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

55° 16' / 23° 28'

Translation of the “Ariogala” 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 135 - 138)

Ariogala

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

In Yiddish, Eiragola, also Ragala; in Russian and Polish, Eiragola; in German, Erogelen

A county town in the Kedainiai district.

Year General
Population
Jews Percentage
1847   1,237  
1897 2,376 1,541 65
1921   420  
1923 1,197 456 38
1959 2,375 0  

 

Ariogala is located in the center of Lithuania, on the left bank of the Dubysa River, about 40 km west of Kedainiai, the district's city. It is one of the oldest settlements in the Zemaitija region. The town is mentioned often in historical sources from the 13th century on with regard to battles that took place in Ariogala between the Lithuanians and the German Crusader Order. Ariogala became the center of the subdistrict already in the 16th century. In 1732, it had 91 residential homes. In 1792 the town was granted Magdeburgian Rights and the authority to use its own city symbol. During the Russian rule (1795 – 1915) Ariogala was included in the Gubernia (region) of Vilnius and from 1843 in the Gubernia of Kaunas. In 1883, there was a big fire in the town. In the beginning of WWI (1915) the town was burned again, this time as a result of military clashes between the Germans and the Russians. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918 – 1940) the town was rehabilitated and became one of the most beautiful towns in all of Lithuania, yet the number of its inhabitants decreased by half.

 

The Jewish Settlements Till After World War I

A Jewish community in Ariogala was started in the middle of the 18th century. During the 19th century the Jews were the decisive majority in the local population. Most of them made their living from labor, peddling and storekeeping, and the minority by trading flax, animals and chickens, and lumber that was exported abroad. Jews owned flourmills that were located on the bank of the river, a furnace for burning bricks (in the Chakhanova neighborhood) and liquor breweries. The economic activity in Ariogala was mostly concentrated around the fair that was held twice a year, and around weekly market days that were held on Thursdays. The great fire in the town in April 1883 left 80 families in complete poverty. Rabbi S.P. Yashonski, and Shimon Shraka Feivil who headed the tribunal at that time and was the son of Rabbi Shevach, made an appeal in the “Hamelitz” [The Advocate] and pleaded for help. 3 years later a plague broke out in the town and many died. The shammash [attendant] announced in the Beit Midrash: “Anyone who knows that one of his neighbors has sinned is obligated to fulfill his Mitzvah, must inform the Rabbi, so that the sinner will be punished for his sin; perhaps as a result of that, the wrath of God might be withdraw from us!”.

The 3 Batei Midrash and the synagogue were the center of the religious and social life. It was there that the fellowships of “Chayei Adam”, “Mishna Brura”, “Ein Yakov”, “Menorat Hamaor” and others taught the Mishna. The welfare institutions of “Linat Zedek” (Hospice for the Poor), “Gemilut Hasadim” (Charity), and “Kupat Zedaka” (Charity Fund) were active in the town and provided regular aid to the needy and “matan baseter” (secret almsgiving) to the poor.

Until WWI there were 6 educational institutions in Ariogala like the “Heder”, and a “Talmud Torah” for poor children, and a Yeshiva that also taught pupils from the adjacent towns.

Among the rabbis who served in Ariogala were: Rabbi Avraham (Ragalar), the son of Shelomo-Zalman who was the brother of the Vilna Gaon; Rabbi Eliyahu, son of Yakov (who was called “Elinke Ragalar” and later – “Kalisher”); Rabbi Avraham-Ever Yaffe, author of “Machaze Avraham” (Vilnius, 1891); Rabbi Zvi-Yehuda Rabinovitz-Teumim; Rabbi Ben-Zion Friedman. Many of those who were born in Ariogala served as Rabbis and as heads of Yeshivot in various other communities. For example: Rabbi Moshe was the dean of the R. Miles Yeshiva in Vilnius; Rabbi Yehoshua Cohen was the dean of the Minsk Yeshiva; Rabbi Avraham Roznik served as a Rabbi in Ukraine; Rabbi Moshe-Eliyahu Kagan served as a Rabbi in New York; Rabbi Shemuel Rappoport served as Rabbi in Springfield, USA. One of the Rabbis who was born in Ariogala and became famous was Rabbi Yakov-Meir, whose responsa (answers) in Biblical matters were published in the book “Beer Yakov” by Rabbi Yitzhak-Elchanan Spector from Kaunas.

“Chibat Zion” (Lovers of Zion) had a major following in Ariogala. In the list of donators for Eretz-Yisrael from the years 1900 (the delegate was Eliyahu-David Rick) and the list of 1909 mention dozens of Jews from Ariogala. In the old Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem there are at least 4 headstones of Jews from Ariogala dating from the second half of the 19th century.

The number of Jews in the town decreased gradually due to continued immigration to South Africa, the United States, and later to Eretz-Yisrael.

During WWI most of the Jews of Ariogala moved into the interior districts of Russia.

 

During the period of Independent Lithuania

When the Jews of Ariogala returned to their town in the early 20's, they found it burned and destroyed. The returnees began rehabilitating their homes in the same original places where they were in the past or in forest lots that were provided by the Lithuanian authorities. Nevertheless, the number of Jews in the town during the period of Independent Lithuania was only a third of those who lived there before WWI. This phenomenon was especially evident among the artisans: out of 8 shoemakers who were in the town prior to the war, only one remained in 1935; also, out of the 2 carpenters and 2 metal workers, only one remained in each profession; out of 14 coachmen only 2 remained. Quite a few of the Jewish inhabitants were new. They came to Ariogala from nearby towns in the region. The only tailor, for example, was such a case.

When Lithuanian rule became more established, the first election for the community's committee were held in the autumn of 1921. 235 voters participated in choosing the 5 member ruling committee: one represented the “Tzeirei-Zion” party, one the General Zionists and 3 were not affiliated with any party. Yoseph Ziv headed the committee. The committee was active for 3 years and contributed a great deal to the welfare of the community: it established a school; it aided the 41 families (153 people) that needed help; and it strengthened the status of the communal doctor (Dr. Y. Yapis). The committee was also involved in electing Ariogala's Rabbi, Rabbi Yakov Rabinovitz, and also in founding the popular Jewish bank.

According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census there were 26 businesses in Ariogala, 17 of them (65%) owned by Jews. The division into branches was as in the table below:

 

Branch or Type of Business Total Owned
by Jews
Groceries 1  
Butcher shops and cattle trade 4 3
Restaurants and taverns 5 1
Trade in consumer foodstuff 3 3
Clothing, furs and textiles 5 4
Medicine and cosmetics 1 0
Radios, bicycles and sewing machines 1 1
Tools and iron products 5 4
Miscellaneous 1 0

 

According to the same census, Jews owned 6 factories in Ariogala: a power station, a factory for soda water, a factory for hats, a sawmill, a flourmill, and a factory for producing felt. In 1937, there were 15 Jewish artisans in town: 5 bakers, 4 shoemakers, 4 butchers, a hat maker, and a tinsmith. The “Folksbank”, headed by Zvi Ziv, played an important role in the economic life of Ariogala. In 1926, the bank's business cycle was 92,320 Lit and it had over 100 listed members. In 1939, there were 30 telephones in town, 9 of them belonged to Jews.

The town had a Hebrew Elementary School, which was attended by about 70 pupils, and a “Heder” with about 20 pupils. Later there was a drama club, and a library with about 400 books. The town had a dynamic public life in spite of the fact that the number of the youth decreased gradually. This vigorous dynamic life was evident in the rivalry between the Revisionists and the Socialist Zionists. The division of votes to the Zionist Congresses in Ariogala was as shown in the table below:

 

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor Party Revisionists General Zionists Grosmanists Mizrachi Poalie
Zion Left
Z”S Z”Z A B
15 1927 19                  
17* 1931 22 22 8 1 8 5        
18 1933   78 53 18 5   1 1  
19 1935   99 95   3   1    
21** 21 85 79 73   5       1

* The elections were held in the synagogue.
** The elections were held in the school.

Among the Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in Ariogala were “Hashomer Hazair”, “Betar”, and “Maccabi”. Relations between the Jews and the Lithuanians deteriorated in the beginning of the 1930's. The incitements (not to buy from Jews, etc.) were led by the priest who exhorted them in his weekly church sermons. Among the other inciters were the municipality's clerk, the local watchmaker, and Ariogala's mailman. In the spring of 1931 these people broke into a Jewish family's home and accused them of murdering a Christian child so they could use his blood during Passover. In spite of the fact the police found no such evidence, the tensions in town mounted the fear of pogroms increased as the weekly market day approached. The head of the community alerted the district police and the selected day for the pogroms passed quietly. Nevertheless, a short while later some people approached the head of the accused family of blood libel. They invited him to accompany them to the outside of the village and he never returned home. The family immigrated to South Africa.

Ariogala's last Rabbi was Rabbi Moshe-Yitzhak Veichik.

 

During World War II and Afterwards

In August 1940 Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew School was closed. One of the few Jewish cultural institutions that was allowed to continue to function was the drama club managed by Yoseph Markovitz. It is no coincidence that his activities went hand in hand with the campaign for the elections for Soviet rule. The drama club staged the play “Der Inteligent” by Peretz Hirschbein as the Lithuanian elections for the Supreme Soviet approached. It was during this time that the businesses of a handful of established merchants were nationalized.

On June 23, 1941, one day after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, a reconnaissance unit of the German army entered Ariogala. But it was the Lithuanian nationalists who took control of the town. They embarked on a killing spree, brutally persecuting their Jewish neighbors. Among their first victims were Zvi Ziv, Michael Kaganovitz and Yoseph Markovitz. Then they assembled all the Jews in a confined area between the synagogue and the Beit Midrash. This area was enclosed by a wire fence and dubbed a “Ghetto”. From here every day they took Jews for forced labor while torturing and beating them. The scholar, Ya'akov Kastin, author of the book “Mishpat Ya'akov”, was also among the miserable Jews.

One day, all the Jews were ordered to move to another place. They were promised that they would work in the new place until the end of the war. Each person was allowed to take whatever he or she was able to carry. As the transfer approached, Jews from the nearby towns of Cekiske and Veliuona were also brought there. The Jewish men, women, elderly and children, accompanied by armed Lithuanian police, were led to the flourmill on the bank of the Dubysa River. As they got close to the river, the Lithuanian policemen opened fire from a distance of 5-6 meters and murdered all of them. The murdered were thrown into a pit 50-60 meters long that was dug in advance. According to a German source (The Jager Report), 207 men, 260 women and 195 children were murdered there between August 28 and September 2, 1941. In 1961, in a trial conducted by the Soviet authorities, one of the participants in the killings said that all of the people who participated in the killings, among which were the school's teachers and the local priest, were invited afterwards to the municipality for a festive meal accompanied by plenty of drinks.

In the autumn of 1944, a short while after Ariogala was freed from the Germans, cows grazed on the mass grave of the Jews of Ariogala. Subsequently a memorial was built in the same place with an inscription in Lithuanian. In the beginning of the 1990's another memorial was erected with an inscription in Yiddish: “The blood of 662 Jews – children, women, men – was shed here by the Nazi killers and their accomplices. Here they were brutally murdered on 9.8.1941.”

 

Bibliography:

Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-9/13(2)3; M-33/989; TR-2 Report 94; 0-57, Yerucham Eiglick Testimony.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 64-73, pages 1507-1557.
Ashri, The Destruction of Lithuania, p. 37.
Kamzon, The Jews of Lithuania, p. 123.
Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] – (Kovno), 8.8.1919.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), 17.3.1883, 8.8.1883.
Folksblatt [The People's Newspaper] – (Kovno), 15.8.1935, 20.11.1940.
Kavaner Zeit – (Kovno), 26.2.1926.
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass Killings in Lithuania), II, p.141.


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