“Josvainiai” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Lithuania)

55° 15' / 23° 50'

Translation of the “Josvainiai” 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 323-324)

Josvainiai

In Yiddish, Yosven, or Yosvene; in Russian, Yasvoina

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

A county town in the Kedainiai district.

Year General
Population
Jews %
1841 545 .. ..
1897 1,329 534 40
1923 1,194 341 28
1941 .. 270*  

* 70 families

Josvainiai is located on left bank of the Susve River in central Lithuania, about 10 km southwest of Kedainiai, the district's city. The settlement is mentioned in historical sources already in the 16th century. The settlement became a town in 1792 when it was formally granted the Magdeburg Rights. During the period of Russian Rule (1795-1915), Josvainiai belonged administratively to the Vilnius gubernia (region). Subsequently it belonged to the Kaunas gubernia and was the administrative center of the region. Between 1915 and 1918, the town was under German occupation. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Josvainiai also served as the county's administrative center.

The Jewish Settlements until after World War I

Apparently, the first Jews who settled in Josvainiai did so at the end of the 17th century. The community's institutions were established a few decades later because the region was struck by a plague. The cemetery was instituted in 1831. The keeping of “Khevra Kadisha” register began a year later. The keeping of the Mishnaiot Society register began in 1833. The spiritual and social life concentrated mostly in the Bet Midrash, which was located in a tall and magnificent building constructed with white bricks. Subsequently, the community's situation deteriorated to such a degree that the community was unable to pay the Rabbi and the “Shokhet” (Slaughterer) in the town. In April 1883, one of Josvainiai's Jews published an article in the “HaMelitz” and said: “The Bet Midrash is abandoned and neglected… every Saturday we disgrace the Torah by delaying its reading”. At the end of the 1890's an acute dispute broke out in the community regarding the nomination of Rabbi David Yanover (from the town of Jonava). In the end, he was not elected. As a result, this is apparently the reason why Josvainiai's Jews, by way of ridiculing them, were nicknamed “The Yosvoiner Aron HaKodesh”. Most of the town's Jews engaged in commerce and labor and resided near the town's square and its adjacent streets. As time progressed, the Jews made up half of the town's population. The boys and girls studied Torah and secular studies in two separate shifts in the local “Kheder”, which was located in the Bet Midrash. The teachers were Y. Anikshet, and later S.A. Rapeiko. Among the Rabbis who served in the town were: Rabbi Shemuel Levinson, author of the book “Zikhron Shemuel” (Vilnius, 1884); Rabbi Feivel; Rabbi Yitzhak-Eliyahu Gefen; Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam; and Rabbi Avraham-Meir Rubinstein, author of the book “Bet Avraham” (Piotrkow, 1906).

The Jews of Josvainiai were expelled to the interior of Russia during WWI. Their homes and property were burned down.

During the Period of Independent Lithuania

When Independent Lithuania was established, many of the town's expelled Jews returned to Josvainiai. A modern and secular community headed by a 7 member committee was established in the town at the beginning of the 1920's. The committee was active for a number of years in most areas of Jewish life in the town.

A modern elementary school was established in addition to the “Kheder”, which continued its activities. At first, the language of instruction was in Yiddish, but subsequently it was replaced by the Hebrew language. Due to shortage of funds, the school was moved to an old building at the edge of the town. Josvainiai had a Jewish library with 500 books. In addition to the schools, the following institutions were also active in the town: “Bikur Kholim” (Visiting the Ill), “Linat HaTsedek” and “Gemilut Khesed”. The following institutions were active within the framework of the Bet Misrash: “Tiferet Bakhurim”, societies for studying Shas, Mishnayot, and others. Rabbi Avraham-Dov Tarna served as the community's Rabbi. He was Josvainiai's last Rabbi and perished in the Holocaust.

During the period under discussion, the town's Jews also earned their living by mainly engaging in commerce and labor. Among the 69 Jewish wage earners were: 13 grocers, 13 artisans (4 shoemakers, 4 tailors, 2 oven builders, 2 glaziers, and a baker), 12 peddlers, 8 butchers, 5 merchants who traded crops, 3 tavern owners, 2 slaughterers, 2 teachers, 2 millers, a timber trader, a Rabbi, a person who had a facility for processing wool, an owner of a sawmill, and an owner of a pharmacy. Many families raised vegetables in their gardens in order to make extra money. The women and children also worked in that. The vegetable crops, especially cucumbers and tomatoes, were marketed throughout Lithuania. The Popular Jewish Bank was established in the town in 1924. It made a very significant contribution to the Jews' economic activities. Their economic conditions turned for the worse during the 1930's as a result of two events: first, rising competition within the national economy; second, when “Verslas”, the Union of Lithuanian Merchants, initiated a boycott against buying goods from Jews. In 1939, there were 14 telephones in Josvainiai. 2 of them were owned by Jews.

The “Hibat Zion” movement and its tradition had deep roots in Josvainiai. As a result, quite a few of the town's youth received training to emigrate to Eretz-Yisrael as pioneers. “HaShomer HaTzair” was one of the active youth movements in the town and it had a well established “nest” there. We can learn about the other Zionist organizations and their influence in Josvainiai by reviewing how its Jews voted to the Zionist Congresses:

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
19 1935 34 33 18 - - - 4 11
 National List
21 1939 24 16 9 - - - 7

Among those who were born in Josvainiai were: Yitzhak Mikhel Eliyahu HaCohen (1939-1914), one of the publishers and editors of “HaLevanon” and “Ariel” in Jerusalem; Yitzhak Aniksht (1870-1941), educator, Zionist activist, and a delegate to a few Zionist Congresses. He perished in the Kaunas ghetto.

During World War II and Afterwards

In 1940, after Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, great changes took place in Josvainiai as in the rest of Lithuania. The businesses and factories were nationalized, the Hebrew school was shut down, and Zionist activities were forbidden under the threat of severe punishment.

In June, 1941, when the war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out, armed Lithuanian nationalists took control of Josvainiai. Immediately, they murdered Y. Mashvill and stole his property. Their murderous behavior increased after the Germans entered the town. Among other deeds, they caught Rabbi A.D. Tarna, cut his sidelocks and his beard and also beat him up. They did the same thing to the young slaughterer, and also forced him to dance naked while a crowd of Lithuanians clapped their hands and beat him up. When he lost his strength and collapsed, his wife attacked his torturers. Both of them were shut on the spot. A number of other Jews were murdered in various ways. The murdering and harassing of individuals continued throughout the months of July and August, 1941. Between August 18 and September 2, all the Jews of Josvainiai were driven out of the town towards Ariogala. Pits were ready for them along the way, where the Lithuanians murdered their victims by shooting them. According to Nazi documents (the Jaeger Report), 282 Jews were shot in that location: 86 men, 110 women, and 86 children. The murder site was ploughed and was joined to the adjacent fields.

Bibliography:

Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection, p. 22429.
HaMelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), #26, 13.4.1883, p.413
Yiddisher Leben (Telsiai), 9.10.1938.
Folksblat (Kaunas), 17.7.1935.

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