“Joniskis” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Joniškis, Lithuania)

56° 14' / 23° 37'

Translation of the “Joniskis” 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 339-342)

Joniskis

In Yiddish, Yanishok; in Russian, Yanishki

A small city and a county center in the Siauliai district.

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

 

Year General
Population
Jews %
1847 .. 1.042 ..
1897 4,774 2,272 48
1923 4,141 978 24
1934 4,531 .. ..
1940 6,000 ~600 10

Joniskis was built along both banks of the Neris River, 30 km northeast of Kaunas. A railway line and a road that passed through Joniskis connected the city to almost all other places in Lithuania and its Joniskis is located along the Kaunas-Riga railway line, about 10 km south of the Latvian border and about 40 km north of Siauliai, the district's city. Joniskis originated at the beginning of the 16th century. In 1616, it was granted the Magdeburg Rights and, among other things, to hold weekly market days and two yearly fairs. In 1795, when Russia occupied Lithuania, queen Ekaterina II handed over the entire region of Siauliai, which included Joniskis, as a gift to Graf Platon Zubov. After prolonged court hearings with the town's residents, who refused to accept Zubov's authority, the Russian senate ruled in their favor, and in 1840 Joniskis was taken out of the Graf's territory. During the period of Russian rule, which lasted until 1915, Joniskis was part of the Vilnius gubernia (region) and from 1843 it was part of the Kaunas gubernia.

At the beginning of the second half of the 19th century, Joniskis became famous for its horse bazaars, which attracted merchants even from Russia. In 1864, when the main road and the railway line to Riga were constructed, Joniskis became a transit station and the city's importance as a commercial center for tobacco, flax and horses declined somewhat. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918 – 1940) Joniskis was declared as a city with independent rule (1923), yet it still remained the county's center.

 

The Jewish Settlements Until After World War I

Apparently, Jews settled in Joniskis at the beginning of the 18th century. They made their livelihood by trading crops, flax, horses, cattle, eggs, ducks, and other things, and generally speaking, their economic situation was good. The Jews of Joniskis built a magnificent synagogue, a Bet Midrash, and a “Kloiz” (prayer house).
During the1869-1872 famine years in Lithuania, the “Aid Committee” in Klaipeda provided the Joniskis community with 50 rubles which were to be distributed among the needy. The 1872 list of donors for the hunger-stricken in Lithuania note the names of many Jews from Joniskis. The delegate who collected the donations was Avraham Heller.

The children studied in a “Heder”. The national elementary school accepted only a few Jewish children.

The “Volunteer Fire Fighters Association” was established in the town in 1878. It included about 100 local Jews. The funding for the equipment was received from the slaughter taxes and from donations. A big fire broke out in Joniskis during the spring of 1893. It burned down 150 houses, including the “Kloiz”. About 400 Jewish families, including wealthy ones, lost their entire property. On April 20, 1893, the Rabbi of Joniskis, Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhel Wolfson, published a letter in the “HaMelitz”, requesting Jews in the Diaspora to help the Jews who were hurt by the fire.

From the 1890's onwards, many of the city's Jews left Joniskis and most of them emigrated to South Africa.

The ideology of Hibat Zion arrived in Joniskis during the middle of the 1890's. In 1889, 9 new members, including a person from Joniskis, were accepted to “Nes Ziona”, a clandestine organization which was established in 1885, for settling Eretz-Yisrael. The “Zionist Union” was established in Joniskis in 1898. Eliezer-Ze'ev Dunija was its secretary. The1898 and 1903 lists of donors for settling Eretz-Yisrael, which were published in the “HaMelitz”, show the names of many Jews from Joniskis. The collectors of the donations were M.Z. Klatzkin and M. Milvitski.

In 1902, more than 100 shares of “Otzar Hityashvut HaYehudim” (the Jewish Colonial Trust) were sold in the city, and even a greater number of “Shekalim” (tokens of membership in the Zionist organization). One of the organization's members (Mordekhai Westerman) arranged a reading room with newspapers and books in Hebrew. In 1893, Moshe-Gutel Levin emigrated from Joniskis to Eretz-Yisrael, to Haifa, where he opened a medication store. Subsequently, he was the chairman of the community council in the city.

Among the Rabbis who served in Joniskis were: Rabbi Shalom Rabinovitz, (from 1808 until 1847), who was a delegate to the Rabbis meeting in Petersburg which dealt with Jewish issues; Rabbi Avraham Heller (from 1860 until 1877), author of the book “Yefe Nof” (Piotrkow, 1907); Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhel Wolfson (from 1888 until his death in 1900). “Agudat Yisrael” was active in Joniskis. In 1913 it had 23 dues paying members. The “Bund” was also active in the city which had quite a few Jewish workers.

 

During the Period of Independent Lithuania

The Jews of Joniskis went through a difficult time during the first years after the establishment of Independent Lithuania. During 1919-1920, the Jewish Aid Society “YeKoPo” provided the Joniskis Jewish community with food for the needy, it took care of its cultural needs, and established a loaning fund. It also provided “matzas” for Passover.

When the new government of Lithuania declared autonomy for the Jews, a ruling committee of 9 members was voted for in Joniskis. The committee was active for a number of years in most areas of Jewish life in the city. In the elections to the first Siemas in Lithuania, in October 1922, the Jews of Joniskis voted for 3 Jewish parties: the Zionists received 323 votes; the religious “Akhdut” party 91; and the Democrats 4.

2 Jews (Shapira and Pinsky) and 7 Lithuanians were elected in the 1934 elections for the city council in Joniskis. Y. Shapira was elected as the deputy mayor.

During the period under discussion, the Jews of Joniskis made their livelihood by engaging in commerce, labor and light industry. Joniskis had merchants who exported flax, crops, cattle and other things. Others made their living, among other professions, as buyers, wagoners and packers in the villages in the surrounding areas. In 1925, the city had a female doctor and a male doctor, both of whom were Jews.

In 1928, due to low yields in flax and crops, the city experienced a difficult crisis. As a result, the city's entire economic system became unstable. Many Jewish families fell into hard times. The city established an aid committee that provided the needy with bread and wood for heating. The unemployed threatened to burn down the municipality if the Jews would not provide them work.

According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, there were 82 shops in Joniskis, 68 of them (83%) owned by Jews. The division into business branches is shown in the table below:

Branch or Type of Business Total Owned
by Jews
Grocery 7 6
Crops and flax 26 25
Butcher shops and cattle 10 7
Restaurants and taverns 6 2
Commerce in foodstuff 3 3
Beverages 1 1
Clothing, furs and textiles 8 7
Leather and shoes 5 5
Sewing and house utensils 1 1
Medicine and cosmetics 2 0
Watches and jewelry 2 2
Radios, bicycles and sewing machines 1 1
Tools and iron products 2 2
Miscellaneous 8 6

 

According to the same census, there were 43 factories in Joniskis , 19 of them (44%), owned by Jews.

Branch or Type of Business Total Owned
by Jews
Metal works, power stations 7 4
Chemical industry: ethanol, soap, oil 1 0
Textile: wool, flax 10 7
Wood industry: sawmills, furniture, tar 6 0
Food industry 9 5
Clothing and footwear 4 1
Others: Barber shops, hog bristles, photography 6 2

 

In 1937, there were 33 Jewish artisans in Joniskis : 6 tailors, 5 butchers, 3 shoemakers, 5 tinsmiths, 3 artisans who made the uppers of the shoes, 2 bakers, 2 hat makers, 2 cloth dyers, 2 barbers, a carpenter, a painter and a photographer. The Union of Artisans held a lottery whose income was used as a fund for providing loans to its members.

The Jewish popular bank (Folksbank) played an important economic role in Joniskis. In 1920 it listed 50 members; in 1927, 240; (in 1929 the membership decreased to 220).

In 1939, there were 110 telephones in Joniskis. 38 of them were owned by Jews.

The number of Jews in the city started declining during the middle of the 1930's. The economic crisis that beset Lithuania, and the open propaganda of the Lithuanian Union of Merchants (Verslas) to boycott Jewish merchants and not to buy from them, forced many Jews to seek their livelihood in other places. On January 15, 1939, a resident of Joniskis published an article in the “Verslas” newspaper, proposing to expel all the Jews who arrived in Lithuania after 1918, to prohibit slaughtering, to prohibit them from selling liquor and beer, flour, crops, flax and seeds, to forbid them to maintain restaurants, cafes and hotels, and to limit the quota of Jewish students. He also recommended to hold the market days and the fairs on Saturdays and to prohibit every type of commerce on Sundays.

In 1920, the community committee established a Hebrew school, a kindergarten and a library. Joniskis also had a lecture club and a drama club.

Many of Joniskis' Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. All of the Zionist parties were represented in the city, which also had a branch of “WIZO”. The division of votes to the Zionist Congresses in Joniskis during the 1920's and 1930's is shown in the table below:

Congress
Nr.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total
Voters
Labor
Part
Revisionists General
Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrachi
Z”S Z”Z A B
14 1925 55 - - - - - - - -
15 1927 97 68 5 27 6 10 - - 20
16 1929 163 35 6 11 3 6 - - 9
17 1931 67 45 12 17 1 5 - - 10
18 1933 .. 300 188 82 16 - - 14
19 1935 .. 276 196 - 13 1 1 65
 National Party
21 1939 145 103 73 - 9 21

 

The Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in the city were: “HaShomer HaTzair", “Dror”, “Beytar” and “Bnei-Akiva”. The town also had branches of “Tzeirei Zion”, “HeKhalutz”, and an urban Kibbutz Hakhshara. Sport activities were held in the “Maccabi” branch, which had 48 members, and in the “HaPoel” branch.

Joniskis also had a relatively large and active branch of “The Union of Jewish Fighters in Lithuania's War of Independence” (“Frontkemfers”).

The religious life in the city concentrated in its 3 prayer houses. Torah studies took place in the “Shas Society”, the “Mishnaiot Society” and others. The religious youth were organized by the “Tiferet Bakhurim” (literally "Company of Splendid Young Men") society. Rabbi Nakhum-Bezalel Dzimitrovsky (1900-1941), who was among the activists of “Mizrakhi” in Lithuania, headed the Rabbinate in the city for many years. He was murdered, together with his community, during the Holocaust.

A local women's organization established the “Linat Tsedek” association.

Among those who were born in Joniskis were: Rabbi Shalom Izraelson (born in 1861), who wrote books on the Mishna and the adjudicators, and was subsequently a Rabbi in Milwaukee and Toronto; Ben-Zion Hirsh (1885-1935), a journalist and one of the founders of the Zionist Federation in South Africa, and a court judge in Johannesburg; Khaim-Yisrael Saks (1867-1934), subsequently the chairman of the Zionist Organization and the National Funds in Siauliai and a member of the Zionist Center in Lithuania. He emigrated to Eretz-Ysrael in 1932 and died in Tel Aviv; Eliezer Gendler-Kenaani (1896-1979), one of the founders of the “HeKhalutz” in Lithuania, emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael where he was a member of the “Gedud HaAvoda”, one of the pioneers of Kibbutz Tel Josef in the Jezreel Valley and the founder of the “Trumpeldor House” there; Yekheskel Pularevitz (1914-1995), one of the leaders of “Beytar” in Lithuania. In 1941 he was expelled to Siberia. In 1974 he emigrated to Israel and published a book of poems and memoirs under the pen name of “Avi Shavi-Maor”.

 

During World War II and Afterwards

In 1940 Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. The factories in the city, some of which belonged to Jews, were nationalized. Most of the shops were also nationalized. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew educational institutions were shut down. The supply of goods decreased and prices skyrocketed as a result. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and its standard of living declined gradually.

The German army entered Joniskis on June 24, 1941, two days after the war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union. Within days, Lithuanian nationalists took control of the local institutions. On June 28, they established a department that specialized in Jewish matters and supervised all the tortures that befell the Jews.

On July 11, 1941, a decree was published ordering all the Jews who fled to the villages in the surrounding areas to return to their homes and to wear a yellow patch. They were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, to converse with non-Jews, etc. On July 18, another decree was published, ordering the Jews to pay, by the following day at noon, a fine of 20,000 rubles because they did not comply with the orders that were published on July 11. After the money was collected and paid, the Jews were driven out of their homes and were concentrated in the synagogue. 150 Jewish men were taken out of the synagogue and were led to Vilkiausis Forest, about 5 km outside of the city. They were forced to dig pits there and were then shot and buried in those pits. On August 27, 1941 (4 Elul, 5701), after being forced to handover all their valuables and belongings, the remaining Jewish men, women and children were taken out of the synagogue and were led to the same forest, where they were all murdered. It has been told that the murderers forced the old Rabbi, Rabbi Nakhum-Bezalel Dzimitrovsky, to stand at the edge of the pit and count the number of Jews who were murdered. 355 men, women and children were murdered on that day. On September 1, the mayor of Joniskis wrote a letter to the mayor of Zagare, notifying him that during August 24-29, 150 Jews were transferred to Zagare. The names of the Lithuanian murderers are kept in the Yad Vashem Archives.

After the war, the municipality of Joniskis erected a memorial on the mass grave with an inscription in Lithuanian: “In this place, in 1941, 493 Soviet citizens were murdered and buried by Fascist killers”.

Bibliography:

Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, Q-33/1381; M-1/E-259; Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, files 77, 102.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
On the Ruins of War and Turmoil, edited by Moshe Shalit, Vilnius, 1930.
Gotlieb, Ohalei Shem, p. 35.
Di Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] – (Kaunas), 10.4.1928, 11.2.1929, 11.3.1929, 4.4.1929, 20.5.1932, 11.6.1936.
Der Yiddisher Kooperator [Jewish Cooperation] (Kovno), # 2-3, Feb-March, 1929.
Dos Vort - daily newspaper in Yiddish of the Z"S party, Kaunas -6.11.1935, 10.11.1934.
Dos Naie Vort (Kaunas), 2.7.1934.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), 20.5.1878, 4.3.1879, 8.9.1884, 8.8.1888, 20.4.1893.
Yiddisher Handverker (Kaunas), # 16.
Folksblat [The People's Newspaper] – (Kaunas), 20.3.1933.
Zum Yugent [To The New Generation] (Slabodka-Kovno), March 1928.
Zeit (Siauliai), 16.4.1924, 18.4.1924.

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