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True Lithuania

Historical Heartland of Samogitia: Kražiai, Varniai, Rietavas

In three small towns of central Samogitia, several out-of-scale buildings divulge their past importance. These are Kražiai, Varniai, and Rietavas, the political, religious, cultural and educational centers of western Lithuania in the 15th-19th centuries.

Kražiai, the original capital of Samogitia (1416-1464). The 1762 Late Baroque church here became notable again in 1893 when a mass of people protested the Russian Imperial decision to close it down. This led to a Cossack massacre of the unarmed Lithuanian peasants (9 killed, 53 injured, 150 arrested) which triggered an outrage in the religious 19th century Christian world that in turn saved the church from demolition (but not closure). Only a belfry remains from a much older wooden church (established in 1416). Kražiai’s third church was at the former Jesuit college. Today’s sleepy village hardly reminds an education center but it attracted many students from afar in 1614-1844. Recently restored former dormitory (bursa) is a witness of this era.

Church of Kražiai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In 1464 the center of Samogitian diocese was moved 28 kilometers west to Varniai. Two churches (one brick, one wooden) remind of that town former importance, as does the recently rebuilt 53 m tall tower of former priest seminary (1770), now home to the diocesan museum.

Baroque St. Peter and Paul church with 11 altars (left) and the priest seminary tower (right) in Varniai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rietavas, 33 km further west, is centered around a large neo-Romanesque church built in 1873. This was the golden age of the Oginskis family. Technology-loving dukes of Rietavas also constructed Lithuania’s first telephone line (1882) and power station (1892), established a famous music school in what were the last years when manors rather than cities were the source of progress and culture in Lithuania. The towered Oginskis Palace did not survive the trials of history, but other buildings of the manor did. Today Rietavas is also known for its bustling bazaar-like market which occupies a disused airfield every Sunday morning, attracting buyers and sellers from all over Samogitia and beyond.

Kražiai-Varniai-Rietavas route may be explored as a detour while traversing the Vilnius/Kaunas-Klapėda highway. It may also be easily combined with a visit to Šiluva Virgin Mary Shrine and Tytuvėnai Monastery, both some 30 km east of Kražiai.

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  1. I am trying to locate a castle that was once in Kraziai, Samogitia. It existed in the sixteenth century, but I am unable to find out its name or what happened to it. Can you help?

    Thank you,

    • Kražiai castle was wooden. Wooden buildings generally have shorter lifespans. There are no surviving wooden castles in Lithuania as tehy were eitehr destroyed or replaced by more modern military installations.

      It is believed that Kražiai castle was destroyed in late 14th century as one document of 1395 already mentions the location as a “place where castle once stood”. At the time the Teutonic (Crusader) vs. Lithuanian wars were devastating the area (see the article on Grand Duchy of Lithuania). Kražiai castle stood on a hill that still remains near the village of Papiliai some 3 km southeast of Kražiai village. Approximate coordinates are 55°34′41.2″N 22°43′49.3″E.

      In the 16th century Kražiai was an important religious and educational center but it no longer had a castle. However some sources claim that local noble Mikalojus Radvila the Black sought to build a brick castle in late 16th century (which was either partly or fully completed). Samogitia was rather pacified back then however so this was not a defensive castle but rather followed a popular trend to shape residential palaces as castles. See the article on the Castles of Panemunė for surviving examples. That castle-palace was replaced by a Jesuit church which has also succumbed to time.Only a former dormitory now remains of that large Jesuit educational complex.

      More about Kražiai (not the castle though) can be found here.

      • Thank you for taking the time to reply. The residence I’m looking for is described as a ‘grand-ducal house’ in Book 51 of the Metrica, so maybe it wasn’t a castle or a palace as such. It was lived in by two English Protestant refugees c.1556, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk and her husband, Richard Bertie. They sold it back to the Radzowills between 1559 and 1561, for 3676 Dutch thalers, the same amount they had bought it for. It’s a shame it no longer exists, but if anyone has further information for me (especially if they can give me a source), then I’d be very grateful.

        • I assume you are then talking about the second castle-palace I have mentioned, or, more correctly, the manor palace that most likely preceded it. “Radvila” and “Radziwill” are alternative spellings (Lithuanian and Polish respectively) for the same noble family name, see the article on “Poles of Lithuania” for info on these dual spellings. As for the sources, e.g. this magazine “Žemaičių žemė” (“Samogitian land”) of 2010 published a chronology of Kražiai which says

          “1559 Žygimantas Augustas sold Kražiai to Catherine Suffolk and Richard Bertie [NOTE: in the source Lithuanian spellings are used which are „Kotryna Sufolk“ and „Ričardas Bertas“]. After them (since 1568) Kražiai were ruled by Mikalojus Radvila, the voivod of Vilnius. Ever since that time he called himself „count of Kražiai“. M. Radvila built in the territory of Kražiai manor a castle-palace which was surrounded by a moat. […] 1621 – Jesuits started constructing their church on the foundations of Radvila palace (works completed on 1689)”.

          (as I said the castle was a palace in the form of castle actually and it is disputed whether it was ever fully completed as designed, but a residential building should have existed before that in manor as well, as it was common for the town owners to live in a local manor palace). The book “Vakarų Lietuvos miestai ir miesteliai” (“Cities and towns of Western Lithuania”) by A. Miškinis (a researcher of Lithuanian urban history) allegedly also describes these facts, but I don’t have it with me to check.

          • I am the Great x 16 grandon of Catherine Duchess of Suffolk and Richard Bertie referred to in Kelly’s post of 24th October 2014 and will be visitng Kražiai in June 2021 and would very much enjoy to meet Augustinas Žemaitis and to visit the site where Catherine and Richard lived from 1556-1559.

            I have read accounts of Catherine and Ricahrd’s arduous 3 year journey from England to Kražia in the 16th Century. We will be travelling much less arduously as part of a Classic Car Rally in Motor cars built between 1920 and 1970

            I can be reached by email on johnaird@aol.com

          • It may be possible. Given the pandemics, it is difficult to say what kind of restrictions will be at that time or where I will be, but please contact me closer to the dates if the plans continue, and possibly we may meet.

  2. Trying to trace my great-grandparents who were from Kraziai. Story goes that ggrandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a feudal lord. The family names that I have are ,ggrandfather, Butsavich (American spelling) possibly Bucevicius, ggrandmother, Bielianskiuta, and there is a Vincent Yablanski involved also.
    Not sure if these names are of any importance of not but was hoping for possibly some insight.
    Thanks you…

    • His name was Lord Vincent Yablanski (OR Jablonski), a feudal lord at a time when feudalism was being outlawed in Lithuania. Your Great Grandma Gertrude is my Great Grandma too. I always heard about Gertrude and her sister Charlotte and how they loved to dance. Lord Yablanski raped their mother Anna when she was a serf living on the lord’s property.

      Great-Grandma Gertude always went by last name Yablanski( OR Jablonski) as to hide the shame of the rape.

  3. I have been searching for the birthplace of Donatis/Danacas Silanskis. I thought I had it pinned down to Sviliuku / Josvainiai (Kedainiai District, Kaunas). These are the two names he stated on U.S. documents (naturalization, U.S. draft registration). However, I just found his obituary in the Lithuanian language newspaper Draugas, which states he was “born in Lithuania, originated from Tauragės county, Kaitėnai parish.” This has really been a surprise — never have I seen him mention this in any document.

    I don’t know who supplied the information to the newspaper, though he did have an old aunt living, named Ona Libeliene.

    I do not know where the Kaitėnai parish is — could this be Kaltinėnai parish? It is 120km away from Josvainiai. This is very confusing.

    • Yes, Kaltinėnai is indeed the most likely site. There was no another similarly sounding parish name in Tauragė County.

      • Thank you. The man’s given name, Donatis, appears as Danacas or Donacas in American church records and his obituary in a Lithuanian language newspaper. Have you heard of that name before?

  4. Please help me if you can, I am encouraged by the posts above. I’m trying to discover more family history. Both my great great grandfather and grandmother were born and married in Kraziaj. My grandfather was Josef Kucaskas born 1883 and my grandmother names was Kazimiera Suffron born 1892. They married January 6, 1908. I can’t believe they were there through the massacre. If anyone can give me any leads on their parents or siblings I would be forever grateful. Thank you

  5. I have a question about Rietavas from about 1860 to 1920. I have some old family documents (ship’s manifests and birth certificates from the archives) where Rietavas is listed as the place of birth.

    But, I realize that Rietavas today can mean either the small city, or the much larger municipality. Was this true during the dates I mentioned… in other words, when I look at historical documents from 1860 to 1920, would Rietavas be referring to the city or the municipality, or is that something I can’t really determine?

    • Rietavas Municipality is a modern creation that has been established in 2000.

      Back in the interwar period, Lithuania had a different administrative division system, based on “apskritis” (higher level division) and “valsčius” (lower level). Rietavas was a capital of such valsčius.

      Also, given that before 1940, there was no civil registry of births/marriages in Lithuania, parishes were also important as an administrative division – i.e. Catholics would register a birth at the church of their parish. Smaller villages had no churches, making them go to the nearest larger village or town. Parishes were generally smaller than valsčius, though.

      So, it is impossible to completely answer the question, especially if some of the documents are based on self-reporting to foreign authorities (it was common to, for example, when emigrating, tell the immigration authorities in the new homeland the name of the larger city “capital of valsčius” or “capital of apskritis” hoping that it would be better known or easier to spell).

      If they were baptized in Rietavas church though it is likely they were from Rietavas or somewhere very close (i.e. the family would still have been visiting Rietavas every Sunday for holy mass, for shopping in markets, etc.).

  6. My family name is Dobkiewicz. It is my understanding that the Dobkiewicz family were ‘Defenders of the church’ at Kražiai massacre. I am trying to find out more information on what happened to Antoni Dobkiewicz and Jzabela Dobkiewiczowa that were connected to the church. Were they killed? Were they arrested and exiled? Any more information that you can provide regarding the Dobkiewicz family would be appreciated.

  7. My brother and I are attempting to trace our family history. Our ancestral research has lead us to Antoni Dobkiewicz and Jzable Dobkiewiczowa. They are pictured in a 1895 montage commemorating the 1893 Kraziaj Massacre.
    Could you please tell us why they were in the montage and if they had any children? Any information would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you.

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