“Abel” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Obeliai, Lithuania)

55°56' / 25°48'

Translation of the “Abel” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Raphael Julius

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 113-116)

Obeliai (Lith.)

(Abel (Yiddish), Abeli (Russian))

Written by Raphael Julius

Translated by Bob Kurtzman

A town in the Rokisok district

YearTotal PopulationJewish Population
156733 families..
1897975652
18211,134760*
19231,328680**
19591,907-

* 67% of the population
** 51% of the population, approximately 300 families

Obeliai is a small village in northeast of Lithuania near the Latvian border, located approximately 15 kilometers east of the district city, Rakishok, and very near the railway line Dvinsk-Radvilishuk. Obeliai is the first station on that line built on Lithuanian land. The village stands on the banks of a large lake whose name the same (Obeliai) and by the river Kriauna.

Obeliai is mentioned in the sources for the first time regarding the Lithuanian-Livony Treaty of 1529. In 1629 a church was built in the village. Every Thursday was market day. Farmers in the vicinity .used to come to sell their products and to buy what they needed. Most days of the week the village was sleepy and quiet. So much so that the local residents earned the nickname “the dead ones of Obeliai”. Every year in January there was a horse show that drew many visitors to the village. In 1828 a factory was opened for spinning cloth.

Many of the sons of Obeliai participated in the Polish revolt of 1831 against the Tzarist rule. After suppressing the revolt some of the local people were exiled to Siberia and in their place the Russian regime settled believers of the “yeshna” sect (“starubarim”). The village began to develop in 1873 with the laying of the railway track there. In 1907 a factory for producing alcohol and spirits was established. On the eve of the 1905 revolution the revolutionists secretly gathered in the summer resort in the Stashon Forest to discuss and debate social issues. During the revolt the residents banished officials of the Tsar from the village. The Russian regime sent a punishment unit to Obeliai and in December of the same year the uprising was suppressed. Close to World War I a fire broke out in the village that destroyed half of the houses, which were built of wood and covered with thatch roofs. The village was divided by two streets and in the middle was the market place, with a large monument from which they used to announce notices or call attention to new regulations decreed by the authorities.

From December 19, 1918 until June 1919 Obeliai was under Soviet rule, set up by Lithuanian Bolsheviks. In 1920 it served as a point of transfer and quarantine was founded for refugees that returned from Russia. Until 1950 it was a village district. Obeliai had a dairy farm, an electric power station, two flour mills, a lumber mill, a customs station and a work shop for repairing railway trains.

The Jewish Settlements Until World War I

There was a very old Jewish settlement in Obeliai. This is verified by tombstones in the Jewish cemetery. Some of them are 400 years old or more. Most of the Jews of Obeliai made a living from trade and commerce and the rest were tradesmen: sandlers, tailors, seamstresses, builders, slate roofers, a watch maker and some glaziers and also butchers bakers (including matza bakers) and gardeners who raised fruits that were marketed in Warsaw, Lodz, Riga and other cities. Similarly there were teamsters who brought passengers and their baggage to and from the train station. The big businessmen of Obeliai handled flax. The best quality merchandise was exported to Prussia. The seeds were sent to Dvinsk to an oil producing factory. But the richest merchants were wood merchants. One of them was the gabbai, head manager or treasurer of the chasidic synagogue.

In Obeliai there was a synagogue a study hall, prayer hall (“minyan”) for chasidim and the Burial Society. In the great fire that broke out many building were destroyed but the old synagogue and study hall were not damaged.

In the years prior to World War I there was hardly any cultural life in Obelaia. Some of the youth went to the big cities in search of enlightenment and knowledge. The main influence on the 300 families was in the hands of the rabbis. The adult Jewish residents were very pious observant Jews and feared the youth would abandon their heritage.

The Jewish children learned in institutions like the cheder that were dark, damp, filthy and overcrowded. For many years there was no official community management that would be concerned in improving education and matters of public Jewish concern. The Jews of Obeliai were divided between Chasidim and misnagdim that prayed separately. There were great hostilities between them. Not infrequently conflict broke out between the two camps that led to blows.

In 1915, the Russian authorities published an edict to exile all Jews from the border areas. The Jews were accused of spying for the enemy, in this case the Germans. Out of fear of the Cossacks three-quarters of the Jews of Obeliai left their shtetl. The rest hid in houses and cellars.

With the occupation of Obeliai by the Germans the Jews left their hiding places and soon adjusted to the new regime that appointed a civil authority and organized a civilian police force in the shtetl. The Germans appointed a Jew (Moshe Zakshtein) as the head of the local authority. Along with this, the Germans imposed forced labor on the Jews. Some Jews were even sent to work camps where the conditions were very difficult :cruel treatment, limited food rations blows, and very hard work - unloading and laying railroad tracks quarrying stones digging canals and so forth.

Among the rabbis who served in Obeliai were Rabbi Shlomo son of Gershon, who served in the rabbinate there at the end of the 18th century. After him came Rabbi Chaim son of Shlomo from Grodno. In later generations there was Rabbi Zalman Segel (who was also a righteous teacher), Rabbi Shabtai-Chaim Shochet, author of the book Zahav Shachut, Rabbi Bunim Tzemach Silber (or Zilber, father of Rabbi Eliezer Silber), Rabbi Brilke (nicknamed Harav Ha'tzhov), and Rabbi Avraham Meirovitz (rabbi of Obeliai from 1928) and who perished in the Holocaust.

Some other natives of Obeliai who achieved fame outside of the shtetl; among them Rabbi Eliezer L Silber son of Rabbi Bunim-Tzemach mentioned above. In the years 1908 to 1925 Rabbi Eliezer Silber was a rabbi in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the USA and wrote a book on the order of the Mishna Kedoshim and in 1929 was elected President of the Association of Rabbis of the United States and Canada. David Shochet, who lived in the Bronx in New York, wrote the book The Jewish Court in the Middle Ages; the author-journalist Benjamin Zak and the educatorAbraham Chrit.

The Period of Independent Lithuania

After the German retreat a new period began; that of the Lithuanian Independence (1940-1918). However, before that for a brief time Obeliai was under Soviet rule. In 1919 the first cooperative was established in Obeliai, which helped the Jewish population that was impoverished during the German occupation. Membership in the cooperative allowed them to buy commodities and products at reasonable and fixed prices. In this period the Jewish youth displayed great activity.

After the Lithuanian independence Jewish refugees that stayed in central Russia returned to their homes. The Lithuanian regime was suspicious of them and feared communist penetration. Those who wanted to return were forced to stay first in a kind of concentration camp, which was near the customs and duty station because Obeliai was the main point of entry for refugees from Russia. Some times Jews were incarcerated in this concentration camp for months until they were released. The sanitary conditions in the camp were poor. and a typhoid fever plague broke out which spread to all the shacks and bungalows despite the aid sent by the Jewish National Committee. Many Jews died and were buried in the old cemetery of Obeliai.

After the Jews returned, new winds began to blow in Obeliai that fostered expectations for achievements for cultural life and progress. In 1923 the Jewish community was established according to the Jewish autonomy law and the committee that was elected began to be concerned about Jewish matters in the shtetl. The first community committee was composed of representatives from the following parties: General Zionists - 2, Tzeirai Tzion - 1, Mizrachi - 1, Achdut - 1, Independent – 1. Among its members were Leib Zakshtein, Zalman Melech, Baruch Kadish and others.

Due to the attitude of the Lithuanian regime which worsened from year to year the youth began to feel that they had no future in the independent Lithuanian state. Many emigrated to countries overseas such as South Africa and Eretz Yisrael. Those who remained continued their social-cultural activities.

In this period there a school of the “Tarbut” network opened in Obeliai (under the direction of Michael Kuperman). A number of Jewish students studied in the Lithuanian school and some students from the “Tarbut” school continued their studies in high schools in the vicinity.

In the period between the two World Wars many Jews were shop keepers and home owners. Some maintained fruit and vegetable farms and marketed the yield abroad. Similarly there were flax and wood merchants who traded with foreign markets. According to a survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1931 there were 19 stores and business establishments 15 owned by Jews (79%). The distribution according to type of business is presented in the table below:

Branch or Type of BusinessTotalOwned by Jews
Crops and flax11
Butcher shops and meat trading11
Restaurants and taverns63
Food products22
Drinks11
Clothing, furs and textiles32
Medicines, cosmetics22
Radios, bicycles, sewing machines11
Tools and iron products11
Miscellaneous11

In 1937, seven out of 23 houses were owned by Jews and the same number of Jews owned telephones. The same year there were 18 Jewish craftsmen: 4 needle tradesmen, 3 shoemakers, 4 butchers, a baker, a pharmacist and 5 other artisans (some of them worked in tanneries) in the town.

In 1920, there a branch of the Yiddish “Culture League” was established. They sponsored lectures on literature and attracted many young people. But the older members did not know how to bring youth closer to them and therefore the young people set up a new “Youth Branch”. They founded a library and organized a night school. Almost all of the youth in the shtetl belonged to the Yugent Abteilung [Youth Branch].

In 1923, the Lithuanian authorities closed the “Culture League” which was considered leftist. In its place was a Yiddish library was opened which, in time, was the cultural center of the shtetl. Next to it was a drama circle “The Dramatic Section of the Jewish Library”. Members of the circle appeared before the public in a hut built by the German occupation authorities and the income was donated for the good of the library. In a short time the library was enriched with many Yiddish and Hebrews books that would meet the needs of a population than Obeliai.

In the years before World War II many of the Jews of Obeliai developed an active political awareness which is expressed by the number of participants in the elections to the Zionist congresses. In the town there were branches of Hapoel Hamizrachi, Tzierei Zion, the Socialist Zionists and the General Zionists There was a Macabbee club with 50 members. Similarly there were branches of of Hashomer Hatzair and Bnei Akiva. The local youth were organized in the Scouts and in Hechalutz. The chalutzim were the most active group and many of its members went to agricultural training. A breakdown of the ballots of those in Obeliai who voted in the Zionist Congresses in the 20s and 30s is presented in the table below (in 1931 the elections were held in the Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael auditorium):

Congress
no.
YearTotal
Shkalim
Total
votes
Working
Eretz
Yisrael
Revisi-
onists
General
Zionists
PoliticalsMizrachiLeftists of
Poalei
Tzion
    S.Z.Z.Z. AB   
14192530-  ------
1619292617  -2--3-
1719311211  32--4-
181933-30  -4--2-
191935-137  -226427-
        National block 
21193915015097 2501

During World War II

In the wake of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement Lithuania, including Obeliai was under the rule of the USSR. During the period of the Soviet rule (1940-1941) the Zionist parties and movements were dispersed, the Hebrew School was closed and in its place a school opened where the language of instruction was Yiddish and the program of study was acceptable to the Soviet Union. Similarly, businesses and economic life were adapted to what was practiced in the Soviet Union. The Soviet rule continued for about a year.

With the outbreak of war between Germany and the USSR on June 22, 1941, practically all the Jews abandoned the shtetl. Most of them turned to the east to the Latvian border to flee from the retreating Red Army soldiers and the Soviet bureaucracy. But when they reached the border a bitter disappointment awaited them: the Soviet border guards did not allow those who did not have proper transit permits and papers in their hands to cross. Only a few had such papers. Meanwhile the Germans bombed the border area. With no choice Jews attempted to back track or seek refuge in the forests and nearby villages. The roads were full of Jewish refugees with children and movable property and given to the strafing of German planes and to the firing of German paratroopers and Lithuanian and Latvian nationalists. Tens of Jews found their death on their way back from the border and their bodies rolled to the side of the road. With difficulty some of them were able to return to their shtetl. With them came other refugees from the vicinity that joined them on the way. As they entered the shtetl they were attacked by incited farmers.

Immediately upon the entrance of the Germans into Obeliai on Thursday June 26, 1941 the life of the Jews and their property was ownerless. Local Lithuanian nationals seized the power and authority. They used to arrest Jewish men, supposedly for “investigations”and “explanations”. None of them returned.

The Lithuanian authorities allowed the farmers to take Jews, men and women for forced labor. Many Jews exploited this possibility and went to work in the vicinity and in this way to get some food. After a few weeks, at the end of July or the beginning of August 1941, the Lithuanian governor of the Rekishuk District an officer named Jukas publicized a decree. According to the decree there were citizens who did not exploit the Jews they employed; but instead of this and for money gave them comfortable conditions to idle away and waste time. The decree threatened that who ever behaves as cited above will be punished with maximal penalties as a saboteur and will be seen as a Jew lover.

The lives of the Jews became difficult from day to day. On August 25, 1941 ( 20 Elul 5701) their end came. On that same day armed Lithuanians took the local Jews together with refugees from the nearby villages to the village Antanošé, about 5 kilometers from Obeliai and there at a distance 100 meters to the left of the road were all cruelly murdered and buried in a mass grave. According to a German source, 112 Jewish men, 627 Jewish women and 421 Jewish children were murdered. All told, according to the above German report, 1,160 Jews were exterminated. The number includes Jews of Abel and the Jews of Rokishok who were murdered there 10 days earlier.

According to a Lithuanian source in the spring of 1944 the Germans arrested a Lithuanian named Vladis Andoness for the crime of giving a hiding place to Jews. A woman farmer named Vaièienene from the village Kadeliai hid 5 Jews from Rekishuk who were saved from the slaughter in Antanose ( Benyamin Zak, Yossel Karebelnik and three others). The woman farmer and the Jews were arrested by the Germans. Their fate is not known. After the war survivors of the community set up a monument on the mass grave in Antanošé.


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