“Sveksna” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Švėkšna, Lithuania)

53° 31' / 21° 37'

Translation of the “Sveksna” 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 673 - 676)

Sveksna

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

In Yiddish, Shvekshne

A county town in the district of Taurage.

Year General
Population
Jews Percentage
1766 .. 423 * ..
1784 .. 185 ..
1816 .. 133 ** ..
1847 .. 534 ..
1897 1,819 974 53
1914 2,000 .. ..
1923 1,340 519 39
1940 About 2,000 About 500 25

* Head-tax payers: 211 men, 212 women.
** 68 men, 65 women.

Sveksna is located in the Samogitia region in western Lithuania, about 4.5 km east of the former region of Klaipeda and about 60 km northwest of the district city of Taurage. The town is mentioned in historical sources as early as the 14th century. During the 16th century the location included both the town and an estate, which was owned by various owners for several generations. In 1766, Graf Palter and his heirs bought it and owned it until 1940. At the beginning of the 17th century, there was a factory that made paper by hand, which produced 750,000 sheets of paper a year. The town also had a factory that manufactured gunpowder, a factory that produced glass, a factory that produced bricks, a saw mill and a wool carder. During the period of Russian Rule (1795-1915), Sveksna was part of the Vilnius gubernia (region) and from 1843 it was part of the Kaunas gubernia. Large market days and fairs took place in the town during the 19th century. At that time, the town had 30 stores and taverns and employed various artisans. Fires broke out in the town in 1858 and 1861, which burned down 130 of its 153 homes. In 1903, another big fire broke out in the town, which burned down nearly all of the town's houses.

During the 19th century and also during the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940) and afterwards, Sveksna was the center of the county.

 

The Jewish Settlements Until World War II

Apparently, Jews first settled in Sveksna during the 17th century. In 1644, there was one Jew among the families that belonged to the Sveksna estate. Among the Jews who established the Jewish community in Sveksna were refugees from the 1648/49 decrees. A synagogue was built in the town at the beginning of the 18th century. The number of Jews in the town increased gradually during the period of Russian Rule (from 1795 and onwards). Their main occupation was commerce and labor. Each family also had an auxiliary farm and many of them also had a cow.

The Jews of Sveksna were among the donors for the famine victims in Lithuania in 1872. The delegates representing the donors were B.Z. Kamenetz and Azriel Robas. The names of many of the town's Jews appear on the 1898, 1899 and 1903 lists of donors for settling Eretz-Yisrael. The delegate was Moshe Janovsky.

During the big fire in 1903, the synagogue and the Beth Midrash also burned down. The family of Graf Plater, whose estate was in the meantime divided between his four heirs, donated wood to some home owners to rebuild their homes and to build a Beth Midrash and a synagogue on the condition that the name of the donator would appear on the buildings' walls. On 28.7.1903, the town's Rabbi, Rabbi B.Z. Ze'ev Karnitz, published an urgent request in the “HaMelitz”, requesting help for the destitute and poverty-stricken victims of the fire. In the request it was said that the home owners whose homes were not burned down donated considerable sums for the victims and that the Rabbi himself donated 4 weeks of his salary.

In the 1880's, many of the town's Jews emigrated abroad, most of them to the United States.

The number of Jews in Sveksna decreased by almost half during the period of Independent Lithuania compared to the size of their population prior to WWI, and their percentage among the town's total population also decreased significantly (from 53% in 1897 to 25% in 1940). In accordance with the declaration of autonomy for the Jews, a ruling committee was elected, which functioned in all areas of Jewish life in the town during the years 1919-1925. The Jews of Sveksna took part in the 1922 elections to the first “Seimas” of Independent Lithuania. The results of their votes were as follows: 181 voted for “Akhdut” (Agudat Yisrael), 54 for the Zionists, and 1 for the Democrats. Elections to the local municipal council took place in 1921 and 2 Jews were elected among the council's 21 members.

In 1925, another big fire broke out in the town, which burned down almost of the town's houses. A year later, the town was rebuilt with help from relatives abroad, mostly from the United States. The new buildings that were built in the center of the town were Khoma (brick) buildings.

The Jews of Sveksna made their living mainly through commerce and crafts. During this period as well, almost every Jewish home had an auxiliary farm that included a fruit and vegetable garden, poultry and so on. In the village of Kaukiskiai, which was about 3 km from Sveksna, there was an estate that was owned by a Jewish family by the name of Shayevitz.

According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Sveksna had 16 stores, 10 of which (62%) were owned by Jews. The division into business branches is shown in the table below:

Branch or Type of Business Total Owned by Jews
Butcheries and cattle 2 2
Restaurants and taverns 4 1
Clothing, furs and textile products 4 3
Leather and shoes 1 1
Medicine and cosmetics 1 0
Sewing machines, electrical equipment 1 1
Tools and iron products 1 1
Heating materials and fodder for cattle 1 1
Miscellaneous 1 0

According to the same census, Jews owned a saw mill, a flourmill, a bakery and 2 factories that processed leather.

In 1937, there were 15 Jewish artisans in Sveksna: 7 butchers, 3 tailors, a baker, a hat maker, a blacksmith, a shoemaker and a watchmaker.

The economic situation of the town's Jews deteriorated during the 1930's. Among other reasons, it was because of the open propaganda that the Union of Lithuanian Merchants (Verslas) waged against buying from Jews. Further, the rise of Nazism in Germany and mainly the annexation of the Klaipeda region in 1939 to Germany also had harmful affects on the livelihood of the town's Jews because it severed the commercial ties with the Klaipeda sea port and with the city of Tilsit. In 1939, there were 25 telephones in the town; 6 of them belonged to Jews.

During the period under discussion, the Jews of Sveksna suffered from occasional anti-Semitic harassments. At the beginning of the 1930's, before Passover, a Jew by the name of Reuven Srolovitz, was accused of slaughtering a Christian boy in order to use his blood to make matzahs. A crowd of rioters attacked his home and destroyed and robbed his property. After the boy was found healthy and sound in his village, it was said that the Jews panicked and secretly brought him back to his village. Every now and then the signs on Jewish stores were smeared with tar. During the winter of 1931, students from the Lithuanian gymnasia in the town attacked a Jew and severely injured him. The local priest, who at that time returned from the United States, said that the biggest donations for the gymnasia he received were from Jews. In December, 1936, Lithuanians shattered 65 tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in the town.

Before WWI, the Jewish children in Sveksna studied at the Talmud Torah and the two “Khadarim” (Hebrew, singular Kheder) in the town. There was also a “Yeshiva” in Sveksna, which was headed by the local Rabbi, Rabbi B.Z. Ze'ev Karnitz. During the period of Independent Lithuania, the Zionists Socialists established a school for girls, which functioned for several years until the Hebrew school of the “Tarbut” network was established in the town. Some of the school's graduates continued their education in the local Lithuanian gymnasia, which was imbued with a strong anti-Semitic atmosphere, while other graduates continued their education in Hebrew gymnasias in Kaunas.

The library that belonged to the Zionists Socialists, which burned down in 1925, was restored by the town's Jews. Towards that end, they also received aid from Jewish communities in the surrounding areas.

Many of the town's Jews belonged to the Zionist camp and they voted for most of the parties. Below are the results of their votes to the Zionist Congresses:

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
18 1933 - 95 65 - 3 - 24 3
19 1935 - 158 85 - 1 - 66 3
  National Bloc
21 1939 - 29 19 - 2 8

During those years, the youth movements that were active in Sveksna were: “Tzeirei-Zion”, “HaShomer HaTzair” and the “Maccabee” sports association, which carried out, among other things, the various fund raising activities for “Keren Kayement”. “Tiferet Bakhurim” was also active in the town. Sveksna also had a training base of “Brit HaKanaim”, which began its activities in Lithuania in 1933.

Religious life in the town concentrated around the three prayer houses: the synagogue, the Beth Midrash and the “Kloiz”. Among the Rabbis who served in Sveksna were: Rabbi Menakhem-Mendel Hurovitz, a Rabbi in the Sveksna Galil from 1648; Rabbi Yissaskhar-Ber Gavronski; Rabbi Moshe-Yitzkhak HaLevi Segal (born in 1812); Rabbi Khaim Tsvi-Hirsh Broide, who lived during the middle of the 19th century and published many books on Jewish law dealing with interest (in the banking business), the Book of Esther, the Song of Songs, and others; Rabbi Shemuel Avigdor Feivelson (until 1901), who was a great Torah scholar and helped the needy, the Talmud Torah and the Yeshivas; Rabbi Eliyahu Barukh Komai (served during the years 1885-1888), who for 20 years headed the Mir Yeshiva; Rabbi B.Z. Ze'ev Karnitz; Rabbi Yisrael Tankhum Fortman, who was murdered in Ziezmariai in 1941; Sveksna's last Rabbi was Rabbi Shalom Yitzkhak Levitan, who was the author of the books “Divrei Shalom” (Budapest, 1923), “Sukat Shlom Yitzkhak” (Piotrkow, 1926), “Menakhem Shai” (Kedainiai, 1937) and others. He was murdered in the Holocaust.

Among the natives of Sveksna were: Rabbi Mordekhai-Uri Simonov (1809-1864), a lobbyist and community worker, who introduced many innovations in the interpretation of the Halakha, the Aggada, and wrote a book of Jewish law dealing with the “Shulkhan Arukh”; Rabbi Barukh-Bendet Gavronski (1851-1908), son of Rabbi Yissaskhar-Ber, one of the philanthropists in Moskow who wrote a book entitled “Otsar Lashon HaMikrah V'HaTalmud”; Shelomo Steinberg (1891-1938), who lived in the United States from 1903 and wrote dozens of plays in Yiddish, which were staged in Jewish theaters in America.

In 1939, when the Klaipeda region was annexed to Germany, 6 families of refugees from Klaipeda were absorbed in Sveksna.

 

During World War II and Afterwards

In 1940 Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. The factories in the town and the big stores, most of which belonged to Jews, were nationalized. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded. The Hebrew educational institutions were closed. The supply of goods decreased and their prices skyrocketed. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and its standard of living gradually declined.

The Germans conquered Sveksna on June 22, 1941, the day of the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, and right away the authorities announced decrees against the Jews. They were ordered to hand over their radios, bicycles, gold and silver, and to wear a yellow Magen David patch with a black spot in the middle of it. They were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, and many other decrees. The Jewish men were taken to do various types of work, and the women were taken to wash the floors in German and Lithuanian offices and to clean the municipal toilets.

On June 27, 1941, SS men who arrived from Prussia and local Lithuanian auxiliary police raided the Jewish homes. All of the Jewish men above the age of 10 were ordered to take a spoon, a tin plate and a bundle of clothing and go out into the street. The 200 assembled people were taken to the synagogue, where they were forced to take out the Torah scrolls and other books, to pile them in a heap and to burn them. Then, all of them were taken to the women's section in the synagogue, their money and other valuables were taken from them, and they were forced to do “physical exercises”, as it were, while they were brutally beaten. The tortures went on for hours. Only late at night were they permitted to go to sleep on the floor. The following morning, Saturday, June 28, most of the men, about 120 people, were taken to a labor camp near the town of Silute. The elderly and ill did not make it to the camp. The old Rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Yitzkhak Levitan, who refused to burn the hair that was cut from the Jewish heads on Saturday, was terribly beaten by the Germans. Jews from other towns, such as, Kaltinenai, Laukuva and others, were also brought to the camp in Silute. In the middle of August, a selection of the prisoners took place in the camp. 50-60 men, mostly the elderly and those who complained about being ill, were taken out of the camp while being guarded, and were promised that they would be taken back to Sveksna. But all of them were murdered along the way. This act was repeated during the months of October and November, 1941. Later, it became known that the Jews who were taken out of the camp were taken to the village of Saudviciai near Zemaiciu Naumiestis, where they were murdered and buried. The women and children and a few elderly men who remained in Sveksna were concentrated in the “Jewish Street”, which was arranged to serve as a ghetto. The women were made to do forced labor. All of them suffered from hunger and torture.

On the first day of Rosh HaShana, September 22, 1941, the women, children and men were taken out of the ghetto and were led to a forest near the villages of Inkakliai and Raudiskiai, and there, on the left side of the road, all of them were murdered and buried. The Jews who were at the labor camp in Silute were taken to Auschwitz at the end of July, 1943. As soon as they arrived there, about 100 of them were taken to the crematories. The rest were taken about two months later to Warsaw in order to clear the ghetto's rubble. Some of those people perished in the typhus epidemic that broke out there. In the summer of 1944, the remaining Jews were transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. A few of the Jews of Sveksna reached the day of liberation, when the camp was liberated by the American army.

After the war, memorial monuments were erected at the two sites where the Jews of Sveksna were murdered.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-1/Q-1405/180; M-9/15(6); TR-10/568; 0-3/2580; Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, files 4, 14.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 1350-1360, 1550.
Gotlieb, Ohalei Shem, p. 202.
HaMelitz [The Advocate] - (St. Petersburg), 28.7.1903.
Di Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] - (Kaunas), 28.8.1922, 19.2.1924, 6.8.1928, 2.2.1931, 18.3.1932, 12.10.1936, 3.12.1936, 25.4.1939.
Unzer Weg (Kaunas), 9.11.1925.
Yiddisher Leben (Kaunas), 2.12.1937.
Byuletyn (the bulletin of the Institute of Jewish History in Poland, Warsaw), 1987, #1 (14).
Lituanus (English), Chicago, Vol. 27/3, 1981.

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