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

54° 29' / 24° 36'

Translation of the “Onuskis” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Josef Rosin

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 147-149)

Onuskis

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

In Yiddish, Anushishok or Anishok

A county town in the Trakai district.

Year Total
Population
Jews Jews as
Percentage
of Total
Population
1839 135
families
.. ..
1897 577 217 38
1923 609 342 56
1940 .. 250 ..

Onuskis is located in eastern Lithuania, in a region with dense forests, 28 km of Trakai, the district's city. There was an estate there in the 16th century that was called Onuskis. In 1524, the estate owners received permission to establish there a town, to hold a weekly market day and to open taverns. A number of shops, sawmills, and a factory that produced alcohol were built there at the beginning of the 19th century. Onuskis was the center of the county from about 1850. During the period of Russian Rule (1795-1915), Onuskis was included in the Vilnius Guberina (province) and to the Trakai district. After the 1863 rebellion, the Onuskis estate was confiscated and handed over to the Russian Graf Olsofyev. At that time, a few dozen of Jewish families resided in Onuskis. They made their living from labor, commerce and agriculture. In 1893, Graf Olsofyev gave the Jews a lot free of charge on which they built a Bet Midrash.

The Jews of Onuskis suffered quite a lot during WWI and afterwards as the area changed hands frequently between the Bolsheviks, Poles and Lithuanians.

In December, 1918, Bolshevik forces took control of the town and established a local council of poor laborers and farmers. They controlled the town until April, 1919.

During the second half of 1919 and during the entire year of 1920, the Jewish Aid Society “YeKoPo” provided the Onuskis Jewish community the sum of 22,026 marks for better nutrition, to obtain wood for heating and for cultural activities.

In 1920, through the encouragement of the Ministry of Jewish Affairs in Independent Lithuania, the Onuskis Jewish community elected democratically 5 members to its community committee. This committee was active for nearly 5 years in most areas of Jewish life in the town.

In 1922, during the October elections to the first “Seimas” in Lithuania, the Zionist party received 119 votes, the Democratic party 9 votes, and “Akhdut” (Agudat Yisrael) 5 votes.

In 1929, as a result of the agrarian reforms which were initiated by the government of Independent Lithuania, some of the land that belonged to Graf Olsofyev, including the lot with the Bet Midrash, was transferred to a local Lithuanian pharmacist. The latter conducted against the Jews of Onuskis (which were represented by the lawyer Leib Garfunkel) court hearings, demanding of them to pay him rent for nearly 40 years. In the end, the Supreme Court of Lithuania rejected that demand.

According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Jews owned in Onuskis 4 cloth stores, 2 stores for leather and shoes, 2 bakeries, a shop for metal goods and working equipment, a barber shop, a mill, a tar factory and a ceramics factory.

In 1937, there were 22 Jewish artisans in Onuskis: 5 tailors, 3 blacksmiths, 3 shoemakers, 2 bakers, 2 butchers, 2 “Tapars” “ (Hebrew, “tapar”, which refers to “a craftsman in shoemaking who makes the uppers”), a glazier, a tinsmith, and 3 others.

In spite of the growing secularization, the Bet Midrash continued to serve as one of the social centers of the Jewish community of Onuskis. Among the Rabbis who served in the town after WWI was Rabbi Elkhanan-Yehuda Burland (from 1932).

Many of the town's Jews were involved in one way or another in Zionist activities, as the division of votes to the Zionist Congresses in the town show below:

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
18 1933 .. 10 9 - - 1 - - -
19 1935 .. 172 106 - - 2 1 14 49

In 1939, there were 13 telephones in the town; 2 of them were owned by 2 Jews: one who owned a taxi and the other who owned a sawmill.

In 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. Businesses that belonged to Jews were also nationalized in Onuskis. Zionist activities were disbanded. Some Jews were integrated in administrative and economic institutions of the Soviet-Lithuanian government.

On June 23, 1941, a day after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Lithuanian nationalists took control of the town. They tortured their Jewish neighbors and robbed their property. Dozens of Jews were arrested on the pretext that their sons or daughters cooperated with the Russian authorities. All of them were brutally tortured and were then murdered. This is what the Lithuanians did also to Jews who either tried to escape into the interior of Russia during the first days of the war or sought hiding places in nearby villages but were forced to return to the town. Former Lithuanian policemen and members of the Sauliai association hid weapons in the backyards of Jewish homes, arrested their inhabitants and brought them to Trakai, the district's city, where they were put to death after being accused of possessing weapons or for firing at German soldiers. Upon the order of the local Lithuanian administration, all the Jews were forced to wear on their clothes two yellow patches: one on the chest and the other on the back. Jewish men, women and youth were coerced to do forced labor, such as weeding while being watched and being brutally tortured by Lithuanian guards. After spreading the rumors that the executions have ceased, many of the Jews who hid in nearby villages returned to the town.

On the eve of Rosh HaShana, 5701, while most of the Jewish men were in the Bet Midrash, Lithuanian police forces headed by local commanders raided the Jewish homes and drove out anyone who was there. They were all dragged to the Bet Midrash, where they were brutally frisked on the pretext that they were being searched for possessing weapons. While the Jews were being searched, the Lithuanians stole from them all they had. In the meantime, the neighbors of the Jews and Lithuanian mob burglarized the breached Jewish homes. Jews from the town of Aukstadvaris were brought to Onuskis around the same time. All the Jews, the local ones and those who were brought to the town, were led to the town of Panosiskis, and from there, together with the Jews of Panosiskis, were taken to the city of Trakai. The young were led by foot and were brutally beaten by Lithuanian guards; the elderly, handicapped, women and children were transported on wagons.

On September 30, 1941, (the eve of Yom Kippur, 5702), all of those Jews, 1,446 souls, were murdered in the Varnikai Forest, about 3 km from Trakai's lake. Only a few Jews, who found shelter with farmers in the surrounding areas, survived. Most of the Jews who tried to hide were caught by Lithuanian policemen and were murdered.

The mass grave of the Jews of Onuskis and the surrounding areas remained neglected for many years; people in the surrounding areas would herd their pigs there and human bones were scattered around the place. The grave was tidied up through efforts of the few surviving Jews, who also erected a memorial on the grave.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-33/983; Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, files 90, 91.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 76-80, pages 4558-4640.
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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