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

55° 50' / 24° 58'

Translation of the “Kupiskis” 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 561-565)

Kupiskis

In Yiddish, Kupishok

Written by Raphael Julius

Translated by Shimon Joffe

A county town in the Panevezys district.

Year Total
Population
Jews %
1847 .. 1350 ..
1897 3742 2661 71
1921 .. 1500 ..
1923 2672 1444 54
1938 2830 1200 42
1959 4127 4 ..

Kupiskis is an ancient town in north eastern Lithuania, 40 km. north east of the district capital, Panevezys. Most of the town is situated between two rivers, the Kupa which gave it its name, and the Levuo and is surrounded by dense forests.

Kupiskis is mentioned in historic documents of the year 1510, but it would seem that even before that, it was a county center. In the 18th century the town belonged to the aristocratic Tyzenhaus family, and after 1771 to the Chartorisky's. The traders and the artisans concentrated around a large marsh in the middle of the town. The peasants, who constituted the majority of the town inhabitants, lived around its edges. During the period of Russian rule (1795-1915), the town was known as Slavyanisky. In the years 1791, 1868 and 1876-1877 fires burnt down most of the town. After the last fire, the peasants did not return to their previous plots, but rather settled on their holdings which, in time, became three nearby villages. In the 19th century Kupiskis became a county center.

The laying of a railway line at the end of the 19th century encouraged trade in grains and flax and led to an increase in the population. A short distance from the town, a railway station was built named Kurpa.

During the period of the First World War Kupiskis became the district center. During the battles, Kupiskis was badly damaged by the invading German forces, whose soldiers plundered the town. From December 29, 1918 until May 1919, a revolutionary committee ruled the town on behalf of the Soviet Bolshevik regime.

During the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940), the town had 2 flour mills, a dairy, and a lime kiln. It was the seat of the regional court; it had a co-operative for agricultural produce, a credit bank, a Jewish bank (the Folksbank or the Peoples Bank), and a pottery works, etc. During this period the town had a veterinary doctor, 3 doctors (at least one was a Jew), and a notary. The association of the non religious community was very active, and even had a cemetery of its own. During this period the Peoples Party was very strong locally. From 1921 until 1924 the town had a municipal council, but because of infighting and squabbling, the town reverted to the status of a local council.

The Jewish community until the end of the First World War

There are no clear indications as to the begining of the Jewish community in Kupiskis. Judging by the inscriptions on the ancient gravestones in the town cemetery, Jews were already living in the town at the beginning of the 18th century.

Kupiskis Jewry divided off into two communities, the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim (Misnogdim or Opponents). As a result, the town had two official rabbis, one for each community (previously they had one rabbi for the whole town), but then they had two Shochtim (ritual slaughterers), two burial societies and four synagogues. Often, bitter quarrels arose between the rival communities. The Kashrut certification given by one was negated and declared Treif (not Kosher) by the other. Although, after the rabbi of the Mitnagdim, Rabbi Aba-Yakov Borochov, founded a large Yeshiva where he taught, the Hassidim too, supported it. Jews who wished for their sons to receive a general education and learn the language of the country sent them to study in schools in the large cities.

The Hamelitz” (a Hebrew language newspaper), reported in November 1882, the murder of a Jew in a nearby village, committed by a peasant, and two accomplices. The reason was a long standing enmity. The murderer hid the corpse in the forest. The widow was left with six little children lacking any means of support. In the same year, a further article spoke of the difficulty the town Jews had in making a living. As long as the trade in flax was conducted by a non Jew, the Jews eked out a living by working with him. But, once the trade passed into the hands of a Jew, he informed the non Jews that he had no wish to continue working with them. With Jews, he declared, he was only prepared to “Bless the Moon”. The same year, a doctor was brought to the town. Until then, anyone needing medical help, had recourse to the district doctor who lived in a far-off village. The community paid his rent and also insisted he charge a 50 Kopeks fee to the rich, 30 Kopeks to the middle class and free treatment for the poor.

Fires were a frequent sight in the town. In the conflagration of 1886, in the suburb called “Under the Hill”, 8 Jewish houses burnt down and their owners were left completely destitute. But the Jews recovered rapidly and their economic situation improved. In 1895 again, a fire burnt down the “Street of the Jew”. Following that, quarrels arose among them since, while rebuilding their homes, each attempted to trespass on the other's plot.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many of the Kupiskis Jews began to leave the town and immigrate to places overseas, primarily to the USA. Some left their families behind destitute, after having sold all their possessions to finance the journey. Later on, others, particularly the younger ones, left for South Africa. Some returned to the town after having accumulated a sum of money in the USA, but left again, this time for South Africa.

In the last months of the 19th century, trade dwindled. Artisans went about unemployed, tavern and shopkeepers were idle for lack of customers. The situation was worsened by the wholesalers and co-operative shops established with the encouragement of the Polish “Graf” (count), who proceeded to sell goods to the Jews and peasants at lower retail prices than the ones charged by the Jewish shopkeepers. This fate was shared by the Jews living in the vicinity and in the small towns. The resulting damage to people also reduced the financing available in the local loan societies.

In 1893, laborers, together with their families, prevented the merchants, by force, from removing grains from town, fearing that such a move would increase the price of corn and result in a shortage of bread. Their action had positive results. The grain owner capitulated and agreed to donate 10 Rubles to the town poor and even promised to accept the decision of the town leaders. The laborers and the poor continued to keep a vigil to prevent grains being taken out of town in the future. Nevertheless, when a fire broke out in a neighboring town, Kupiskis Jewry sent carts laden with bread and used clothing for distribution among the sufferers.

In 1898, children living in the Transvaal in South Africa, formed a society for the support of the Kupiskis poor. Ex Kupiskis residents also supported the Bikur Holim (medical assistance) society. But as there were two such societies, the one Hassidic and the other the Mitnagdim, the contributions were evenly divided between them. The ex Kupiskis also supported the Talmud Torah, which made it possible to increase the number of teachers from two to four and to increase the number of pupils. They also sent donations to the needy, for example, for the festivals. The Kupiskis loan society was named “Der Afrikaner Gemilut Hesed” (The African Benevolent Loan Society).

Kupiskis had about one hundred members in Khovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) in 1899. In the closing days of the century, hard times fell upon the local Jewry, particularly the members of Khovevei Zion among them, after the death of their delegate to the organization. Because of the lack of a personage to lead the local Zionists, the numbers in the movement fell. On the other hand, the local Bund (Jewish Socialist Organization), grew in numbers and in revolutionary activity. As a result, they were dubbed with the added nickname “Kupishker Naronim” (Kupishek fools).

Among the rabbis officiating in Kupiskis, was Rabbi Meir Epstein (Shnipishker), Rabbi Aleksander (Sender) Hakohen Kaplan, who previously had served as the Vilkomir (Ukmerge) Court president. Rabbi Aleksander served for 45 years. He wrote the book “Shalmei Nedarim”, dealing with the Tractate Nedarim, and annotated the Mishna (the Six Books of the Talmud), which remained in manuscript. Rabbi Aleksander died in 1884. After him, Rabbi Abba-Yakov Borochov officiated, 1887-1889; he was then followed by Rabbi Yehuda-Leib-Shalom Zinnobel; Rabbi Yehuda-Leib Fein. Rabbi Avraham-Zvi, son of Moshe Brudna, was a Hassidic teacher of Jewish law. One of the Kupiskis rabbis was Rabbi Eliyahu-Meir Feivelson, who was also the president of the religious court. He was born in 1867, his father was R. Baruch, a wealthy merchant, (author of' “Ma'amar Eliyahu ׏, a clarification of problems in the Talmud, and “Ma'ayan Baruch”, (on rules of the Mikvah). He died in 1928. After him, his son-in-law Rabbi Zalman Pertsovski officiated. He perished in the Shoah. The last Hassidic rabbi was Rabbi Israel Noah Khatzkevitz, who too, perished in the Shoah.

Among the personae born in Kupiskis Rabbi Elchanan Kohen; the agronomist Yakov Shmuel Yaffe and the educator and author Dr. Shlomo Kodesh, author of the poem “That was Kupishok”, and other works.

During Lithuanian Independence

During the First World War, many of the Kupiskis Jews left town for Vilna, or for the Russian interior. After the war, in the first years of Lithuanian independence, Kupiskis contained some 1500 Jews. In accordance with the Law of Autonomy passed by the independent Lithuanian government, a community council was elected in 1921, consisting of 13 members; 4 representing Mizrachi, 3 delegates from the artisans and 6 independents. In 1922, the Jews voted for the first Seimas and their votes divided as follows; Zionists-324, Unity-82, Democrats-57.

The complex relations between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim continued into the 1920's. In 1922, the Shochtim demanded an increase in the slaughter fee. The community council supported this demand, but the rabbi, who had recently returned from exile in Russia, opposed this. A rumor spread in town that the rabbi was interested in reintroducing the old Korobka tax. This gave rise to many arguments and quarrels. The differences died down in time, and on Yom Kippur they all met in the Great Synagogue to hear the rabbi's sermon. The religious elements in Kupiskis were famous far and wide for their religious zeal and piety and were vigorous in the defense of Jewish tradition. As a result, they became very influential in Lithuania. On Fridays before the onset of the Sabbath, a siren was sounded in the flour mill (owned by Hanan Milner)-announcing the onset of the Sabbath. A few minutes later, the siren was heard a second time - a sign to light the Sabbath candles. The town was surrounded by an Eruv wire (a symbolic city wall) and wags used to joke that outsiders might mistake it for a telephone wire.

The community possessed three synagogues; a prayer house for the Hassidim, a study house for the Mitnagdim and a great Synagogue in a fine large building capable of containing all the town Jews. The town also had a stone-built bath house and a cemetery. Kupiskis had a Talmud Torah with some 120 students, a school allied to the Tarbut stream, a school teaching in Yiddish with some 60 pupils, a kindergarten and a library. In 1930, a Jewish cultural society was active in Kupiskis, (Yiddishe Bildungs Geselshaft). The Yiddish language school was named after Shalom Aleichem. It had an excellent standard of education, 7 out of 8 scholars passed the exams held in the presence of a government representative. The town also had two clubs, and two doctors attended to the sick. The strength of the Jewish community can be judged by the fact that the authorities had planned to take a strip of land from the Jewish cemetery for the widening of a road, but the Jews opposed it and the plan was abandoned.

The town also had Torah study groups, such as “Tifereth Bachurim” and charitable societies, such as Linat Tzedek (hospice for the poor), Hakhnasat Kalla (bridal fund), benevolent loan society, etc. All the Zionist organizations, including Agudat Yisrael were represented in the town council. In 1939 Kupiskis had a Maccabi club with 68 members, as well as branches of Hashomer Hatzair and Betar.

Kupiskis Jewry engaged mostly in petty trade, craftwork and peddling. In 1937 Kupiskis had 22 artisans;-5 cobblers and needle workers, 3 iron workers, 2 tailors, a baker and another 10-12 sundry tradesmen. In this period, too, many lived off the generosity of relatives abroad.

The economic situation between the two world wars was very difficult , both because of the world economic crises and because of the competition offered by the Lithuanian co- operative Lietukis which came to dominate a few of the trades. A further element was the activities of the members of the Lithuanian merchants association, Verslas, which offered its customers “Blue Coupons ”, and these granted them discounts. A further reason for their dire straits was the competition among the Jews themselves. As mentioned, their good fortune was that most of the Jews had relatives abroad who assisted them financially. During this period the emigration continued from Kupiskis and many of the young were among those leaving. Some of these went to Eretz Yisrael.

According to a survey conducted by the Independent Lithuanian government in 1931, Kupiskis had 48 businesses and shops, 40 of these owned by Jews, (83%). The breakdown by sectors is shown in the table below;

Business
Sector
Total Jewish
Owned
Groceries 5 5
Grains & Flax 2 2
Meat & Livestock 3 2
Restaurants & Taverns 6 3
Food products 4 4
Liquor 1 1
Clothes, furs & textiles 6 2
Leather, shoes 7 7
Household goods & haberdashery 1 1
Medicines, cosmetics 3 2
Watches, jewelry 2 2
Tools, ironware 4 4
Paper, books & writing Materials 3 0
Radio, bicycles & sewing machines 1 1

According to the above survey, Jews owned a bakery and two leather tanning plants.

The Jewish Peoples Bank, (Folksbank), established between the two world wars assisted the needy. In the twenties the bank found itself in difficulty. In 1930 it again restarted operations, after lengthy negotiations with the authorities and after the preparation of a rehabilitation scheme which resulted in some of the debts being cancelled and the deficits covered by the registered members. The Central Fund (The Foundation) agreed to cover the deficit of 15,000 Lit and even allocated 200 Lit per month for its activities. Over time, the membership increased, and in 1929 reached the number of 369. In 1933, the bank again found itself in difficulty, the bank having only 150 members. At the conference of Peoples Banks which took place that year it was decided to allocate 3000 Lit to cover the debt to the Central Bank which totaled 140,000 Lit. In addition, the Bank owed 53,000 Lit to the Central Fund and a further 67,000 Lit to individuals. In 1939 the town had 43 telephones, with 17 belonging to Jews.

Between the two world wars most of the Zionist organizations had branches in Kupiskis. The results of the elections to the various Zionist congresses were as shown in the table below (the voting in 1931 took place in the Herzliya club).

Congress
Nr
Year Total
Shekelim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revis-
ionist
General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
15 1927 12 8 2 6 - - - - -
16 1929 16 - - - - - - - -
17 1931 20 16 4 5 3 2 - - 2
18 1933 - 87 66 11 3 - 5 2
19 1935 - 198 121 - 1 1 72 3

The Second World War and the aftermath

On June 15, 1940 the Red Army entered Lithuania and the state was annexed to the Soviet Union as a Soviet republic (June 1940-June 1941). In the process of Sovietization businesses were nationalized, some of them being Jewish owned. The pupils of the Jewish school celebrated the October Revolution together with the pupils of the Lithuanian school. Among the speakers, the principal of the Jewish school, Ms. Bloch and the principal of the Lithuanian school spoke of national solidarity and equality. The Jewish children put on a show with a dialogue between Lenin and Stalin and created a pyramid with musical accompaniment, composed by a resident of the town, G.Shusterman.

The German army entered the town on June26, 1941, and the same day the town filled with many Jews from Panevezys, Viesintos and Subacius, who had attempted to escape on foot or by transport from the invading Germans. Within a short time the local Lithuanians began to increasingly harass the Jews with violence and robbery.

In the first days of the German invasion of Lithuania, a number of Jewish youths (I. Gershuni, H. Yutman, H. Shusterman, Tsindel and others) attempted to resist the activities of the Lithuanian high school gangs, who were armed and acted in the service of the Germans; they succeeded in wounding two members of the gangs.

In the middle of July 1941, the Germans ordered the Jews to concentrate in the Ghetto, which was no more than a few run-down houses in Vilna Street and a large storeroom belonging to the town fire brigade. The place was overcrowded and the living conditions unbearable. The prisoners were kept without food and with hardly any water. Within a short time the Germans began to take out groups of Jews and killed them.

The killing was done according to lists prepared ahead of time by the teacher of German in the Lithuanian high school. He had arrived in town during the Soviet occupation, pretended to be a communist and was believed by the authorities. It was discovered at a later date that he was a Nazi agent who had been planted there in anticipation of the invasion.

The murderers were Lithuanians led by the teacher. The lists he had supplied to the Germans, resulted in 25 men being arrested and imprisoned in the prison near the River Kupe and in the basement of the local government building. At the beginning of July the men were taken to the swamps in the forest and shot behind the railway station. (According to another source this happened on the 28th June, 1941. Together with these, some Communists and members of the Komsomol were also shot.

At the beginning of August 1941, a second group of Jews were taken out and shot. This was a larger group, most of them were from the town and with them there were also some young women. Some were shot at the pits previously dug at the back of the church and others were shot in the Jewish cemetery, between the Lithuanian high school and the barracks. In these places the last of the Jewish men were executed as well as the women and children who were still alive at the time. A number of Jews were shot near the barracks.

The man responsible for the murders was, as stated, the German, but the executions were carried out by Lithuanians, with intellectuals among them. The local police chief and his deputy played no less a part in the cold-blooded killings. Among those who were active in persecuting the Jews, the gymnastics teacher stood out, together with the town high school graduates. They informed the German teacher where Jews were hiding with peasants of their acquaintance. By the end of September 1941, they had laid hands on every hidden Jew in Kupiskis and not one was left alive.

Together with the Jews of Kupiskis, the Jews of the nearby towns, Palevene, Simonys, Viesintos, and some from Subacius, as well as Jews from smaller communities, over 3000 souls, (according to another version between 3200-3900), were murdered. Among the fallen were activists of the Soviet Regime, but as stated, not a single Kupiskis Jew survived the war. The chief murderer was tried after the war, but was released later on and moved to Germany under an assumed name.

One of the three mass graves is in Gedimino Street, near the cemetery of the unbelievers. The number of buried here is approximately 1000.The second grave is in the Jewish cemetery of the unbelievers (atheists), on the banks of the Kupe Rriver. Some 2700 are buried here. The third grave is in the Slavcinskis forest, one Km. distant from the railway station, in the direction of Siamanai. Here, 78 who had been murdered on June 28, 1941 were buried.

The local priest, I. Regauskas, who had taught Latin at the high school, (later he became a free thinker, wrote anti Catholic books and was a member of the Lithuanian Writers Association) attempted to save some of his Jewish students. But he did not succeed as informers informed the German about him. According to Lithuanian sources, the priest hid 4 Jews who held forged identity papers. A peasant from the Smilga village hid 3 Jews who had escaped from the Kaunas Ghetto, in his granary. The Kupiskis Lithuanian doctor attempted to hide the Rabbi's wife Kh. L. Pertzovski and Mrs. B. Meirovitz, together with their children. Within a short time, the Lithuanian neighbors discovered them and they were all murdered. The names of the murderers, and, on the other hand, the benefactors, are all to be found in the Yad Vashem archives.

A few of the Kupiskis Jews who tried to flee from the Germans reached Rokiskis, Panevezys and other places but met the fate of the local Jews. Only a few dozen Kupiskis families survived as they fled to the interior of the Soviet Union before the arrival of the Germans. A few more survived in the Vilnius and Kaunas ghettos.

After the war, the survivors of Kupiskis and other communities of the area organized and established a fund to lay a tombstone with inscriptions in Yiddish, Lithuanian and Russian. They wished to lay the stone in the place where their relatives were killed, but the authorities would not permit that and the tombstone remained, wrapped, and left in a corridor of the local municipal office. After much effort and prolonged negotiations, the authorities relented and in 1993 a different stone was laid over the mass grave on which the inscription “Nazi Victims ” appears in Russian and Lithuanian only.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, Kupiskis file 0-57, Testimony of Devora Fleishman Traub.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: file 922, pages 41017-41018.
Osheri, “Khurban Lita” [The Destruction of Lithuania], pp. 174, 298-301, 308-311.
Gotlieb, Ohalei Shem, p. 177.
Kodesh, Shelomo, “That was Kupiskis… - Idylls from the Lives of our Ancestors in Lithuania”, Tel Aviv, 1945.
___, A Few Stories from my Home, Ashdot, 1994.
Shem HaGedolim, editor “Feivelsohn”.
Yiddisher Leben (Kaunas-Telsiai), 17.6.1938.
Dos Vort (Yiddish Daily)- Kaunas, 11.11.1934.
Di Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] - (Kaunas), 20.1.1922, 14.4.1922, 19.1.1928, 5.2.1928, 7.2.1930, 2.7.1931.
Der Yiddisher Kooperator [Jewish Cooperation] (Kaunas), 41-42 (1930); 49-50 (1930).
Der Tag (Kaunas), #51, 7.7.1926.
HaMelitz [The Advocate] - (St. Petersburg), 7.11.1882; 18.11.1882; 26.12.1882; 11.1.1886; 5.5.1886; 19.1.1887; 1.8.1893; 5.7.1895; 6.5.1898.
HaNeeman (Telsiai), First Year, Sheet 2 (Tevet, 1920); Sheet 4 (Adar-Nisan, 1925).
Folksblat [The People's Newspaper] - (Kaunas), 10.7.1930, 6.6.1933, 25.6.1935, 17.11.1940.
Folks Shtime (Kaunas), 7.12.1965, 11.10,1967.
Funken [Sparks] (Kaunas), 1931, pp. 3-4.
Zum Yugent [To The New Generation] (Slabodka-Kaunas), March 1928.
Naujenos (Chicago), 10.6.1949.

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