“Simnas” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Lithuania)

54° 24' / 23° 39'

Translation of the “Simnas” 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 424-426)

Simnas

In Yiddish, Simne

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shimon Joffe

A county town in the Alytus district.

Year General
Population
Jews %
1766 .. 325 ..
1808 750 .. ..
1827 1,020 .. ..
1856 754 736 98
1865 1,270 .. ..
1897 1,443 493 ..
1921 .. 792 ..
1923 1,519 662 44
1930 1,500 150
families
..

Simnas lies in southern Lithuania near a lake of the same name, and the Spernia River. A place named Simnas is mentioned at the 16th century as a hunting estate of the Lithuanian princes. Over the years the estate was gifted to various aristocratic families. The town began to develop in the beginning of the 17th century. In 1626 it was granted the Magdeburg privileges. In 1795, after the third division of Poland, Simnas came under Prussian hegemony until 1807, when it was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. From 1815 it came under Russian rule and was added to the Suwalki province. From the middle of the 19th century on, it became a county center. At the end of the 19th century it developed rapidly after the laying of the railroad from Alytus to Suwalki. The railway passed through Simnas and connected the town to the Russian railway network.

Between the years 1915-1919 it came under German rule once again. In 1919 the Bolsheviks ruled over the town for a short period and in 1920 battles took place in the vicinity with the Poles. These battles defined the western and southern borders of the state of Lithuania. The new borders cut the railway line from Simnas which had connected it to Vilnius and to Suwalki, and only a road led to the rest of Lithuania.
In 1926 the Lithuanian government laid a railway line from Alytus to Kazlu-Ruda. This railway line passed close to Simnas and connected it to Kaunas-Virbalis. During the period of Lithuanian independence Simnas served as a county town.

The Jewish community until after the First World War

Information on the Jewish community in Simnas dates back to the 18th century. In 1766 it had 325 Jews paying poll tax. The Jews were active in shopkeeping, craftwork, farming and fishing. In the area around Simnas there were 6 estates owned by Jews, (Yitskhak Frank, Yisrael Grank, Haim Frid, Shalom Weinstein, Abraham Ziman, Max Goldberg), each covering an area of 1500 hectares. There were also Jews with small farms. Almost each household had an auxiliary farm plot. The three lakes in the vicinity also belonged to Jews (Simna, Gilutz and Zuvintas). The Zuvintas lake, which covered a large area, belonged to the family of the brothers Ze'ev and Nakhum Ishlondsky and their in-law Noah Rozental. The other two lakes belonged to three partners; Nakhum Ishlondsky, Shaul Bialotzky and Abraham Goldberg. The main market for fish was in Kaunas. In 1900, A fire broke out in Simnas and dozens of Jewish homes went up in flames. The Suwalki governor visited Simnas and contributed personally 200 Rubles for distribution among the newly homeless. He promised to persuade the bank to grant a loan of 10,000 Rubles to be used by those wishing to rebuild their houses again. In the list published in 'Ha Tsfira' in 1888, the names appear of 420 Jews from Simnas who contributed for the destitute in Lithuania.

On April 1, 1915, during the First World War, the Russian military authorities expelled the Simnas' Jews to Russia. Some of them returned while the town was under German occupation.

The period of Lithuanian independence

During the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940), the Jews lived off trade, light industry, craftwork, farming and fishing. The fishing continued as before the War and the main market was in Kaunas. As a result of the agrarian reform carried out by the government, most of the land was taken from the estate owners, and these were left with 150 hectares only. The owners of small farms were not affected by the reform and continued their farming activities.

According to a government survey in 1931, Simnas had 33 businesses, of these, 32 (97%) were Jewish-owned, as detailed below:

Type of
business
Total Jewish
Owned
Groceries33
Grains44
Restaurants and taverns43
Beverages11
Clothes, furs and textiles1111
Leather and Footwear11
Medicines and cosmetics11
Ironware and technical supplies33
Timber and heating11
Machines and transport11
Various33

According to the above survey, Simnas had 15 light industry plants, 12 of these owned by Jews, 2 flour mills, one of them also generated electricity for the whole town, plants to produce non -alcoholic beverages, flax processing, shoemaking, wool combing, a hatter, 2 mechanical metal workshops, a dying shop and a smithy.

In 1937 the town had 24 Jewish artisans; 4 stitchers, 3 tailors, 3 butchers, 3 bakers, 2 painters, 2 barbers, a smith, an electrician, a watchmaker, a cobbler, a hatter and a weaver.

The Jewish Peoples bank, founded after the War, contributed greatly to the Jewish economic life in Simnas. It granted loans (with the help of the Joint), which were repaid in small installments over years, to many Jews to build homes. In 1920 it had 54 registered members and in 1927 – 157 members. Zalman Waldstein headed the bank for many years. In addition, a branch of the United Credit Company extended loans to Jewish farmers. In 1939 Simnas had 25 telephones and 12 of these were owned by Jews.

The town had a number of Khederim which served the Jewish children, as well as a Hebrew primary school belonging to the Tarbut stream, and it used a building especially built for it. After completing their studies at the school, many of the graduates continued studies at the Hebrew high schools in Kaunas, Marijampole, Alytus or Vilkaviskis. Some of the high school graduates continued their studies at the Lithuanian university in Kaunas. Simnas had a large Yiddish and Hebrew library and was the center of cultural activities. The Zionist movement was already active in Simnas before the First World War. In 1913, a delegate from Simnas participated in the congress of Zionist societies of the Suwalki province. In the period of Lithuanian independence Simnas had adherents to all the Zionist parties. The voting division in the elections to the 15-19 congresses is given below:

Congress
Nr
Year Total
Shekelim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revis-
ionist
General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
14 1925 48 - - - - - - - -
15 1927 66 54 2 12 - 32 - - 8
16 1929 174 83 4 12 18 42 - - 7
17 1931 87 69 7 5 5 43 - - 9
18 1933 - 182 88 69 23 - 1 1
19 1935 - 199 94 - 22 46 17 20

Branches of Zionist youth movements, HaShomer HaTzair and Beytar , were active in town.

Simna had a two-story brick synagogue The upper floor was used, for a period, by the primary school Among the rabbis to be found were; Rabbi Yehuda Leib Haim Nakhum Palterowitz; Rabbi Yokhanan Zupowitz and Rabbi Dov-Ber Shnitzer, who was the last town rabbi and was martyred in the Shoah.

Among the personae born in Simnas are counted; Rebbi Shimon Virbalsky, a Zionist activist, (died in Eretz Yisrael); Ya'akov Barit, A rabbi and head of a Metivta (theological seminary) in Vilnius; He was a well known intermediary in ministerial offices and in the royal Russian court. The painter Betzalel Malkhi (Solnitzki); Dr Abba Gefen (Weinstein), (for a time, he was an Israeli ambassador in Rumania.).

The Second World War and the aftermath

In accordance with the agreement made by the Soviet Union with Lithuania, the Soviets began to build military bases near Simnas. The extensive building activity brought with it an inflow of a large number of people, and an expansion of trade and services within the town; the Jews benefited. With the annexation of Lithuania to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, industrial plants and businesses owned by Jews were nationalized. The supply of goods diminished and as a result prices rose. The middle class, mostly Jewish, suffered badly and the standard of living fell. All the Zionist parties were dissolved and the Hebrew school closed.

A day after the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, on June 23.1941, Simnas was bombed and units of the German army entered the town. Many of the Lithuanian residents received the German soldiers with joy and flowers. On the morrow, a Lithuanian civilian authority was established and it published an order that any of the Jews who had flown the town, must return to their homes, otherwise they would be shot. The Jews obeyed the order and returned. For the next two months relative calm reigned in the town. The Jews continued to live in their homes and the men were taken to do forced labor for the Germans. On August 22 the German authorities ordered all the men to gather outside the city hall. 100 young healthy men were chosen out of the crowd and loaded onto 3 trucks which left in the direction of Alytus. The explanation was that they are being taken to build roads. It is now known that these young men were murdered in the night between the 28 and the 29 August. Lithuanians revealed to the Jews that those were already dead and that soon more Jews would be killed. But there were others who passed on rumors that these young men were seen laboring on the roads. The intention was to mislead the Jews, in order to avoid any thought of escape or opposition.

On September 1, the Jews were again ordered to assemble at the city hall. This time, 60 were chosen, young women among them. They were taken to Alytus. On September 10, Jewish representatives, headed by Faivel Parchansky, with the participation of Rabbi Shnitzer, were invited to meet the Lithuanian authorities and told that the all the Jews were to move the same day, before 3.00 o'clock to huts previously built by the Soviets near the Christian cemetery. Only a few used the interval available to escape.

On September12, 1941, the shockingly brutal mass murder of Simnas Jews was carried out. Under a hail of blows from whips and rifle butts, dressed only in their underwear, 400 souls were led to the Kalsninkai forest, 3 km from the town. Beaten and in shock the Jews were forced to descend into a long and wide pit and there shot by the Germans and the Lithuanians. Many were buried alive. According to Soviet sources the grave contained 414 bodies, men, women and children. Among those who escaped and survived were David Gamsky, Abba Weinstein (Dr. Abba Gefen), and his brother Josef (then only 14 years old), A. Gefen wandered about the forest and villages, armed, and survived, thanks to help he received from a number of Lithuanian peasants. The Lithuanian police promised a reward for him but he was not captured. .In the year 1943, 14 men who had escaped from the Kaunas Ghetto joined him, and 13 managed to survive. At the end of the war, the Soviet authorities, with the active help of A Gefen, managed to trace some of the murderers of the Jews and put them on trial.

After the war, at the place of the murder, a large sculpture was erected in memory of the victims. In 1991, a memorial plaque was placed with the inscription in Lithuanian and Yiddish “In this place, in August 1941, the Hitlerist murderers and their assistants murdered approximately 1000 Jews from Simnas – children, women, men and the aged."

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, Koniukhovsky collection 0-71, files 118, 199, 127.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 55/1701, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
Gefen A., Neurim B'Mistor, 1941 – 1944 Journal, Jerusalem 1977.
Gefen A., Portzei HaMakhsomim, Tel Aviv 1961, pp. 13-52.
Der Yiddisher Kooperator [Jewish Cooperator] (Kaunas), Vol. 1929 # 11, Vol. 1930, #1.
Gotlieb, Ohalei Shem, p. 137.
Naujienos (Chicago), 11.6.1949.

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