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

54° 52' / 24° 36'

Translation of the “Zasliai” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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Acknowledgments

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Barry Mann

 

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for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

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 283-286)

Zasliai

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

In Yiddish, Zhosle

A county town in the district of Trakai.

Year General
Population
Jews Percentage
1847 .. 836 ..
1865 1,042 653 62
1897 1,955 1,325 67
1915 .. 1,500 ..
1923 1,768 1,067 60
1940 2,000 1,000 50

Zasliai is located between three lakes in eastern Lithuania, halfway between Kaunas and Vilnius. It is first mentioned in historical sources in 1433; in that year, a Catholic Church was built there. In 1792, Zasliai was granted the Magdeburg rights.

In 1865, the town already had 87 houses and a population of 1,042 residents: 653 Jews, 371 Catholics, 22 “Starovers”, and 7 Pravoslavs. At that time, Zasliai had 3 synagogues, a Catholic Church, and the local authority building. The town also had 18 stores, 4 tanning workshops, a flourmill, and a few taverns. Regional market days took place 5 times a year. Every now and then, a big fire broke out in the town. During the period of Russian Rule, Zasliai was administratively part of the Vilnius Guberina (region) and served as the center of the county. The railway line between Vilnius and Kaunas, and the railway line between Libau and Romney were constructed very close to the town.

During the period of Independent Lithuania, economic activities in Zasliai declined because it was disconnected from Vilnius.

 

The Jewish Settlement Till After World War II

The Jews were the great majority in Zasliai. Most of them lived around the train station, which they used to market their merchandise. They marketed timber, grains, poultry and other things. Economically and culturally, the Jews of Zasliai were linked with the communities of Trakai and Vilnius. Every now and then, the community's affluent people renovated the community's institutions. In 1885, Rabbi Eliyahu Shapira donated 200 rubles for building a new fence around the cemetery “instead of the old one which had been completely destroyed”.

At the beginning of WWI, when the Russian military ordered in 1915 the expulsion of tens of thousands of Jews from their towns, 5,000 Jews came to Zasliai. Some of them were housed in 500 Jewish homes and the rest in the town's synagogues and even in stables and cowsheds. The Jews of Zasliai devoted themselves to taking care of them. The refugees also received much aid from “YeKoPo”, the Vilnius Committee for Aiding Refugees, and from “The Company for Medical and Nutritional Aid”, which was established by Jewish students from St. Petersburg and Vilnius. A delegation from the Duma (parliament) in St. Petersburg came to Zasliai in order to assess the situation. It was headed by Kerenski (who later was the prime minister of the interim government of Russia).

For a certain period of time, the Jews of Zasliai were also at risk of being expelled because they refused to hand over hostages to the authorities. The latter intended to execute the hostages if they found Jews who spied for the enemy (the Germans). In a heated assembly which took place in the synagogue, the Jews of Zasliai rejected the demand of the authorities despite the threat of expulsion.

Many of the Rabbis who served in Zasliai until WWI were descendents of Rabbi Yitzkhak, son of Rabbi Shelomo-Zalman, and among them his son, Rabbi David, who headed the rabbinate in the town for 40 years until his death in 1831; Rabbi David's son, Rabbi Menakhem-Mendel, served as a “teacher of justice” in Zasliai during the year 1834 – 1874; Rabbi Avraham-Khaim Shas, son of Rabbi Shemuel (between the years 1888 – 1904). The following other Rabbis served in Zasliai at different times during that period: Rabbi Shaul, son of Rabbi Ariye-Leib; Rabbi Yitzkhak-Meir Rabinovitz and Rabbi Yitzkhak Eliezer Lipman Shereshevski (1883 – 1888).

The “Khibat Zion” movement attracted many of the town's Jews. The names of many Jews from Zasliai appear on the1898 and 1900 lists of donors for settling Eretz-Yisrael, which were published in the “HaMelitz”. The delegates were Moshe-Aharon Katz and Nekhemia Levin.

 

During the Period of Independent Lithuania

After WWI, the Jews of Zasliai participated in the democratic lifestyle of Independent Lithuania. In the elections to the first “Seimas” in 1922, 359 men and women voted for the Zionist party; 58 for the religious “Akhdut” party; and 6 for the Democratic party. A community council was active in the town until the middle of the 1920's.

The Jews earned their living during this period mainly from petty trade, storekeeping and crafts. Quite a few Jews operated various contracting businesses (depending on the seasons of the year), such as, buying fruits from farmers and selling them to wholesalers in Kaunas or directly to merchants in Germany. The town also had a number of timber merchants and grain traders, who had commercial ties abroad. In 1925, there was a Jewish woman dentist (Lea Grinberg) in Zasliai.

According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Zasliai had 20 businesses and all of them (100%) were owned by Jews. The division of the business branches is shown in the table below:

Branch or Type of Business Owned
by
Jews
Groceries2
Crops and flax1
Butcher shops and cattle2
Restaurants and taverns1
Commerce in foodstuff3
Clothing, furs and textiles4
Leather and shoes2
Medicine and cosmetics1
Radios, bicycles and sewing machines1
Tools and iron products2
Miscellaneous1

According to the same census, Jews owned in the town 11 plants: a photography shop, a paint shop, a smithy, 2 workshops for shoes, 2 wool carders, a bakery, a leather workshop and 2 flourmills.

In 1937, the town had 39 Jewish artisans: 11 shoemakers, 6 butchers, 5 bakers, 4 carpenters, 3 glaziers, 3 tapars (Hebrew, "tapar", which refers to “a craftsman in shoemaking who makes the uppers”), 2 tailors, a hat maker, a blacksmith, a tinsmith, a leather worker, and one barber.

The Jews of Zasliai received aid from the Jewish popular bank (Folksbank), which had a branch in the town. In 1927 it had 233 members. Zasliai also had a branch of the United Credit Union for Jewish Farmers. Many of the town's Jews had auxiliary farms where they raised, among other things, goats. It has been told that the town's residents asked the authorities to move the railway line farther away from their homes so it would not disturb them raising their goats and the authorities complied. Perhaps that is the reason why the residents of Zasliai were nicknamed “Zhosler Zigen” (goats of Zasliai).

Yet despite their diligence and initiative, the Jews of Zasliai found it difficult to make a living and that is why quite a few of the younger generation emigrated abroad. Some of them emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael and quite a few of them joined Kibbutzim (Givat Brener, Yagur, Dafna, Ein Kharod and Tel Josef), and others settled in Moshavim and in cities. Nevertheless, active communal life in Zasliai continued despite the constant emigration of many of the town's natives. In addition to the elementary Hebrew school that was part of the “Tarbut” network, Zasliai also had a library, a “Maccabi” sports union with 68 members, and a volunteer firefighters union, which acquired its equipment through donations by the town's natives in the United States. Zionist parties and youth movements such as “Beytar” and others were also active in the town. Among other things, we know of their influence on the Jewish population in the town from the results of their votes to the Zionist Congresses (the elections were held in the synagogue which belonged to the “Khasidim”):

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
15 1927 18 12 5 6 1 - - - -
16 1929 116 74 31 4 38 - - - 1
17 1931 118 95 41 3 45 5 - - 1
18 1933 .. 130 92 30 4 - 3 1
19 1935 .. 300 190 - 26 11 51 22

The Rabbis who served in the Zasliai rabbinate during this period were: Rabbi Avraham-Khaim Shas (during the years 1888 – 1938), whose innovations in Torah interpretations were published in his book “Knesset Yisrael” (1937); and the town's last Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Levin, who perished in the Holocaust.

Among the natives of Zasliai who became famous were: professor B.Z. Halper (1884-1924), a linguist and expert in Oriental Studies; Rabbi Shemuel-Menakhem Katz (1887-1954), who was known as the “Magid from Curland”: Aharon Klaus (1914-1961), a journalist and a member of the “Ma'ariv” editorial board; and others.

 

During World War II and Afterwards

In the summer of 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union. The consequences of the sovietization process also harmed the Jewish merchants of Zasliai. All of the Zionist parties and youth movements were disbanded. On June 22, 1941, the day of the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, some of Zasliai's residents tried to escape to the interior regions of Russia, but the columns of the approaching German army blocked the way for most of them and they were forced to return to the town.

After the Soviets retreated, Lithuanian nationalists took control of the town. They arrested every person they suspected to be a collaborator with the Soviet authorities. Most of Jewish prisoners were taken to the nearby town of Kaisiadorys. Their fate was the same as the fate of the Jews of Kaisiadorys. The Jews who remained in Zasliai were forced to clean the streets and to do other forced labor. In addition, they were forbidden to leave their homes. Because they did not receive any food whatsoever, they were forced to risk their lives and solicit at the doors of their non-Jewish neighbors, begging them to sell them for money or by other forms of exchange something to feed their families. Armed Lithuanians used to break into Jewish homes, to rob, plunder and torture them as they saw fit. In the middle of the night of August 17, 1941, Lithuanians took out all the men and some of the women from their homes and transferred them to Kaisiadorys. The Jews were kept there for 10 days. On August 27 (4 Elul, 5701), they were murdered together with the Jews of Ziezmariai and Jews from the surrounding areas in the Strosiunu Forest, 3 km north of Ziezmariai, in a place called “Vasileyev Ditches”, and were buried there. The remaining Jews of Zasliai were taken on September 22, 1941, to the town of Semeliskes. They were murdered there together with the Jews of Semeliskes on October 6, 1941 (16 Tishrei, 5702) in a grove located about 200 meters northeast of the town. Only three women and two children managed to escape the massacre. They found shelter with Lithuanian farmers in the area and after going through many hardships and sufferings they reached the day of liberation.

In the autumn of 1991, the local municipal council built a new metal fence around the mass graves and renewed the marble tablets on the memorials, which are inscribed in Lithuanian and Yiddish: “In this place, on the 28th of August 1941, Nazi murderers and their local helpers cruelly tortured and buried alive 2,200 Jews from Ziezmariai, Zasliai and Kaisiadorys”. On the other monument the same inscription was written with one difference: “...1,800 Jewish women and children...”.

3 wooden carvings entitled “Pain”, by the Lithuanian sculptor V. Kapaciunas, were placed on the mass graves.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, file M-9/15(6); Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, file 84.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: file 402.
Gotlieb, Ohalei Shem, p. 70.
Katz, Ish Haya BeZhosle – Parashat Khaim, Prepared for printing by Raphael Saporta, Tel Aviv, 1978.
Kamzon, The Jews of Lithuania, p 67.
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass Murders in Lithuania), Vol. 2, pp. 221-222, 410.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), # 107 (1886), # 98 (1894).
HaAvar, Vol. 13, pp. 25-33.
Naujienos (Chicago), 11.6.1949.
Kaisiadoriu Aidai, # 76, 21.9.1991.

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