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

55°55' / 21°51'

Translation of the “Plunge” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Josef Rosin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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Acknowledgments

Project Coordinator and Translator

Peter Zinn

Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

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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(Page 484)

YearTotal PopulationJewsJews as percentage of Total Population
1765 816 
1847 2,917 
18593,593  
18974,4982,50256%
19234,2361,861*44%
19406,000Approx. 1,700Approx. 28%
19598,6721381.6%

* Incl. 46 in adjacent villages.

Plunge is located in NW Lithuania, in the Zhamot region, approximately 28 km SW of the district city of Telz, and approx. 50 km NW of Memel. An Estate of this name is mentioned in historical documents as early as the 14th century. The town developed adjacent to the estate and in 1658 became a county center. In 1792 the town was awarded the status of a city and a given a herald. In the 18th century Plunge became an important commercial crossroads between Zhamot to Memel and Lipaia (Libau). Trade fairs were held four times a year, primarily in the horse and cattle trade. Market days were held twice a week.

In 1873 the Plunge Estate, as well as the town, passed ownership to the aristocratic Oginsky family, which built a splendid palace, which was destroyed in WW2, and also a 50 hectare (500 dunams) garden. During Russian rule (1795 – 1915) Plunge was part of the Vilna Gubernia and from 1843 – the Kovno Gubernia. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918 – 1940) Plunge was self-ruled (from 1924) and a district center.

In the years 1888, 1894,1914 and 1931 large fires devastated parts of the town.

Jewish Settlement until after WW1

The tombstones that were in the Jewish cemetery in Plunge bore witness to Jewish settlement from the 16th century. In the mid 17th century, during the period of the “Independent Council of Lithuania”, the Jewish Community of Plunge was associated with the district of Keidan. In 1719 the first Synagogue was erected. Jewish houses were situated in the center of the town and on the main streets. In 1769 the Bishop of Zhamot agreed to permit the rebuilding of the Jewish synagogue which had been built on Church lands, on condition that it would not rise higher than the Catholic Church. As the Jews did not abide by this condition, a heavy fine was imposed. It is not known how long it took to repay.

In the Cholera epidemic of Zhamot of 1848 (which included towns of the entire district), many hundred of Jews perished.

The Jews of Plunge dealt mainly in trade, in crafts and agriculture. The traders of the town maintained strong commercial ties with Memel and its environs, which was then part of Germany and only 12 km distant. The traders of Plunge sold to the German Market cattle, horse, geese, flax and so on. The Jewish craftsmen, the tailors, shoemakers, butchers and others made a respectable living. In the 1880's the were a number of Jewish-owned factories dealing which employed 40 to 50 workers each. Their products were sold throughout Russia. Many families maintained small agricultural plots aside their homes.

During this period hundreds of Jewish residents emigrated overseas, most to South Africa and a few to America.

In the summer of 1888 a fire broke out which destroyed 25 Jewish houses. 48 families were left penniless and without a roof over their heads. The owner of the Plunge estate Oginsky rushed with his workers and horses and prevented the spread of the blaze and thereafter did all he could to help the victims. Later he built a hospital for the Jews of the town.

In the large fire of July 1894, the day a trade fair was being held, 400 houses were burnt, including 323 belonging to Jews. Those who came to the fair, in their flight from the burning town, blocked the roads and prevented the firefighters, which were sent from the estate, access to the town. In this fire many public buildings were also destroyed: The magnificent synagogue, which was erected in 1814 and was famous throughout the region; the large Beit Midrash, which was built in 1864 and housed two Yeshivot which taught 100 pupils; the “Kloizim”, the Talmud Torah; the house of the “Gemillat Hesed” (Gmach) and the public bathhouse. Only 45 low houses were saved. Approximately 2,500 Jews were left penniless and without a roof over their heads. In the “Melitz” of July 20th , 1894 an appeal for help was published to all Jewish Congregations and émigrés of Plunge overseas, which was signed by Rabbi Zevulun Leib Barrit, a member of the relief council. The address for donations was that of the head of the relief council, the noble Michael Oginsky. In the aftermath of the fire he sheltered some hundreds of souls in buildings on his estate and also provided their sustenance. Alongside the market, where tens of Jewish-owned shops were burnt, Oginsky erected 36 sturdily-built shops and divided them for sale between the Jewish storekeepers at low cost and easy payments over 12 years; particularly poor storekeepers were given 24 years. In addition he built at his own expense a large bath-house for the Jews and also loaned the Jewish community funds to rebuild the large Synagogue, on condition that half of the funds would be reimbursed during construction and the rest within two years. After two years the Synagogue was, in fact, rebuilt and reinstated.

Of the Rabbis who officiated in Plunge were: Rabbi Yehuda-Leib Ziv (lived in the late 18th and early 19th century), who gave his approval for the printing of the Vilna Shas; Rabbi Yehiel Heller , who's Responsa and Hiddushim were published in Koenigsberg; Rabbi Haim-Yitzhak haCohen Bloch, a native of Plunge, who served as Rabbi and Rosh-Metivta in Plunge and later in New Jersey USA, as honorary President of the Union of Rabbis of USA and Canada, who also published many articles in “haTzefirah” and the “Pardes”; Rabbi Zevulun Barrit; Rabbi Shmuel-Avigdor Feivelson.

Amongst the annual tax-paying members of “Agudat Israel”, that appeared in the Aguda bulletin “haDerech” which was published in Frankfurt, 56 names of Plunge Jews are mentioned and at their head Rabbi Shmuel-Avigdor Feivelson and Rabbi Yosef Shachnovitz.

The Jewish children of Plunge studied mostly in “heder”s, 20 to 30 children in a small room. Later a Talmud-Torah was established, that was housed in the Tailors' “Kloiz” and taught about 80 students, mostly the sons of poor families, who were taught by two “melamdim”. One of the wealthy residents donated a building to the Talmud-Torah. Higher-qualified melamdim were appointed and also a teacher for general studies. Graduates of the Talmud-Torah were accepted into the Yeshiva system.

In 1888 the “Society for Teachers of the Arts” was established, who's purpose was to teach the poor and orphans of the town trades and crafts. Those students who completed their studies in the Talmud-Torah and did not continue with Yeshiva study were accepted as apprentices under various craftsmen and the Society paid their tutoring fees. In 1891 a studied native of Plunge, Lena Udes, opened a school under government license for Jewish girls. Studies in this institution included, amongst other things, Russian, German and French. In 1906 a Jewish teacher opened a “modern Heder” in which all the subjects were taught in Hebrew. The students even put on plays in Hebrew. Under the pressure of the Haredim, who called the institution the “dangerous heder”, the institution closed down after two years, leaving only one Talmud-Torah in the town, which in the years before WW1 had taught also sons of the wealthier families. During the German occupation (1915-1918) the authorities opened a Primary School in which the language of tuition was German and in which studied all of the Jewish children.

The “Hibat-Zion” movement was active in Plunge. In the “List of Members for the Support of the Israelites Working the Land in Syria and Eretz Israel” of 1896 the names of three Plunge natives are mentioned. Zionism penetrated Plunge during the period of the first Congresses.

In the lists of the donors for the settlement of Eretz-Israel from 1898, 1899, 1903 and 1909, many Jews of Plunge are mentioned.

In 1901 the Union of “Bnoth Zion” was instituted with approximately 300 members. Most of the members tried to speak amongst themselves only Hebrew. During the period of a year, from July 1901 until July 1902, 62 “Shekalim” were sold in Plunge. A joint delegation from Plunge, Telz and Salant participated in the Conference of Zionist Unions of the Sovalk and Kovno regions that took place in 1909. Of the Olim from Plunge to Eretz-Israel were: Tova D. Azulay, who made Aliyah in 1906 and was a known public and community activist in Jerusalem, where she set up a soup-kitchen, and Avraham Lieberman, who was the first Shomer in Herzlia and later the Council Head of the Settlement. In the cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem there are tombs of at least 6 émigrés of Plunge.

At the end of the German occupation the Jews of Plunge began to rehabilitate their business and their livelihood. Two young Jews (Garb and Bunka) volunteered in1918 for the emerging Lithuanian army and fought in its ranks. They were awarded medals of honour and plots of land, as were all volunteers. The proportion of Jews of the total populace of Plunge was 44%, as opposed to 56% before the war.

The awarding of Autonomy to the Jews by the new Independent Lithuanian government initially provided a large impetus for the economic and social advancement of all Jewish communities. In Plunge, as elsewhere, a Community Committee (Va'ad) was elected, consisting of 15 members: 8 from “Achdut” (Agudat-Israel), 2 from the General Zionists, 2 from the “Young of Zion”, 2 from the Workers Party and 1 independent. The council operated from 1919 until March 1926 and dealt with most aspects of Jewish life in the town.

In the elections for the Town Council which took place in 1924, seven Jews were elected out of 15 possible slots. Together with the “Progressives” they held an absolute majority. For the post of Mayor there were three candidates, of whom 2 were Jews. And so, for ten years there was Jewish Mayor of Plunge (David-Baruch Goldwasser). In the elections of 1931 four Jews were elected out of a total of nine members (Mordechai Posen, Abraham Lipman, Shlomo Levi and Yehezkel Zaks). In the elections of 1934 only 3 Jews were elected out of nine (Posen, Goldwasser and Lipman). One of them held the post of Deputy Mayor.

The relations between the Jews and the Lithuanians were, on the whole, normal, though the Jews were frequently subjected to heckling or abusive behaviour. There were a number of attempts on the Jews as a result of accusations or false libels. In 1935 antisemitic riots broke out in Plunge and the Mayor published a condemnation that was signed also by the local Priest and Judge.

The situation worsened after the rising of the Nazis to power in neighbouring Germany, and particularly after the annexation of Memel to Germany, in the beginning of 1939. On one of the Sundays of that year, when hundreds of farmers from the surrounding areas were in town, a Pogrom was narrowly averted after a blood libel was spread.

During this period the number of Jews in Plunge dropped due to emigration, and also due to the fact that there were more deaths than births. During the years 1930-1934 there were only 94 births and 134 deaths in the Jewish Community. During the same period only 32 marriages took place.

The Jews of Plunge made a living from trade, crafts, light industry and agriculture. According to a survey held by the Lithuanian government in 1931 there were in Plunge 54 shops, of which 87% were Jewish-owned (87%). Herewith the breakdown of activities:

Branch or Type of BusinessTotal PlungeOf which Jews
General Dealer44
Produce and Flax33
Butcheries and cattle trade108
Restaurants and Inns32
Food products11
Beverages22
Clothing, furs and textiles1010
Leather and shoes33
Haberdasheries & Household wares22
Medicines and cosmetics43
Radios, sewing machines, electric appliances11
Tools and iron works65
Heating fuels22
Miscellaneous31

According to the same survey there were 27 factories, of which 20 were Jewish-owned (74%). Herewith the details by type of activity:

Branch or Type of BusinessTotal PlungeOf which Jews
Metals, Power generation11
Chemical industry: Methylated Spirits, soaps, oils11
Textiles: wool, flax, knitting43
Wood Industry: lumber mills, furniture making11
Food Industry: Food and Flour mills33
Clothing and Footwear: furs, hats52
Leather: Leather Production, cobblers76
Hairdressers, pig-bristle manufacturing, goldsmiths53

Due to the Economic recession in Lithuania and the fierce propaganda that the Union of Lithuanian Traders “Verslas” maintained against buying from Jews, the economic situation of many businesses deteriorated and their number halved in only a few years. The situation of the Jewish craftsmen was also difficult. In 1935 there were approximately 60 craftsmen: 13 bakers, 8 cobblers, 6 tailors, 5 blacksmiths, 4 tinsmiths, 3 tanners, 3 mirror-makers, 3 photographers, 3 seamstresses, 2 hatmakers, 2 glaziers, 2 fitters, 2 barbers, 2 watchmakers, one carpenter and one saddler. About 70% of the Jews of Plunge received aid from their relatives in South Africa, America and even from Palestine. A few families worked in agriculture in surrounding villages. In Plunge there were 3 Jewish doctors and 2 Jewish Lawyers. In 1925 there were two Jewish Doctors and one female Jewish dentist. The laying of a railway line between Shavel and Memel in 1932 hurt the trade of many Jewish wagon drivers.

One major role in the economic life of the Jews of Plunge was played by the Jewish Volksbank. In 1929 there were 321 members and in 1935 their numbers dropped to 220, 15% of which were Lithuanians.

In March 1931 a fire broke out and wiped out half of the towns' buildings; 250 Jewish families were left without a roof over their heads. The Jews of Lithuania rallied to help the victims and in the report published by the Committee set up for this purpose in December 1932, 200 places of settlement and institutions are noted which assisted with donations to rehabilitate the Jews of Plunge. The Jews of Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa sent a sizable donation. In a few years most of the houses were rebuilt, many of them larger and better than before. Some of the owners sunk into heavy debt and could not make the payments.

Education and Culture

In 1919 a Yiddishe School was established. Later a Hebrew School was also established. The two schools were united in 1927 by order of the Ministry of Education, but most of the students preferred to study in Hebrew and only a few in Yiddish. At first there were about 200 students. With the shrinking of the Jewish population so lessened the number of Jewish students and in 1935 only 130 –140 students were in attendance. A Hebrew-speaking Kindergarten also operated for two years. 60 students studied in the Talmud-Torah in unsuitable physical surroundings. There was a Yeshiva in Plunge with 50 students and also a Hebrew College that enjoyed Government support. The building which housed the college was donated by the noble Oginsky before WW1. The building also housed the “Tarbut” library with 500 Hebrew and 500 Yiddish books. Among the teachers ant the College were Yaffa, Eidelman, Klivansky (Posen), Amalsky and others. In 1930 the Yiddish Society “ Liebherr von Wiessen” (Love of Knowledge) established a library in honour of Y.L. Peretz which contained approximately 1,000 books in Yiddish. Adjacent to the library was a Reading Room to which received all the daily newspapers from Kovno. In 1935 there were 60 subscribers to the various politically-aligned Jewish daily newspapers.

From time to time cultural activities took place in Plunge: On April 19th 1933 a day of protest was held against the persecution of Jews in Germany, during which spoke Dr. Jacob Robinson, local lawyer Hirsch Rolnick and others; on June 5th 1935 a Public trial on Jewish Youth was held ahead of the 19th Zionist Congress.

Zionist and other Activity

Many of Plunge's Jews belonged to one of the Zionist camps. All of the Zionist parties were represented in the town. In May 1932 the Club of the Z”S Party was established, with a festive celebration. At the branch of the local “heHalutz” there were during the same period 50 members and many cultural activities took place. Amongst the Zionist Youth Movements operated in Plunge the “Halutz haTza'ir” (Young Pioneer), Beitar and others. From 1933 a Training Kibbutz known as “haMefaless” (the ) with 22 members of both sexes. Some of them made Aliyah to Palestine and were of the founders of Kibbutz Ramat haShofet. Some of the Jewish youth in Plunge were active in the Communist underground. Sporting activities took place in branches of “Maccabi” (80 members), “haPo'el: and “Sport”(a society connected with the Peretz Library).

Religion and Welfare

The large Synagogue, the new Beit haMidrash and the three “Kloizim” of the Haredim, that were situated on the “Shulhof”, were at the center of the Religious life of Jews in Plunge. The Jewish Youth was organized in a society of “Tif'eret Bahurim” which in 1929 had 40 members. There was also a children's society known as “Pirhei Shoshanim”, who's purpose was to collect books for the Synagogue. After Simhat Torah the books were handed to the Synagogue in a festive ceremony and the children would be carried aloft to it.The Rabbis who officiated during this period were: Rabbi Levi Shpitz, one of the important Rabbis of Lithuania, who left manuscripts of the Talmud and who died in the Holocaust; the last Rabbi of Plunge, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Vessler, who was the Spiritual Head of the Teachers Seminary in Telz and active in Agudat Yisrael. He died in the Holocaust along with his flock.

Among the Welfare and aid Societies that were active in Plunge were : A Free Loan Society, which gave interest-free loans or against collateral; a hospital; a “Bikkur holim” society which provided medical aid and medicines for the needy; a “Hevra Kadisha” (Holy, or Burial society) etc. The “Azey'” Society provided Medical aid to children free of charge, free meals to poor children that studied at school, and sent weak children to Summer Camps in the village of Kalniskiai, some 3 km distant from Plunge. In 1939 the society provided free medical aid and also financial assistance to the children of refugees from Memel. In addition, “Azey'” supported the Jewish Sporting societies and the libraries. The funds for these activities were obtained in fundraising campaigns and amateur plays. When the refugees arrived from Memel, after the annexation of that city to Germany in March 1939, a special committee was set up to deal with them. In this activity excelled Abraham Posen, who left his business and devoted all of his time to fundraising for this purpose.

Of those born in Plunge were: R' Yitzhak Ze'ev Allschwanger (1825-1896), Rabbi of Tavrig and St.Petersburg, active in the “Hovevey Zion” Society; Josef-Yosel Horowitz (1848-1920), disciple of the Rabbi of Salant, who disseminated the way of Mussar amongst his thousands of students. He died in Kiev and his coffin was brought to Israel in 1963 and reburied in Jerusalem. Eliezer-Lazarus Goldschmidt (1871-1950), who translated the entire Babylonian Talmud into German (published in the years 1930-1936) and also the Kor'an. He died in London. Mordechai Plungian (1814-1883), a Hebrew writer who was secretary and proofreader of the “Ram” printing house in Vilna and who wrote books on Jewish subjects; Louis Rosental (b. 1888), one of the greatest sculptors of America in his time; the Lawyer Tzvi Rolnick, who served as manager of the Hebrew Gymnasium; and his brother Meir Rolnick, a known publisher in Jerusalem. David Shur (1901-1987)' in 1920 made Aliyah to Palestine and was one of the founders of Ayelet haShachar and Yarkona. He was one of the established members of the Beekeeping branch of activity in Israel, who wrote many books on Beekeeping and the journal “Yalkut haMikhveret” (“Apiary Anthology”).

During the Second World War

With the annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union and its conversion to a Soviet Republic, in 1940, most factories in Plunge were nationalized, many of which were Jewish-owned, and most of the shops. Their owners became their managers. All the political parties and the youth movements were dispersed. Hebrew educational institutions were closed down. Due to the short supplies of goods, prices shot up and those of the middle class, that was mostly Jewish, were hard hit and suffered a gradual drop in their standards of living. Five Jewish families, consisting of 14 souls of which were 4 small children, were determined to be “untrustworthy foundations” by the authorities and were exiled in June 1941 to Siberia. Part of the Jewish Youth accepted happily the new order and took active part in its institutions.

When the invasion of the invasion of the German army to the Soviet Union, on June 22nd 1941, Jews began to flee from the town to the surrounding villages and in the direction of the Soviet Union, but only 30 families and a few individuals managed to reach it. A train which left from Plunge was bombed by the Germans and all its passengers were killed. Among them were tens of Jewish families.

The Germans arrived in Plunge on June 25th 1941. Before arrival the town was taken over by armed Lithuanians who wore white armbands. On the second day of their takeover the Jews were given orders to leave their houses and assemble in the Synagogue and in the Beit Midrash which stood on the “Shulhof”. Next to the doors stood armed guards that prevented the imprisoned from obtaining food brought by Lithuanian friends or house-maids of their former employers. Approximately 60 young men were sent to work on estates close by. Other men and women were taken every day to various jobs, such as street sweeping or the cleaning of latrines by hand, all the while under blows and tortures. The Lithuanian guards would invent many ruses to humiliate the Jews and to entertain the crowds. For instance, they would force 5 –6 Jewish notables to carry a log, and after pouring kerosene on it, would light it. The Jews would be forced to carry the log until their clothes caught fire; anyone who tried to escape from the fire would be beaten to death. The Rabbi of the town, Rabbi Avraham-Mordechai Vessler, was first subjected to a cropping of his beard, and then he and his wife were given buckets and were forced to pass arm in arm through the town to the jeers and cheers of the residents.

In the synagogue, in which the Jews were incarcerated, the situation was terrible. The crowding, the filth and the hunger were unbearable. One day a fire broke out in the Bath House and the Lithuanians blamed the Jews for setting it alight. A rumour was spread that the Jews were dangerous to the town and that they must be concentrated without exception in the Synagogue. The owner of the pharmacy Ephraim Yisraelowitz, the pharmacist Haya Shlomovitz, the owner of the flour mill Karabelnik, the blacksmith Shlomo Gillis and the Textile engineer Bishitz, that until then had carried on their usual activities, were also incarcerated in the synagogue. The young men that worked in the estates were not returned to the synagogue, rather they were murdered on route.

On Sunday July 13th 1941 (18th Tamuz 5701), the Jews began to be led to places were pits had been prepared. The first group consisted of 60 men who were led on foot. When they passed by the textile factory the guards of the factory asked to try their weapons and with the encouragement of their escorts murdered approximately 40 of them. The rest of the victims were trucked, group by group, to the murder sites and there were forced to undress and to sit on the edge of the pits where they were shot from behind. Groups of girls were led by foot to the murder sites. When they passed by the Catholic Church, a student by the name of Urla Zinn passed some strong remarks in the direction of the Lithuanians. The murderers poured kerosene over her and burnt her alive. Among those murdered was a group of 60 girls who agreed to be converted in order to save themselves. According the testimony of Yosefa Ossovsky-Allschwang, a righteous gentile, the monk P. Lignogaris, who was a religious studies teacher at the town high school and who knew the young girls, convinced them to convert. But after the big massacre they were also murdered and buried in a communal grave beside the graves of their murdered families. According the witness, the monk later went out of his mind and was admitted to a mental hospital. The murders carried on from Sunday morning and throughout the night until the next day. In the morning the murderers returned in trucks to the town in song. The two Germans present in the town did not become involved in the affair. The entire “job” was done by Lithuanians, most of them residents of the town and its environs. The names of the some of the murderers are kept in the archives of Yad vaShem, in Jerusalem.

Only one Jew was saved from the slaughter, who had converted to Christianity before the war and married a Lithuanian woman. His wife and the Priest protected him until liberation. When the Soviets returned to govern Plunge he revealed the names of the murderers to the authorities and helped in the search for them. Some of them, who didn't escape with the Germans, were caught and were punished.

According to Soviet sources, communal graves were found next to the village of Kausenai, about 4 km North-West of Plunge, 1,800 murdered, and in the forest close to the village of Milosaiciai, about 6 km South of Plunge, the bodies of the 60 young men who worked the estates, were found.

Of all the Jews of Plunge only 221 survived the war; those who hid amongst the Lithuanians, those who were in the Shavel ghetto and those who made it to the Soviet Union. 26 of the young Jews of Plunge perished as soldiers in the Red Army.

After the war a tombstone was erected on the communal grave in Kausenai. In 1988 a large memorial for the Jews of Plunge, the work of a Jewish sculptor by the name of Jacob Bunka and a team of Lithuanian sculptors.

A native of the town, Masha Rolnick, who was trapped in the Vilna ghetto with her family and from there went to concentration camps in Germany, wrote her memoirs in Yiddish and her words were translated into tens of languages and also into Hebrew (“I have to tell”, Jerusalem 1965).

After Lithuania was liberated from the Nazis, approximately 30 Jewish families returned to their homes which were then emptied of their squatters. In 1946 armed Lithuanians, who were roaming the forests around the town since they did not accept Soviet Rule, murdered an unmarried Jew who had returned from the Soviet Union. In 1958 a libel was brought against a war crippled Jew for allegedly kidnapping a Lithuanian girl in order to use her blood. The chief instigator, who was a known drunkard and criminal, and the mother of the girl, placed the Jews of Plunge at danger. The commander of the local Police called in troops that were stationed in a nearby camp. Thanks to this, and after the girl was found safe and sound, things quietened down. The mother was sentenced to 15 months detention and the instigator, who also threw stones at the window of the Jew's house, was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, after stolen property was discovered in his possession. But the Jews began to leave Plunge. Part moveded to larger cities in Lithuania and part made Aliyah to Israel. In 1970 there resided in Plunge 41 Jews. In 1979 – 25 and in 1989 – only 15.

In the early 1990's a stone was erected on the site of the former Jewish cemetery of Plunge and on it words in Yiddish and Lithuanian: “The old Jewish Cemetery. Holy is the memory of the Departed”.


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