The tale of a small town in Lithuania

February 3, 2008
Kelme, Lithuania

Approaching Kelme

Kelme is not a common destination for visitors to Lithuania. It is a small and unremarkable town in the northwest of the country; it has a population of about 11,000 people, and serves as a market and administrative center for one of the country’s 60 municipal regions.

It was a cloudy and chilly day in early April 2007 when I arrived here with my friend Abraham Allison. Abe was in Kelme to research the history of the Chaluzin family, farmers in the area for generations. In the 1929, a young member of the family, Louis, left the depressed economic conditions of Kelme and made his way to South Africa, where he made his home and changed his last name to Allison. Louis was Abe’s father.

Jewish cemetery, Kelme

Kelme's Jewish cemetery

According to an 1897 census, 2,710 of Kelme’s 3,914 inhabitants were members of the town’s Jewish population, the vast majority of whom — unlike the Chaluzins — were merchants and traders and lived in the town. I saw only three signs of this once-thriving community during my visit. There were the upended and fading headstones in the old Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Kelme (right). There was our host and guide in Kelme, the widow of the town’s last Jewish inhabitant. And there was a memorial alongside an unpaved road, adjacent to what had been a gravel pit on the old Grozhebiski farm. In Hebrew and Lithuanian, the memorial notes that this is the site of a mass grave holding the remains of the 483 Jews who were killed here in 1941.

The fate of Kelme’s Jewish population is in many ways similar to that which befell similar communities in much of Europe during the Second World War. After Lithuania was invaded by German forces in June of 1941, some of the Jews of Kelme fled north and east, hoping to escape to the safety of the Soviet Union. Others remained, hoping that the cordial relations Jews had had with Germans during the First World War would be repeated. As it turned out, it was not only the Germans Kelme’s Jews should have been concerned about, it was a small group of Lithuanian nationalists. In the wake of the German occupation, they rounded up Kelme’s remaining Jews, confining women to a barn on the Chaluzin farm, and the men to a granary. Days later, the killing began.

Mass grave site, Kelme

Roadside marker at the site of a mass grave, Kelme. The memorial is the work of the survivors and descendants of members of Kelme's Jewish community.

On July 24, Lithuanian soldiers arrived at the Chaluzin farm, and ordered the Jews to stand in rows in the farmyard, and to put any jewelry and the contents of their pockets in front of them. The soldiers then announced that all Jews who were capable of working would be taken to a labor camp. They were marched off, and none were seen again. Locals later reported that they had been shot. On August 22, Lithuanian soldiers announced that all of the Jews still living in Kelme were to be taken to a work camp in the nearby town of Padubisis. They were ordered to load their possessions onto waiting wagons, and to follow the wagons on foot as they left the town.

Their destination was not Padubisis. It was the gravel pit on Grozhebiski farm. There, most of the remaining Jews of Kelme were shot, and their bodies dumped into a mass grave.

A few did, however, manage to escape the massacre. Among them were five members of the Chaluzin family, Abe’s grandparents, three of their sons, and two daughters. All were aided by sympathetic Lithuanian gentiles, who risked their lives by giving food and shelter to Jews. One of the young women managed to pass for a gentile for the remainder of the war, and worked as a seamstress. The other lived in the home of a gentile family, hidden away in a drawer when outsiders came by. The three young men spent most the rest of the war hiding out in the forests, arming themselves with weapons taken from the bodies of dead soldiers, and surviving by their wits and the kindness of supportive Lithuanian gentiles.

The Chaluzins did not all survive the war, however. An informer tipped off the Gestapo, who in 1943 ambushed the Chaluzin sons at a local farmhouse. A shootout ensued, and one of the sons was killed. Abe’s grandparents were captured, taken to a prison camp in nearby Raseinaia, where they were presumably killed.

Today, there is a small local history museum in what what used to be the mansion on the Grozhebiski estate. A framed two page document headed “The History of Kelme Town” is on display at the entrance to the museum. It tells the story of the town from 1410 to the present. The description says nothing about the fact that a majority of the town’s population was once Jewish. And it makes no mention at all of the 1941 massacre, or of the mass grave only a few hundred meters away.

History of Kelme, Kelme Museum 2007


I have drawn here on several sources in addition to my own observations in and around Kelme. There is detailed account of Jewish life in Kelme on the website, based largely on the recollections of one of the Jews who escaped the 1941 massacre. The site also contains a description of the Kelme Jewish cemetery, and a list of names transcribed from the headstones at the cemetery. Part of the story of the Chaluzin family was told by our Lithuanian host, Lilli, and her mother. Many of the details here were provided by Abe Allison, who has done extensive research into his family’s history.

Note: I came across another interesting Jewish cemetery in my subsequent travels, this one in Penang, Malaysia. You can read about it here.

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6 Responses to The tale of a small town in Lithuania

  1. Sean Herlihy on January 26, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    I feel as though inserting something about the rich Jewish heritage on a 2page story would be an underwhelming statement to the fact of the matter. For the years that the Jewish community prospered in that region I think a memorial would be more appropriate for the situation, not just a mention in a 2page brief history would suffice.

  2. Heather Thompson on May 21, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    It’s depressing to think that such a massive genocide, even to this day, goes unrecognized, and even more depressing that humanity is capable of things like this. I agree with the above poster that even just a small mention of those who died and what exactly happened would give me a better opinion of the people who wrote the two page history.

  3. Stephanie Lipscomb on May 26, 2009 at 5:56 am

    This is a incredible (and sad) story of your friend Abe’s background. It’s hard to believe that it was not so long ago that this happened to his grandparents, aunts and uncles! As far as the two page history goes, if you were a small town in Lithuania, would you want to put something on the wall describing how the Jews were mass murdered there? With not much else to show, I don’t think Kelme would want to be known only for the gruesome killings if they could get away with it. I don’t agree with not mentioning the brutal history, but, honestly, I see why they didn’t.

  4. dnrallis on May 26, 2009 at 6:06 am

    I suppose it all depends on what you think the purpose of a museum – and, by extension, history – is or should be. Should the Kelme museum (or any other) present the best face of the community, or should it provide a record of what happened here?

    The museum doesn’t only omit any mention of the murder of the town’s Jews, it also has nothing to say about their existence in the first place. I too can understand why today’s residents of Kelme might not want to remember the history and the fate of the town’s Jews. It’s the same kind of motivation that might make Southerners want to forget the history of slavery, or Rwandans forget the 1994 genocide. But I would argue that ignoring or denying events like these compounds them, it doesn’t diminish their significance.

  5. Cassandra Quiggle on April 10, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I am hoping you can help me. I’m researching my Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather Dominik and Teklia(Kacenauskas) Ulis. According to my family history, they were married 01/29/1906 at a Roman Catholic Church in Kelm, Lithuania. I’ve not been able to locate any information about this church. However, I see in your photo of Kelem that there is a Church Steeple. Is this in fact a Roman Catholic Church?! If so, do you have any photos that you could send me a digital copy of, or the name of the church so I may contact them to see if there is any record of my Great-Grandparents Marriage? I sincerely hope to hear from you! Thank you in advance for ANY and all information!!!

  6. Stanley Buck on July 17, 2011 at 10:15 am

    I just ran across your note of 4/10/10, referring to the Kelme church you noticed it Donals Rallis’ article in the “Regional GeogBlog” of Feb.2008.
    I visited there last week and have a digital picture of the church. It may be called Church of the Assumption, per a rough translation of a local resident. I would send you the foto but am unable to attach it to this message. If I receive your email, I will send it to you.

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