Dedicated to my parents: Shmuel the son of Shimon-Yankev, and Lea Sara daughter
of Yisrael, and my sisters: Yokheved and Slova, of blessed memory
The History of Svintsyan
The time of the Middle Ages and the life in Poland--Lithuanian-Polish union
and its influence on the Jewish settlements--Expulsion from Lithuania
(1495)--Svintsyan and its founders.
Even an old Polish folk legend tells that Abraham Prokhavnik was elected the
first king in the land by chance. He relinquished this great honor and gave up
the throne to the Pole Piast. This was in the ninth century. For the first four
hundred years, the Jews lived in Poland undisturbed and were even accorded
special privileges. The renowned King Kasimir the Great, who ruled during the
years 1333-1370, gave the Jews free reign in business and trade as well as
religious freedom. The legend recounts that he married a Jewess named Esther.
After the death of Kasimir the Great, conditions for the Jews clearly worsened.
In the year 1386, an alliance was formed of the Polish kingdom and the
Lithuanian principality. Because of this alliance, the Lithuanian Prince,
Vladivostok Yagela (an erstwhile idol worshiper) converted to Catholicism then
married a Polish princess named Yadviga and was crowned King of Poland and
Lithuania. Under pressure from the clergy and the spiritual leaders of the
church, Vladivostok Yagela did not continue the previous rights of the Jews.
The relationship of the Catholic population to the Jews got worse. This found
expression in a variety of cruelties done to Jews as well as blood libels.
After the Polish-Lithuania
Alliance, a nephew of Vladivostok named Vitold, ruled Lithuania. It was he who
had implemented the previous tolerance toward the Jews, which had been started
by the Grand Prince of Lithuania, Gedimin, who lived from 1316 to 1341. The
Jews in Lithuania lived as they had previously done in Poland. The Grand Prince
Vitold converted to Catholicism at that time, but the Lithuanian people
remained idol worshippers and continued to venerate and worship their various
gods: Perkunas, Layimo, Geltino,
Fustayites, and others.
The mass conversion to
Catholicism occurred at the time that his nephew, Vladivostok Yagela, came to
Lithuania accompanied by a large contingent of priests. They began to spread
Catholicism among the Lithuanian people and were successful after great
The Grand Prince Gedimin
transferred the capital city from Troki in Lithuania to Vilna. Under his rule,
the Jews benefited from a certain amount of political autonomy, as well as free
trade and business privileges. His approach continued that of Prince Vitold as
opposed to that of Vladivostok Yagela in Poland, on whom the Catholic priests'
hatred of Jews had a tremendous influence. Yagela listened to their advice and
was not content with the usual limitations of Jewish rights. In addition he
instituted Jewish ghettos like those in the fanatical lands of Western Europe
at that time.
The kings who ruled in
Poland-Lithuania after Vladivostok Yagela were more approachable and treated
the Jews more humanely. In their time, Jews from Germany and Austria came to
live in Poland, because they were persecuted and tormented in those other
lands. In Poland they found a place of refuge. The Jewish refugees quickly
conformed to the prevailing conditions, and then a great Jewish settlement was
The great influx of Jews from
Western Europe also extended to Vilna. Many Jews settled in this beautiful,
northern city in the fifteenth century and laid the foundation for a great,
new, Jewish center. Several hundred years later, Vilna was renowned for its
Jewish religious and cultural institutions. That is why the rest of the world
called Vilna the Jerusalem of Lithuania, which says a lot.
Vilna was the capital of
Lithuania for quite a while. After the union of Poland and Lithuania and
especially during the reign of the Polish king, Kasimir IV (1447-1492), Vilna
also became a center for Polish culture.
Under pressure from the
increasingly powerful church and its priests and with the help of the Polish
element, in the year 1495 Lithuania issued a decree that all the Jews must
leave Lithuania immediately. This event is called in Jewish history: The
Expulsion from Lithuania (1495-1503).
Under the conditions which
prevailed at that time, the power of the Polish king was slight. He had to take
the various princes into account as well as the landowners (lords) and the
Polish nobility, who owned the majority of the land. Every lord made his own
laws on his own property and estate and also had his own trade. The peasants
who worked his land were, in fact, his slaves. They had their own militia, with
which the lord would wage war for his own interests as well as those of the
state. On his estate, each lord had his own customs, which the king, the
central government, didn't have to know about.
This structure and
organization took advantage of the Jews of that time, who, because of the
expulsion decree, had to leave the cities of Lithuania. They discovered various
lords who agreed to permit them to settle on their estates. These lords gave
these Jews a kind of asylum and citizenship. For the lord, the Jews served as
tenants, innkeepers, guards of water mills and windmills. There were also such
Jews as found favor in the eyes of the lords and became their financial
advisers. Some even minted coins for [their lord] with Yiddish and Hebrew
Some of these coins were found
in 1928, when the foundations of the buildings on the Stanislavov Estate were
being dug. They were also found in excavations on the Shvinte Estate in the
village of Bayari.
According to historical
documents, many Jews occupied themselves with the collecting of taxes for their
area as well as running their own businesses. This gave them great influence
with their lord, which in turn caused the enslaved peasants to envy and hate
the Jews. There were also cases in which the lords debased the Jews on their
estates and the Jews had no recourse but to endure great suffering.
In 1503, the expulsion order
against the Jews was rescinded. It became evident that the Lithuanian
principalities had suffered more from the expulsion than the Jews themselves.
There was a small Christian population in the Lithuanian cities and towns. They
did not participate in any sort of business or trade and did not have the most
minimal education or possess the necessary qualifications in any of the
necessary fields. Jews were needed in banking and medicine and other economic
branches, having brought their knowledge and experience with them from the
places where they had previously lived in Western Europe. (They were
physicians, finance specialists, merchants, craftsmen, etc.)
The annulled expulsion decree
caused many Jews to return to the cities of Lithuania. A great number of Jews,
however, decided not to return and remained on the feudal estates. These Jews
were in later years the founders of dozens of Jewish cities and towns in the
province of Vilna and the surrounding area.
The exact date when Svintsyan
was founded is not known, but it is commonly accepted that it was one of the
oldest cities in the area of Vilna (this according to the Polish Geographic Dictionary, which was published in Warsaw in 1895).
The Jewish settlement in and
around Svintsyan developed only because of
the Jews who had found a safe haven on the feudal estates during the years
The Jews, who because of the
expulsion decree had settled on the Tserklishki Estate, were certainly the
major reason for and formed the nucleus of the Jewish settlement in Svintsyan.
The whole area around the city of Svintsyan belonged to the well-known magnate
family of Polish nobility, Potocki. The members of their dynasty are embalmed
in the church across from the palace near the highway which goes from Svintsyan
to Vilna. The church has the Latin inscription Spec in Deo (Trust
in God) written on it.
The palace itself and all its
surroundings are located 2 kilometers from the city on a hill, surrounded by
forests and lanes of ancient trees, lakes, and a beautiful park, which
beautifies the magnificently built palace. All of this is located near the
highway which leads to Svintsyan. The city is located at the foot of the hill.
The Potockis were the masters
of the whole area. They were considered to be friendly to Jews and were the
protectors of the Jews in those times.
(The event that happened to
one of the Potockis in Vilna is typical. Valentin Potocki, a member of this
noble family, converted. He is known in Jewish literature as the
righteous convert of Vilna. Under no circumstances did he want to go back
to Catholicism and was, therefore, sentenced to death by burning. The Jews
buried his ashes in the Jewish cemetery in Vilna and on the site of his grave
there later grew a gigantic tree which looked like a person who had spread his
arms wide. Under the shade of this tree, the Jews of Vilna used to say memorial
prayers and honor the martyr who had been burned at the stake.
Many legends were told in
Vilna about this righteous convert, legends which enriched Jewish folklore and
found echoes in Jewish literature.
There is absolutely no doubt
that the founders of the permanent Jewish community in Svintsyan were the
far-flung Jewish settlers of the above-mentioned Tserklishki Estate as well as
other estates in that area.
Jews always strove to live
among other Jews for religious reasons so that they could pray together at
least on the Sabbath, holidays, and the High Holy Days. First a minyan was
created, then they pooled their resources, hired a teacher and they had a
school so that the children could learn Hebrew and be able to say blessings,
say kaddish, and know the most important, most necessary laws of [Jewish] daily
life. From this there developed the Jewish community life of the city.
Of course, not all of the
settlers left their estates and villages and moved to the city. Monetary
considerations forced them to remain where they could earn a living. Prospects
in the city were limited in those days; and they had to content themselves with
coming to the city for holidays, and for the High Holy Days so that they would
not forget their Judaism, to give their Creator a spiritual accounting, and
rededicate themselves to keeping his Torah.
For the most part, but with
certain exceptions, the settler was characterized by separateness and
ignorance. He was limited by having lived in the village for generations
without any opportunities for teaching his children the basics necessary for
being a simple Jew, for heeding the positive and negative commandments. All of
this used to disappear when the Jews from the towns and villages moved to the
city, which is what they wanted to do! Nevertheless quite a lot of Jews were
still in the villages and feudal estates around Svintsyan and in even further
outreaches of the area even by the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of
the twentieth centuries.
Favevyurke, Ligumi, Fashumeni, Shimini, Vigodke, and many other rural
settlements had some Jews living there.
In addition, Jews still lived
on the following estates: Tserklishki,
Stalinslavov, Shvinte, Zulave, and others as tenants, leaseholders,
innkeepers, and millers.
All of these above-mentioned
villages and estates were the residences of our great great grandfathers and
grandmothers, the founders and builders of Svintsyan, the city of our birth.
A Political Map of Svintsyan and Its Vicinity after World War I
TOPOGRAPHY AND DEMOGRAPHY OF THE AREA OF SVINTSYAN
Svintsyan - the capitol city - the specific characteristics of the area
official statistics of the Jews in the city and surrounding region.
The city of Svintsyan is
located 84 kilometers south of Vilna, on the main highway which goes from Vilna
through Polotsk to Moscow. This is the road which connects Western and Central
Europe to the southern part of the continent.
Svintsyan was proclaimed the
capitol city of the district of Vilna in 1795 after the third partition of
Poland. At that time, the country was definitively divided and occupied by the
three neighboring countries: Austria, Prussia, and Russia.
Lithuania, according to
geographic location, was given to Russia -- and as a matter of course,
Greater Svintsyan at that time
took up an area of 4,827.5 square versts
-- that is, approximately 5 thousand square kilometers.
On the southern side, this
region was bounded by the greater Kovno area and further around lay Disne,
Ashmener, and the Vilna area.
All of these areas belonged to
the region of greater Vilna. The mail routes connected them in all directions:
to Vilna--through Pobrodz and Kimelishok; Dvinsk--through Dugelishok and Vidz;
Gluboke--through Haydutsishok, Kamen and Postav; Svir--through Koblinik and
The topography of the
Svintsyna area is slightly hilly. Twenty-two percent of the whole area was used
by the village population for agriculture. Thirty-two percent of the whole area
was overgrown with woods (1600 square kilometers).
The biggest forests in this
area were: Labanarer, Dugalishker, Kaltinianer, Tserklishker, Karkazhiner, and
In addition, there were many
other smaller woods in the area.
Svintsyan as Photographed from the Lintuper Hill
The region of greater
Svintsyan had 106 lakes which occupied an area of 210 square kilometers. The
largest lake in the region, which was also the largest in Poland-Lithuania, was
Garatch. It took up 80 square kilometers. Other lakes, in order of size
starting with the biggest, were: Myadzl, Lishe, Svir, Shvakshta, Kreton, Furki,
Snavelishki, Zhemyane, and other smaller ones.
The inhabitants, who were
concentrated around the lakes, occupied themselves, for the most part, with
The flowing waters of the
rivers which cut through the region were utilized as a mechanical means of
running the water mills, the saw mills in the woods, and other things.
The flowing waters were
connected to Lake Vilye and further away to Nyeman, Disenke, and Dvine, which
empty into the Baltic Sea. The lakes were used as a natural and inexpensive
means of transportation and connected our area with all of the large cities. In
the near surroundings, this means, with Vilna, Kovno, Memel, Dvinsk and Riga.
This was the reason that a
great forestry industry and lumber trade developed around the lakes and rivers
close to the large forests. These industries were supported by the inexpensive
means of transportation and natural mechanical source of energy.
In the year 1862, the
Warsaw-Petersburg railroad line was built. It bisected the whole length of the
region from Vilna to Dvinsk. At that time there were the following stations:
Podbrodz, New Svintsyan, Ignaline, and Duksht. With the advent of the railroad,
the area was enriched with new towns, because these points developed in a short
time and grew into large Jewish settlements.
In forming the Svintsyan
region, 4 police districts were formed for administrative reasons; and, out of
those, 22 parishes were formed. The police districts were: Haydutsishok,
Vishnyeve, Lintup, and Kaltinian.
The area had 41 cities. They
were, in alphabetical order, as follows:
1. Ignaline 2. Bilegrudek 3. Gaviken 4. Dugelishok 5. Danisheva 6. Duksht 7.
Haydutsishok 8. Vishnyeve 9. Voystum 10. Zasvir 11. Zheladz 12. Zodzishok 13.
Terets 14. Lintup 15. Lingmian 16. Labanar 17. Meligan 18. Nyesnyenishok 19.
New Svintsyan 20. Svir 21. Sviranek 22. Sarakpol 23. Skadutchishok 24. Spyala
25. Strunoyits 26. Podbrodz 27. Palush 28. Faringe 29. Pashumeni 30. Favevyurke
31. Tseykin 32. Kimelishok 33. Kabilnik 34. Kamay 35. Klushtsyan 36.
Katzeygishok 37. Kaltinian 38. Konstantinove 39. Karkazishok 40. Kukutsishok
According to the official
statistics of the Polish Geographic Dictionary published in Warsaw in 1895, the general population of the Svintsyan area was
145,525 in the year 1880. In the year 1897, it was 172,000.
They were divided as follows:
82% Lithuanian, 6.5% White Russian, 5.5% Polish, 5.5% Jews, .5% Mohammedans,
Protestants, and others (Tartars, Gypsies, Germans).
In the year 1880, the city of
Svintsyan had a population of 6795. Among them were: 4,480 Jews, 880 Orthodox,
813 Catholics, 613 Greek Orthodox, 7 Mohammedans, Tartars, and 2 Protestants.
TheJewish Encyclopedia (published in Moscow in 1900) mentions that there were Jews in all of the
towns in the Svintsyan region. How many of them there were is given in numbers
only in those towns where the general population totaled more than 500.
The breakdown is as follows:
Jews in Svintsyan Region Shtetls
Total in Region (excluding Svintsyan)
It is worth mentioning that
according to the above statistics there was a great change in the number of
Jews in Svintsyan during different eras.
In the year 1765 the city had
only 462 Jews. By the second census, the Jewish population had an increase of 3
or 4 times that amount. This is thanks to the creation of an administrative
center which served the cities of the area and increased job opportunities for
Jews. From the surrounding villages, estates and parish towns the Jews moved to
Svintsyan. Their numbers continued to grow, and by the census of 1880 there
were already 4,480 Jews--that is, a ten-fold increase.
The decrease in population
comes in the 80's, when a great wave of immigration out of Russia took place
because of the political conditions in that country, affecting Jewish social
conditions. At that time, hundreds of Svintsyaners left the city and went with
the flow: some to the east, some to the west, some across the sea to America,
to South Africa and to Palestine.
Certain local events also
added to the diminution of the Jewish population in the city. These were the
two great conflagrations in the city, one in 1887 and the other in 1891. We
will talk about these at a later time. By the year 1897, the Jewish population
was only 3172 and this is the number more or less at which the population
remained until the decimation of the Jewish settlement there.
Svintsyan always considered
itself to be an important Jewish settlement in the province of Vilna in
Lithuania. This settlement disappeared, along with all of the other previously
enumerated Jewish settlements, with the general annihilation of Jews in Europe
in the years 1941- 1945.
1. A verst is a Russian land measurement equal to 2/3 of a mile.
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