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[Page 78]

Kavarskas (Kovarsk)
(Kavarskas, Lithuania)

55°26' 24°55'

Kavarskas (Kovarsk in Yiddish) is situated in the center of Lithuania, 24 km (15 miles) from the district administrative center of Ukmerge (Vilkomir), on the west bank of the Sventoji River.

Kovarsk is mentioned in historical documents from the middle of the fifteenth century. From the start of the sixteenth century the town was owned by several Polish estate families, Oginsky, Tishkevitz, Chichinsky and others. During Russian rule (1795–1915) Kovarsk was at first a part of the Vilna Province (Gubernia), but from 1843 it was transferred to the Province of Kovno. By the middle of the nineteenth century the town had grown and developed significantly. Merchants had settled there. There were regular fairs and market days and it had become a county administrative center. During 1915–1918 Kovarsk was under German rule, but during the period of independent Lithuania (1918–1940) Kovarsk reverted to being a county administrative center.

 

Jewish Settlement until World War II

Jews probably settled in Kovarsk at the end of the eighteenth century. It is known that in the middle of the nineteenth century an organized Jewish community already existed there. It employed a rabbi and a shokhet (ritual slaughterer).

Kovarsk Jews made their living by trading in flax, seeds, grains and timber. Timber merchants came to the town, bought up plots of woods in the surrounding areas, felled the trees and transported them to the river where they were floated as rafts. This was a source of income for many Jewish families. The Jews of Kovarsk also exported geese and fruit. They owned large shops selling food products and textiles.

342 Jews were resident in 1847, and by 1897 the population had increased to 1,546, including 979 (63%) Jews.

In 1883 a severe quarrel erupted over an issue concerning the local shokhet who had served the community for 20 years. In that same year an extensive fire broke out. The victims were assisted through the generosity of an estate owner named Chichinsky.

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In 1898 the community split into two camps over the issue of electing a new rabbi after the demise of Rabbi Yehudah–Leib Grinshtein, who had officiated for 30 years. One camp favored the appointment of Grinshtein's young son to the rabbinic chair, but only after he had been ordained. The other group proposed Yisrael–Yehoshua Segal as the town's Rabbi. After a long quarrel, Rabbi Segal was successful and the community paid young Grinshtein 600 rubles as compensation, whereupon peace returned to the town.

The following Rabbis officiated in Kovarsk thereafter:

Josef Kanovitz (1878–?), in Kovarsk from 1907 and later in America from 1915
Hayim Rudnia (1867–?) officiated in 1910
Avraham–Aba Kriger (1876–?) officiated in Kovarsk in 1913.

During 1891–1892 there were 21 subscribers to rabbinic literature in town.

In a list of donors to the settlement of Eretz–Yisrael dated 1909 the following names of Kovarsk Jews appear: M. Lurie, Menahem–Asher Helman, Meir Panavky, Shabtai–Pinhas Shmidt, Josef Shklar, Shneur–Zalman Shifrin, Shemuel–Eliezer Levinson. In another list dated 1914 many names of Kovarsk Jews can be found; the fundraiser was M. Luria. The corespondent of the publication HaMelitz was Yehuda son of Mosheh Zilb.

At the end of July 1915, during World War I, Kovarsk Jews were exiled to Russia by the retreating Russian army, which burned down more than half the town. Retreating Cossack battalions carried out a pogrom against them as they robbed, raped and murdered. After the war only half of the exiles returned.

 

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Kovarsk – General View

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Following the law of autonomies for minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister for Jewish affairs Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections for community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919, and in Kovarsk seven members were elected. During its years of activity the committee was involved in all aspects of Jewish community life. According to the first government census in 1923 there were 1,041 residents in Kovarsk and 436 (42%) of them were Jews.

At this time Kovarsk Jews made their living from trade, peddling, crafts and small industry. The weekly market and the quarterly fairs contributed a substantial part of their livelihood.

According to a survey of shops performed by the government in 1931, Kovarsk had fifteen stores, eleven of which were owned by Jews.

The distribution according to type of business is given in the table below:

Type of business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 1 1
Grain and flax 3 3
Butcher shops and Cattle Trade 3 3
Restaurants and Taverns 2 0
Textile Products and Furs 2 2
Books and Stationery 1 0
Medicine and Cosmetics 1 0
Heating Materials 1 1
Bicycles and electrical equipment 1 1

 

According to the same survey seven enterprises were owned by Jews: two wool combing plants, two flour mills, one leather processing factory; one light drink factory and one bakery.

In 1937 there were 24 Jewish artisans: seven tailors, three shoemakers, three potters, two blacksmiths, two barbers, two butchers, one hatter, one knitter, one felt boots maker, one leatherworker, one dressmaker. In 1925 Kovarsk had one practising Jewish doctor, Ber Kafor.

The Jewish Folksbank played an important role in the economic life of Kovarsk's Jews. It began its activities in 1920 with 31 members: by 1927 the membership had risen to 104, but decreased to 90 members by 1935. In 1939 there were twelve telephone–owners, two of them Jews.

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The Lithuanians established consumer cooperatives in 1919 and these began to compete with the Jewish shops. They encouraged a boycott of the Jewish shops.

In the same year, on the Lithuanian army recruitment day, the Lithuanians attacked and robbed Jewish stores. In several homes, shutters, windowpanes and even doors were smashed. Officers of the recruitment committee managed to stop the frenzied crowd and dispersed them, but many Jews were harmed and economically destroyed. The national economic crisis at the beginning of the 1930s affected the town's Jews badly and as a result many emigrated to South Africa and a few to Eretz–Yisrael.

Jewish children received their elementary education in the Hebrew school of the religious Yavneh network, where Yiddish was the language of instruction in some of the classes. The community had erected the school building, which a former Kovarsk resident generously financed. Forty pupils studied there in 1935. Some of its graduates continued their studies at Or (Light), the Hebrew high school in Vilkomir.

The library, with its 500 Hebrew and Yiddish books, had an extensive circle of readers. The town also had a repertory society, which occasionally performed stage shows: its income funded the buying of books for the library.

The rabbis during this period were Duber Shnitser and Dov Sukmansky; both were victims of Lithuanians in the Holocaust.

Many of the local Jews belonged to the Zionist movement and almost all Zionist parties had their subscribers. These included the Sirkin Society (Z. S.) and Hehalutz–Hatsair, one of the Zionist youth organizations.

 

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The Beth Midrash

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The results of the elections for Zionist Congresses are given below:

Con
No.
Year Tot Shek Total Votes Labor Party
Z”S Z”Z
Rev. Gen. Zion.
A B
Gros. Miz.
16 1929 10 1
17 1931 16 6 2 1 3
18 1933 6 66
19 1935 &91 86 1 2 1 1

Key: Cong No. = Congress Number, Tot Shek = Total Shekalim, Rev = Revisionists, Gen Zion = General Zionists, Gros = Grosmanists, Miz =Mizrahi

 

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The rabbi (seated in the middle) with the Gabaim

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The Bath House

 

The writer Eliezer Heiman (1910–1944) was born in Kovarsk. He published stories in Hebrew and Yiddish in the Jewish press and also published the historic story “Avraham Mapu” (Kovno 1937). He perished in the Kovno ghetto.

 

During World War II and Afterwards

In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, the majority of the shops belonging to the Jews of Kovarsk were nationalized and commissars were appointed to manage them. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and Hebrew educational institutions were closed. The supply of goods decreased and, as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore the brunt and the standard of living dropped gradually.

After the German army invaded the Soviet Union on the June 22, 1941, Lithuanian nationalists took over Kovarsk. They entered Jewish houses and robbed them of anything they fancied. They broke windows in Jewish houses and set fire to the Jewish homes in Ukmerge Street. They detained thirty Jewish men and women on the pretext that they were supporters of Soviet rule, but the probable reason was a personal grudge. With the entry of German troops into the town on the June 26th, all those detained were shot on the banks of the river, near the village of Pumpuciai, south of Kovarsk. The situation of the remaining Kovarsk Jews, who lived in mortal fear, was unbearable. The Lithuanians humiliated them, maltreated them and robbed

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them of their property. Later, they led them to Vilkomir (Ukmerge), where they were murdered en masse in Pivonija forest together with other Jews, both from the town itself and from its surroundings. This atrocity apparently occurred on September 5th, 1941 (13th of Av 5701). No Kovarsk Jews survived. The names of the Lithuanian murderers can be seen in the archives in Yad Vashem.

 

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The mass grave near Pumpuciai village

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At the beginning of the 1990s a monument was erected on the mass graves adjacent to Pumpuciai village and on it the inscription in Yiddish:
“At this site in 1941, Hitler's murderers and their local helpers killed Kovarsk's Jews, men, women and children.”
“May their memory be sacred.” is written below in Lithuanian.

 

lit5_085b.jpg

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lit5_085c.jpg
The monument located on the mass grave at Pivonija forest.
The inscription in Yiddish, Hebrew and Lithuanian says:
“In this place in the days in the year 1941 the Nazi murderers and their local helpers executed 10,239 Jews – men, women, children.”

 

Sources:
Yad Vashem Archives –M–33/978
Dos Vort (The Word, Yiddish), Kovno – 17.12.1934
Di Yiddishe Shtime (The Jewish Voice, Yiddish) Kovno–29.8.1919; 31.5.1922; 23.2.1923; 15.7.1930; 16.6.1936; 14.9.1938
Folksblat (Yiddish) (Popular Newspaper), Kovno – 10.7.1930; 15.7.1935
HaMelitz (Hebrew), St. Petersburg – 5.11.1883; 23.11.1883; 28.12.1883; 13.6.1899; 4.8.1899.

 

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