Among the well known personages born in Vizhun were:
Aryeh-Leib Ginzburg, son of Asher, born in 1695, a known scholar of the Torah in the 18th century
Ben-Zion Don-Yikhya, son of Eliezer, (1871-1941) Rabbi for fifteen years in Lutsin (Kurland) but murdered in the Holocaust
Yehudah-Leib Don-Yikhya, who lived in Eretz-Yisrael the last years of his life and was one of the founders of Nes-Tsiyonah
Zelda Kaniznik, born in 1869, who wrote hundreds of poems in Yiddish
Yosef Maizel, born in 1850, became a writer and publisher in England.
A group of Vizhun people in front of the ruined old Chorshul
From left: Rabbi Zalman Meltser (with a daughter), Velvel Yofe (shopkeeper and agrarian),
Benjamin (the oldest inhabitant), Yosl-Reuven Zakshtein (a peddler), Eliyahu Kovalsky (a blacksmith for 60 years),
Itsik Zilber (once an oven builder), Rachel-Mine Rokhman (with the rabbi's twin daughters)
(Picture from the book by Y. L. Kopelansky)
Vizhun in World War II
In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union becoming a Soviet Republic. As a consequence, under the new rules, the farms of Josl and Shimon Berkail, Mosheh Lifshitz and Polovin were nationalized as were the large leather shop of the Berkail brothers and the textile shop of Hasia Berkail. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew educational institutions were closed. The Hebrew school was changed to a Yiddish school. Yet, on the occasion of the October celebrations of 1940, the drama circle of the Folkshilf organized a play entitled Death Sentence performed in Yiddish.
The supply of goods decreased, and as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, again bore the brunt, and the standard of living dropped gradually. Early in June, the family of Tsalel Korb was exiled to Siberia.
In 1940, there were about 50 Jewish families among 1,400 residents of Vizhun.
On the first day of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, June 22nd, 1941, local Lithuanian nationalists arrested Kopl Lefshtein, a Jew, whom they intended to kill under allegations that he supported Communists. A unit of Soviet soldiers arrived in Vizhun to lead the fight against the Lithuanians. They freed the Jew who consequently escaped together with his liberators. Another Jew, Moshe Rom, was killed during the shootout. A few Jews who had access to transportation took advantage of a temporary truce to escape to Russia.
With the invasion of the German army a few days later, the Lithuanian nationalists increased their ruthless persecution. Jews were forced into hard labor and were maltreated by the guards. Two Jewish women, Esther-Rachel Gurvitz and Sarah Gurvitz, who were taking food to their husbands and a brother working in the Garguzhina forest, were murdered en route and their bodies thrown into a lake.
On June 26th, 1941 all Jews were ordered to leave their homes and gather in two small alleyways.
The next day several Jewish families were taken out and led to a forest on the road to Svadushch (Svedasai) and there, near a small stream, they were abused and executed.
The ruthlessness of the murderers was unbelievable. Yankele (Ya'akov) Polovin was thrown by his so-called friends into a burning oven and his tormentors delighted in his battle with the fire until his merciful release in his death. One of the most beautiful girls in town, Shimon Berkail's daughter Malkah, was assaulted by two Lithuanian hooligans, Paseluk and Kuntchinas, then taken out into the yard, tied by her hair to a tree and raped. Kuntchinas then hit her on her head with a bottle and she lay bleeding until she too mercifully died. After the war Paseluk was shot while hiding in the forest but Kuntchinas managed to escape to Canada.
On June 29th, armed Lithuanians force-marched another group of Jews, among them many young people, to a forest in Shventupe, near Gargozhina farm. There they were kept for several days without food. The women were raped and others were abused before they were all shot and buried under the trees and the bushes. The remaining Vizhun Jews were led to Utyan where they too were put to death on August 7th, 1941 (14th of Av, 5701) in the Rase forest, 2 km. (1 mile) north of Utyan. One Jew, Avraham Fainshtein, who managed to escape from the murder site, hid in the town until a Lithuanian woman handed him over to the police. He too was shot.
|The mass graves and the monument at the Rashe forest|
The inscription on the monument in Yiddish and Lithuanian:
At this site Hitler's fiends and their local helpers murdered about
8,000 Jews men, women, children in July and August, 1941
After all the Jews were murdered the hooligans collected the Torah scrolls, prayer books and Talmud books and burned them all.
The Jewish cemetery was totally destroyed. Headstones were smashed and were used as bricks to build houses.
Of all the Vizhun Jews, excluding those who escaped to Russia, only two survived. They were Rivkah Blumberg, a young woman rescued by Baziene, a Lithuanian flourmill owner who provided her with a document stating that she was of Tatar origin, and a Jewish man who worked as a worker for Masanish, a Lithuanian farmer.
A group of Vizhun survivors at the grave in Rashe forest
where the remains of Vizhun victims were re-interred
Among the few Vizhun Jews who managed to escape to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war were young men who fought against the Germans in the front lines of the Red Army and fell in battle. Others were recognized and decorated for their heroism (see Appendix 1).
Among the few murderers caught after the war and sentenced in Soviet courts were the former county chairman Kevlis (he died in prison); a teacher, Stasys Slapsis; another teacher, Marcinkevicius, who was sentenced to life imprisonment but was freed under Krushchev's amnesty; the two brothers Morkunai who were shot in the forest; Masiunas who lived in New York; Kutkus Albinas also shot in the forest; Rashimuk Kestutis who died in prison and Geidamavicius who also received a sentence of life imprisonment.
Yad Vashem Archives M-1/E-1655/1539; 0-3/2582; M-33/971;
Koniuhovsky Collection 0-71, files 42. 52, 53
Yankel-Leib Kopelansky It Was It Wasn't (Yiddish), Nes Tsiyonah, August 1998
Di Yiddishe Shtime Kovno, 25.4.1938
Fun Letsten Hurbn München, No. 10, December 1948
Naujienos Chicago, 11.6.1949
Vizhun soldiers who fell in battle (from the book by Y. L. Kopelansky)
Shimon Lefshtein, Sgt
|Khone Finkel, Officer
Eli Bunke Kopelansky
|WEINER||Meir Eli||rabbi gaon ABD||#121||1900|
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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