“Musninkai” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania

54° 57' / 24° 51'

Translation of the “Musninkai” 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 371-373)

Musninkai

In Yiddish, Musnik

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shimon Joffe

A county town in the Ukmerge district.

Year General
Population
Jews %
1886 149 -- --
1923 556 351 63
1938 470 220 47

Musninkai lies on the left bank of the Musë River in eastern Lithuania, 35 km. to the north west of Vilnius and 30 km. south of the district center Ukmerge (Vilkomir). The town and the estate are mentioned in historic documents of the 16th century. The town stood on land owned by Count Michael Radziwill, who erected a Calvinist church (in the year 1612). During the Napoleonic invasion of Russia (1812) many houses were burned in the town as a result of the battles. In the second half of the 19th century the town was restored and became a county center within the civil administration of Tsarist Russia.

Musninkai retained this status also during the time of Lithuanian independence. As most of the inhabitants of the town and the surrounding area were Polish, the Polish language was dominant and the prayers on Sundays in the Catholic Church were conducted both in Polish and Lithuanian. This practice was stopped in the thirties, with the growth of Lithuanian nationalism.

The Jewish community after the First World War

The beginnings of the Jewish community can possibly be traced to the early part of the 18th century. In any case, the 'Pinkas' (records) of the Burial Society exist for the years 1734 -1826. The Jews made their living mainly of petty trade with the Christian neighbors. Jewish peddlers passed through the villages in the area, with their carts, during the week days. There were also Jewish wholesalers who dealt in the export of wheat, poultry and timber. The town also had Jewish artisans - tailors, seamstresses, smiths, cobblers, sheet metal worker, glazier, oven builder, etc. There was a vegetable garden, a cowshed and poultry coop beside most houses, which supplied some of the family needs. A number of Jewish families leased orchards and vegetable gardens and sold their produce in Vilnius, Kaunas and Ukmerge. Jewish social and cultural life centered mostly around two prayer halls (a study hall and a Beth Midrash called Wintershul) and in various societies active in religious and social life. In the popular folklore of Lithuanian Jewry, the residents of Musninkai were known as 'Musniker of gentlemen's agreement'. In other words, a hand shake constituted an agreement. According to one source, the name had its origins in a past event as follows “Once, during the celebration of Simkhat Torah, the Jews got so drunk that they denied their promise, given with a hand shake, to the Paritz (the count), that they would convert.

Unlike what happened in other Lithuanian towns, the Musninkai Jews were not driven out of their town during the First World War. Refugees and Jewish soldiers who found themselves in the town during the war, afterwards, found there a refuge and a warm reception. They also brought a new spirit to the isolated community. Among others, they were influential in the establishment of a Hebrew library, a branch of the Hekhalutz movement and immigration to Eretz-Yisrael.

The Period of Independent Lithuania

After the establishment of Independent Lithuania and the inclusion of Vilnius and the surrounding area into Poland, the volume of trade diminished greatly and the economic situation of the Jewish population worsened. The JekoPo society extended assistance to the Jewish public. In the first half of 1920, the assistance amounted to 23,000 Marks. This sum was divided as follows; 13.000 Marks for cultural activities; 3.600-for education; 3.000-for co-operative organization; 1.500-for medical help; 1000-for Passover Matzah; 500-for heating wood. At a later date, the Joint also provided help with partial financing of the repairs to Jewish houses damaged in the war. In 1925, the town had a Jewish dentist (Vera Kaplan).

According to a survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1931, the town Jews owned 3 textile shops, a heating materials store, 2 wool combers and a brick making plant.

15 Jewish craftsmen were active in town in 1935; 4 butchers, 3 tailors, 2 smiths, a shoemaker, 2 painters, an oven builder, a glazier and a barber. Due to the rising competition on the part of the Lithuanian co-operatives, and the consequent difficulty in making a living the number of Jews in the town was reduced to some 60-65 families. Nevertheless, this small populace supported a Hebrew school and a number of religious and social institutions, as well as the sports club Maccabi, a branch of Hashomer Hatzair and other youth organizations. The divisions within the Zionist camp can be judged from the results of the elections in Musninkai to the Zionist congresses;

Congress
No
Year No. of
Shekels
Total
Votes
Labor
No
Revis-
ionist
General
Zionists
State
Party
Mizrachi
Z S Zts. A B
16 1929 8 - - - - - - - -
17 1931 20 15 - 2 - 12 - - 1
18 1933 .. 24 21 1 1 - - 1
19 1935 .. 105 90 - 4 1 9 1

Relations between the Jews and their Lithuanian neighbors were generally satisfactory. In 1939 the town had 9 telephone subscribers, all non Jews.

Dovid Gutik (1857-1919), born in Musninkai, was a well known teacher of Hebrew for 40 years in Vilnius. He was also one of the authors of the 'Mikra Hamefurash' (a Bible commentary).

The Second World War and the aftermath

In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union. The Jews too, suffered considerably from the Sovietization of the economy and many were forced to work on the Sabbath .for their living. All Zionist activity was forbidden.

After the German conquest, Lithuanian nationalists took over the town and arrested everyone identified with the Soviet regime. They were particularly severe with the Jews. Among others, they murdered the heads of the Krechmer, Riman and Levin families, because their sons had escaped or attempted to escape from the Germans to the Soviet Union. They also arrested Rabbi Avraham-Yitzkhak Beniash and the slaughterer Shlomo-Yitzkhak Berzak.

The Lithuanian chief of the Ukmerge district ordered the Jews, on July 23, 1941, to wear a yellow patch, they were forbidden to leave their dwelling areas, or to buy foodstuff from the local peasants, and so on. Rumors in town forecast that the Germans intended to concentrate the whole Jewish populace in the nearby the estate of Reuben Krunik, for labor, although Jews were imprisoned on September 3, 1941, in the two town synagogues. The following day, armed Lithuanians led the women and children to the village of Vaitkiskiai, which lies on the road to the district town Ukmerge. The women and children from the surrounding area were also brought to this village. On September 5, 1941, all the women and children were taken to the Pivonija forest and there murdered. They were buried in a mass grave. The men were taken in carts to a place near Ukmerge and there additional Jews from the nearby areas were also concentrated. The imprisoned Jews were maltreated by the armed Lithuanian who forced them to do what they called “sport exercises' until the Jews collapsed. After the murder of the women and children the men were put into carts and brought to the same valley of murder in Pivonija, and shot on September 5, 1941.

Some Jews found shelter with the local peasants, but they were all captured and executed later, save for Reuben Kronik and his family.

At the beginning of the 90s'a memorial was raised in the place which once held the cemetery of the Musninkai community with the Yiddish inscription 'The Old Cemetery'.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-9/15(6); M-33/978; Koniukhovsky collection 0-71, file 97.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
Oyf di hurves fun milhomes un mehumes, pinkas fun Gegnt-komitet (On the Ruins of Wars and Turmoil) “YeKoPo”, 1919-1930 (edited by Moshe Shalit), Vilnius 1930.

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