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A History of Klaipėda: a New Look at the Past of the Oldest Lithuanian City
10-02-2021

A History of Klaipėda is a new, impressive, richly illustrated 304-page book that has just arrived from the printing house to Klaipėda. Its author is historian Vasilijus Safronovas, Head of the Institute of Baltic Region History and Archeology, Klaipėda University. The publisher is the History Museum of Lithuania Minor. The book has been prepared and published in cooperation with Klaipėda City Municipality and the Institute of Baltic Region History and Archeology, KU.

“The last history of Klaipėda, covering the whole period from the oldest to the most recent time periods, was published in German in 1900–1902 and only after a century became available in Lithuanian. 120 years later, the first synthesis of the city development written by a professional historian appeared. As stated in the annotation of the book, its aim was to convey the essence of Klaipėda’s past in a form accessible to the reader living in the age of information overload. A History of Klaipėda was written considering its translation into other languages and presenting the historical material and topics in such a way that the information would be equally relevant and understandable not merely to the experts of the Lithuanian historical context. Although officially called a synthesis, it is not limited to what previous researchers have written about it. Readers will find here many first-time facts, new evaluations, and hitherto unpublished images. Numerous cartographic schemes and tables have been developed specifically for this book. The author estimates that it took almost three years from the discussion of the idea with like-minded people in 2018 to its publishing.

A Different Story of the Oldest Lithuanian City

When asked how the history of Klaipėda was different and unique in the context of other Lithuanian cities, Vasilijus Safronovas said: “Klaipėda is special for a number of reasons. It is both a port and a former Prussian fortress. The city first became part of the State of Lithuania only in 1923. Until then, it had developed in completely different political systems. In the 16th century, the Reformation prevailed in the region, and therefore most of the locals professed a different faith than in Lithuania. Faith at that time meant far more than it does today: it directly influenced social norms, behaviour, and culture. Several weeks ago, Vilnius started preparing for its 700th anniversary: Klaipėda could have celebrated it back in 1952. It was granted city rights at a similar time as Tallinn, Poznan, Krakow, Tartu or Danzig – much earlier than Ventspils, Vilnius, Grodno, or Kaunas”, said the author of the book.

However, it was not these differences that became the main incentive to start writing a book of such scope. “Jonas Tatoris, Vladas Žulkus, Gerhard Willoweit, and a number of other authors have done a lot for the studies of the history of Klaipėda. However, Johannes Sembritzki, a pharmacist who lived in Klaipėda at the turn of the 20th century, was the only one to try to offer a summary covering the whole period from the oldest to the most recent time periods. He was interested in the history of the region and in his free time studied documents in the archives of the Klaipėda Magistrate and estates of the region; he also searched for material in the then archives of Karaliaučius. His two-volume study published in 1900 and 1902 for a long time served as a starting point for later researchers, primarily because many of the documents studied by Sembritzki were destroyed during the Second World War. However, Sembritzki’s works have long been unable to meet the need for knowledge, and the science of history kept developing. Therefore, the demand for a completely new history of Klaipėda has been felt for a long time,” says Vasilijus Safronovas.

The book for every Klaipedian and…

“At last!”, dr. habil. Alvydas Nikžentaitis, Director of the Lithuanian Institute of History and a reviewer of A History of Klaipėda, found one word to express his emotions about the new book. According to him, the idea

of such a book was lingering while he was still working in Klaipėda, but it was not implemented at the time, because, admittedly, the historians themselves were not yet ready for that. “The publishing of this book means that Klaipėda residents have already perceived it as their own city. If we start to study history to such an extent, if there is no fear of speaking and evaluating, and we do not try to refute one or another historical period or phenomenon, then people living here have already accepted the city with its entire history, and it has become an integral part of Klaipėda mentality,” says dr. Nikžentaitis. He believes the book should appear in the home of every resident of Klaipėda. “History is not the sole property of historians; we must share knowledge beyond a narrow academic circle. A History of Klaipėda was written by a scholar on the basis of serious scientific sources, yet written in a popular language – easy and understandable; it contains texts about the life of the city people and their daily routine from ancient times to the present day,” says Alvydas Nikžentaitis.

This opinion is also supported by dr. Jonas Genys, Director of the History Museum of Lithuania Minor. ” A History of Klaipėda by Vasilijus Safronovas is attractive in its design and covers all the most important, “hottest” issues in the history of Klaipėda. The topics are presented succinctly and are not complicated by scientific intricacies or the analyses of different opinions, which are often of interest only to historians themselves. I think it is important that each topic is followed by a list of the most important published articles and monographs as well as informative illustrations from Lithuanian and various European archives and museums. I have no doubt that this story will be attractive for, and affecting, not only Klaipėda residents,” summarised dr. Genys.

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The book came out during lockdown, which limited the possibilities of its dissemination. However, the publishing team plans to hold a virtual presentation of the book. From today on, it can be purchased in the bookstore of Klaipėda University, by ordering it in advance by phone 8 682 16692 or e-mail at alfonsas.jankantas@ku.lt. The prepaid order can be collected at the KU bookstore at Herkaus Manto Str. 84. From next week, sales are planned in other online bookstores as well. After the lockdown, the books will be sold in all divisions of the History Museum of Lithuania Minor