“Semeliskes” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Semeliškės, Lithuania)

54° 40' / 24° 40'

Translation of the “Semeliskes” 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 435-437)

Semeliskes

In Yiddish, Semilishok

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by Shimon Joffe

A county town in the Trakai district.

Year General
Population
Jews %
1897 968 300 31
1923 .. 274*  
1940 60
families**
  93

* 121 men, 153 women.
** Plus 200 refugees from Poland.

Semeliskes lies on the banks of the Streva River, 17 km from the district town Trakai and 49 km from Vilnius. The community is mentioned in documents of the year 1377. In 1501, a church was erected which became famous on account of miracles which apparently happened there. The town developed during the 19th century and it held 4 fairs annually. It had some twenty shops. The town belonged at that time, administratively, to the Vilnius province. From the middle of the 19th century it became a county center. It continued to be a county town during the period of Lithuanian independence, a period when it was cut off from the Vilnius region and it became a border town between Lithuania and Poland. (until October, 1939).

The first Jewish settlement in Semeliskes apparently dates back to the 18th century. They never numbered more than a third of the population. They all lived off petty trade and auxiliary farms along their homes. The Jewish population suffered greatly during and after the First World War. They were particularly affected after the town was torn away from Vilnius and trade stopped with the villages and towns which had come under Polish rule. For a short period, (1919-1920) Semeliskes Jewry received financial assistance from the YeKoPo society for the relief of war victims. The amount received by the community in the first half of 1920 was 23,738 German Marks, which divided off as follows; food for adults-4300; food for children-588; cultural activities-9300; medicines-900; Matzo for Passover-500; public services-1650; loan society-7000.

After the declaration of Jewish autonomy by the Lithuanian government a community board was elected in town, consisting of 7 members. The board was active for some years in most aspects of Jewish life in the town.

In the elections to the first Seimas (parliament) in Lithuania, which took place in October 1920, 135 voters cast their ballots as follows; Zionist list-102; Religious (Akhdut)-15; Democrats-8.

During this period the Jews lived off trade, light industry and workshops. According to a survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1931, the town had 4 bakeries, 3 textile shops, 2 general stores, 2 wool combers shops, a grain dealer, a grocery, a pharmacy, a restaurant, a timber mill and a brick factory owned by Jews.

In 1937, the town had 6 Jewish craftsmen; a butcher, a baker, an oven builder, a hairdresser and one other. In 1939 the town had 10 telephones, 3 owned by Jews.

Most of the public activity of the Jewish community took place in the study house and the Torah study societies. Among the rabbis ministering to the community were; Rabbi Dov Bergman, who officiated at the beginning of the 20th century for a period of some 20 years, Rabbi Yeshayahu-Moshe Sheskin, the last rabbi of the community and was murdered in the Shoah. During the whole period of Lithuanian independence a Hebrew school belonging to the Yavne stream was active in town, as well as a public library. In addition there was also a great deal of Zionist activity. The result of the voting in Semeliskes to the Zionist congresses is given in the table below;

Congress
No
Year No. of
Shekels
Total
Votes
Labor
No
Revisionist General
Zionists
State
Party
Mizrachi Labor
Left
Z S Zts. A B
15 1927 12 4 - 4 - - - - -  
16 1929 15 15 - - 11 2 - - 2  
17 1931 13 7 - 2 2 2 - - 2  
18 1933 - 19 1 2 4 - - 1  
19 1935 - 90 36 - 38 12 - 4  
  National Bloc
21 1939 - 25 11 - 6     4 4

After Poland was conquered, at the beginning of the Second World War, approximately 200 students of the Baranowich seminary reached Semeliskes, and as a result the Jewish population of the town expanded.

In the autumn of 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union. In the process of accelerated Sovietization, which took place in all the towns and a number of shops were also nationalized in Semeliskes, including some owned by Jews. The religious school was closed and all Zionist activity stopped.

With the outbreak of the war between the Soviet Union and Germany, armed Lithuanian nationalists took over control of the town. Under their initiative or with their agreement a number of local Jews were murdered and their property pillaged. A few weeks later, the authorities ordered all the Jews to move to the church, which had become a social center under the Soviet regime. The building was too small to house all the Jewish population and four small houses nearby were added and thereby turning the area into a virtual ghetto. The men were taken out daily for forced labor. One day, some of them, mostly young men, were taken to the edge of a forest some 200 meters north east of the town and there shot to death by a group of Lithuanians led by the local priest.

On New Year, September 22, 1941, the surviving Jews from Vievis and Zasliai were brought to Semeliskes. The total number of Jews in Semeliskes grew to 995 souls, mostly women and children and a small number of men. Because of the crowding, the hunger and filth they lived under inhuman conditions. In addition, the armed Lithuanians continued to rob and to harass them continuously, even during the Yom Kippur prayers. On the evening of Sukkoth, October 5, 1941, a German, of the SS arrived in town and demanded, with threats, that the Jews pay 5000 German Marks. A committee of four Jews, elected to raise the sum did not succeed in their task. The next day, the festival intermediary day, October 6, 1941, all the Jews, a total number of 962 souls, were taken to the place where the young Jews had been previously murdered. There they were all shot dead by a squad of armed Lithuanians. It appears that 23 Jews managed to escape before this event and hid among peasants in the area. A few were caught and executed. Some survivors managed to contact the Soviet partisans and joined them. The names of the Lithuanian murderers are filed in the Yad Vashem archives.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-33/983; M-21/1/592; M-9/15(6); 03/368, 4187; Koniukhovsky collection 0-71, file 71.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788,, 55/1701, Z-4/2548, 13/15/131.
Folksblat [The People's Newspaper] – (Kaunas), 16.6.1933.
Oyf di hurves fun milhomes un mehumes, pinkas fun Gegnt-komitet (On the Ruins of Wars and Turmoil) “YeKoPo”, 1919-1930 (edited by Moshe Shalit), Vilnius 1930.
Naujienos (Chicago), June 11, 1949.

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