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

54° 27' / 22° 43'

Translation of the “Vistytis” 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 260-262)

Vistytis

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

In Yiddish, Vishtinets

A county town in the district of Vilkaviskis.

Year General
Population
Jews Percentage
1766 .. 591 ..
1797 1,579 .. ..
1827 2,449 .. ..
1856 3,395 2,037 60
1883 .. ~400
families
 
1897 2,468 799 32
1899 .. ~200
families
 
1913 .. 300 ~50
families
1923 1,260 222 18
1940 1,300 ~150 ..

Vistytis is located in southeastern Lithuania between forested hills and near a large lake, and on the border with eastern Prussia. Near the town was an estate also named Vistytis, and both of them belonged to the same administrative framework.

In 1570, the town received the Magdeburg rights, including the right to hold weekly market days. The town had 2 breweries and 2 taverns. A number of artisans lived in the town. During the years 1795-1807, Vistytis was under Prussian Rule and for 8 years (1807-1815) it was part of the “Great Duchy of Warsaw”. From 1815, Vistytis and the entire region were part of Russia. In 1862, after the railway line between St. Petersburg and Berlin was constructed, the town ceased to develop and most of its commerce with Prussia moved from Vistytis to the border town of Kybartai, which was located near that railway line. As a result, many of the town's residents emigrated to America and Prussia and its population gradually decreased. A big fire destroyed most of the town at the beginning of the 20th century. After the town was restored, it was destroyed again in the summer of 1915 by the retreating Russian army. Subsequently, it was conquered by the Germans who controlled it until the State of Lithuania was established in 1918. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918 – 1940), Vistytis was the center of the county. During the period of Russian Rule (1940 – 1941), residents who lived in the border area were very restricted in their ability to move from place to place.

The Jewish Settlement Till After World War I

Jews began settling in Vistytis in 1589. An estate owner by the name of Jesmantas permitted them to settle in the town and allocated for them a lot for building a synagogue and another lot for a cemetery. The Jews were subject to the rule of the estate owner. The town's municipality handled only criminal matters between the Jews and themselves and matters that were directly connected to the town. In 1758, there was already an organized community in Vistytis. During those years, Jews worked in building bridges, repairing dams for mills and in constructing roads. The Jews earned their living mainly from storekeeping and trade with Prussia. Some of them engaged in processing hog bristles, a business that employed about 200 workers; other Jews engaged in fishing and in processing leather.

Most of the Jewish children studied in a “Kheder”. In 1878, at the initiative of the scholars Merdekhai-Meir Landau and Rabbi Yitzkhak Broin, a school for Jewish youth, boys and girls, was established in the town. They studied languages and other subjects.

The workers of Vistytis participated in the strikes of the bristles workers in Lithuania during the years 1893 – 1897 that was initiated by the “Bund”, and in 1909, when they demanded improvements in their working conditions. During the reactionary period that followed the 1905 revolution and the strikes in the coming years, the Jewish population in the town declined from 200 families in 1899 to 50 families in 1913. Most of the Jews emigrated to the United States, Argentina and Eretz-Yisrael.

The Zionist idea found supporters in Vistytis at the beginning of the 1880's. In 1884, propriety owners in the town made a commitment, each according to his or her ability, to donate every week a sum of money for settling Eretz-Yisrael. They estimated that they would be able to collect 100 – 150 rubles a year. 100 “Shekalim” (tokens of membership in the Zionist organization) were sold in Vistytis during those years. However, in 1913, not a single “Shekel” was sold in the town. One delegate from Vistytis participated in the summer of 1899 in the Galil conference of Russian Zionists in Vilnius. At the beginning of the 20th century, 2 “Tzeirei Zion” organizations managed many Zionist-cultural activities in the town: one was for male teenagers (up to age 15) and the other was “Benot Zion”, which was for female teenagers. There were also activities on the part of the “Dorshei Zion” (Seekers of Zion) society for adults, and the “Dovrei Ivrit” (Hebrew speakers) society. The latter's regulations obligated its members to speak with one another at home and in society in Hebrew, and every Saturday they were supposed to hold debates in the Hebrew language on articles that were published in Hebrew newspapers.

The lists of donors from those years for settling Eretz-Yisrael mention the names of many Jews from Vistytis. The delegates and community workers were: Aba-Ze'ev Wolpert, Yitzkhak Kaminski, Rabbi Lap, the “Shokhet u'Bodek (slaughterer and examiner) Yesha'aya HaCohen, Dr. Horvitz, Khaim Abelovitz, Ya'akov Neiman.

The synagogue in Vistytis was very old. It had a magnificent Holy Ark and bimah. Among the Rabbis who served in the town were: Rabbi Ya'akov, son of Rabbi Khaim HaCohen, author of “Zera Ya'akov” (1788), a commentary on the book of Psalms; Rabbi Moshe, son of Rabbi Aharon (passed away in 1875); Rabbi Khaim Vasertsug (Filipofer, passed away in 1865); Rabbi Khaim, son of Rabbi Shimshon (passed away in 1875); Rabbi Elkhanan Tsvi Lap (passed away in 1885); Rabbi Elkhanan Niderland (passed away in 1886).

At the beginning of the 20th century a big fire broke out in the town and most of the Jewish homes burned down. The emperor of Germany, Wilhelm II, who by chance passed through the town and saw the devastation, donated a sum of 10,000 marks to the community. When this donation was publicized, the czar, Nicolai II, also donated a sum of 5,000 rubles. The town was then rebuilt, but in 1915 the retreating Russian army set the town on fire; and only the synagogue remained intact. The Jews of Vistytis then left the town and only some of them returned after the war.

During the Period of Independent Lithuania

During the Period of Independent Lithuania, only 40 Jewish families lived in the town. Its Jews earned their living from petty trade, crafts, fishing and processing leather. According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Jews owned in the town workshops for repairing watches, for wool carding and for processing leather. Jews also owned a bakery, a barber shop, a fabric store and 2 butcheries. In 1937, the town had 5 Jewish artisans: a butcher, a glazier, a watchmaker, a painter and a barber. In 1939, none of the 15 telephones in Vistytis were owned by Jews.

The few Jews who remained in Vistytis continued their Zionist activities and the results of their votes to the Zionist Congresses are shown below:

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
15 1927 25 - - - - - - - -
16 1929 53 25 - - - 15 - - 10
17 1931 21 21 - - - 11 - - 10
18 1933 .. 17 4 5 6 - - 2
19 1935 .. 52 2 - 18 30 - 2
21 1939 20 20 2 - 5 - 12 1

During those years there was an active club for religious youth that was part of the “Tiferet Bakhurim” (Splendor of Youth) association. Among the natives of Vistytis who became famous were: Rabbi Efraim Dov Lap, who was a Rabbi in Virbalis and an enthusiastic Zionist; the author Leon Holenderski (1808 – 1878); Rabbi Moshe Sudarski, who was a famous “Melamed” (teacher) in Vilkaviskis; Dr. Mendel Sudarski, editor of the “Folksblat” and general manager of “ORT” in Lithuania; the 3 Rabinson brothers; Dr Ya'akov Rabinson, a lawyer and the first principal of the Hebrew Gymnasia in Virbalis, was an adviser to the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the period of Independent Lithuania and later a legal adviser to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations; Dr. Nekhemia Rabinson, also a lawyer, who headed the Institute for Jewish Affairs in the United States, and after WWII he was lead adviser to the Claims Conference against Germany; Dr. Natan Rabinson, a physics professor at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

During World War II and Afterwards

In the summer of 1940, when Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, the workshops and the majority of the shops were nationalized. The supply of goods decreased and the standard of living dropped gradually. All Zionist activities were disbanded.

On June 22, 1941, on the first day of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, a number of German families who moved to Germany during the period of Russian Rule, entered Vistytis together with the Nazi units. Those Germans and the Lithuanian nationalists tortured the Jews frequently. First of all, they separated the Jewish men from the women and children and kept them imprisoned without any food. At the beginning of July 1941, the men were taken to a field behind the municipality, near the wind mill, and they were forced to dig pits. The Rabbi, Rabbi Zalman Sudlenktski, and a young man by the name of Mane Esterson, refused to dig. The killers tortured them to death. The men were murdered on July 14, 1941, (19 Tamuz, 5701). The women and children continued to be imprisoned and were murdered on September 9, 1941 (17 Tamuz, 5701).

After the war, some natives of Vistytis returned to the town and took out the bones of the women and children and moved them to the men's burial site. A memorial was erected on the mass grave, inscribed with the words: “Victims of Fascism”. According to Soviet sources, about 220 people are buried in the mass graves.

At the beginning of the 1990's, a stone monument was erected at the site that was the old Jewish cemetery and on it an inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian which says: “The old cemetery. Holy is the memory of the deceased”.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, file 158; M-33/987.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), 9.5.1884, 15.11.1885, 6.4.1901, 28.12.1903.
Mendel Sudarski, “Vishtinets”, in Lite, Vol. 1, pp. 1627 – 1633.
Issacs, Edward, Memorial to Ilija Walker & Carson, Sheffield 1991.

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