Viekšniai (Vekshne in Yiddish) can be found in the northwestern part of Lithuania, in the Zamut (Zemaitija) region, on the shores of the Venta River, about 15 km. southeast of the district administrative center of Mazheik (Mazeikiai). A village and an estate with the name Viekšniai were mentioned in historical sources dating back to the sixteenth century. Over the years the town developed into an important north Lithuanian trade center known for its pottery products. In 1772 the town was granted the Magdeburg rights of self-rule.
Until 1795 Vekshne was included in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. According to the third division of Poland in the same year by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, Lithuania was divided between Russia and Prussia. As most of Lithuania, Vekshne became part of the Russian Empire, first in the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 in the Kovno Gubernia.
Vekshne underwent significant development during Russian rule (1795-1915). The construction of the Libau (Liepaja)-Romni railway in 1872 contributed to its growth. At that time about 60 shops were in operation, the first pharmacy in the Zamut region opened and weekly market days and annual fairs were held. On May 15, 1886 a fire broke out in the area, and most of the houses burned down.
For many years Vekshne was a county administrative center, retaining this status during independent Lithuania (1918-1940) and during World War II.
Jewish settlement before World War I
According to the tombstones at the local Jewish cemetery the first Jews settled in Vekshne in the middle of the seventeenth century. From that time most of the Jewish people made their living in trade, crafts and light industry. A few dealt in agriculture. The economic situation was generally fair for the majority. Grain and timber merchants were known to be affluent. In 1847, there were 1,120 Jewish residents in Vekshne. The big fire of 1886 destroyed about 100 Jewish homes, mostly those of the wealthy. An aid committee headed by the local rabbi Shalofer raised 600 rubles, donated by those whose property could be salvaged. The committee also made an appeal in the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz targeting former Vekshne residents in Lithuania and abroad as well as neighboring communities. About 200 rubles were contributed by the Dubeln community (in Latvia) and several hundred rubles were donated by the Riga Jewish community. Jews of the nearby Zhager community responded immediately as did Jews from Hazenput in Latvia (Kurland). However, since these donations were still not sufficient another heartfelt appeal was published in HaMelitz, signed by seven distinguished men of the town: Josef Gordon, Aba Heler, Leib Goldmagen, Mosheh Shub, Leib Nathanzon, Avraham-Ber Epl and Mordehai Garbel.
Thanks to outside support and the efforts of the victims themselves, the town recovered economically. However, young people continued to emigrate to South Africa, America and Eretz-Yisrael, to be followed later by their families. At least fifteen headstones of Vekshne Jews can be found at the old cemetery in Jerusalem.
During these years the religious, social and public life of Vekshne Jews concentrated around the Shulhoif, which housed the local yeshivah and two prayer houses (one for winter and one for summer).
A partial list of rabbis who served during this period in Vekshne, is given in Appendix 1.
The list of contributors for the benefit of the victims of the great famine in Persia in 1871-1872 published in the Hebrew newspaper HaMagid contains the names of 118 Vekshne Jews (see Appendix 2).
Most of the Jewish children were educated at Heder-type institutions affiliated with the local yeshivah. A few students, mostly girls, acquired general education with private teachers while others studied in local non-Jewish schools or in Libau in Kurland.
Vekshne Jews supported the Hibath Zion movement. The list of contributors to the Settlement of Eretz-Yisrael for the years 1895, 1897, 1898 and 1903 contains the names of 58 Vekshne Jews (see Appendix 3). The list for 1914 contains 80 names. The fundraisers were Mosheh-Zalman Heler and Rabbi Barukh Levenberg.
According to the all-Russian census of 1897, there were 2,951 residents in Vekshne, 1,646 of them Jewish (56%).
In the summer of 1915, one year after the outbreak of World War I, Vekshne Jews were exiled deep into Russia by an order of the Russian military, due to so-called suspicion of collaboration with the German army.
During Independent Lithuania (1918-1940)
With the establishment of independent Lithuania only a small number of the exiled Jews returned home. Among the expatriates was the rabbi of Vekshne, Shelomoh Fainzilber. Upon their return, they found that most of the homes were burnt down or in ruins due to wartime military activities.
Following the Law of Autonomies for Minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the Minister for Jewish Affairs, Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections to community committees, Va'adei Kehilah, to be held in the summer of 1919. In Vekshne in 1921 a community committee of seven members was elected, which operated until April 1925.
An important part of its budget was raised through compulsory tax collected from the Jewish population. Objectors were confronted with various measures against them according to the law. The committee also appealed for help from former residents living abroad. The minutes of the meetings of the committee covering four years of its activity are preserved in the archives of YIVO in New York.
In 1921 there were about 300 Jewish residents in Vekshne.
Due to demolition of farms in the surrounding areas and border disputes with Latvia, the economic situation deteriorated considerably. Consequently, more young people began leaving town. Only in the mid-1920s was an improvement felt, which continued through the decade. Many of the Jews made their living in retail trade, but large timber merchants such as brothers Shimon and Mihael Vax flourished, as did grain merchants, the brothers Betsalel and Leibl Berzhansky, brothers Meir and Josef Shain, Tsirl Erdman, Alter Yudes, Aizik Shishi, Ya'akov Gibor, Zelig Laf and others.
Vekshne Jews again engaged in the development of light industry. Some merchants were known all over Lithuania, including Yisrael Kalvarisky who owned leather processing shops, Aryeh Yenka, Zelig Shuster and Honeh Raif, and Josef Leshem who owned a wool-spinning factory. Yeshayahu, Mihal and David Gindon owned pottery factories. The flourmill and the power plant of Vekshne town were also owned by Jews.
The Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank) fulfilled an important function in the economic life of Vekshne Jews. In 1920 it had 40 members and in 1927 the number reached 170. The United Credit Association for Jewish Agrarians in Lithuania had a branch in Vekshne. In 1939 there were 37 telephone subscribers, 20 of them Jewish.
The welfare societies of Vekshne were Linath Hatsedek and Gemiluth Hesed, with a financial capacity enabling them to make loans of up to 500 litas. On occasion fundraising activities were initiated for different charity goals such as for Maoth Hitim (for Pesakh) or Ma'ahal Kasher (Kosher food for the Jewish soldiers in the Lithuanian army). Zlata and Hayah Berzhansky, Paya Vigoder, Tsirl Erdman and other women excelled in various women's societies. The participants of the local volunteer fire brigade, headed by Berl Yashchik, were mostly Jewish.
According to government survey of 1931, there were 53 shops in town; 45 of them belonged to Jews (85%).
|Type of business||Total||Owned by Jews|
|Grain and flax||4||4|
|Butcher shop and cattle trade||3||3|
|Restaurant and tavern||7||4|
|Food products, eggs||7||7|
|Textile products and furs||7||6|
|Leather and shoes||3||3|
|Haberdashery and house utensils||3||3|
|Medicine and cosmetics||1||0|
|Radios, bicycles, sewing machines||1||1|
|Tools and iron products||2||2|
|Heating materials and cattle food||1||1|
|Type of factory||Total||Jewish owned|
|Headstones, glass, bricks||1||1|
|Textile: wool, flax, knitting||4||3|
|Sawmills and furniture||1||0|
|Flour mills, bakeries, beverages, confectionery||4||3|
|Leather industry: production, cobbling||2||2|
|Others: barbers, photographers, jewelers||4||2|
In 1937 fourteen skilled Jewish workers resided in Vekshne - two tinsmiths, two butchers, two needle trade persons, one oven builder, one glazier, one tailor, one milliner, one shoemaker, one barber, one corset maker and one seamstress.
At the beginning of the 1920s two schools opened in Vekshne, a religious-orthodox school of the Yavneh chain and one of the secular-Zionist Tarbuth chain. During their early years, they competed for students. The local rabbi Fainzilber, one of the leaders of the Association of Lithuanian Rabbis, was involved in discussion on this issue. The yeshivah that opened before World War I was by then closed for of lack of students, but regular lessons on the Bible and Gemarah were maintained by the Tifereth Yisrael society, headed by Rabbi Paramut until his emigration to Eretz-Yisrael in 1923. Secular cultural activities were organized by the Jewish library, which had about 1,200 books in the Yiddish and Hebrew languages. There was also a drama circle, some youth organizations and a few political groups.
|Total Votes||Labor Party
The Vekshne Maccabi branch boasted 100 members at its heyday.
Among the personages born in Vekshne and well-known in the Jewish world were the Zionist leader Avraham Idelson; the Zionist activist Yehudah-Leib Apel; Miriam Shakh, the secretary of Dr. Herzl; her brother, the writer Fabius Shakh; the writer Yisrael Efroikin; the journalist Aharon-Yits'hak Grodzensky; the writer Meir-Joel Vigoder; and Yits'hak Shapiro (1895-1941), the chairman and one of the founders of the Association of Jewish Fighters for the Independence of Lithuania and deputy mayor of Yanishok, who was hanged by the Nazis.
The last rabbi of the Vekshne community was Kalman Magid, one of the heads of the Mizrahi party in Lithuania. He was murdered by the Lithuanian collaborators in the summer of 1941.
During World War II and afterwards
In June 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, light industry enterprises owned by Jews were nationalized. A number of Jewish shops were also nationalized and commissars were appointed to manage them. The supply of goods decreased and as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore the brunt and the standard of living dropped gradually. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew school was closed. Some people of the leftist camp integrated into the local government institutions.
With the invasion by the German army into Lithuania on June 22, 1941, many Vekshne Jews tried to escape to the Soviet Union, but only a few succeeded. The others were murdered on the way or returned home. Armed Lithuanian nationalists, headed by the local school headmaster Kostas Milchis, immediately took control. They welcomed the representatives of the German army who entered Vekshne, and were willing and ready to collaborate with them.
Their main activity was to arrest the pro-Soviet activists and murder the Jews. The collaborators' first victim was David Levin.
In the beginning of July the Jewish men were forced into the winter Beth Midrash, whence they were taken out every morning for hard labor. Women and children were allowed to bring food to the detainees.
On July 7, 1941 the men were released to their homes and told to prepare for transfer to Lublin in Poland, but almost immediately all Jews were ordered to present themselves in the market square. Doctor Hayim Lipman was ordered to point out Jews who were Communists. The doctor said that there were no Jewish Communists in Vekshne. Consequently, the beards of Rabbi Magid and other Jews were cut off.
Women and children were imprisoned in the Beth Midrash, while men were herded into the Shulhoif (the yard of the synagogue). All the Jews, including the rabbi, were forced to dance and perform gymnastic exercises. Other Jews were forced to wash horses while tied to their tails. Rabbi Mihael Blokh was made to tip a bucket of water over the head of Rabbi Magid. After all this abuse in front of a cheering Lithuanian crowd, the Jews were all imprisoned in the grain storehouses of Shimon Vax.
They were kept there for four weeks, during which time they were starved and tortured by Lithuanian guards, resulting in some deaths.
On August 4, 1941 (11th of Av 5701) guarded by armed Lithuanians, the Jews were transferred to the Mazheik (Mazeikiai) district administrative center. There, they were herded to the Jewish cemetery together with other Jews from Mazheik and the neighboring towns Siad (Seda), Akmyan (Akmene), Veger (Vegeriai), Tirkshle (Tirksliai), Zhidik (Zidikai) and Klikol (Klykuoliai). Lithuanian guards forced some of the men to dig pits, and after the work was completed all were shot the next day and buried in the prepared pits. Only one Jew, Hone Raif, managed to escape from the murder site to the Shavl ghetto. In 1943 he ran away from the ghetto to Telz and went into hiding with Lithuanian peasants. One of the peasants reported him but the next day soldiers from the Red Army arrived and liberated him. Other Jews who managed to escape to the Soviet Union or to the Kovno ghetto at the beginning of the war, survived as well. Among them were Dr. Pesia Kisin (nee Blumberg) and Bluma Levin (nee Vigoder).
At this site Hitler's murderers and their local helpers
executed about 4000 Jews and people of other nationalities
|At the beginning of the
1990s, in the place where old Jewish cemetery once stood,
a monument was erected carrying an inscription in Yiddish, Hebrew and Lithuanian:
The Old Cemetery. Let Their Memory live Forever.
Yad Vashem archives, Jerusalem, M-1/E-1670/1555, testimony of Elhanan (Hone) Raif; 1637/1771; M-1/Q-1407/181; Konioukhovsky collection, 0-71, file 0-37; testimony of Dr. Pesia Kisin-Blumberg
YIVO, New York, Collection of Lithuanian Jewish Communities, files 1568, 370-386
Gotlib, Ohalei Shem (Hebrew), page 67
Vigoder Meir, Book of Memory, Dublin 1931
Levin Yits'hak; Eile Ezkora (I will remember these) (Hebrew), Vol.6, pages 208-209
Shakh Miriam; Asher Itam Hithalakhti (Those with whom I would walk), (Hebrew), Tel-Aviv 1951, pages 5-21
Levin Dov; Vekshne (Hebrew), Pinkas HaKehiloth Lita, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1996
Yiddisher Lebn (Jewish Life), Telz, # 20, 20.4.1923
Yiddishe Kooperatsie, Kovno, 3.10.1929
Dos Vort (Yiddish), Kovno, 26.12 1934
Di Yiddishe Shtime (Yiddish), Kovno, 18.1.1922; 17.8.1922; 23.12.1934; 2.8.1937
HaMelitz (Hebrew) St.Petersburg, 4.6.1886; 20.8.1886; 8.12.1904
Morgen Journal (Yiddish), New York, 13.10.1946
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass Murder In Lithuania) (Lithuanian), Vol. 2, pages 181-182
Partial list of rabbis and yeshivah heads who officiated in Vekshne
Shabtai Yofe-till 1840;
Yekutiel Zalman-till 1848;
Eliyahu-Barukh Komai (1840-1917), in Vekshne 1881-1888;
Aba-Ya'akov Borohov, until 1900;
Aryeh-Leib Lipkin (1840-1902), in Vekshne 1901-1902
Ben-Zion-Ze'ev Karnitz, until 1913;
Barukh Levenberg (1875-1920), in Vekshne 1898-1914
Shelomoh Fainzilber (1871-1941), in Vekshne 1919-1924, murdered in summer 1941 in Keidan
Kalman Magid (1874-1941), the last rabbi of Vekshne, was murdered in summer 1941 together with his community in Mazheik
List of 118 Vekshne Jewish donors for the victims of the great famine in Persia in 1872 as published in HaMagid # 20, 1872
(from JewishGen>Databases>Lithuania>Hamelitz by Jeffrey Maynard)
|GARBIL||Ch||brother of D|
|GARBIL||D||brother of Ch|
|GORDON||Sh||f-i-l of N Rabinowitz|
|NAHTENZOHN||Feivel||brother of Leib Bentzion|
|NAHTENZOHN||Leib Bentzion||brother of Feivel|
|RABINOWITZ||N||s-i-l of Sh Gordon|
|SHIF||B ben Y|
|SHIF||Y||father of B|
|YAFE||Leib son of Rabbi Shimon||son of the Rabbi Gaon|
|YECHEZKEL||Gershon ben M|
|A ben Z|
|Aharon ben Ch|
|Avraham ben B|
|Avraham ben Y|
|Binyamin ben Y|
|Ch ben Y|
|Dovid ben N|
|Gershon ben Y|
|Hirsh ben A B (brother of Leib)|
|Lamech ben Sh||bridegroom|
|Leib ben A B||brother of Hirsh|
|Leib ben M|
|Leib Moshe ben Y|
|Levi ben Sh|
|M ben Ch|
|M ben M|
|M ben Reuven|
|M ben Y|
|M ben Y|
|Meir ben N|
|Sh ben L|
|Sh ben L|
|Shmuel ben Tzvi|
|Tzvi ben B|
|Yakov ben M|
|Yehiahu ben Ch|
|Yisroel ben Sh|
|Yitzchok ben Asher|
|Yitzchok ben R|
|Z ben A|
|Z ben Chaim|
List of 58 Vekshne Jewish donors for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael as published in HaMelitz
(from JewishGen>Databases>Lithuania>Hamelitz by Jeffrey Maynard)
|Aharon Reuven||wed 1902/3||#30||1903|
|BLOCH||Gitel wife of Benzion Nachum Tankel from Zager||wed in Zager 1897||#9||1898|
|ERMANN||Avraham husband of Tzvia||#156||1898|
|ERMANN||Tzvia wife of Avraham||#156||1898|
|FRIDMAN||Feige sister or s-i-l of L Y Pil wife of Philip Fridman||in Pretoria, Transvaal||#57||1897|
|FRIDMAN||Fridman husband of Feige||in Pretoria, Transvaal||#57||1897|
|FRIDMAN||son of Philip and Feige born 1896/7||in Pretoria, Transvaal||#57||1897|
|HELLER||Aba husband of Beile father of Moshe Zalman||#241||1897|
|HELLER||Beile wife of Abba||#241||1897|
|HELLER||Dvora bas Aba sister of M Z||#241||1897|
|HELLER||Eliahu Hirsh ben Aba brother of M Z||#241||1897|
|HELLER||Isser brother of Moshe Zalman||#142||1897|
|HELLER||Libe bas Aba sister of M Z||#241||1897|
|HELLER||Moshe Zalman||# 188||1898|
|HELLER||Moshe Zalman ben Aba fianceof Feige Yoselowitz||engaged||#241||1897|
|HELLER||Moshe Zalman brother of Isser||#142||1897|
|HELLER||Sarah Hene bas Aba sister of M Z||#241||1897|
|KAPLAN||Henriette wife of Filip Yafe||wed 4 Nisan||#123||1897|
|KIMMEL||Bendet father of Zenni||#161||1895|
|KIMMEL||Bendet father of Zenni||#161||1895|
|KOPELOWITZ||Reitze bas Zelig wife of Leib Shub||wed 1898 in Mozeik||# 188||1898|
|KURSHAN||Tzvi husband of Mina Tzalelsohn of Zager||wed 10 Elul||#195||1900|
|MICHALOWITZ||Yechiel Michel f-i-l of Rabbi Dov Ber Borochow from Gorzd||#57||1897|
|MILLER||Moshe Tzvi husband of Rachel Waks||wed 1897/8||#9||1898|
|MILLER||Moshe Tzvi husband of Rochel Waks||wed 1897||#9||1898|
|PIL||Leib Yitzchok brother or b-i-l of Feige Fridman||#57||1897|
|SHISHI||Reuven father of Yehoshua Leib||#156||1898|
|SHISHI||Yehoshua Leib ben Reuven||deceased TRNZ||#156||1898|
|TANKEL||Benzion Nachum husband of Gitel Bloch||wed in Zager 1897||#9||1898|
|WAKS||Rachel bride of Moshe Tzvi Miller||wed 1897/8||#9||1898|
|WOLPERT||Leib brother of Yosef||#123||1897|
|WOLPERT||Yosef brother of Leib||#123||1897|
|YAFE||Filip husband of Henriette Kaplan||wed 4 Nisan||#123||1897|
|YOSELOWITZ||Feige fiancée of Moshe Zalman Heller||engaged||#241||1897|
The above article is an excerpt from Protecting Our Litvak Heritage by Josef Rosin. The book contains this article along with many others, plus an extensive description of the Litvak Jewish community in Lithuania that provides an excellent context to understand the above article. Click here to see where to obtain the book.
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