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

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  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.

  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.


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