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Map of Lithuania

The 31 towns in this book

 

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Preface

This book is a compilation of the history of 31 towns of Lithuania. In order to fully appreciate and understand the history of each individual town, the reader is urged to first read the Introduction, written by the eminent scholar of Lithuanian Jewish History, Professor Dov Levin, retired chair of the Department of Oral History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Both Dr. Dov Levin and the author, Josef Rosin are themselves natives of Lithuania, were raised in the Lithuanian Jewish community and therefore are entitled to be called “Litvaks,” which they both proudly wear. They both grew up in Lithuania, Levin in Kovno and Rosin in Kibart, until the start of World War II. They met in the Kovno Ghetto where they were active in the Anti–Nazi underground and later in the forests of Lithuania as Partisan fighters against the German and Lithuanian Nazis. Both men, now retired, have devoted many years collecting and assembling information on Litvak history. In 1996 Yad VaShem published their work, Pinkas Hakehilot. Lita in Hebrew (Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania); it is a monumental work of over 750 oversize pages detailing the specific history of over 500 Litvak towns. Professor Levin is the editor and Josef Rosin, who wrote about 80% of the entries, is the assistant editor. Unfortunately this significant work is not accessible to the English reading public because it is written Hebrew. Fortunately, however, the introduction of that book has been translated and presented as the book, The Litvaks – A Short History of the Jews of Lithuania, by Professor Dov Levin, published in English in 2000 by Yad VaShem.

This current book now provides an even more detailed account of the 31 communities than presented in Pinkas Hakehilot. Lita (Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania), as the author is now able to elaborate and offer details that could not be included it due to space limitations. Further Josef Rosin mined the memories and photograph albums of many residents of these towns now living in Israel and elsewhere, to present an even more comprehensive picture of these communities. It must be mentioned that Josef Rosin has accomplished this task in good time, because, today, in 2004, those survivors who were young adults in 1941 are now past their 80th birthday. As I have discovered, the younger generation is finally starting to search for their history as it existed in their Litvak past, and so we are all fortunate that the author Josef Rosin has compiled this book through his thorough research.

It is my honor and pleasure to have been able to work with Josef Rosin and Professor Dov Levin and help bring this book to the English reading public.

Joel Alpert, Editor
Erev Succot, 5765, September, 2004


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Introduction

By Professor Dov Levin

(*) Identifies towns that appear in this book

The Jewish population of Lithuania, which on the eve of the Shoah numbered approximately a quarter of a million souls including Vilna region and the refugees from Poland, (although only around 0.9% of world Jewry during the twenty years of Independent Lithuania), had been recognized for a long time as a specific religious–cultural unit in comparison to neighboring Jewish centers of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Lithuanian Jews were distinguished by their intellectual and rational attitude. Not in vain, the Lithuanian Jews were nicknamed not only “Litvak”, but also “Tseilem Kop” (”Cross Head”), suggesting that the Lithuanian Jew would be ready to strike out vertically and horizontally (like the form of a cross, God forbid) in order to achieve his goal, or alternatively to cross check his findings in order to reach the absolute truth.

These attributes and others had implications not only in daily life, but they resulted in various phenomena, currents and systems in the social–cultural strata, such as the reservation of the majority of Lithuanian Jews about “False Messiahs”, their opposition to “Hasiduth” (Chassidism), their diligence for studying Torah in the Synagogues (Batei Midrash) as well in the “Yeshivoth Ketanoth” (Junior Yeshivoth) and all the more so in the “Great Yeshivoth.” Jewish Lithuania was famous for its great Yeshivoth of Slabodka*, Telzh*, Ponivezh* and Kelem, where hundreds of foreign students also studied. The Salant* community was also well known, because it was from here that the “Musar” (Ethics) movement began and spread (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter), whose principles were based on the idea of intellectual activity and knowledge in order to correct and improve the behavior of the individual. Lithuanian Jewry was also known for fostering the “Hibath Zion” movement, and later by practically adopting the Zionist idea, and at the same time an almost simultaneous openness to the challenge of the “Haskalah” (Enlightenment Movement), whether in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian or German.

From the historical review above, it seems that these impressive attributes and achievements, as well as the special character of Lithuanian Jewry within the Jewish world, developed alongside prolonged struggles for their economic and civil rights among the majority ethnic Lithuanian population amongst whom they lived, and this in spite of frequent changes of rulers.

The first settlement of Jews in the Great Lithuanian Princedom, also named Magnus Ducatus Lithuaniae, began in the fourteenth century by invitation of the Grand Dukes Gediminas and Vytautas (Witold). In 1388, one year after the Christian–Catholic religion was introduced all over Lithuania, the latter also granted the Jews a preferred civil status and incomparable bills of rights in many different spheres, such as protecting their bodies and property; freedom to maintain their religious rituals; significant alleviation in the field of commerce, and money lending – this being permitted in relation to Christians. There was a particular regulation to protect Jews against blood libels. But in 1495 (only three years after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry) Grand Duke Alexander expelled all Jews – then numbering more than 6,000 people – from Lithuania

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and confiscated their property. Eight years later, when he was also elected King of Poland (according to the joint rule of these two countries); he allowed Lithuanian Jews to return to their homes and gave them back part of their property. Most of the privileges from the time of Vytautas were left intact, even after this event, and for a long period they were of some importance in preserving the legal, civil and economic status of the Jews.

This situation often caused envy among the Christian townspeople, mostly Germans, who were organized in merchant and artisan unions (cechy) and who for a long time had enjoyed the “Magdeburg Rights” (according to the precedent granted to merchants in the town of Magdeburg in Germany) and now perceived the Jews as competitors who had to be fought. For example they managed to cause an edict to be proclaimed (De non tolerandis Judaeis) according to which it was forbidden for Jews to settle in Vilna and to trade there. In the course of time this interdict lost it significance, however insults to Jews by urban Christians, including students of theological seminars in this town and others, continued for hundreds of years.

This was not the situation of the Jewish population in the northwestern region of the Lithuanian Dukedom, called Zemaitija or Samogitia (the Jews called it Zamut). In contrast to the eastern and southeastern parts of the Dukedom, most of this region was settled by ethnic Lithuanian tribes who in contrast to most of their brethren, accepted the Christian–Catholic religion relatively late (1413) and had not yet been infected by Judo phobia with a religious background.

The first Jewish settlers in Zamut were involved in the business of customs and tax collection. A further wave settled in this region as a result of the expulsion of Jews from Vilna (1527) and Memel* (1567). At this time there were already Jewish settlements in Zamut, such as Utyan*, Birzh*, Zhager, Yurburg*, Palongen, Pokroy, Keidan, Kelem, Shadeve and others.

A considerable advance in the condition of the Jewish population and in the relationship between Jews and the entire population transpired during the period of the actual unification of the Great Lithuanian Dukedom with Poland within the framework of the “Polish Republic” Rzeczpospolita (1569–1795).

At this time and for many decades later, feudalism reigned in Lithuania. Most of the population continued to make their living from agriculture as before, from breeding cattle and poultry, from fishing in rivers and lakes and from harvesting trees. A few, mainly Jews, were peddlers, and even fewer Jews dealt with import and export of agricultural products. Very few Jews (generally those close to the establishment) were granted the privilege to lease the collection of levies. With the improvement of roads and sailing routes on the rivers – most of the latter flowed into the Baltic Sea – there was a gradual increase of internal commercial activity, especially the export of timber, flax, grains, poultry, cattle, milk products etc. As a result taverns and storehouses were established near the crossroads and in river ports that developed into villages and towns, where many Jewish artisans and merchants settled. Until the eighteenth century in the area of ethnic Lithuania, recognition as a town was granted to 83 settlements

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and rights for commercial activity to 87 settlements. In fact there was no big difference between a small and a big town.

An additional factor for Jews becoming firmly established in the economic sphere was the significant growth of the number of Jews who were employed by nobles and estate owners in managing their estates, and also in the leasing of barrooms and taverns in rural areas. As a result, the Jewish bartender or manager was exposed to hostile attitudes from the rural population, who regarded him as an agent of the noblemen who wished to exploit them.

Although most ethnic Lithuanians were already Christians, the belief in devils and ghosts had not yet disappeared, and now the “Jew” replaced these evil symbols. It was not difficult for the Lithuanians to believe in the veracity of the “Blood Libels”, a phenomenon that continued to exist until recently.

Despite this, West Lithuania, and in particular the Zamut region, became a relatively safe haven for thousands of Jewish refugees who survived the Period of Tribulation (1648–1667) which started with the mutiny of the Cossacks headed by Bogdan Khmielnitsky and ended with the occupation of Vilna by the Russian army. In addition to the refugees, the “Black Plague” ravaged the population of the region, causing many casualties.

Va'ad Medinath Lita” (The Lithuanian Jewish Council) played an important role in maintaining good relations between the general population and the Jews, as well as between the Jews themselves. This was a quasi–autonomic authority of the union of Jewish communities in the Polish Republic Rzeczpospolita. During 138 years (1623–1761), this authority effectively and honorably represented the day–to–day interests of about 160,000 Jews in the Lithuanian Dukedom vis–à–vis the rulers, and also managed to protect their physical safety and dignity against hostile elements in the Christian population. After the “Va'ad” was organized, the communities of the “Ethnic Lithuania” region were included in an administrative unit called “Galil Zamut.” Later it was called “Medinath Zamut” which included several sub–units like “Galil Birzh”* and others.

Far reaching changes in the legal and civil status of the Jews occurred during the third division of Poland in 1795, when most of Lithuania was annexed to Russia and became known as “The North–Western Zone”, thereby becoming an integral part of the entire administration of the Russian empire. In addition to the provinces (Gubernias), Vilna in the northeast and Grodno in the south, the provinces of Kovno in the northwest and Suwalk in the southwest were also added. These latter two provinces of Kovno and Suwalk included Kibart* and the other 30 Jewish communities which are covered in this book.

At the end of the 18th century there were several areas in this region where half of the population was Jewish and in a few even a decisive majority. In urban settlements, Jews usually tended to concentrate in a defined area, like a Jewish quarter, sometimes called “The Jews' Street.” The other Jews who were scattered or outside this area were strongly linked to and remained in close contact with the Jews living in the Jewish quarter.

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As in other areas in western Russia at this time, this region was also proclaimed as belonging to the “Tehum HaMoshav HaYehudi” (The Jewish Pale of Settlement) where many restrictive edicts and harsh limitations were imposed on the Jewish population, causing great hardship that continued almost until World War I.

At the same time the government was troubled by the isolation of the Jews and tried to deal with this problem in different ways, sometimes contradictory to each other. Thus in 1804 Jews were forbidden to live in the villages and sell alcohol to peasants, but as compensation they were allowed to live as peasants on land allocated to them by the government. Schools were opened for Jews, and in Vilna a Beth–Midrash (Seminary) for Rabbis was even allowed. In fact these institutions served as places for the development of a strata of learned men who spoke Russian, which gave them entry into the lower grades of the social and academic establishments. Most Jews who lived in the villages and in the small towns, whose main living was based on contact with peasants and the poor, managed with a minimal knowledge of the Polish and Lithuanian languages. However among the narrow layer of Lithuanian intelligentsia, still loyal to a great extent to the Polish culture and statehood, there were accusations that these Jews were in fact causing the spread of Russian culture on behalf of the ruling class. As a result the Jews found themselves “between the hammer and the anvil” in times of war, as during the invasion of Lithuania by Napoleon in 1812. Some of them, favorably impressed by their contacts with French officers, supported the provisional authority established by the French army and even helped to provide information, but the majority remained patriotic to “Mother Russia.” The Jews were thrown into even more critical situations during the Polish uprisings against Russian rule in 1831 and in 1863: as on the one hand they were suspected of sympathy with the rulers and some of them were murdered, whereas on the other hand there were the Cossacks, who had been sent by the rulers against the Poles, who abused the Jews after expelling the rebels.

During the revolutionary events against the rule of the Czar in 1905, progressive circles amongst Lithuanian Jews expressed their support for the Lithuanians, requesting national autonomy in ethnic Lithuanian regions i.e. in most of the areas of the Vilna and Kovno Gubernias and in particular in the areas of the Nieman (Nemunas) and Vilija (Neris) river basins.

In view of the elections to the all–Russian parliament (Duma) that took place in the years 1906–1917, preliminary agreements for collaboration between Jews and Lithuanians were arranged, and as a result three Jewish delegates were elected from the Kovno and Vilna Gubernias. At approximately the same time the local branch of the social democratic party in Lithuania published a proclamation in Lithuanian, denouncing pogroms against Jews in these Gubernias.

At the beginning of World War I there were severe assaults against Jews organized by the Russian army in several towns in Lithuania, among them

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Kuziai, on the pretext that they supplied information to the German army. Even after the libel was strongly refuted by a committee on behalf of the Duma, the military authorities did not retract this accusation. Furthermore, in the summer of 1915, before their retreat from the Kovno Gubernia when under pressure by the German army, they exiled 120,000 Jewish citizens deep into Russia.

Strict fulfilment of orders were imposed by the German military administration (Oberost) on Jews as well as on other residents, but their relations to Jews were correct and they even made allowances for their cultural requirements.

This attitude was due to the presence of several Jewish officers in the German army. Also the identity cards issued to Jews were printed in German and Yiddish. For political reasons the Germans did not allow the establishment of an autonomy framework for Jews, despite the intercession of personalities from German Jewry. A deputation of local personalities, including the chairman of the Vilna community Dr. Ya'akov Vigodsky, Rabbi Yisrael–Nisan Kark from Kovno and others, represented Jewish interests. Some of them advocated collaboration with Lithuanian delegates regarding the establishment of an independent Lithuania.

Considerably closer relations between Lithuanian Jewry and Lithuanians could be seen at the end of World War I, when Lithuania was proclaimed an independent state, and being interested in acquiring the support of world Jewry it granted a broad cultural autonomy to the Jewish minority. Despite the massive participation of Jews in the independence war of Lithuania and their empathy in the struggle against the seizure of the Vilna region by the Polish army, many Jews were nevertheless wounded in pogroms by Lithuanian soldiers in Ponevezh*, Vilkomir and other places at this time.

In the short period there after (1920–1925), which can be called “The Golden Era” of Lithuanian Jewry and the peak of its autonomy status, public Jewish issues were managed by local community committees which were supported and guided in their daily functions by central institutions in Kovno, such as: “The Jewish National Council”, the highest institution of the autonomy, “The Ministry for Jewish Affairs” etc.

 

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At left: Stamp of the Minister for Jewish affairs.
At right: Stamp of the National Council of the Jews of Lithuania.

 

The education system in Hebrew and Yiddish serving about 90% of Jewish children and the chain of popular banks (Folksbank) in 85 settlements were

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some of many achievements of the autonomy period. In most towns branches of Zionist parties and Zionist youth organizations were active.

Between the two World Wars a considerable number of Jews who left Lithuania immigrated to Eretz–Yisrael. Hayim–Nakhman Bialik, when visiting Lithuania and hearing Hebrew spoken in the streets, was so impressed that he called Lithuania “Eretz–Yisrael of the Diaspora.”

In contrast to the Zionists, the radical religious camp (Agudath Yisrael) and the Yiddishisht camp (Folkists and Communists) were numerically smaller. Although Hebrew was spoken in educational institutions, in youth organizations and also in a number of houses, their daily language was Yiddish, which was also the language of the six daily newspapers and other publications.

According to the census of 1923, its 156,000 Jews (7.6% of the entire population of Lithuania) were the biggest minority in the state. The Lithuanian majority numbered 1,701,000 souls (84%). Most Lithuanians were peasants, more than half of the Jews dealt with commerce, crafts and industry and the remainder with transportation, liberal professions and agriculture. Two–thirds of the Jews lived in the temporary capital city of Kovno (Vilna and a region around it was annexed to Poland during this period) and in cities such as Ponevezh*, Shavli and Vilkomir, while the rest could be found in 33 smaller cities and in 246 smaller towns and rural villages.

In spite of the high degree of loyalty that Jews showed to Lithuania and their willingness to fulfill their civil obligations to the state, by the end of the 1930s a considerable sector of the Lithuanian public and authorities decided to restrict the economic livelihood of the Jews. A prominent role in a defamation and incitement campaign on this subject was carried out in cities and towns by members of the association of Lithuanian merchants and artisans – Verslininkai. In their journal ‘Verslas’ they even advocated the prohibition of the employment of Lithuanian women by Jews.

At the same time the number of Blood Libel incidents – the so called “use of blood of Christian children for baking Matsoth” – increased. There were an increasing number of events where Jews were physically attacked on different occasions: students in Kovno university, by–passers in the streets, and others. Judging from the fact that specific attacks (such as shattering windows in synagogues and setting fire to wooden Jewish houses) were carried out in several villages at the same time, one can conclude that they were organized country–wide. It eventually became clear that some of the nationalist circles who favored these actions, had close contacts with various circles in neighboring Nazi Germany, in spite of the fact that Germany at about the same time (March 1939) annexed the Lithuanian port Klaipeda* (Memel), where Jewish residents escaped “by the skin of their teeth.”

This situation as well as the economic depression during this period which affected the Jewish sector in particular, strengthened left wing political circles amongst the Jews. Due to international tensions and an atmosphere of

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impending war, the possibilities of immigration to America, South Africa and Eretz–Yisrael were restricted.

With the return of Vilna and its region to Lithuania at the beginning of World War II, the number of Jews (including war refugees from Poland) increased to 250,000. Despite the difficult situation, Lithuanian Jews came to the assistance of refugees from Poland, and also showed a warm and generous attitude to Vilna Jews, with whom contact was renewed after a total severance of 19 years. This process stopped to a great extent on June 15th 1940 as a result of the takeover of all Lithuania by the Red Army and the application of Soviet–Communist rule with all that this implied. Despite the misgivings and reservations of many Jews, mainly from the Zionist sector and business owners, the new regime was accepted positively, particularly when the alternative was, according to the opinion of most people, which Nazi Germany could have taken over instead.

In spite of the fact that Soviet rule in Lithuania lasted for only one year, the Jews experienced severe changes in their social and economic position. Due to “Sovietization” they were harmed by the nationalization of the commercial (83%) and industrial (57%) sectors; by the elimination of the Hebrew education system and the religious institutions – the pride of Lithuanian Jewry; by reduction of the Yiddish press, and the closing of all public and political organizations, except those connected to the Communist party. A section of Jewish youth, particularly former members of Zionist youth organizations and Hebrew educational institutions, organized secret underground circles, where they maintained intellectual and social activities in Hebrew in a national spirit.

During this year the Soviet government imprisoned several Jewish leaders, local Zionist activists and also merchants. All of them were exiled to Siberia and to other remote places in the Soviet Union. Others who were destined for the same fate, but had meanwhile been overlooked for some reason, changed their addresses. In spite of the fact that Soviet rule had caused obvious suffering to the Jewish population, the Lithuanians blamed them for the loss of their independence, calling for revenge in due course. Meanwhile the Lithuanian national underground (L.A.F.) strengthened its secret contacts with Nazi Germany and the persecution of Jews, preparing for an uprising against Soviet rule in expectation of an invasion by Nazi Germany. And indeed, already during the first days of war between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, many Jews were murdered with bestial cruelty by their Lithuanian neighbors. Only a small number managed to escape to the Soviet Union, where some of them were privileged to fight in the ranks of the Lithuanian Division of the Red Army against the Nazi German army.

Since the German army managed to overrun Lithuania in a matter of a few days, the majority of Lithuanian Jews remained under Nazi occupation, whilst the hostile Lithuanian population continued ever more actively to perpetrate bloody pogroms, rapes and robberies against their Jewish neighbors. Thousands of Jews from all over Lithuania were imprisoned in jails and in various other

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localities which later on would serve as mass murder sites, according to a precise German plan which was executed with great enthusiasm by the Lithuanian military and policeman as well as local volunteers. The “Organized Murder” units would appear in villages where Jews lived, usually after the first pogroms. The scared and already plundered Jews were brutally concentrated into synagogues, in market places, in isolated farms or in other buildings. From there they were led, first the men and after that the women and children, to the mass murder sites. There they were forced, whilst being beating and suffering other cruelties, to hand over jewelry and any other valuables they carried with them, to undress and to go down into the pits which had been prepared beforehand, where they were murdered immediately with guns and machine–guns. The wounded and the still alive were buried together with the dead in mass graves. Their clothes and property were plundered by the murderers and local residents.

About 40,000 Jews who survived the mass murders of summer and autumn 1941 and who were destined to serve as a temporary labor force for the German war effort, were imprisoned in ghettos: Vilna, Kovno, Shavli, Shventsian and in several labor camps in east Lithuania. Even at the time of forced labor, organized murders, called “Actions”, were carried out as well as cruel deportations to regions outside Lithuania. With the Soviet–German front drawing nearer at the end of 1943 and in the first half of 1944, the Ghettos and labor camps were liquidated and their remnants transferred to concentration camps in Estonia and Germany. When the Red Army returned to Lithuania in the second half of 1944, there were then about 2,000 Jews in Soviet partisan units and the same number in various and odd hiding places which had not been discovered during the liquidation of the Ghettos and the camps. There were also those who had found shelter with non–Jews, mostly residents of villages far from the central towns of Lithuania. If one adds the number of Lithuanian Jewry survivors to those who escaped or were exiled to Russia, and those who survived the concentration camps in Germany, Estonia and elsewhere, it would seem that the enormous number of victims of the “Shoah” in Lithuania reached 94% of the 220,000 Jewish residents who happened to be under Nazi occupation: the greatest percentage in all of Europe! It is not surprising that most of the remnants of the “Shoah” left Lithuanian's blood soaked earth. A considerable number of them immigrated to Eretz–Yisrael.

In spite of the fact that the Kibart* community was relatively new compared to most other Jewish communities in Lithuania which had existed for hundreds of years, nevertheless during the second half of the twentieth century, the period discussed in this book, the differences between Kibart and other communities of the same size in this region became blurred. This tendency continued to some degree even after the political–social reversal that took place after the entrance of the Red Army into Lithuania on the 15th of June 1940.

Actually as a result of this invasion the anti–Semitic phenomena mentioned above was arrested, but nevertheless many of Kibart's Jews whose shops and enterprises were nationalized during the “Sovietization” were victimized

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economically and socially. Many other Jews were also harmed, in particular supporters and activists of the Zionist camp whose organizations were closed by the new authorities. In contrast to previous conditions, during this period it was possible for every Jew to integrate into every job in the government and into municipal institutions, but activists and friends of the leftist camp were preferred.

Shortly before the Nazi Germany invasion, several Kibart Jews were detained and exiled to Siberia for political and economic reasons.

With the German invasion into Lithuania on the 22nd of June 1941, a local government comprising Lithuanian nationalists was established in Kibart. They cooperated with the German authorities on the entire issue regarding the annihilation of their local Jewish neighbors and those from adjoining towns. This ‘action’ was executed in two phases: on the 6th of July 1941 (11th of Tamuz 5701) and on the 11th of September of the same year (19th of Elul 5701). Since then the Kibart Jewish community ceased to exist. A few survivors settled in Israel.

Sixty three years after the complete destruction of this community, one of its survivors, the Engineer Josef Rosin, decided to memorialize his family and community by producing this scholarly work and erecting this “appropriate monument” for his family and community, and also for thirty additional communities, about half of them near Kibart. In contrast to this “young” community that had been established in the middle of the 19th century, most of the other thirty communities were founded in the 17th century (like Yurburg*, Virbaln*), or in the 18th century (Ponevezh*, Telzh*). Only a few, such as Pren*, Meretch*, and Vilkovishk*, were established earlier.

With regard to these and other differences concerning the seniority and size of the surveyed communities and in order to compare the complex material presented equally, the author, correctly, as was done in the Hebrew book, “Pinkas Kehilot Lita” (The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities In Lithuania), presented the material of every community surveyed according to the three main periods in which they grew and developed during their existence: 1) from the settlement of the first Jews till after World War I; 2) their condition during the period of independent Lithuania between the two world wars; 3) their history during World War II and in particular under Nazi rule and their almost absolute (94%!) extermination by the perpetrators and their local neighbors and also the fate of the few survivors to date.

There are people who describe the history of Lithuanian Jewry from its flourishing beginning till its bitter and tragic end with the caption: “From zenith to nadir” or literally: “From highest pinnacle to lowest depth.”

This definition also applies to all the 31 communities that appear in the book under discussion. Furthermore, a graphic picture of their impressive growth at the end of period 1), their shrinking in period 2) and their absolute destruction in period 3) are given in the two tables below.

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Table 1 includes data of the Jewish population according to three censi (1847, 1855/57, 1897) taken in Lithuania during the 19th century, then under Czarist Russian rule. In addition to the absolute growth of the number of Jews in almost all of the 31 towns, they were the absolute majority in 18 of these centers by the end of the century, and this despite the large emigration of Lithuanian Jews to overseas countries during this period.

 

Table 1 Jewish Population According to Censi of 1847, 1855, 1857, 1897

Town 1847 % 1855–7 % 1897 % Remarks
Alite 262 (V) 753 (V)
481 (S)
37
33
(V) Vilna Gubernia
(S) Suwalk Gubernia
Aran 158 1,473 56  
Birzh 1,685 2,510 56  
Koshedar 317 38  
Kopcheve 528 40  
Kibart 533 45  
Lazdey 1,546 60 1,439 57  
Ligum 350* 482 60 *1876
Mariampol 2,853 82 3,268 48  
Memel 289 936* *1895 Prussian rule
Meretch 1,565 1,900 74  
Naishtot 1,671 53 2,091 45  
Naishtot–Tav 1,438 59  
Ponevezh 3,566 60 6,627 51  
Pilvishok 976 62 1,242 53  
Pren 1,479 64 1,190 48  
Salant 999 1,106 45  
Shaki 1,473 83 1,638 74  
Shat 802 1,135 68  
Serey 1,492 70 1,614 60  
Stoklishok 443 33 808 37  
Sudarg 627 91 ~600  
Tavrig 410 3,634 55  
Taragin 596 56  
Telzh 3,209 61 3,088 51 In 1797––1,650–66%
Utyan 1,416 2,405 74  
Vilkovishk 4,559 83 3,480 60  
Verzhbelov 1,219 37 In 1886––1,253–50%
Vishey 974 63  
Yurburg 2,527 2,350 31 In 1766––2,333
Zheiml 753 679 57  
Total: 12,691   22,419   52,53    
Over 50% of
Population
1   10   17    

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Table 2 shows data of the Jewish population in all the 31 towns during the period of independent Lithuania according to the census of 1923. It would seem that their numbers had decreased to a noticeable degree in most of the towns. Only in 7 towns the Jewish population increased to some extent. In spite of administrative manipulations by the authorities, the Jews retained their majority in only 4 towns (Meretch, Shaki, Shat, Utyan).

There is no doubt that the diminishing numbers of Lithuanian Jews was a result of the increasingly hostile attitude to Jews in the Lithuanian provinces. Not for nothing did people relate to this phenomenon as a bad omen in view of the impending slaughter, when Jews were executed in Lithuanian towns in the summer of 1941 long before the first German soldier appeared, often by their fellow townspeople.

A laconic but very reliable expression of what happened from then until the end of 1945 when Lithuania was liberated from the various murderers of the Jews, is given in the last column (from the right) in Table 2, where the conventional arithmetic symbol “Zero” is scattered over most of the table, meaning 100% of the Jews were murdered!

The reader of this book will understand the considerable differences between relatively large communities where there were several thousand Jews in the period of independent Lithuania (like Memel* or Mariampol*), and tiny communities which numbered only several hundred (like Kopcheve* or Sudarg*). Regarding the religious and cultural aspects three eminent communities should be recalled: Ponevezh*, Telzh* and Salant*, already mentioned before. Although “Hasiduth” (Hassidism) was not accepted by most of Lithuanian Jewry, there were at least two communities mentioned in this book (Utyan* and Birzh*), where congregations of “Hasidim” and “Mithnagdim” existed peacefully side–by–side.

The basic way of life of the communities reviewed in this book shows community life directed first of all to fulfilling religious commandments, e.g. “Hevroth Kadisha” (burial society), cemeteries, synagogues and different “Minyanim.” In bigger communities there were prayer houses for groups of worshipers of the same profession, such as artisans, merchants, shop owners, synagogue beadles etc. Special institutions for studying “Torah” were established: Batei Midrash for adults, “Hadarim” for children and “Yeshivoth Ketanoth” (small Yashivas) for youngsters. In most of the communities various groups of volunteers, acting under different names, worked in welfare organizations, among them “Bikur Holim” – for medical help and hospitalization; “Linath Hatsedek” – to support the poor and sick and to supply free medicines; “Gemiluth Hesed” – providing small interest free loans to the needy; “Zokhrei Petirath Neshamah” – commemoration of the deceased, etc.

Several communities established “Volunteer Fire Brigades.” These brigades, on more than one occasion, fulfilled an effective role in protecting Jewish communities in times of pogroms and riots. Here it must be noted that almost

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Table 2 Jewish Population of all 31 Towns during the Period of Independent Lithuania, according to the census of 1923

Yiddish Name of
Town
Jewish Pop. 1926
19226
% of Total Pop. 1945 After 1945
Alite 1,715 27% 0 +
Aran 399 ––– 0  
Birzh 1,807 34% 0  
Koshedar 596 31% 0  
Kopcheve 187 22% 0  
Kibart 1,341 21% 0 +
Lazdey 1,141 48% 0  
Ligum 240 32% 0  
Mariampol 2,545 27% 0  
Memel * 4,500 13% 751 in 1959
(0.8% of total population)
+
Meretch 1,400 66% 0  
Naishtot 901 32% 0  
Naishtot–Tavrig 664 37% #  
Ponevezh 6,845 36%   221 in 1959 66 in 1989 +
Pilvishok 909 38% 0  
Pren 954 29% 0  
Shaki 1,267 62% 0  
Salant 670 40% 0  
Serey 880 47% 0  
Shat 440 50% 0  
Stoklishok 391 22% 0  
Sudarg ? ? 0  
Tavrig 1,777 32%   14 in 1970
8 in 1989
Taragin 477 48% 0  
Telzh 1,545 33%   70 in 1970
23 in 1989
Utyan 2,485 51%   28 in 1970
9 in 1989 +
Vishey 516 40% 0  
Vilkovishk 3,206 44% 2  
Virbaln 1,233 31% 0 +
Yurburg 1,887 43%   14 in 1970 +
Zheiml 378 31% 0  

 

# The Berelovitz family returned home and 3 members of the family were murdered by Lithuanians.

Total 38,796

(*)In 1923 was performed the first census in independent Lithuania
(**) In January 1945 all Lithuania was liberated from the Nazis.
(+) Jewish population increased compared to the census of 1897 in all the other towns –decreased

[Page xiv]

every town in Lithuania suffered from one or more fires. Since most houses and synagogues were built of wood, most of the Jewish population became homeless. In such cases, the community Rabbis would publicize the disaster by way of letters, messengers and later also in the Jewish press in Hebrew and in Yiddish, asking for help from near and far communities. On the whole help arrived as requested, and similar methods were adopted for other disasters, i.e. epidemics.

It is worthwhile mentioning here that even before this monumental project was presented to us comprising a document of over 700 pages, Josef Rosin managed to publish, in Hebrew, the monograph “Kibart” published in Haifa in 1988 by the “Association of Former Kibart Citizens.” In 2003 an updated and extended edition of this book was published, which is included in this presentation.

I myself was privileged to have known Josef Rosin for more than sixty years, actually since 1943 in the Kovno ghetto, when we were partners in social and cultural activities in the underground organization of survivors of the Zionist–Socialist youth organization “HaShomer HaTsair.” Already then he was outstanding with his knowledge of different subjects and his moderate and balanced point of view in internal discussions. In particular he caused us happiness even in the depressive atmosphere of the ghetto, when he would play his wonderful music with his “Garmoshka” (Mouth organ). Later the sounds of his music also gave us pleasure in the heavily forested partisan woods of eastern Lithuania, when we were privileged to be partners of the fighters against the German Nazis and their local helpers. This pleasant tradition continued, when in October 1945 we happened to be together on an Italian fishing vessel, which transported 171 illegal Shoah survivors to Eretz–Yisrael. During these seven very difficult and trying days on board ship, he was given the job of allocating the scarce amount of drinking water provided for the passengers. (It is doubtful that he then foresaw that about half a dozen years later he would hold the position of a department head in TAHAL–Water Planning for Israel).

We arrived safely in Eretz–Yisrael, having evaded capture by the British police as illegal immigrants, where both of us joined Kibbutz Beith–Zera in the Jordan valley, and where we worked for some time in the banana plantations. Even after he went to study at the Technion in Haifa and I at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, we would meet at least once a year with the remnants of our friends who had shared our ideas and also the fate of the Kovno ghetto, while we, and our families would again enjoy the sounds of his mouth organ.

In due course we came to cooperate even more positively on this scientific–literary level too. This happened at the beginning of the nineties, when I was elected by the directorate of “Yad Vashem” to serve as chief editor with the task of planning all the stages and prepare all the required material for publishing the book “Pinkas Kehilot Lita.”

[Page xv]

Knowing well his involvement and expertise concerning the way of life of Lithuanian Jewry, and also his accuracy when writing, it was natural to approach Josef Rosin first to take on the assignment of assistant editor. I am glad to state that from then on until the publication of the first edition of the “Pinkas” in 1996, we were blessed with productive and beneficial working relations, the result of which is, even if indirectly, the content and standard of the book in front of us.

I wish to praise him for his great efforts in obtaining documentary and photographic evidence from many places in the world, in order to enrich the visual and historic dimensions of the people and the main events referred to in this book.

The author also deserves appreciation for his care in including with awesome reverence most of the names of his hometown's Jews. In view of the terrible tragedy that the Jewish people experienced, it is essential, in my opinion, to repeatedly mention the Jewish names of villages and even more so the names of Jews, particularly those who did not leave descendant or relatives. May we hope that, in this way, their names, at least, will not be lost.

Finally it is appropriate to mark with gratitude and appreciation the professional work of the outstanding American–born Litvak – our mutual friend Mr. Joel Alpert – who invested much energy in preparing this book with all its components and appendices that also have great historical value and human importance. Consequently we are speaking about an “Act of true kindness” (Hesed shel Emeth) for the hundreds of Kibart people and the other thirty Jewish communities that were destroyed, never to rise again.

Jerusalem, Eve of Shoah Remembrance Day 5764
Professor Dov Levin, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem


[Page xvi]

The Author, Josef Rosin, About Himself

I am a native of Kybartai (Lithuania). I was born on January 24, 1922 to Hayah (nee Leibovitz) from Marijampole and Yehudah Leib Rosin from Sudargas (Lithuania). They were the owners of a paper and stationary shop in Kibart (the Yiddish name of the town).

I received my elementary and high school education in Kibart, Virbalis and Marijampole. During the years 1939 to 1941 I was a student at the Civil Engineering Faculty of the Kovno (Kaunas) University.

I left my home for the last time on Friday, June 20, 1941, just two days before the German invasion into the USSR began. My parents and my sister stayed in Kibart and were murdered together with all the Jews of the town in July of the same year. I was in the Kovno Ghetto for more than two and a half years until the beginning of February 1944 when I escaped into the woods (first into the Rudniki forests and later into the Naliboki forests in Belarus). I remained there until the liberation by the Red Army. In August 1944 I returned to Kovno. At the end of March 1945, I joined a group of young Lithuanian Jews who determined that we should leave Europe and make our way to Eretz Yisrael; we became part of the movement that became known as the “Brikha” (Flight) movement. I left Lithuania and after the tribulations of the illegal travel through Poland, Slovakia, Rumania, Hungary, Austria and Italy, I arrived in Eretz Yisrael on October 24, 1945 on a ship of “Ma'apilim” (Illegal Immigrants). During the stay in Rumania I married Peninah (nee Cypkewitz) from Wloclawek, who had made a similarly difficult journey from Poland.

We lived in Kibbutz Beith–Zera in the Jordan Valley for nine months In the autumn of 1946 we left the Kibbutz and moved to Haifa, with the aim of continuing my studies at the Civil Engineering Faculty of the Technion. I was accepted in the second course (as a second year student) and after a further year delay because of the War of Independence, I completed my studies in 1950 with the degree of Engineer. In 1958 I received my M.Sc. in Agricultural Engineering from the Technion.

During the War of Independence I served in the Air Force in the Aerial Photography Unit and was discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant. I served in the Army Reserves until the age of 54.

During the years 1950–1952 I worked at the Water Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and with the establishment of “Water Planning for Israel” (Tahal), I joined this firm, where I worked until my retirement on the first of April 1987. For more than twenty years I held the position of Head of the Drainage and Development Department of that firm.

In 1989, I published my “Memoirs” in Hebrew and in 1994 in English.

During the years 1987 through 1994 I wrote many entries for the Hebrew book Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania (Pinkas Hakehilot–Lita) and participated in publishing this book as the Assistant Editor. This book was published by Yad Vashem in 1996, edited by Dov Levin.

[Page xvii]

In 2001 and 2002 I acted as the assistant editor for the publication of the Memorial Book of the Jewish Community of Yurburg, Lithuania – Translation and Update.

I have a married son and a married daughter and four grandchildren.

*******

The book I am presenting here contains “The Remembrance Book” about my hometown Kybartai (Kibart) as well as thirty articles on Jewish communities in Lithuania. About half of the articles are about towns in the Suvalkija region (the region on the left side of the Nemunas river) (Marijampole (Mariampol), Vilkaviskis (Vilkovishk), Sakiai (Shaki) etc.), that included my home town Kibart (Kybartai). The others I chose because they had larger Jewish communities (Telsiai (Telzh), Klaipeda (Memel), Taurage (Tavrig) etc.), or according to the request of people who originated from these towns (Salantai (Salant), Lygumai (Ligum), Seta (Shat) etc.)

I wrote these articles in English; nearly all of them were edited by Sarah and Mordehai Kopfstein, Haifa, Israel.

The articles on Alytus (Alite), Kudirkos Naumiestis (Naishtot), Marijamole (Marijampol), Panevezys (Ponevezh), Salantai (Salant), Virbalis (Verzhbelov) were edited by my cousin Fania Hilelson–Jivotovsky, Montreal, Canada.

The article on Seta (Shat) was edited by Joe Woolf, Ilaniyah, Israel.

The pictures included in the articles come from various sources: many of them were sent to me, at my request, by people from the relevant towns, living in Israel or abroad. Their names are printed beneath the pictures. Other sources are the four volumes of Yahaduth Lita published by “The Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel”, Tel–Aviv, and Yahaduth Lita by way of “Mosad HaRav Kook”, Jerusalem. Pictures of the massacre sites and the monuments erected on them were taken mostly from The Book of Sorrow, Vilnius 1997.


[Page xvii]

Common sources used in most of the articles were:

Yad–Vashem Archives, Jerusalem.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem: 55/1788; 55/1701; 13/15/131; Z–4/2548.
YIVO, NY–Lithuanian Communities Collection.
Kamzon Y.D. Yahaduth Lita, (Hebrew) Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem 1959.
Yahaduth Lita, (Hebrew) Tel–Aviv, 1960–1984, Volumes 1–4.
Cohen Berl,. Shtet, Shtetlach un Dorfishe Yishuvim in Lite biz 1918 (Towns, Small Towns and Rural Settlements in Lithuania till 1918) (Yiddish) New York 1992.
Pinkas haKehiloth Lita (Encyclopedia of Jewish Settlements in Lithuania) (Hebrew), Editor: Dov Levin, Assistant editor: Josef Rosin, Yad Vashem. Jerusalem 1996.
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass Murder in Lithuania) vol. 1–2, Vilnius 1941–1944 (Lithuanian).

[Page xviii]

The Book of Sorrow, (Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Lithuanian), Vilnius 1997.
The Lithuanians Encyclopedia, Boston 1953–1965 (Lithuanian).
The Small Lithuanian Encyclopedia, Vilnius 1966–1971 (Lithuanian).
From Beginning to End (The History of HaShomer HaTsair Movement in Lithuania) (Hebrew).
HaMeilitz (St. Petersburg) (Hebrew).
Dos Vort, Kovno (Yiddish).
Folksblat, Kovno (Yiddish).
Di Yiddishe Shtime, Kovno (Yiddish).
Particulars of each town are printed at the end of each article.


[Page xviii]

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to my relative and friend Joel Alpert for initiating, compiling, proof–reading, editing and publishing this book.
To my good friend Professor Dov Levin for his encouragement and advice.
To my friends Sarah and Mordehai Kopfstein who edited my poor English in most of the articles.
To Peninah, my beloved wife for almost sixty years, for her wise and sensitive remarks.
To my cousin Fania Hilelson–Jivotovsky for editing the English in some of my articles.
To the JewishGen organization for their willingness to publish this book and specifically Carol Skydell for her enthusiastic cooperation and participation in this effort.
To all the people from different towns in Lithuania living in Israel or abroad, who so willingly sent me pictures from their albums and in most cases identified the persons appearing in them.

J. R.

Remarks:

All the Yiddish and Hebrew names were transliterated anew according to the rules issued by YIVO for this purpose.

 

Notes to the Reader:

Dates in the book are written according to the European standard, as day–month–year, so that, for example, “Dec. 15, 1955” would be abbreviated as “15.12.55.”

[Page xix]

Because of technical difficulties the Lithuanian names of the towns and places are printed without the particular Lithuanian letters and symbols.


Glossary of Non–English words Used this Book

Agadah–Homiletic passages in Rabbinic literature
Agudath–Yisrael–Orthodox anti–Zionist organization
Aliyah (Ascent)–Immigration to Israel
Aron Kodesh–The Holly Arc in the Synagogue
Ashkenazi–Jew from Central or Eastern Europe, America.
Benei–Akiva–Religious Zionist Youth organization
Berith–Milah– Circumcision
Beth–Midrash–A Synagogue for praying and studying the Torah
Bikur–Holim–Welfare society for helping the Ill
Beitar (Brith Yosef Trumpeldor)–The Revisionist youth organization
Bimah–Platform, mostly in the middle of the Synagogue, for reading the Torah
Bund–Jewish anti–Zionist workers organization
Eretz–Yisrael–The Land of Yisrael
Ezrah (Help)–welfare society who took over the functions of the Community Committees after their liquidation in many communities
Gabai–Manager of a Synagogue
Gemara–Talmud
Gemiluth Khesed––Small loans without interest to the poor
Gordonia–Zionist Socialist youth organization
Grosmanists–Jewish State Party led by Meir Grosman
Gubernia (Russian)–Province
HeKhalutz (Pioneer)– Organization with the goal of enabling its members to move to Eretz–Yisrael after undergoing a serious course of training particularly in agriculture
Hakhnasath Kalah–Welfare society for helping poor brides to get married
Hakhnasath Orkhim–Welfare society for accommodating visitors passing through
Halakhah–Legal part of Jewish traditional literature
HaNoar HaZioni–The youth organization of the General Zionist party
HaPoel–the sport organization of the Z.S. party
HaShomer–HaTsair–leftist Zionist youth organization. In Lithuania its official name was: “The Young Guard Organization of Hebrew Scouts”

[Page xx]

Hitakhduth– Federation of several Zionist Socialist parties
Humash–First Five Books of the Bible (Pentateuch)
Kadish–Liturgical doxology said by the mourner
Kahal–Assembly
Karaite–member of Jewish sect originating in the eighth century, which rejects the Oral Law
Khalah, Halah–Loaf of bread made of white flour, prepared specially for Shabbat
Khevrah–Kadisha–Burial Society
Kheder (Pl. Hadarim) –Religious Elementary School
Kheder Metukan–Improved Kheder in which also secular subjects were taught
Khupah–Marriage ceremony
Keren Kayemeth Le'Yisrael (KKL) –The Jewish National Fund. Its goals were buying land, planting groves and other reclamation works in Eretz–Yisrael
Keren Tel–Hai–The fund of the Revisionists after they split from the Zionist Organization
Keren Ha'Yesod–Jewish Foundation Fund
Khibath Zion–(Love of Zion)–a 19th century movement to build up the Land of Yisrael before the establishment of the Zionist organization
Khovevei Zion–Members of the above mentioned movement
Khasidim–a sect in Judaism founded by Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov
Khevrah–Society
Kibutz Hakhsharah–Training Kibutz for the Halutsim before their Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael
Klois–a small prayer room
Lekhem Aniyim–Welfare society for supplying bread to the poor
Magdeburg Rights–the Constitution of Magdeburg was an example of almost full autonomy for many towns in eastern Europe
Magen David–The Shield of David–The National emblem of the Jewish people
Maoth–Money
Maoth Khitim–Charity Fund for the poor for buying flour for Matsoth
Matsah, Pl. Matsoth–Unleavened bread for Passover
Melamed, Pl. Melamdim–Teacher in a Kheder
Meshulakh–Emissary for collecting money for different institutions in Eretz–Yisrael
Mikveh–Ritual bath

[Page xxi]

Minyan, Pl. Minyanim–Ten adult male Jews, the minimum for congregational prayer
Mishnah–Collection of Oral Laws compiled by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, which forms the basis of the Talmud
Mithnagdim–Opponents to Hasidim
Mizrahi–Religious Zionist party
Mohel–Circumciser
Moshav Zekeinim–Home for the Aged
Linath HaTsedek–Welfare society for helping the ill
Oleh, Pl. Olim (Ascending)–Immigrant to Israel
Olim LaTorah–called up to the reading of the bible in the Synagogue
ORT Chain–International organization for spreading vocational education to the Jews
OZE–(Initials of the Russian name)–International organization for improving the public and personal hygiene of the Jewish population, in particular of the school children
Pinkas–Notebook, Register
Pesakh–Passover
Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion)–Socialist workers party
Poale Zion–Smol (Workers of Zion–left)–Radical leftist party, was forbidden
Rosh Yeshivah–Head of a Yeshivah
Sepharadi–Jew of Spanish stock
Shamash–Synagogue beadle
Shas–Abbreviation of Shisha Sidrei Mishnah–The six books of the Mishnah
Shekhitah–Ritual slaughtering
Shekel, Shekalim–the membership card of the Zionist organization that granted the privilege to vote at the Zionist Congresses
Shokhet, Pl. Shokhtim–Ritual slaughterer–s
Shtibl, Pl. Shtiblakh–Small prayer room for people of the same profession
Shul–Synagogue
Shulhoif–The backyard of the Synagogue
Shulkhan Arukh (The prepared table)–authoritative code of Jewish laws, written by Yoseph Caro (1488–1575)
Sidur–Prayer book
Somekh Noflim–Loans without interest for people who lost their business or property

[Page xxii]

Suvalkija –the Region of Lithuania on the left side of the Nemunas (Nieman) river
Talmud Torah–Religious school
Tarbuth Chain (Culture)–Zionist Hebrew chain of elementary schools
Tehilim–Psalms
Tifereth Bakhurim–Orthodox boys organization
Tomkhei Tsedakah–Charity
Tsedakah Gedolah–Charity
Va'ad–Committee
Va'ad Kehilah–Community committee
Va'ad Medinath Lita– Autonomous organization for Jewish communities in Lithuania (1623–1764)
Verslas–Lithuanian Merchants Association
WIZO–Women International Zionist Organization
Yavneh Chain–Religious Zionist Hebrew schools
Yeshivah, Pl. Yeshivoth–Talmudic college
Yeshivah Ketanah–Elementary Yeshivah for young pupils
Yiddishist–Ideological fan of Yiddish
Z.S. – Zionist Socialist Party
Z.Z. – Tseirei Zion Party––Young Zionists


[Page xxiii]

Lithuanian Name (Yiddish Name) Other Common spellings (Lat/Long)

lit4_00xxiii.jpg

 

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