“Vaskai” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Vaškai, Lithuania)

56° 10' / 24° 13'

Translation of the “Vaskai” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.


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(Pages 276-277)

Vaskai

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

In Yiddish, Vashky

A county town in the Birzai district.

Year General
Population
Jews %
1833 154 .. ..
1841 364 .. ..
1897 883 440 50
1923 872 267 31
1940 1,000 340 34

Vaskai is situated in the north of Lithuania, about 10 km from the Latvian border and about 18 km northwest of Pasvalys. Vaskai is first mentioned in historical sources in 1656. In 1701, it was granted the license to hold a weekly market day. During the second half of the 18th century, Vaskai was rebuilt in accordance with a new plan. During the period of Russian Rule (1795-1915), Vaskai was called Konstantinovo and was administratively part of the Vilnius region, and from 1843 it was part of the Kaunas region and the Panevezys district. During that period and also during the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Vaskai was the center of the county. In 1930, it had 162 residential homes and among them 9 Khoma (brick) houses and 3 two-storied wooden houses, 21 stores, 4 restaurants, 2 bakeries, a flourmill, a pharmacy and municipal institutions.

Apparently, Jews first settled in Vaskai during the 17th century. They established their communal institutions as time went by. On the eve of WWI, the Jewish community numbered 200 families. They made their living mostly by trading in flax and exporting it to England. Quite a few of them were craftsmen.

Among the Rabbis who served in Vaskai were: Rabbi Yehuda-Leib Kharif; Rabbi Avraham Hofenberg, who served in the rabbinate 48 years (he passed away in 1929). He wrote the book “Kol BaRamah”; his son-in-law, Eliezer Levin was subsequently a Rabbi in Detroit. One of the town's natives was Dr. B. Hofman, who became known among world Jewry as an important author and journalist (he wrote under the pseudonym “Tsivion”).

The names of Jews from Vaskai appear on the 1914 list of donors for settling Eretz-Yisrael. The delegates were Shraga Jatskan and Moshe Dorfman.

At the beginning of WWI, the entire Jewish population of Vaskai was expelled to the interior regions of Russia.

Only some of the Vaskai Jews who were expelled to the interior of Russia returned to the town after Independent Lithuania was established. In accordance with the law of autonomy for the Jews, a 5 member community council was voted for in Vaskai. The committee was active for a number of years in most areas of Jewish life in the town.

According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Jews owned the following businesses in Vaskai: 4 grocery stores, 3 fabric stores and 2 flourmills. In 1937, the town had 11 Jewish artisans: 4 tailors, 3 butchers, 2 glaziers, a baker and a painter.

Vaskai also had a branch of the Jewish popular bank (Folksbank). In 1927, it had 72 members. Due to competition from the Soviet Union, the price of flax went down significantly in the world market, bringing heavy loses to Jewish merchants with many businesses going out of business. Lithuanian cooperatives which were established in Vaskai also competed against the Jewish merchants. Seeing that their economic opportunities became significantly limited, many of them emigrated to South Africa and the United States. Many elderly people remained in the town. In 1939, the town had 20 telephones, 5 of which belonged to Jews. Although the number of Jews in the town was small, a religious school which was part of the “Yavne” network continued to function in the town throughout that time. In the second half of the 1930's it had 38 students.

Among the Zionist youth organizations that operated in the town were:
'HaShomer Hatzair” and “Maccabi”. We know about the involvement of the Jews of Vaskai in Zionist activities when we look at how they voted during the 1930's to the Zionist Congresses. The elections took place in the Beth Misrash. The results of their votes are shown in the table below:

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
17 1931 .. 6 1 2 2 1 - - -
18 1933 .. 26 22 4 - - - -
19 1935 .. 45 41 - 1 3 - -
  National Block
21 1939 48 36 22   14

In 1940, when Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, the 80 families that lived in Vaskai underwent many significant changes. Businesses were nationalized or were shut down; all Zionist organizations and activities were disbanded; the Hebrew school was shut down. The town's Rabbi, Rabbi Tzvi-Ya'akov Jankelov, assembled some of the children and taught them Torah in his home despite the dangerous implications of such an act.

In June, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, armed Lithuanian nationalists got organized in the town and immediately started to arrest and torture Jews even before the Germans entered Vaskai. Jews were accused of sympathizing and affiliating with the Soviet Rule and were executed. 27 Jews were murdered during the month of July due to such accusations. They were buried in the Jewish cemetery. All of the other Jews, men, women, elderly and children, including the town's Rabbi, were transferred within a few weeks to the nearby town of Pasvalys where they were murdered together with the Jews of Pasvalys by being shot to death on August 26, 1941 (3 Elul, 5701).

After the war, on May 17, 1945, when Soviet Rule was reestablished in Lithuania, the local council published a document which stated that 90 Jewish families (300 people) of the town's residents were murdered by Lithuanian rioters who acted in accordance with German orders. A memorial was erected on the mass grave in Pasvalys.

According to the 1990 cartographic survey of Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania, there is a cemetery in the village of Cerksbale, 300 meters east of Vaskai. At the beginning of the 1990's, a monument was erected in the cemetery of the Jewish community of Vaskai and on it an inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian: “The Old Jewish Cemetery”.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, files 3785/163.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 192-195, pp. 10091-10246.
Dos Vort - [daily newspaper in Yiddish of the Z"S party], Kaunas - 26.12.1934.

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