The Frenkelis Villa is one of Šiauliai’s main attractions. We were taken there by colleagues in the public administration department for an independence day celebration back in February. One day last week we returned to spend a little more time studying the permanent collection. Here’s what our Lonely Planet guide has to say about the villa:
To the east of the town centre stands Frenkelis Villa, built in Art Nouveau style in 1908 for the then leather baron of Šiauliai. It survived WWII unscathed and was used as a military hospital by the Soviets from 1944 until 1993, at which time it was turned over to the city. The . . . interior has been lovingly restored to its former glory, with dark wood-panelling and period furniture featuring heavily throughout.
The villa actually is part of a complex of buildings that includes the structures (or their replacements) that accommodated the tannery, a synagogue, a Jewish school, and a courtyard that is now hired out for private events. The complex is managed by the Šiauliai Aušros museum, Aušros meaning Dawn and referring to a newspaper that played a key role in the nationalist rising of the late 19th century. Here’s how the Frenkelis villa is described in one of the museum’s brochures:
In 1879, Chaimas Frenkelis arrived in Šiauliai possessing the capital of five thousand roubles, which he invested in a small tannery workshop. The start of business was successful—already at the beginning of XX c. the factory grew into one of the most modern and biggest leather processing companies in Russian Empire. . . . There were [in the villa] all technical innovations of XX c. beginning: water supply, central heating, electricity, telephone. Till the World War I, the Frenkeliai family who lived in the villa during the interwar period shared the building with Šiauliai Hebrew Gymnasium. Since 1940, there was a military hospital in the villa. In 1993, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the villa was given to Šiauliai Aušros museum.
Museum publications make it clear that the Šiauliai tannery was very much a family business. Chaimas was a self-educated business innovator. His wife Dora was evidently responsible for rationalizing business correspondence and accountancy. Their only son, Jocūbas, studied chemistry at Berlin University and later assumed responsibility for “the implementation of the most modern methods of leather tanning in the factory.” Although it is clear that the family lost its shoe factory when it was nationalized by the U.S.S.R., the exhibits unfortunately say little about the fate of Jocūbas and his co-religionists resulting from the German and Soviet invasions of the 1940s.
Incidentally, the map above is one of a number of historic street plans of Šiauliai mounted on the walls of the Frenkelis villa’s secondary staircase. The location of the villa and tannery, designated as #11, is shown in the lower right-hand corner of the map. Dating from the German occupation of 1915-1916, the street names are a who’s who of the Kaiserreich; what is now Vytauto gatvė, for instance, was called Hindenbergstrasse in honor of the celebrated German general of the Great War.