“Darbenai” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania

56° 01' / 21° 15'

Translation of the “Darbenai” 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 209- 212)

Darbenai

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

(Yiddish, Drobyan, also Dorbyan; Russian, Dorbiany)

A county town in the Kretinga district.

YearGeneral
Population
JewsPercentage
18972,0591,12955
19231,01860159
1940~2,200~80036

Darbenai is located in the Zemaitija region in the northeast of Lithuania, 13 km north of Kretinga, the district's city, and 8 km from the Baltic Sea. The town is surrounded by forests on the east, south and north. The Darba stream flows through the town.

A village by the name of Darbenai is mentioned in documents from 1591. The town started growing in the beginning of the 17th century. In 1701, the village became a town and was granted a license to hold weekly market days and yearly fairs. During the period of Russian rule (1795-1915), Darbenai was first included in the Vilnius Gubernia (region) and from 1843 in the Kaunas Gubernia. In the 19th century, the town and the estate near it, belonged to the Tishkevitz aristocratic family. During that period and also during the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Darbenai was the center of a sub district. During WWI (1915 – 1918) the town was under German occupation. At the beginning of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, in June 1941, the town was severely damaged.

The Jewish Settlements Till After World War I

The Jewish settlement in Darbenai was founded in the 19th century by Jews from the nearby town of Laukzemis after the nobleman ordered to expulsion of the Jews from Laukzemis. The Jews in Darbenai made their living primarily by trading with the villages in the surrounding areas. They bought and sold fish, flax, rags, and other things. Most of the families had a cowshed and a chicken coop, and some of them also had a small ancillary farm.

In October 1882, a fire broke out in the town, which burned 40 Jewish houses and 30 Jewish shops, in addition to 30 homes that belonged to Christians. The conditions of the people who lost their property and had no shelter was difficult because winter was approaching. In October 21, 1882, a call to aid the stricken was published in the “Hamelitz” and the donors were requested to send their donations to the address of Rabbi Gershon Robinson in Plunge because Darbenai did not have a post office. In 1909, a fire broke out and burned the center of the town, the Bet Midrash and the synagogue which was never restored. Jews from the town emigrated to Canada, South Africa, United States and Eretz-Yisrael.

Among the rabbis who served in the town were: Rabbi Eliyahu Margaliot (1816 -1874), who emigrated to Jerusalem and served as Gabbai (manager) of the Vilnius-Zemaitija Kolel; Rabbi Josef Alexander; Rabbi Yisrael-Isar Levin; Rabbi Yitzhak Kopilevitz.

The 1913 list of donors to the “Aguda Fund” mention the names of 26 Jews from Darbenai.

The Period of Independent Lithuania

On July 30, 1919, in accordance with the declaration of autonomy for the Jews that was legislated by the Lithuanian government, a ruling committee of 16 members was elected in Darbenai. Of the 400 people who had the right to vote, only 198 voted. Most of the members who were elected to the committee were Zionists and Orthodox. In the 1921 elections, 9 members were elected. The committee was active for only a few years until Jewish autonomy was abolished.

During the period under discussion, the Jews of Darbenai made their living from commerce and labor. Most of them had small ancillary farms next to their houses. A large part of their economic activities concentrated around the weekly market days and fairs.

In 1931, Darbenai had 25 shops, all of them owned by Jews:

Branch or Type of BusinessTotalOwned by Jews
Groceries and Eggs1010
Crops and Flax11
Butcheries and cattle44
Clothing, furs and textiles44
Leather and shoes33
Work tools and electrical equipment11
Heating materials22

According to the same census, Jews owned in Darbenai 2 sawmills, a flourmill, a bakery, a welding workshop, a wool carder, and a factory for beverages.

In 1937, Darbenai had 18 Jewish artisans: 5 butchers, 2 knitters, 2 shoemakers, 2 photographers, a tailor, a hat maker, a blacksmith, a barber, a tinsmith, and 2 others. In 1925, there was a Jewish doctor in the town.

The "Folksbank" was closed down in 1927, when its membership in the town decreased to 53. In 1939, there were 12 telephones in Darbenai, 3 of them belonged to Jews.

In March, 1939, after the Klaipeda (Memel) region was annexed to Nazi Germany, a few Jewish refugee families from Klaipeda were absorbed in Darbenai.

The children of Darbenai received their education in two “Hadarim”: one was the Talmud Torah and the other the Hebrew elementary school that was part of the “Tarbut” network. 150 children studied in these schools. The town had two libraries, one with Hebrew books and the other with Yiddish books. There were also evening classes for learning Hebrew that was organized by the Z”S (Zionist Socialist) party (1925). There was also a drama club.

Many of Darbenai's Jews were affiliated with the Zionist camp. Nearly all of the parties were represented in the town. The distribution of the votes to the Zionist Congresses during the 1920's and 1930's was as shown in the table below:

Congress
Nr.
YearTotal
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisi-
onsists
General
Zionists
Grosm-
anists
Mizrachi
Z”SZ”ZAB
14192560        
15192732297  12  10
16192971243  8  13
17193153425 917  11
181933..5718112  26
191935..19760 123 133

Among the Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in Darbenai were: “Ivrit U'Techia” (Hebrew and Revival) [established in 1920], “HaShomer HaTzair-Nezakh” (from 1930) and others. At the end of 1933 a branch of "HeKhalutz" was established in the town and it had about 40 members. In 1934, the town had a branch of the “HeKhalutz” urban Kibbutz. Sports activities were held at the “Maccabi” local branch.

Religious life concentrated around the Bet Midrash and the “Kloiz” (prayer house). The religious youth were organized in the branch of “Tiferet Bakhurim” (literally, "Company of Splendid Young Men"). The Rabbi who served in Darbenai during that period was Rabbi Isar Weisbord. He was also the community's last Rabbi.

The welfare organizations that were active in town were “Gemilut Hesed” (Charity) and “Linat Tsedek” (Hospice for the Poor).

Darbenai is the birthplace of the Zionist leader David Wolfson (1858 – 1914), who was one of the founders of “Otzar Hityashvut HaYehudim” (the Jewish Colonial Trust) and who accompanied Hertzl on his travels to the Turkish Sultan and to Eretz-Yisrael. After Hertzl's death, Wolfson was elected to be the president of the Zionist Federation. In 1954, his coffin was brought to Israel and he was buried near Hertzl's grave.

During World War II and Afterwards

In 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. The light industry in the town and the big shops, most of which belonged to Jews, were nationalized. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded. The Hebrew educational institutions were shut down. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and its standard of living gradually deteriorated.

On the first day of the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, the German army entered Darbenai without meeting any resistance. This was preceded by heavy artillery that destroyed some houses and killed some civilians. The Jews, who fled to the nearby villages when the bombings started and tried to return to the town, were met by Lithuanians who harassed them and beat them mercilessly. After they returned to the town, those Jews were forced to sweep the streets, to pluck weeds, to clean toilets with their bare hands, and so on. The Germans entered the Jewish homes and looted whatever they wished. The Jews were forbidden to lock their homes and “night visits” became a regular practice.

On Saturday, June 28, a fire broke out in the market square. Immediately, a libel was circulated that it was the Jews who set the houses on fire. All the Jews were ordered to assemble in the market square. The men and the women were separated into two groups. Germans and Lithuanians broke into Rabbi Isar Weisbord's house, which was located in the market square. They tortured the Rabbi, cut off a half of his beard together with the skin on his face, beat him to death, and ordered a few Jews to dig a pit and bury the Rabbi and another Jew who was shot earlier because he did not arrive quickly enough to the market square. They stole all of the valuables from those who were assembled. Then, they made the Jews run from Darbenai to Kretinga, a distance of 13 km. The elderly were placed in wagons. While they were on their way, they unharnessed the horses from the wagons and harnessed the men instead of them. The accompanying Lithuanians kept on beating them relentlessly with whips. When they reached Kretinga they were ordered to return to Darbenai. On Sunday, June 29, 1941 (4 Tamuz, 5702), men who were 16 years or older were separated from the women and were led to one of the pits near the flourmill, where they used to extract coarse sand. Here they murdered them by shooting them, and here they buried them, while some were still alive.

The Jewish women were assembled in the synagogue. They received no food or water. The overcrowding was horrific. Lithuanian guards would storm inside at nighttime and do with the women as they saw fit. A few days later, the older women and the women with children were taken out and were murdered. A month later the rest of the women and children were also murdered. A small group of women who worked for Lithuanian peasants remained in the synagogue.

The murder of the women and children of Darbenai was on the 15-16 of August (22-23 Av, 5702) and it was done with extreme brutality. The Lithuanian guards used axes and iron rods, sticks and so on. The last group of Darbenai's women were murdered on Rosh HaShana, 5703. This is how a Jewish settlement that existed for generations came to an end.

A few young Jewish women survived with the help of Lithuanians who fulfilled their human obligation by hiding and supporting them throughout the years of the war.

According to Soviet sources, four mass graves were discovered after the war: one is located 100 meters from the town, on the left side along the road to Lazdininkai. 144 men were murdered there on June 29, 1941. The second site has two mass graves and is located in the “White Mountain” forest: one of them is a kilometer from Darbenai, on the right side along the road to Vaineikiai, about 100 meters from the road. 300 women and children were murdered there at the end of July 1941; the other mass grave is located 2.5 km from Darbenai, on the way to the village of Kasuciai, about 500 meters from the road. About 100 men were murdered there at the beginning of September, 1941. A third site is located near the village of Dimitravas, 7.5 km from Kretinga, in a place that was a concentration camp for prisoners. 1,770 people were murdered there between the last half of 1941 and 1944. A fourth mass grave is located at the foot of the Alka hill, at the edge of the forest, about one km northwest of the village of Dimitravas, not far from the Rudaiciai – Dimitravas road. 510 women and children were murdered there between the 15th and 16th of August, 1941. Apparently, Jews were buried only in the first, second and fourth sites.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, 0-33/979.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
Unzer Veg [Our Way] (Kovno), 9.11.1925.
Dos Wort (Kovno), 24.10.1935.
Di Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] – (Kovno), 18.8.1919.
Di Zeit [The Time] (Kovno), 4.12.1933.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), 21.11.1882, 18.2.1889.

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