55° 15' / 24° 45'
Translation of the Ukmerge chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita
Translation of the Ukmerge chapter from
Written by Josef Rosin
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem, 1996
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem, 1996
Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
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.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
A city of a district in central Lithuania.
Written by Josef Rosin
Translated by Shaul Yannai
* 1,850 men, 2,035 women.
Ukmerge is built along both banks of the Sventoji River, 67 km northeast of Kaunas. The center of the city is situated on the right bank of the river and a bridge connects its two parts. The Pivonija Park, located at the southeast end of the city, served the city's residents as a resort area and was the place where a mass murder occurred during WWII (see below).
Ukmerge is one of the oldest settlements in Lithuania. It was granted the Magdeburg Rights at the beginning of the 15th century, and the rights to hold market days and fairs at the beginning of the 16th century. Many merchants and artisans settled in the city during the 16th century.
The important commercial roads from Warsaw to St. Petersburg and from Vilnius to Libau intersected at Ukmerge, a fact influenced greatly the city's character and development. The river that flows through the city was also used for transporting goods. The city was already an important commercial center in the 16th century.
In 1711, Ukmerge was destroyed during the war with Sweden and many people died from hunger and epidemics. From 1795, Ukmerge was under Russian rule and was included in the Vilnius Guberina (region). From 1843 it was part of the Kaunas Gubernia. The city expanded greatly during the second half of the 19th century and it became the center of the district. In 1877, a big fire broke out in Ukmerge which destroyed almost the entire city, but it was quickly rebuilt.
During WWI, the retreating Russian army burned down many of the city's houses, blew up the bridge and burglarized its inhabitants. The narrow railway line from Ukmerge to Jonava was built during the period of German occupation (1915-1918). In 1918, battles with the Poles and also with brigades from the Red Army, which controlled the town for 6 months, raged near the city. Lithuanian Rule took root in the city in 1919. The city was called Vilkmerge in Lithuanian until the end of WWI. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Ukmerge was the district's main city and its name was changed to Ukmerge.
The Jewish Settlement Till After World War I
Society and Economy
Apparently, Jews began settling in Ukmerge at the end of the 17th century. We can draw this conclusion from old headstones in the city's Jewish cemetery and from the Hevra Kadisha's registry. The first Jews in the city engaged in tree-clearing, in rowing rafts on the river, and also in exporting crops and flax to Germany. Their role in commerce increased over time. Convoys of Jewish merchants used to pass through the city on their way to Vilnius, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. They built warehouses in Ukmerge to store goods. The merchants of Ukmerge were regular and respected guests at the stock markets of Konigsberg, Danzig and Stettin. Jews also owned flourmills in the city; and some of them engaged in tanning (leather) and brick burning. The earthenware industry was in the hands of Jewish artisans. Trade in textiles, groceries and building materials were mostly in Jewish hands. Before WWI, there were about 900 Jewish farmers in Ukmerge and in the surroundings villages. The Jews in the city engaged also in labor and tavern keeping. Among the Jewish artisans were builders (who also built Christian churches), blacksmiths, ironsmiths and tinsmiths. According to the 1841 census, the city had 32 Jewish tailors, 29 Jewish shoemakers and 2 Jewish watchmakers. There were also Jewish wagon owners who used to begin their journey on Saturday evenings, returning home for Shabbat. The city had Jews who maintained several hostels and also a few who engaged in drawing water from the river or wells and delivering it to houses in the city. Most of them, including the artisans, barely made a living. In 1846, the minister, Moshe Montefiore, visited Ukmerge and found severe poverty amongst the city's Jews. About a quarter of them were penniless and died of hunger.
A fire that broke out in 1877 destroyed more than 60 houses that belonged to Jews, and also the synagogue (it was restored a year later); as a result, more than 100 families became completely impoverished. The community of Kaunas headed by Rabbi Elkhanan-Yitzhak sent bread to the victims and organized an Aid Committee, which requested aid from various organizations. Lord Netanel Rothschild donated a large sum of money. The Ukmerge municipal committee decided to provide the victims with wood on deferred payment to enable them to rebuild their homes. The Jewish population also suffered from the fires that broke out in the city in 1884, 1895 and 1905.
In 1831, during the Polish rebellion, the Poles took over the city. They arrested the local Rabbi, Rabbi Aharon, and 10 other dignitaries from the Jewish community. All of them were sentenced to death by hanging. However, after intensive lobbying, all of them were freed except Rabbi Yitzhak, who was hanged.
The Jews of Ukmerge, like the rest of the Jews in Lithuania, also suffered harassments which were inflicted on them by the Russian Rule. In 1844, Jewish men were ordered to stop wearing their long garments and begin wearing the regular clothes that was the fashion of the day among the non-Jews. As the Jews of the city tried to get organized to annul that decree, local policemen attacked them and started cutting off their clothes and sidelocks. There were occasions when the police used axes and cut off their sidelocks together with their ear lobes.
In 1844, the police was asked to check whether the law permits Jews to live in the villages in the surrounding areas. As a result, a number of Jewish families were brutally driven out of their houses. From time to time, due to anti-Semitism or because they were targets of robbery, Jews were murdered in the city and its surrounding areas.
Education and Culture
The Jewish children received their education in institutions such as Heders, the Hebrew School (established in the city in 1868), and in the Talmud Torah, where the orphans and the poorer children usually studied. The latter had to collect feathers and bones from poultry on Fridays and sell them on behalf of the institution. A new building for the Talmud Torah was built during the autumn of 1884 and it included 3 classrooms and a kitchen. More than 300 students studied there; about 40% of them, having nothing to eat at home, received a proper meal daily. They were also provided with clothes and shoes. Subsequently, the teachers in the Talmud Torah were replaced, and from then on it also taught reading and writing, Hebrew, Torah, translation, prayer interpretation and some Gemara. Arithmetic and Russian were taught 2 hours a day. Children who had difficulties with their studies did not continue to study. They were handed over to artisans to learn a profession and became their apprentices. The institution received its income from the meat tax and from donations from people in the city.
Moshe Leib Lilienblum (1843-1919) was a resident of Ukmerge and one of the leaders of the Haskalah. His article in the HaMelitz about the need to acquire an education and to adapt the Jewish religion to modern times ignited against him the fury of the extremist circles in the city and he was forced to move to Odessa (1869). But the idea of the Haskalah took root in the city and quite a few of the youth learned Russian and Hebrew and were accepted without any restrictions to the Russian Gymnasium in the city. The Bund had a great influence on the Jewish students in the Gymnasium and some of them became activists in the underground.
During the German occupation in WWI, the Yiddishists established in the city a large library, a drama club, an orchestra and a choir, which increased the influence of the Bund and the Yiddishist Movement in Ukmerge and its surrounding areas. Among the Bund's activists were Sevelinski, a teacher, and Kurlandchik, a librarian.
Religion and Welfare
Ukmerge was an important Judaic center in Lithuania for hundreds of years. Its Rabbinate was one of the most important in the country. In 1860, the city already had 20 prayer houses. Among them was the old synagogue, a large building built as a special Bet Khoma building. Its structure looked like a fortress: it had very thick walls, and near the ceiling, which was very high above the ground, there were windows at the upper end of the wall. The synagogue served as a place of refuge for the city's Jews during pogroms, when gangs of rioters or foreign armies gained control of the city and wanted to harm the Jews. That building also had a solitary confinement room, where criminals were imprisoned and where the entire Kahal (assembly or group) would pass by and spit in the criminals' faces. It also had a small room where the kidnapped were held until they were handed over to serve in the Czar's army.
The city's Great Yeshiva and its Batei Midrash (plural of the Hebrew singular Bet), which had a multitude of Torah students, produced many scholars. Ukmerge was known as the fortress of the extremist orthodox branch of Judaism which fought against the Haskalah and Zionism.
In 1895, after the city's Rabbi, Rabbi Aharon passed away (he was nicknamed Aharale and headed the city's Rabbinate for 25 years), a severe disagreement about electing a new Rabbi broke out between the Mitnagdim and the Hasidim. The Hasidim, who were a minority in the community, wanted to separate themselves from the Mitnagdim and elect their own Rabbi. Efforts of reconciliation by Rabbis from the two camps, who came to Ukmerge from other places for that purpose, did not convince the Hasidim. Only after a decree of excommunication was imposed on them, which lasted for about 5 months and harmed their livelihood, did the Hasidim agree to sign the letter to appoint Rabbi Binyamin Rabinovitz to serve as the community's Rabbi.
In 1885, the community leaders decided to appoint the Magid (a skilled narrator of Torah and religious stories) from Kamenitz as the permanent Magid Mesharim in the city. In spite of the fact that he spoke against assimilation, against the desecration of the Sabbath and so on, the extremists accused him of being an Epicorus. And they proved their point by saying that he and the HaMelitz use the same style of language and that he was sent on behalf of that newspaper to collect money for settling Eretz-Yisrael. 6 months after the Magid left Ukmerge, the two camps continued their dispute, even engaging in fistfights and smashing the synagogue's windows, until the police was called to separate between them.
In 1898, the Tiferet Bakhurim association was established in the city. Its goal was to teach the younger generation Judaica, Hebrew and to establish a library.
Among the Rabbis who headed the Rabbinate in Ukmerge were: Rabbi Rafael HaCohen (served from 1747 until 1762), who was one of the most vigorous fighters against the Haskalah; Rabbi Yehuda-Leib Zalkind (died in 1858), who served in Ukmerge and Dvinsk for 40 years; Rabbi Aharon HaLevi (Rabbi Aharale, died in 1859), who served in Ukmerge for many years and was an extreme opponent of the Hasidim; Rabbi Binyamin Rabinovitz (served from 1861 until his death in 1879), who was known for his opposition to the Maskilim and especially against Moshe Leib Lilienblum; Rabbi Shaul Padve (served during the years 1884-1910). Until 1890, the Rav Meta'am (a person who was chosen to fulfill the role of dealing with the local authorities and thereby protecting the Rabbi from having to do so) was Rabbi M.B. Tarafani. After he passed away, he succeeded by Rudnitski, who later was the principal of the Hebrew Teachers Training School.
Apparently, the Jewish hospital was established during the 1850's. This institution was known for its good doctors and played an important role in saving people's lives. When the cholera epidemic struck Ukmerge in 1866, a committee (headed by Shemuel Ponelevitz) was established in the city, and other Jewish and Christian doctors were mobilized as well. This committee was very active in supplying medical aid and medicine to the ill. The hospital's conditions deteriorated over the years. In 1890, plans were drawn for a new hospital, whose funding was taken from the meat tax fund and the municipality allocated a large lot outside the city for that purpose.
Another cholera epidemic struck Ukmerge during the summer of 1871. It raged in the city for approximately 6 weeks. The city's Rabbinical judges implemented precautionary measures and prohibited the eating of meat during the 9 days between the first day of the month of Av and the 9th of Av, although in places such as Kaunas and Vilnius the Rabbis permitted the eating of meat in order to strengthen those who were healthy. The public was also instructed to wear on their right hand a ring made from a lulav (a palm frond), and each day to light incense in the four corners of the city in order to prevent the devil from entering it.
The Refua Shleima (complete recovery) association was established in the city in 1893. Its members, who were young people, male and female, from all walks of life, and especially from among the artisans and the poor, paid a monthly fee and volunteered to take care of the ill. The association appealed to Ukmerge natives who lived in America and other countries through the HaMelitz newspaper and asked them to donate money and send it to the address of Rabbi Padave.
The city had a Jewish old people's home. There were also various associations that aided the many poor people in the city during the 1880's. In 1898, the city authorities permitted to establish the Ozer Dalim (helping the poor) association, which aimed to provide food and clothing to the elderly and the weak, and to provide spiritual nourishment to the Jews by establishing a library or by opening classes that taught handicrafts and agriculture. The heads of the association were Dr. M. Katzenellenbogen and Dr. Eliezer-Mikhel Aharonson, who also supervised the old people's home.
Zionist and other Public Activities
A number of Jews from Ukmerge emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael even before the organized emigration of the Vilna Goan's students during 1808-1818. Among them was Rabbi Yirmiyahu Katz and members of the Bohakov family, who were among the first to settle in Hertzliya.
The Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) association was established in Ukmerge in 1887. It mainly engaged in collecting money for Eretz-Yisrael. To achieve that purpose, it raised funds and set up bowls in the synagogue to collect donations. When M.L. Lilienblum came to the city in 1889 to speak about settling Eretz-Yisrael he was welcomed with great respect. He was given a missive which praised his activities for settling Eretz-Yisrael and an apology for the evil that the people of Ukmerge did to him in the past. In 1884, 30 pictures of Moshe Montefiore were sold in the city for collecting donations for settling Eretz-Yisrael. In 1889, a Jew from Ukmerge was accepted as a member of Ness Ziona (Nes Tziyona), the clandestine organization for settling Eretz-Yisrael.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a Zionist society was already active in Ukmerge for 5 years. In 1912, after the events of 1905, most of its members emigrated to the United States. Many of the city's Jews emigrated to South Africa (in 1937 they celebrated there the 50th anniversary of the existence of the Landsmannschaft of Ukmerge natives in South Africa). Shemuel-Shimon Bloom, who was born in Ukmerge in 1860, was a delegate to the second Zionist Congress (1898). Subsequently, he donated money for the Ohel Shem building that was built in Tel Aviv. The 1914 list of donors for settling Eretz-Yisrael contain the names of 200 Jews from Ukmerge. The authorized delegate for collecting the donations was A. Zusmanovitz.
The Bund organization was very active in Ukmerge and a number of its leaders were born in the city: Avraham Mutnik (1868-1930), Sender Zeldov Neimanski (1873-1924), Hirsh Baron, Haim Burshtein, Roza Levit.
During WWI, at the beginning of May, 1915, the Jews of Ukmerge were expelled from their city. Unlike what happened in other cities, the local police announced that Jewish property would be protected and it even ordered wagons to transport the expelled people to the train station. Some of them were expelled to Russia and others found temporary refuge in Vilnius and its surrounding areas. Those latter Jews returned to their city during the period of German occupation. During the war, 300 Jewish homes were destroyed and 240 others were damaged.
The Period of Independent Lithuania
Society and Economy
In 1919, the Bolsheviks evacuated Ukmerge after being forced out by the new Lithuanian army. The city's Jews welcomed the reign of Independent Lithuania, which declared equal rights to the Jews and an improvement of their conditions. However, a few days later pogroms broke out in the city. During a public meeting in honor of the Balfour Declaration, shots were fired and a young Jewish man was shot to death. Lithuanian rioters beat up and injured dozens of Jews, and hundreds of Jews were arrested and taken to prisons and to the police headquarters. The prisoners were freed after Jewish leaders interceded, and the city's chief of the police was dismissed from his office.
The change of attitude on the part of the Lithuanian authorities and their declaration to provide equal civilian and national rights to the Jews generated a revival in the economic and public life in the city. Those who were expelled to Russia returned to their city. In accordance with the law of autonomy for the Jews, a community committee of 25 members was elected in Ukmerge. It was represented as follows: 3 from the General Zionists party, 3 from Tzeirei Zion, 8 from Akhdut (Agudat Yisrael), 2 from Tzeriei Yisrael, 1 from the artisans and 8 were nonpartisans. The chairman of the committee was the veteran Zionist Rafael Grushkin. However, the committee became an arena of bitter conflicts between the Zionists and the oppositionists. Nevertheless, it was able to function successfully in almost all areas of Jewish life during the 1919-1926 years through 6 subcommittees which it operated: (finance, education, economy and sanitation, social aid, bookkeeping, and a legal committee).
In 1920, when Vilnius was conquered by Poland, thousands of refugees arrived in Ukmerge. The Jews of city received them with open arms, hosted them in their homes and took care of all their needs. The Joint took part in this effort and opened a special office for that purpose. The authorities permitted the community committee to issue temporary I.D.'s to the refugees.
Of the 35 committee members that were elected in the 1921 elections to the municipal committee, 17 members were Jews. B.Z. Goldberg was elected as the mayor and subsequently he was elected as the deputy mayor. 6 Jews were elected in the 1931 elections: (Dr. Lazar Kling, B.Z. Goldberg, Berl Orvin, Avraham Karlinsky, Haim Rakhmil, Nakhum Braude). But in the 1934 elections, of the 15 elected committee members, only 5 were Jews: (London, Karlinsky, Goldberg, Rakhmil, Yanovski).
During the 1930's, a memorial was erected at the Jewish cemetery in Ukmerge on the graves of the Jewish soldiers who fell in battle in Lithuania's war of independence.
According to the 1919 census conducted by the National Committee of Jews in Lithuania (Nationalrat), the city had 1,100 Jews who engaged in 24 branches of labor: 825 engaged in commerce, 90 in agriculture, and 45 in the free professions. The supporters of 100 families lived abroad. During that same year, 1,625 people received Maot Khitim (money for flour for Passover), 550 received supplementary income from welfare institutions, and 95 people subsisted only from welfare.
In 1925, the city had 5 Jewish doctors and dentists. According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Ukmerge had 178 shops; 142 of them (80%) were owned by Jews. The division into business branches is shown in the table below:
|Branch or Type of Business||Total||Owned
|Crops and flax||17||16|
|Butcher shops and cattle||14||8|
|Restaurants and taverns||23||8|
|Commerce in food products||2||2|
|Clothing, furs and textile products||18||17|
|Leather and shoes||16||16|
|Sewing and house utensils||14||14|
|Medicine and cosmetics||7||5|
|Watches and jewelry||3||3|
|Radios, bicycles and sewing machines||3||2|
|Tools and iron products||14||14|
|Building materials, lumber and furniture||3||2|
|Wood and heating materials||3||3|
|Machinery and inland transportation||2||0|
|Paper, books and writing materials||6||1|
According to the same census, Ukmerge had 87 light industry factories; 66 of them (76%) were owned by Jews. The division into braches is shown in the table below:
|Branch or Type of Business||Total||Owned
|Metal works, power stations||6||2|
|Headstones, bricks, cement products||6||6|
|Chemical industry: ethyl, soap, oil||3||3|
|Textile: wool, spinning mill, coloring||16||10|
|Wood industry: sawmills, furniture, tar||9||6|
|Paper industry: printing, binding||2||1|
|Food industry: mills, bakeries, wine||16||12|
|Clothing and footwear: sewing, hats||10||5|
|Leather industry: production, leather workshops||8||8|
|Barber shops, pigs bristle processing, goldsmiths||11||10|
In 1937, there were 150 Jewish artisans in Ukmerge: 41 tailors, 17 shoemakers, 10 tinsmiths, 8 knitters, 8 Tapars (Hebrew, tapar, which refers to a craftsman in shoemaking who makes the uppers), 8 barbers, 6 butchers, 6 glaziers, 5 bakers, 5 carpenters, 5 painters, 4 hat makers, 3 blacksmiths, 3 tinsmiths, 3 wood carvers, 2 girdle makers, 2 oven makers, 2 watchmakers, a binder, a furrier, a cloth painter, a photographer, a goldsmith, a leather worker, a rope weaver, a seamstress and 3 others.
The Jewish national bank (Folksbank) played an important role in the economic life of Ukmerge. In 1920, it had 163 members; in 1927, 718 members, and in 1929, 623 members as follows: more than 200 grocers, about 100 artisans, about 100 merchants, a few dozen salaried employees, 40 professional laborers, 37 free professionals, 18 wagon owners, and 16 people who did not have a definite profession. Ukmerge also had 2 private banks (one was owned by the Yudelvitz brothers and the other by Y. Levit). In 1939, there were 240 telephones in the city; 60 of them were in the homes of Jews and Jewish institutions.
Education and Culture
The issues of education and culture generated disagreements between the Yiddishists and the Zionists throughout the period under discussion. At the beginning of the 20th century, a kindergarten and a Yiddish school were established in Ukmerge, but they functioned only for a few years. The Cultur Lige (Culture League), which managed those institutions, passed into the hands of the communists, and the children's parents stopped sending their children to those institutions, especially after the latter cancelled the teaching of Hebrew and started to teach the Yevseki spelling in accordance with the Emes style.
During those years, two Hebrew schools were established: one by the Tarbut network and the other by the Yavne network. A Hebrew kindergarten was also established at that time. The three institutions were located in a building that belonged to the community. There was also a Talmud Torah in the city, which was located in a separate building and was built through a donation by the philanthropist, Haim Frenkel, a pioneer in the leather industry in Lithuania. For a number of years (until 1927), there was also in the city an ORT school for sewing women's clothes.
In 1920, a Gymnasia was established in Ukmerge. It was the only Gymnasia in all of Lithuania's provincial towns that taught in the Yiddish language. 125 students from Ukmerge and the surrounding areas were accepted to the Gymnasia and they studied in 5 classes, which were held in the afternoons in the elementary school building. L. Lampert was the principal, and Y. Mark was the vice principal. A few years later, a separate building was purchased for the Gymnasia and it became possible to study there also in the mornings. At its peak, during the 1927/28 year, the Gymnasia had about 250 students. Subsequently, its number of students declined sharply because the Folkspartei invalidated all national and Hebrew content in the educational program and replaced it with the ideology of the camp that identified itself with the radical left.
In view of the risk that the parents faced regarding the future education of their children, several of them together with a number of Zionist community workers established in Ukmerge in 1922 a Hebrew Gymnasia by the name of Or (light), which was modeled after the Hebrew Gymnasias in other cities in Lithuania. Since it did not have its own building, studies were held in the afternoons and in the evenings in the community building, which was occupied in the mornings by the two elementary schools. The Gymnasia also served as a center for Hebrew culture and a meeting place between the youth and the shelikhim (Hebrew, the plural form of shaliakh: an emissary) from Eretz-Yisrael. After the Hebrew Gymnasia was established, the students in the other Gymnasia gradually stopped enrolling there. Subsequently, people realized that the small community in Ukmerge would be unable to maintain two Gymnasias despite the support they received from the government and the Jewish institutions, which were fairly small in the first place. At the end of the 1932/33 school year, the two Gymnasias were unified into a single Hebrew Gymnasia and its principal was L. Lampert. Among the principals of the Hebrew Gymnasia were: Dr. Eliezer Kling, Dr. Yehuda-Holzman-Etsioni, Dr. Zalman Liubovski-Libai, Dr. Leibovitz-Arieli. The Yiddishist Gymnasia had 10 graduating classes and the Hebrew Gymnasia 16 graduating classes. The matriculation certificates of the graduates of both Gymnasias enabled them to be accepted to universities in Lithuania and in other European countries.
In 1912, a library was established in the city by The Association for Promoting Reading in Ukmerge. In 1919, this library passed into the hands of the Yiddishistic Cultural League. In 1924, Jews who returned to the city started restoring and reorganizing the library which had books in Yiddish, Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, German and Hebrew. Another library was established next to the Hebrew Gymnasia, which served its students and the general public. From time to time, theater companies came to Ukmerge: for example, the Sokolov Group, which staged in 1920 Dimov's play Shema Yisrael, and the Hebrew Studia Group, which staged in 1929 Moliere's play The Mischief of Scapin.
Religion and Welfare
The city had 12 prayer houses and many Minyanim, and among them was the Great Synagogue, which had already stood for hundreds of years. Chabad had its own Shtibel. Most of the prayer houses belonged to the artisans. The Korakh Prayer House was established by landlords who, due to a disagreement, disengaged themselves from their former prayer house.
During the period under discussion, the city had a Yeshiva, which became known throughout the region. On average, about 100 students studied there. It was established and managed by Rabbi Eliyahu Kremerman, Rabbi Alter Broide, Rabbi Moshe Gretz, and others.
The Rabbis who served during that period in Ukmerge were: Rabbi Arieh-Leib Rubin (from 1912 until his death in 1930), who taught at the local Yeshiva, was a member of the Gedolei HaTorah Council (Council of [great] Torah Sages) that belonged to Agudat Yisrael and was one of its managing leaders in Lithuania; Rabbi Josef Zusmanovitz (HaYerushalmi, served between 1936-1941), who was murdered together with his community during the Holocaust; this was also the fate of Rabbi Ya'akov Reznik, who was the last Rabbi of the Me'ever LaNahar (Across the River) local community.
The Zionists and the Folkspartei struggled over who would have control in administering the welfare in the city. This struggle hampered the work of the welfare institutions. One of the most important welfare institutions was the hospital, which was managed by Dr. A. Kling. The old people's home, which was established by the Ezra (Aid) association, also played an important role in the Jewish community. It received support from local authorities and also funding from abroad. Another institution, The Orphanage, which educated about 90 children, was located in a modern building and was equipped with the latest comforts, was established through funding provided by Sol Rosenblum, who was born in Ukmerge but lived in the United States. He also built a movie theater in the city and its income was used to fund the orphanage. The OZE society, which was headed by Dr. Rakhmil, opened in Ukmerge an infirmary for general medicine and for dental care, mainly to provide health care for children. The Jewish community had a public pharmacy whose income was used to fund various welfare needs. The city's poor received medication free of charge. The community also provided them free wood for heating during winter.
Zionist and other Public Activities
Many of Ukmerge's Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. All of the Zionist parties were represented in the city, which also had an active branch of WIZO. The General Zionists' political party had a social club, which provided courses on various subjects, held public trials and other activities. That party succeeded in persuading Jewish workers to become active in public affairs and gained seats in the leadership of the Unified Association of Professionals. The division of votes to the Zionist Congresses in Ukmerge during the 1920's and 1930's is shown in the table below:
The Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in the city were: HaShomer HaTzair, Gordonia and Beytar. In addition to the Zionist parties, the following associations were also active in the city: Agudat Yisrael, the Communists (Moshe Kagan-Ukmergiskis, Haim Kaplan, Itzik Meskup and others), the HeKhalutz movement, and the Agudat Nashim (Women's Union), which played an active role in the city's public life. In 1934, the HeKhalutz movement had an urban Kibbutz in the city. At the beginning of 1940, a Kibbutz training program for Khalutzim was established in the city and its members managed to escape to Poland.
Sports activities were held at the local branch of Maccabi (it had 142 members), at the HaPoel, and at the Y.A.K (Yiddisher Arbeiter Club).
Personalities and Community Workers
Among those who were born in Ukmerge were: Azriel Walk (1896-1958), a community worker and comptroller of the National Banks, he emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1939 and was the head of a department in the Histadrut Labor Council; Rabbi Yisrael Ya'akov Yafe (1874-1934), a Rabbi in Manchester from 1897, an activist in the Mizrakhi party and the chairman of the Zionist Organization in England, a delegate to the Zionist Congresses, who was buried in Jerusalem; Tuvia-Ziskind Miller (1884-1962), who emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1909, was one of the founders of Be'er Tuvia and the Farmers' Union, and a delegate to the Elected Assembly; Shraga Feigenzon (1836-1932, whose pen name was Shafan), managed the Rom printing house in Vilnius for 30 years, and published, among other works, the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud); Alexander Zledov (A. Neimanski, 1870-1924), a talented journalist and editor of the Arbeiter Shtime (The Worker's Voice) in Russia, which became the Bund's mouthpiece; Rivka Bassman (born in 1925), a poetess, a survivor of the Vilnius ghetto, wrote 5 books of poems in Yiddish which were published in Tel Aviv; Itzik Meskup, who was the deputy secretary of the communist party in Lithuania and fell in battle during WWII in Northern Lithuania after he was parachuted there by the Soviet authorities.
During World War II and Afterwards
After the Germans and the Soviets conquered Poland, many Jewish refugees fled to Ukmerge and among them were also the Bet Josef Yeshiva students from Pinsk. At the beginning of 1940, 40 members of the HaShomer HaTzair Kibbutz Hakhshara BaMinhara (in the tunnel) from Rovno, arrived in Ukmerge. They made their living by doing various jobs and also received support from the Joint. When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union, most of them managed to escape to the Soviet Union, and many of them moved to Eretz-Yisrael after the war.
In 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. The factories in the city and the shops, most of which belonged to Jews, were nationalized; the supply of goods decreased and prices skyrocketed as a result. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and its standard of living declined more and more. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded; the Hebrew educational institutions were turned into Soviet schools and the Hebrew Gymnasia started teaching in Yiddish again. Its principal was Haim Schokhat. The big Jewish library was moved to the government library. Jewish communists, who until then were active in the underground, appeared in public and received important official positions in Ukmerge.
In the middle of June, 1941, Russian authorities expelled to Siberia several dozen Jewish families and also single individuals who were viewed as unreliable elements.
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. A few days later, on June 26, the German army conquered Ukmerge. At that time, the city had many, many Jews who tried to escape eastward, but got stuck in Ukmerge. As soon as the Germans entered the city, a number of Jews were murdered and many homes were looted. The Germans entered the Jewish hospital and removed doctors and nurses from there. They arrested Rabbis, lawyers and community workers. All of them were taken to the prison courtyard, where they were beaten, brutally tortured, and then murdered. About 200 Jews were arrested on the pretext that they had collaborated with the communists during their one-year rule in the city. After being tortured for a long time, on July 4 (9 Tamuz), the victims were taken to the Pivonija Forest, about 4 km from Ukmerge, where they were murdered and buried. Armed Lithuanians, who collaborated with the Germans, arrested 12 of the best looking Jewish young women, tortured them, raped them, and then murdered them.
At the beginning of August, the Jews were ordered to leave their homes within 12 hours, and move to the ghetto, which was established in two alleys on the other side of the river, where the poor people lived. The ghetto was not fenced in, but was heavily guarded by armed Lithuanians. Every day Jews were taken from there to perform various types of work, such as, digging trenches. During the months of July and August, young men and women were taken from those working places to the Pivonija Forest and were murdered there.
The great massacre of the Jews of Ukmerge and the Jews of other towns in the surrounding areas took place during 5-18 September, 1941 (13-26 Elul, 5701) in the Pivonija Forest. Together with the Jews of Ukmerge were Jews from the towns of Bagaslaviskis, Balninkai, Giedraiciai, Gelvonai, Dubininkus, Videniskiai, Taujenai, Musninkai, Siesikiai, Kavarskas, Kurkliai, Sirvintos, and Sesuoliai. In the ghetto remained the elderly, the ill, women and children. Their end came on September 26 (5 Tishrei, 5702). They were taken out of their homes, were made to stand in rows, and were taken to the Pivonija Forest, where they were forced to undress and were shot with machine guns.
The names of the Lithuanian murderers are kept in the Yad Vashem archives. The names of the few righteous Lithuanians, who hid the few Jews that saw the light of liberation, are also kept in the Yad Vashem archives. The mass graves in the Pivonija Forest that were exposed after the war included 6,354 corpses of men, women and children.
After the war, the survivors of the Ukmerge Jewish community asked the city's municipality to erect a memorial on the mass graves. The municipality responded negatively, claiming that modern wars hurt many civilians and there is no end to it. A number of activists among the survivors collected funds and in 1950 erected a memorial at the mass graves. The memorial is inscribed in Lithuanian, Russian and Yiddish and says: For the sake of the Soviet citizens who perished at the hands of the fascists. Ukmerge, August-October, 1941.
After the war, a few dozen Jews returned to live in Ukmerge, but their number decreased over time. In 1959 there were 38 Jews in the city, and in 1989 there were only 12.
Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-9/15(6); M-9/13(2); M-21/I/354; O-22/55; O-33/61; Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, file 94.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 302-341, 1382, 1516, 1587, 1664.
Lifschitz, Ya'akov, Zikhron Ya'akov, Part 1, pp. 30-31, 138-139, 152-153, 187-189, 236-239; Part 2, pp. 37-45, 49-53, 176-181.
Kamzon, The Jews of Lithuania, pp. 29, 31.
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Friedman, Mark, The Kehilla in Lithuania 1919-1926: A Study Based on Panevezys and Ukmerge, Soviet Jewish Affairs, London 1976, vol. 6. no. 2, pp. 83-103.
Naujienos (Chicago), 19.8.1949.
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