The city started to grow in 1873 when a railroad was build. Rokiškis was granted city rights in 1920.
There was a vibrant Jewish community in Rokiškis for hundreds of years. In 1847 there were 593 Jews in the town and in 1897 2,067 (75% of the total population).
In May 1915, during World War I, Jews in central Lithuania were forcibly deported to the east by order of the Czarist government. Although Jews in the Rokiškis area were not the subject of the deportation order, Cossacks serving in a rear guard capacity for the steadily retreating Russian forces terrorized the Jews in northeastern Lithuania and most of the Jews in the Rokiškis fled to the interior of Russia. The Germans occupied Rokiskis until 1918.
When World War I ended and the Republic of Lithuania was established, Lithuanian Jews were permitted to return home. The Jewish community of Rokiškis numbered 2,013 in 1923. Rokiškis developed rapidly after World War I, but under different economic conditions. Before the war, for example, Rokiškis could trade with nearby Dvinsk/Daugavpils/Dunaburg, Latvia, to which it was connected by a rail line. During the 1920s, however, Lithuania's border with Latvia was closed. As a result, trade increased with towns to the west which were connected by rail lines, such as Panevezys/Ponevizh, Siauliai/Shavli, and Kaunas/Kovno. Prior to World War I, only 3 stores had been Christian-owned. After the war, however, many Lithuanians from surrounding villages came to settle in Rokiškis and open stores. Further, Lithuanian cooperatives came into being, trade in flax and produce was nationalized, and other factors caused a severe economic decline for the Jews. Many Jewish businesses went bankrupt in 1925 and between 1926 and 1930 many Jewish families emigrated to South Africa, the U.S., and ppPalestine]]. In 1939 there were 3,500 Jews in Rokiškis (40% of the total population). They were mostly Habad Hasidim. During the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940) there were two Hebrew schools.
The Soviets annexed Lithuania in 1940 and all Jewish businesses were confiscated. When Germany attacked Russia on June 21-22, 1941, Lithuania was quickly overrun. The Germans soon brought in special assignment squads to arrest and murder Jews. The Jews of Rokiškis and its environs were murdered in nearby woods just north of Bajorai, 400 meters east of the intersection of northeasterly road to Juodupė and the road to Lukstai. The official German army report (“the Jager Report”) states that on August 15-16, 1941, a total of 3,207 Jews were killed. Other Jews were deported to the ghetto of Joniskis and killed there.