Meeting of the General Zionist HeKhalutz
in Vilkovishk May 19, 1934
On the left side is the front of the Jewish Home for the Aged
|Group Pil of HaShomer HaTsair 1925|
The ZS party, or as it was called later The Eretz Yisrael Workers Movement was very active in Vilkovishk in the thirties. The cultural and artistic parties this movement arranged would always attract large audiences. For example, in December 1934 in the hall of the Hebrew High School, a big party in honor of the Histadruth (Federation of Labor in Eretz-Yisrael) was arranged. The speakers on the history and the function of the Histadruth were: M. Varshavsky, M. Yarovsky, M. Karnovsky and Al. Varshavsky. Those who participated in the artistic part of the party were David Neishtot, Avraham Olvitzky and Y. Faktorovsky, and the organizer of the party was Avraham Vinderovitz. Among the excellent activists in Zionist and pubic work was Mrs. S. Litovitz, who immigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in the middle 1930s.
A group of Khalutzim from Germany with their local escorts
at the Vilkovishk railway station before their departure to Eretz-Yisrael 1934
In those years two Kibutzei Hakhsharah (Training Kibutzim) on behalf of HeKhalutz and the General Zionists acted in Vilkovishk. Many of these Khalutzim made Aliyah and were among the founders of the Kibutzim Beth-Zera, Givath-Brener, Dafna, Yagur, Tel-Yosef etc.
Sport activities were carried out at Maccabi with its 168 members,
Bar-Kokhva, HaPoel, Betar, and the
Yiddishists Y.A.K, which included football, gymnastics, bicycle
riding, swimming and table tennis.
Religion and Welfare
The old synagogue and the other prayer houses which existed before the war, continued to fulfill their mission after most of Vilkovishk Jews returned home. All the societies for learning Judaism were active again as was the Khevrah-Kadisha.
During all this period the Rabbi of the community was Eliyahu-Aharon Grin (1875-1941), who was murdered in the Holocaust.
After the disbanding of the Community Committee in the middle 1920s, the welfare activities were transferred to the Ezrah society, which together with the Adath Yisrael society had about 120 members who donated about 500 Litas per year. These societies helped the poor, arranged fund raisings (as for Maoth Khitim for Pesakh) and also initiated special welfare activities.
The pride of the community was its Home for the Aged which also had a nursing department. Its budget was covered by donations and by a regular allowance from the municipality (2,000 Lit. per year).
The OZE organization dealt mainly with Jewish school children, and its clinic was open twice a week. The municipality supported it with 2,400 Lit. per year (1932).
The welfare institution Maskil El Dal who gave interest free loans to the needy, renewed its activity in 1918 at the initiative of J.M.Levinovitz, its director for many years.
The Community also cared for the Jewish soldiers who served in the infantry
regiment stationed in Vilkovishk for Kosher food, especially during the Jewish
During World War II and afterwards
World War II started with the German invasion of Poland on the first of September 1939 and its consequences for Lithuanian Jews in general and Vilkovishks Jews in particular were felt several months later.
In agreement with the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty on the division of occupied Poland, the Russians occupied the Suwalk region, but after delineation of exact borders between Russia and Germany the Suwalk region fell into German hands. The retreating Russians allowed anyone who wanted to join them to move into their occupied territory, and indeed many young people left the area together with the Russians. The Germans drove the remaining Jews out of their homes in Suwalk and its vicinity, robbed them of their possessions, then directed them to the Lithuanian border, where they were left in dire poverty. The Lithuanians did not allow them to enter Lithuania and the Germans did not allow them to return. Thus they stayed in this swampy area in cold and rain for several weeks, until Jewish youths from the border villages smuggled them into Lithuania by various routes, with much risk to themselves. Altogether about 2,400 refugees passed through the border or infiltrated on their own, and were then dispersed in the Vilkovishk and Mariampol districts. Vilkovishk alone accommodated 300 refugees, among them tens of Khalutzim, who received a warm welcome and loyal assistance for which Lithuanian Jews were famous. It should be mentioned that Vilkovishk Jews provided help to the refugees in spite of the fact that their own situation was continuously deteriorating.
In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, the majority of the factories and shops belonging to the Jews of Vilkovishk' were nationalized and commissars appointed to manage them. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded, several of the activists being detained and Hebrew educational institutions were closed. Supply of goods decreased and, as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore most of the brunt and the standard of living dropped gradually. Five families and two bachelors were exiled to Siberia, the heads of these families being sentenced to 5-18 years of forced labour in the terrible Reshoti camps there. They were:
Uliamperl Yitzhak, with wife and son, blamed for being the owner of a nationalized factory, and who died in Reshoti;At dawn on the 22nd of June 1941, Vilkovishk was bombed by the German Air Force, the center of the town was destroyed, and most of the Jewish houses including the old synagogue went up in flames. This was the beginning of the German invasion of the USSR. Most of the Jews who had fled from the bombed town returned and crowded together into the remaining undamaged houses. The German army entered Vilkovishk on the first day of the invasion, but the Lithuanian nationalists did not wait for orders from the Germans and started plotting against the Jews immediately. They robbed Jewish houses, guided Germans into Jewish houses and told them to take anything they wanted. Two days later, on the 24th of June, all Jewish men were ordered to gather in the market place, from which they were sent in groups to various types of work, such as cleaning the streets of ruins, collecting dead Russian soldiers and burying them, and other duties for units of the German army. Some groups were sent to nationalized agricultural farms.
Pustopedsky Shmeryahu (Zunia) with wife Liuba, blamed because he was a member of the Betar organization, survived Reshoti;
Zimansky Avraham (single), the same accusation, survived;
Starkovsky Ya'akov (single), the same accusation, died in Siberia;
Uliamperl Munia (with wife and two children), also blamed for being a Betar member, died in Reshoti;
Kovarsky Berl (with wife), accused of being a shop owner, died in Reshoti;
Goldberg Mosheh (with wife and son), blamed for possessing a farm, died in exile.
Because Vilkovishk was situated within 25 km of the German border, the decision on the fate of the Jews was handed over to the Gestapo in Tilzit, where an order was issued to clean the area of Jews and communists. Jews were ordered to wear a yellow patch on their garments and were forbidden to walk on sidewalks. Every day communists were hunted down, and this was used as a pretext to detain Jews, who had no contact with communist activities.
One night at the beginning of July, on orders from the Tilzit Gestapo, all Jewish men, except for the ill, were taken from their homes and led by Lithuanian policemen to the building of the Priests Seminar outside the town. There the policemen stood in two lines on both sides of the stairs, and the Jews had to walk between them where they were badly beaten with sticks and iron bars. Three men who tried to resist were killed immediately, one of them being Yosef Tchihak. They were buried in the yard of the Seminar.
After a week or so the men from the Seminar, which included the sick who had been left in town previously, were transferred to a barracks outside the town which was encircled with barbed wire and was proclaimed a Ghetto. A committee of four men was appointed The Committee of the Jews.
On the 27th of July 1941 the Ghetto was surrounded in force by Lithuanian guards. In order not to arouse panic and to prevent attempts to escape, the guards soothed the Jews, telling them that nothing bad would happen to them. The commander of the guard gathered 250 Jewish men, equipped them with spades, took them to the training yard of the barracks and ordered them to dig ditches. The explanation was that there was an urgent need to store oil tanks in the ground. The duplicity of this commander was so shocking that he summoned one of the Jewish men, who had once dealt with oil issues, and asked him if the ditches would be suitable for that purpose. All the men returned home that evening.
The next day, on the 28th of July (4th of Av 5701) 800 men, including 65 non-Jewish Communists were taken to this yard, where they were ordered to remove their clothes, after which they were shot and buried in the previously prepared ditches. Back in town people could not believe that the men had been killed, as rumours were spread that the men had been transferred to another working place. Those women who still lived in town and came to visit their husbands bringing food parcels, approached the German commander asking about the fate of the men. He soothed their fears and received money and valuables from them, promising to clarify the whereabouts of their menfolk.
On the first of August all the women and children who still lived in town were forced to move to the barracks. Everyone was allowed to take belongings of up to 25 kg and 250 . The women immediately discovered the mass graves, despite the fact that the yard had been leveled and there were no signs left. The Lithuanian guard forbade the women to approach the site. There were two ditches in the yard, one 20 meters long and 5 m wide and the other 14 m long and 3 m wide, and near them another empty ditch.
On the 24th of September 1941 (3rd of Tishrei 5702 Tsom Gedalyah) the women and children were murdered too. Many escaped but were caught later. Only two young sisters, from the Faktorovsky family survived and were hidden by a Lithuanian woman (named Juziene) in a small village 9 km from Vilkovishk. This woman saved the sisters for humane motives only, and did not receive any reward for her deed.
According to official Soviet data, 3,056 people were murdered in Vilkovishk by the Germans and their local helpers during June-September 1941.
After the war, the few Vilkovishk survivors found the site of the mass graves deserted, with cows grazing on them, and grave robbers having ransacked the graves looking for gold teeth. After many requests the local Soviet authorities finally agreed to erect a fence around the graves. At the beginning of the 1990s a monument was erected on this site, with the following inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian: Here the blood of about 7000 Jews (men, women and children), Lithuanians and war prisoners of various nationalities, was spilt, savagely murdered by the Nazi murderers and their local helpers in the 6th and 7th months of 1941.
|The Monument on the mass graves|
|The inscription in Yiddish|
|The inscription in Lithuanian|
Picture supplied by Sh.Pustopedsky
In 1986, former Vilkovishk Jews in Israel erected
a memorial monument for the community of Vilkovishk
in the Holon cemetery. (See above)
Yad-Vashem Archives: M-1/E-1250/1208; M-33/987; TR-2/154; 0-3/3770;
Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, Files 130, 159, 160, 168.
YIVO, NY, Collection of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania, Files 210-301, 1381, 1515, 1663, 1664, 1682.
Shmeriyahu (Zunia) Pustopedsky - The Way from Lithuania to Siberia and Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew), Private Edition, Rekhovoth 1997.
Dr. Ari Ankorion-Pirkei Hayim (Chapters of Life) 1908-1986, Private Edition.
Zimrani A.- Vilkovishk (Manuscript),(Hebrew), Tel-Aviv 1987.
HaMeilitz (St. Petersburg) (Hebrew): 8.2.1881; 9.4.1883; 17.3.1884; 7.6.1886; 25.6.1887; 7.3.1891; 11.4.1896.
Dos Vort, Kovno (Yiddish): 24.10.1934; 26.12.1934.
Folksblat, Kovno (Yiddish): 27.2.1935; 3.7.1935; 5.7.1935; 8.7.1935; 30.8.1935; 28.1.1937; 5.3.1937; 29.3.1937; 16.3.1939.
Di Yiddishe Shtime (The Yiddish Voice) Kovno (Yiddish): 10.9.1920; 4.5.1932.
Yiddisher Hantverker (Jewish Artisan) Kovno, (Yiddish): Nr.3, 1938. Funken -Kovno (Yiddish), Nr. 23-30, 1931.
Zevulun Harlap (1840-1898) immigrated as a young man to Eretz Yisrael, later a
Dayan in Jerusalem;
Mosheh Leibovitz-Maimon (1860-?), a well known painter, graduated from the Art Academy of St.Petersburg in 1883, his famous two paintings are The Anusim (The Marranos) and The Hashmonaim;
Miriam Mergel-Mozeson (Verzhbelovsky)(1841-1920) writer and translator from English into Hebrew;
Gorge Margalith (1853-1924) researcher of the Bible, orientalist in England;
Brothers Eliyahu (1863-1932) and Levi (1866-1938) sons of Shemuel Levin-Epstein Zionist activists, publishers and printers in Eretz Yisrael;
Leon Kameika (1864-1957), son of the Rabbi of Vilkovishk Dov-Ber Kameika, journalist and publisher of many Yiddish newspaper in the USA, from 1904 one of the publishers of Morgen Journal;
Yehudah Kenigsberg (1853-?) in the USA from 1893, published many articles in the Yiddish and Hebrew press;
Dr. Eliyahu Sintovsky (1880-1943) in the USA from 1914, journalist and writer, published articles in the Bund press in Vilna and New York;
Dr. Shemuel Levin (1883-1941) Headmaster of the Yiddish high school in Kovno and one of the central personalities of the psychological-pedagogic division of YIVO, published articles on this subject in the Yiddish newspaper Folksblat of Kovno, murdered in Kovno Ghetto;
Dr. Shemuel Melamed (1885-1938), from 1914 in USA, journalist and writer, published books on philosophical themes in German, English, Hebrew and Yiddish;
Adv. Michael Gerber was the president of the Zionist Organization of Canada;
Menakhem Krakovsky (1869-1930) Rabbi, journalist and author of rabbinical literature;
Yosef Blokh (1871-1936) socialist leader in Germany;
Ana Rosental (1872-1941) of the leaders of Bund;
Dr. Nakhman Rakhmilevitz (1876-1941) active in Agudath Yisrael party, Deputy Minister for commerce and finance in the first Lithuanian government, active in the autonomy institutions, member of the Seimas and later consul of Lithuania in Tel-Aviv;
Dr. Ari Ankorion (Volovitzky) (1908-1986), teacher, journalist, lawyer, member of the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Knesseth on behalf of the Israeli Labor party.
Mordehai (Max) Pustopedsky (1899-1941) a well known figure in Vilkovishk, published a poem in Yiddish Erev Pesakh in Vilkovishk which made a great impression in town;
Dr. M. Dembovsky, murdered in Vilkovishk in1941, was a doctor in the cavalry of Budioni at the time of the Russian revolution, published his memoirs in Yiddish Mit di Kozaken iber Bukovine un Galitzie (With the Cossacks through Bukovina and Galitzia), Vilkovishk 1923;
Hayim Varshavsky (1907-1944), member of the center of the Zionist-Socialist party, murdered in Dachau;
A. M. Filipovsky publisher and editor of the periodicals Di Velt (The World), Vikovishk 1934, Di Yiddishe Velt (The Jewish World), Vilkovishk 1935.
The above article is an excerpt from Preserving 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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