greatgrandfather was from Memel/Klaipeda. He emigrated first to USA, then UK, and lived/married/died in Cardiff. In USA/UK he was known as George Gudwen. Noone seems to know this name – can you suggest what his original name was? I visited Klaipeda in 2009.
    Many thanks
    Matthew Jones

    • Hello,

      Klaipėda was effectively a biethnic city with Germans and Lithuanians living there, and also some Lithuanians with partly Germanized names. Therefore it is hard to answer definitely, but it is more likely that the names were German. German versions of “George” are “Jurgen”, “Jorg”, “Jurg”, “Georg”, “Gorch”. Lithuanian version is “Jurgis”. I don’t know German surnames that well to comment on what could be similar to Gudwen. In Lithuanian “Gudėnas” sound similar.

  12. I aplogise – I forgot dates.George was born in 1841, married 1875 and drowned 1881.
    Matthew Jones

  13. My Great-Grandfather Charles John Mertins and his wife Emma Marie Vorcamp Mertins were both born in Memal in 1858. They later immigrated to the USA where they began their family of ten children. Wish I could visit their birthplace.

  14. I’m trying to find out more about my family history. My ancestor Martin Melck born on the 20th Oct 1723 in Klaipeda then Memel East Prussia, emigrated to Cape Town South Africa around about 1741. Although Melck family history is rich and very well documented in South Africa, almost nothing if anything is known about the family prior to this time. I’m appealing to anybody who can help in this regard. Please feel free to contact me or google the Melck family in South Africa.

  15. I am trying to research my grandfather’s background since all he left was a birth certificate citing his name as Boris/mother Sarah/father Boris, born in 1885 in Memel. He died in NY in 1972. He came to the US via Ellis Island and did well for himself and his family. However, he would not discuss his background, except tangentially.
    Name: Boris Emmet – Lithuanian or German equivalent? We’ve long assumed that his name was shortened when he came through NY.
    My father believed that Boris had come to America because of a pogrom. He was a Jew who wanted his family raised as Christians to avoid persecution. Is this a region where many Jews lived in the late nineteenth century? Boris did speak with a German accent, but he insisted on English only.
    I so hope for a clue that might help my search. Thank you for any help you can offer.

    • Hello. Several notes:
      a)As you probably know, before World War 1 Lithuania was partitioned into German-ruled and Russian-ruled lands. German-ruled land was known as Lithuania Minor and it included Memel.
      b)There were very few Jews in German-ruled Lithuania compared to the Russian-ruled Lithuania (where the number of Jews was artificially increased by czarist policies allowing Jewish settlement only in some Imperial areas, among them the Russian-ruled Lithuania).
      c)”Boris” is a Russian name. Jews would either have Jewish names or adopt names of local ruling ethnicity, therefore it would be more likely for somebody named Boris to be hailing from Russian-ruled territories.
      d)Pogroms are associated with the Russian Empire.

      Given all this, it would seem far more likely that he would be from Russian-ruled part of Lithuania (or even parts of Russian Empire that were historically parts of Lithuania but are no longer so) rather than from Memel. However, I am not saying exact story you provide is impossible – there are many people in every city / town and some may have mixed heritage or such (e.g. maybe he was born in Russian-ruled Lithuania but then moved to Memel before moving accross the Ocean).

  16. Thank you so much for your helpful comments.
    I imagine much will remain a mystery, but further research on my part is required.
    Wish I could travel from the state of Maine in America and spoke languages other than English.
    Ahhh!
    Again, thanks.
    Susan

  17. I’m trying to trace my family tree. My great graND mother was Gertrude von Kikits. That was her madin name. She had had several sibblings. My grandmother was also born there. If you could help in aNY way. Thank you.

  18. Mein Father war von Memel meine Muter von Neu Rugeln bei Heidekrug geborene Surau !

  19. Mein Father war aus Memel ,meine Muter aus Neu Rugeln bei Heydekrug !

  20. My ancestors came from here before it changed after the war and I trying to find information on its people from that period. Any ideas where to look for this information.

  21. Sveiki! I found this site by accident! I Lived and worked in Klaipeda from 1999-2005. Fascinated by the history of the region. I return every year. I have good friends there (Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish and Byelorussian)…..3 years ago I found an old German cemetery to the north of Klaipeda. I have photographs. I have tried to contact various groups for help in discovering more about this amazing piece of hidden history……can you help? Or, can you advise of someone who can? Aciu jums.

    • Hi. There are indeed some pre-WW2 Lutheran cemeteries (with both German and Lutheran Lithuanian burials) remaining in the region, although Soviets destroyed many others and those that remain tend to be neglected. That’s because the relatives of those buried there were either killed or forced out during the Soviet Genocide of Lithuania Minor, leaving nobody to care for graves. After all, the population of Klaipėda was virtually entirely replaced in 1944-1948, with the original Lutheran communities (both German and local Lithuanian) destroyed and new inhabittants moved in (Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians in 1940s-1950s; in 1950s and later also mainly Catholic Lithuanians from other parts of Lithuania).

      • Many thanks for your reply. The particular cemetery I saw is in a small settlement called ‘Gut Wilde’ (to the North East of Klaipeda). It is in a sad, tragic state. There is a very small piece on Wikipedia about it (stating, not surprisingly, that history ended in late 1944). However, I really do wish to find out more about it….As I said before, I have tried contacting individuals/groups in both Germany and Lithuania but I have had no luck. Do you know of any help that may be available? I will be in Klaipeda next January. Any help will be gratefully received.

  22. For those of you looking for ancestors’ info and links, I recommend joining LithuanianGenealogy@yahoogroups.com. They are a group of very helpful people with lots of experience figuring these things out. It has been so helpful to me. Based on the research we were able to find out the town my husband’s grandfather was born in and visit there last summer. Everyone in the family had emigrated, but it was still wonderful to just be there.

  23. Loved your article. My father farmed near a village he called Kerkutwettin. He lived in harmony with his neighbors though he was German. Any idea where this was? The village may have been on high ground as there stood a windmill. Thankyou for your excellent historic knowledge

    Best regards,

    Bill bremer

    • Thanks. I believe that may be Kerkutviečiai (a.k.a. Kirkutviečiai) in Pagėgiai district municipality, currently a village of 72 people. Pagėgiai apskritis (administrative unit) was 50%-50% German-Lithuanian at the time, so Germans were more common than in Klaipėda (Memel) rural apskritis or Šilutė (Heydekrug) apskritis, but they were less common than in Klaipėda (Memel) city.

  24. wonderful summary. only a question.. was it common for ethnic..prussian/german(??) people to use lithuanian names interchangeably? my grandmother identifies as a prussian/german, but all the people i found in her maternal ancestry have lithuanian names sourced in plikiai. from what she has told me, her unlisted biological father (lithuanian) was executed by nazis, and on mothers side, uncles sent to nazi camps, and two aunts sent to siberia.. so i’m not sure what to understand. her mother (german?) and other aunt who survived remarried for a different surname and fled to canada. i didn’t know about any of this until very recently… sorry if my question is very ignorant (also sorry if my english isn’t so good)

    • The ethnic situation of the area was not straightforward; many people were actually Germanized Lithuanians.

      By the 17th century not only Klaipėda Region, but also what is today Kaliningrad Oblast was Lithuanian-majority (the area was known as Lithuania Minor), they spoke Lithuanian language. Only the cities, such as Koenigsberg and Memel, were populated by ethnic Germans who moved from other parts of Germany.

      However, over the centuries the process of Germanization continued whereby many Lithuanians would increasingly use German language. German was a prestigious language, the only one in which you could get higher education, large numbers of books, etc. (none of this was accessible in Lithuanian which was used mostly by peasants at the time). Gradually, some families ceased to teach „less useful“ Lithuanian language to their children, and many villages and towns turned from Lithuanian-speaking-majority to German-speaking-majority (through language shift rather than immigration) during the 18th-19th centuries. Lithuanian surnames and placenames remained however, sometimes just partly Germanized.

      With the national ideas of 19th century and national awakenings in both Germany and Lithuania, many people decided who they are (Germans or Lithuanians), and this was not always easy, as many (in many places the majority) were in fact Germanized Lithuanians. As a result of such difficulty, in the 1925 census some quarter of Klaipėda region inhabittants chose „Klaipėdian“ as an answer to the „ethnicity“ question, identifying with neither ethnicity (most of them were Lithuanian-speakers who still considered themselves distinct enough from the rest of Lithuanian nation (that had spent a prolonged time under Russian rule and followed Catholic rather than Lutheran faith)).

      To complicate the matters further, to many local Lithuanians it was economically advantageous for Klaipėda to be part of Germany (because many Lithuanians were peasants and while Lithuania was oversaturated with agricultural products, Germany had a shortage of them), while to many local Germans it was economically advantageous for Klaipėda to be part of Lithuania (because many Germans were craftsmen and manufactorers and while German market was oversaturated in such products, Lithuanian market had a shortage of them).

      As for the two genocidal totalitarian regimes, the situation was as follows:

      a)Nazis despised (and persecuted / murdered) anyone who would have supported Klaipėda Region‘s accension to Lithuania, and considered Lithuanians as lesser than Germans.

      b)Soviets hated (and persecuted / murdered / expelled to Siberia) anybody who had any relation to Germany, however this reached absurd proportions, to the extent where non-German teachers of German language could have been murdered, or Lutheran Lithuanians (as Lutheranism was considered a German faith), or somebody with a German sounding name. It became known as Genocide of Lithuania Minor, as people were targetted for traits such as languages spoken and religion, and some 300 000 were killed in the Lithuania Minor area, of them 130 000 Lithuanians and 170 000 Germans.

      More information here:
      About the German and Germanized-Lithuanian communities: http://www.truelithuania.com/germans-126
      About the Lithuania Minor region: http://www.truelithuania.com/lithuania-minor-230
      About the expulsion of Germans and others based to their supposed relation to Germans by Soviets: http://global.truelithuania.com/tajikistan-987/

      • thank you so much for your thorough response! there’s a feeling of something missing when you don’t really understand where you come from. i have actually since discovered many latvian, lithuanian, and german ancestors on her side. it’s really interesting you mentioned “many people decided who they are” because she also mentioned this too when i asked her about it. i think there is very much a lot of fear that she still lives with. thank you so much once again! i love learning about baltic countries and culture, my family has also planned a trip to klaipeda for next summer. we’re very excited to finally see the sand dunes that we grew up listening to stories about.

  25. What great information you have on this site. My mother was from Nidden (Nida) and my father and grandparents were from Memel (Klaipeda). I have been trying to trace my heritage. My mother, my brother and my grandparents fled Memel in 1945 because the Russians were coming and left everything behind (like many Germans from that area at that time). I just had a DNA test through Ancestry.com done and found out that my genetic makeup is 96% Eastern European, the rest seems Scandinavian. Do you think that based on your historical knowledge this means that it is likely that I am really Lithuanian whose ancestors wanted a better education for their children changed their family’s language to German? Your posting earlier indicated that this might be the case. Also, on a more personal question, my grandfather’s last name was Sziele but my mother was telling us that when she visited another family member in the country after she met my father, she saw a sign above the entry to the farm “Szylis” or “Szyle” at least that she thought she remembered. My mother’s maiden name is Schekahn which is a very common name in Nidden (Nida).
    Any other historical information or links to books regarding the history of the Germans in Lithuania would very much be appreciated.
    Thank you.
    Ingrid


Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.