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[Page 352]

Pilvishok
(Pilviškiai, Lithuania)

54°43' 23°13'

Pilvishok – as it was called by the Jews – is situated in the southwestern part of Lithuania, where the stream Pilve flows into the river Sesupe, and is near the St.Petersburg–Berlin railway line. In the 16th century a village with that name had already existed there. In 1792 the town was granted the Magdeburg rights.

Until 1795 Pilvishok was part of the Polish Lithuanian Kingdom, but after the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times – Russia, Prussia and Austria – Lithuania became partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part of the state on the left side of the Nieman river (Nemunas), including Pilvishok, was handed over to Prussia, and this town, then called Pilwischken, was under Prussian rule from 1795 until 1807, during which it served as a county administrative center. In 1797, its 67 houses were inhabited by 338 people.

After Napoleon defeated Prussia, and in accordance with the Tilzit agreement of July 1807, Polish territories occupied by Prussia were transferred to what became known as the “The Great Dukedom of Warsaw”, established at that time. The King of Saxony, Friedrich August, was appointed Duke, and the Napoleonic code became the basis of the constitution of the Dukedom, according to which everybody was equal before the law, except for the Jews who were not granted any civil rights.

During the years 1807–1813, Pilvishok belonged to the “Great Dukedom of Warsaw”, being part of the Bialystok district. During these years it was a poor town with 350 inhabitants. The Napoleonic code was then introduced in this region, remaining in effect even during the Lithuanian period.

In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, all of Lithuania was annexed to Russia. As a result, Pilvishok was included in the Augustowa Region (Gubernia), being part of the Suwalk Gubernia and a county administrative center in 1866.

In 1827 the population of Pilvishok was 888 persons. In 1862 the railway line from St.Petersburg to Berlin was constructed, as a result of which Pilvishok started to develop. A railway station was built near the town and this enabled the export of agricultural goods, horses and poultry, to Prussia.

Pilvishok suffered from large fires in 1887 and 1906. In February 1915, during World War I, the German army occupied the town. In May of the same year the Russian army bombed the town, causing bilargeg fires. German rule continued till 1918, after which the independent Lithuanian state was established.

During the period of independent Lithuania (1918–1940) Pilvishok was included in the Vilkovishk (Vilkaviskis) district as a county administrative center, continuing to serve as such also during Soviet rule (1940–1941).

On the 23rdof June 1941 the German army entered Pilvishok and ruled there, with all its murders and atrocities, till July 1944, when the Red Army recaptured the town. As a result of the heavy fighting the center of the town was totally ruined.

[Page 353]

Jewish Settlement till after World War I

Jews settled in Pilvishok during the second half of the 18th century. They peddled goods in neighboring villages and would return home only for Shabath and holidays. Jewish artisans, such as tailors, a baker, candle makers etc. made a living there, and there were Jews owning shops and taverns, a brick factory, a wool combing workshop and a dyeing plant.

The railway station on the line of St. Petersburg–Berlin and the proximity to the Prussian border (about 30 km) enabled good conditions for trade with Germany. The Jews dealt in exporting grain, flax, horses and poultry, mainly geese which were bought all over Russia and then loaded on to the train in Pilvishok and sent to Germany.

In 1865, 1,568 people lived in Pilvishok, of whom 976 were Jews (62%). Several Pilvishok Jews appear in a list of emigrants from 1869/70: Sarah Gotshtein, M.Skeshevsky, Bialoblotsky.

A few years before the war, Jewish merchants began to import chemical fertilizer and agricultural machines for the nearby farmers, and several Jewish families were farmers themselves.

The great fire of 1887 caused about 300 Jewish families to become impoverished and miserable. The issue of “HaMeilitz” (The Hebrew newspaper published in St.Petersburg) dated 15th of August 1887 and signed by the local Rabbi Ya'akov–Meir Levin, published a moving call asking for help for victims of the fire.

In 1894 robbers attacked a Jewish house and murdered two families. In 1897 there were 2,335 inhabitants in town, of whom 1,242 were Jews.

Jewish children studied as usual in a “Kheder” and in a “Yeshivah Ketanah”. The elder ones continued their studies at the Lithuanian “Yeshivoth”, like Slobodka and others. In addition there was a group of intellectual people who received books from “The Society for Spreading Knowledge among Russian Jews” in Odessa, to whom Shemuel Levin sent thanks in 1881. In 1883 this group received books and periodicals, such as “HaMeilitz” and “HaShakhar”, from a similar society in St.Petersburg.

The Zionist idea influenced many houses in Pilvishok and the town's Zionists were very active. Several Zionist youth organizations were active in, such as “Degel Zion” (Flag of Zion), “Ne'aroth Zion” (Girls of Zion), “Benoth Zion” (Daughters of Zion), whose membership was divided up according to their age. The Zionists initiated courses for Yiddish and Hebrew, established a library and organized shows on improvised stages in big barns.

The town's delegate for the regional conference of Russia's Zionists, which took place in Vilna in 1900 with 168 delegates, was David Kopilovitz. A delegate from Pilvishok participated also in the congress of Zionist Societies, which took place in Suwalk in 1913. In the year 1901/02, 47 “Shekalim” were sold in town. (A Shekel–membership card of the Zionist organization gave the member the right to vote for Zionist congresses).

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The Synagogue

 

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Beth HaMidrash

[Page 355]

In addition to prayers, the activities of different societies studying Judaism took place in the Synagogue and the Beth–Midrash. These included the “Shas (Talmud) Society”, the “Mishnah Society”, the “Ein Ya'akov Society” and the “Tehilim Society” for common people, coachmen and peddlers. The rabbi of the Talmud Society was Zalman–Dov Rashigolsky, whose wife ran a small grocery to earn their living. Later on he emigrated to America, where he served as Rabbi. He published two books on “Halakha” and “Agadah”.

Welfare during this period was dispensed by the “Gemiluth Khasadim” and “Somekh Noflim” societies, who helped the needy with financial support and loans without interest. “Gemiluth Khasadim” was established in 1876 with a capital of 1,500 . It loaned 25 per year, repayable in monthly installments. “Somekh Noflim” gave loans of 15 per year.

Many names of Pilvishok Jews appear in a list of donors for Jewish victims of fires in 1895.

 

Independent Lithuania (1918–1940)

On February 16th, 1918, the Lithuanian State was proclaimed and established. Consequently the German army withdrew from the area, and life in Pilvishok gradually returned to normal.

Following the law of autonomy for minorities, issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister for Jewish affairs Dr. Menakhem (Max) Soloveitshik ordered elections for community committees (Va'ad Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In Pilvishok these took place in 1920 and a committee of 11 members was elected: 5 from “Tseirei–Zion”, 2 from “Tseirei Yisrael”, 2 from “Agudath Yisrael” and 2 undefined.

The committee collected taxes as required by law and was in charge of all aspects of community life until the end of 1925 when the autonomy was annulled. Of all the employed in 1924 there were only 178 taxpayers, the remainder being miserably poor. According to its protocols for 1921, tens of children received shoes and dresses from this committee.

After the new regime had established itself, Jews began to return to their pre– war businesses, but the situation had changed. The breakaway of Vilna merchants who had enjoyed close commercial relations with Pilvishok merchants, as well as government policy to bypass Jewish merchants, caused deterioration of the economic situation of the Jewish population. Thus many Pilvishok Jews emigrated abroad and the number of the Jews decreased. The remaining Jews made their living from petty commerce, crafts and agriculture, but many of them needed help from their relatives in America.

According to data provided by the 1931 government survey of business stores in the state, Pilvishok had 46 stores, 41 of them owned by Jews (89%). A breakdown of the stores by type of business is given in the table below:

[Page 356]

Type of the business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 4 3
Butchers and Cattle Trade 8 7
Restaurants and Taverns 7 7
Food Products 5 5
Beverages 1 1
Textile Products and Furs 8 8
Leather and Shoes 2 2
Medicine and Cosmetics 2 0
Watches, Jewels and Optics 2 2
Tools and Steel Products 2 2
Heating Materials 1 1
Barber shops 4 3

 

According to the same survey Pilvishok had 6 workshops, 3 of them owned by Jews, these being for cement products, for combing wool and a sewing workshop.

In Pilvishok the biggest factory operated in Lithuania for processing furs which employed 200 workers. It was owned by the local Fridman family.

In 1937, 21 Jewish artisans could be found in Pilvishok: 5 butchers, 4 tailors, 2 tinsmiths, 2 watchmakers, 2 barbers, 1 glazier, 1 hatter, 1 shoemaker, 1 painter, 1 photographer and 1 stitcher.

The Folksbank played an important role in the economy of local Jews, and had 299 members in 1927.

In 1939 there were 53 telephone owners, 19 of them in Jewish homes.

In 1921 a Hebrew school of the “Tarbuth” chain was established in Pilvishok, with about 130 pupils, including “Torah” studies taught by volunteer teachers, in order to prepare the children for the “Small Yeshivoth”, which existed in Lithuania. Some of the graduates of the Hebrew school continued their studies at the Hebrew high school in nearby Vilkovishk (12 km. Away). The “Tarbuth” society maintained a library and a dramatic circle.

In 1928 a Hebrew Kindergarten opened in town, with 15 children.

All Zionist parties had their adherents in Pilvishok, but the labor party was the most active, influencing the cultural life in town very much. At the elections for the first Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) in 1922, 279 persons voted for the Zionist list, for “Akhduth” (Religious)–141, and for the Democrats–2.

[Page 357]

Fragments of the governmental survey of shops in Vilkaviskis District in 1931

lit4_357.jpg

[Page 358]

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Pilvishok young men at the market square

From left: Yehudah (Julius) Markson, Yashke Goldberg, ––––––, Eliyahu Vizhansky * Mosheh Golomb * , ––––––, Yeshyahu Goldberg *and son *, Yitskhak Ginzburg *,––––.
*–murdered in the Holocaust

 

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Street in Pilvishok–at left the pharmacy

[Page 359]

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The Hebrew Kindergarten 1935 - 1937

[Page 360]

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Pilvishok Jewish Scouts 1925–26

Sitting at the middle: Rachel Levin (died in Israel)
Standing at second line from right: Miriam Kopilovitz (Died in Israel)

 

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Pilvishok Jewish Scouts

Standing from left: second–Miriam Kopilovitz, fourth–Pesia Goldenzon (Died in Israel)

[Page 361]

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Pilvishok Jewish Youth

 

The results of the elections to 6 Zionist congresses (1925–1935) are presented in the table below:

 

Congress
No.
Year Total
Shekalim
Total Voter Labor Party
Z”S Z”Z
Revisionists General Zionists
A B
Grosmanists Mizrahi
14 1925 46
15 1927 63 51 7 13 3 19 9
16 1929 117 48 9 12 9 15 3
17 1931 117 42 25 33 9 8
18 1933 342 244 68 9 4 17
19 1935 400 379 277 8 43 5 46

 

The Zionist youth organizations included “Gordonia” with 50–60 members (the activists: Hanah Pantinsky, Miriam Revelman, Devorah), and “HaShomer HaTsair” as from 1920. A conference which established “The Jewish Scouts Organization HaShomer HaTsair of Lithuania” took place on the 16–18th of April 1922, with the participation of 12 delegates from 6 “Gedudim” (regiments), among them 2 delegates from Pilvishok, “Beitar”, “HeKhalutz HaTsair” and Z”S (Sirkin Society). Near the town a training Kibbutz named “HaSolel” was established. Its members worked for some time in diverting the river Sesupe as part of a plan to construct a hydroelectric power station. This station was built and supplied electricity for Pilvishok and its vicinity.

The Khalutsim and members of the youth organization who emigrated to Eretz Yisrael were among the founders of Kibbutz Givat Brener and other Kibbutzim.

[Page 362]

Sport activities took place at the local branch of “Maccabi”, with about 70 members.

In the middle of the 1920s Pilvishok Jews started to rebuild the synagogue which had been ruined during the war, but a sum of $10,000 was needed for its completion, which they were unable to collect. In 1928 a committee of 7 members was elected, headed by the “Shokhet” Avraham–David Axel.

The welfare institutions which existed before the war continued their activities during this period as well. For “Ma'oth Khitim” (Help for Pesakh for the Needy) 400 Litas was collected every year during the twenties. In 1922, according to the request of the “Nationalrat” (The National Council of Lithuanian Jews), several fund raising events were held in Pilvishok to help starving children in Russia.

The rabbis who served in Pilvishok during the years were:

Aharon Volkin (1865–1942), published many books on religious issues, murdered in Pinsk.

Ya'akov–Meir Levin in 1887 already Rabbi in Pilvishok, died in 1906.

Yekhiel–Ya'akov Veinberg (1885–?), was Rosh Yeshivah at Hildesheimer's Beth–Midrash for rabbis in Berlin, published many research works on “Halakha” in Hebrew and German periodicals, later lived in Montreux, where he was a Rosh Yeshivah, died in Lausanne.

Avraham–Aba Reznik (?–1941) Rabbi in Pilvishok since 1924, a devoted Zionist, member of the center of “Mizrakhi” in Lithuania, murdered in 1941.

 

During and After World War II

World War II started with the German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, and its fatal consequences for Lithuanian Jews in general and Naishtot's Jews in particular were to be felt several months later.

According to the Ribbentrop–Molotov treaty on the division of occupied Poland, the Russians occupied the Suwalk region, but after delineation of exact borders between Russia and Germany the Suwalk region fell into German hands. The retreating Russians allowed anyone who wanted to join them to move into their occupied territory, and indeed many young people left the area together with the Russians. The Germans drove the remaining Jews out of their homes in Suwalk and its vicinity, robbed them of their possessions, then directed them to the Lithuanian border, where they were left in dire poverty. The Lithuanians did not allow them to enter Lithuania and the Germans did not allow them to return. Thus they stayed in this swampy area in cold and rain for several weeks, until Jewish youths from the border villages smuggled them into Lithuania by various routes, with much risk to themselves. Altogether about 2,400 refugees passed through the border or infiltrated on their own, and were then dispersed in the “Suvalkija” region. The Pilvishok community accommodated and cared temporarily for 100 refugees.

[Page 363]

In 1939 there were 2,905 people in Pilvishok, including about 700 Jews (24%).

In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, the bigger Jewish shops and workshops of Pilvishok were nationalized and commissars were appointed to manage them. The supply of goods decreased and, as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore most of the brunt, and the standard of living dropped gradually.

All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded, the Hebrew school was closed, and in its place a Yiddish school opened.

In the middle of June 1941 four Jewish families were exiled into Russia as “Unreliable Elements”, following the nationalization of Jewish businesses in accordance with regulations. These were Yekutiel Fridman and his mother Tovah (but they remained in town after the intervention of the workers committee of the fur factory which belonged to the Fridman family, where Mr. Fridman was the specialist in this vocation), Leib Ushpitz and wife Tsilah, Mosheh Markson and wife Freidl, Meir Shimberg and wife Sarah, sons Hirshl and Barukh. Most of them returned to Lithuania several years after the war.

On the 23rd of June 1941, one day after the war between Germany and the USSR began, the German army entered Pilvishok. Immediately the Lithuanian police took over the rule of the town, the commander and his deputy were Germans. On the 28th of June an order was issued for Jews to wear a yellow “Magen David” on their clothes, not to walk on side walks and not to be in the street after 8 PM. It was also forbidden for Jews to buy goods in the market. One day, the prominent Jews of the town headed by Rabbi Avraham Reznik, were made to assemble in the market square, where their beards were cut off and they were forced to do “exercises”. In the beginning of July the men were separated from the women and children and concentrated in a barn in Antanavas street, from where the Lithuanians would take them out for hard and humiliating labor. On their way back from work they were forced to go through swamps, to do “exercises” and to crawl for several kilometers. The German commander ordered the erection of a sewing shop and appointed Leibl Zeiberg as chief tailor. He also issued an order prohibiting Lithuanians to enter Jewish houses or to remove anything without his permission. Another order given stated that only men up to 50 and women up to 45 would be taken for work. The commander also forbade “exercises” in the swamps and advised the Jews to create a Jewish committee whose were to contact him in order to defend the Jews. A committee of 4 persons was set up, headed by Yitskhak Ushpitz, with Yisrael–Ber Axel in charge of maintaining order. Among the local Jews there were a few who had escaped from Vilkovishk, among them Rabbi Eliyahu–Aharon Grin.

On August 27th 1941, early in the morning, all men aged 14 to 70 years old were rounded up in the market square, the sick being brought on carts. They were kept under heavy guard by armed Lithuanians, who maltreated them during the day. At 9 o'clock in the evening they were led back to the barn.

[Page 364]

The next day, Thursday the 28th, at 3 o'clock before dawn, all men were taken out of the barn. The 10 artisans were sent to the sewing shop, whereas 200 were given spades and told that they were being sent to Germany for digging peat. They were taken to a place about 1.5 km from town and ordered to dig two big pits. After completing the job they were shot by order of the local police commander and buried in the pits they had just dug. On Friday, the 29th of August, 500 men including Jews from neighboring villages and 20 young intellectual women from Pilvishok, were shot too. Among the victims was Dr. Mosheh Dembovsky, a reserve Colonel of the Lithuanian army, who had fought during the Lithuanian independence war. Before he was shot he told the Lithuanian murderers that their crimes would not be forgotten and that the blood of the innocent victims would forever call for revenge, in response to which the Lithuanians cracked his head with the butts of their rifles. All the victims were piled into one of the pits, the other was left empty. The Lithuanians took the valuables of the victims for themselves.

The women and children were left in town, as well as 10 men who worked for the German “Kommandantur”, also 30 men who managed to hide, among them Rabbi Reznik and Rabbi Grin who the women hid in a cellar.

On September 14th it was rumored that the next day something was about to happen. 70 women escaped and hid in surrounding villages. On the next day, the 15th of September 1941 (23rd of Elul 5701) the women and children were ordered to leave their houses and for each to take a small parcel with them, having been told that they were going to be transferred to the Kovno Ghetto. They were assembled in the market square, the 10 men who worked for the German “Kommantantur” and the rest of the men were also included. Among them was also the pharmacist Bolnik, who guessed what was going to happen and swallowed the poison he had prepared before. All, including the two Rabbis, were led to the empty pit. While being beaten, they were forced to undress and then they were shot, and the children were thrown into the pit alive. By evening the murderers returned to the town singing the Lithuanian anthem.

Gestapo men, in civilian dress, photographed the Lithuanian murderers at “work”.

The names of the Lithuanian murderers are kept in the archives of Yad Vashem.

According to various sources, between 750 to 1,000 people were murdered on that day. A Lithuanian source says that altogether 1,800 people were murdered in Pilvishok.

In order to catch the Jews who had managed to escape and hide, the German commander announced that all those who had hidden could come back and that nothing bad would happen to them. He also promised them food and a quiet working atmosphere. About 70 Jews continued to work at the sewing shop of the German command.

[Page 365]

During the night of the 14th of November 1941, 40 Jews were taken to the village of Baidilis, about 4 km from Pilvishok, and were shot there in a forest. 8 people who worked at the fur factory “Tigras” were transferred to the Kovno Ghetto in May 1942. 26 people who found shelter with peasants in the villages survived. One of the survivors, Barukh Reuven Bialoblotsky, was shot by Lithuanians in 1946.

After the war the survivors of Pilvishok and vicinity erected a monument on the mass graves. In 1986 the former Pilvishok Jews in Israel, together with those of Virbaln and Kibart erected a joint monument for these three communities in the Holon cemetery (see below).

 

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Mass graves of Pilvishok Jews near Baltrusiu village, about 4 km North of the town

[Page 366]

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Pilvishok survivors at an “Azkarah” beside the mass graves
(Photo taken in the 1970s)

 

lit4_366b.jpg
The monument at the cemetery of Holon for the communities of Pilvishok, Kibart and Virbaln

[Page 367]

Appendix 1

A partial list of Personalities born in Pilvishok

Eliezer–Dov Liberman (1820–1895), poet, writer and researcher, published many poems, articles and researches of the Bible in the Hebrew press. He also wrote several books.
Aryeh–Leib Bialoblotsky (1851–1881) Rabbi.
Aharon–David Markson (1882–1932), in America since 1904, published articles on literature in the Hebrew press in America, translated Mark Twain's book “The Prince and the Pauper” into Hebrew (Warsaw 1923), died in Detroit.
Ya'akov Klibansky (1888–1950), since 1910 in Eretz Yisrael, editor of the “Hed HaKhinukh” journal of the Teachers Organization in Eretz Yisarel.
Shemuel–Shraga Bialoblotsky (1891– ) researcher of the Talmud, head of the Talmud department in Bar Ilan University in Tel–Aviv.
Hilel Bavli (1893–1961), in America since 1912, Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminar in New–York since 1937, Hebrew poet and writer, published poems and articles in the Hebrew press in Eretz Yisrael, published several poems and books, translated Dickens' book “Oliver Twist” and more.
Correspondents from Pilvishok at “HaMeilitz”: Ts.A.Bialoblotsky, Avraham London, Shemuel Levin.

 

Bibliography:

Bibliography: Yad–Vashem Archives: M–1/E–1237/1203, 1250/1208,1371/1321, 1670/1554. M–33/987; O–33/58; O–3/3680, 3788, 4161.
Koniukhovsky collection 0–71, Files 154, 155, 156.
YIVO, NY, Lithuanian Communities Collection, Files 840–868.
Lite (Yiddish), New–York 1951, volume 1 & 2.
Gotlib, Ohalei Shem, page 151.
Yiddishe Shprakh (Yiddish language), New York 1944, Vol. 4, pages 51–54.
Kli Sharet (Hebrew) Rabbi Avraham–Aba Reznik, Netanyah, 5707 (1947).
Markson Julius, Lisrod (To survive) (Hebrew), Tel–Aviv 1991.
Dos Vort (Yiddish Daily)– Kovno, 3.1.1935, 3.7.1935, 16.1.1939.
Di Yiddishe Shtime (Daily)– Kovno, 29.12.1920, 28.8.1922, 16.8.1928, 17.8.1928, 1.4.1932.
Der Yiddisher Cooperator (Yiddish), Kovno,Nr.12, 1924.
Kovner Tog (Kovno Day) (Yiddish), Kovno, 30.6.1926.
HaMelitz (Hebrew) St. Petersburg, 25.3.1879, 22.3.1881, 29.8.1882, 19.3.1883, 4.6.1883, 6.8.1887, 15.8.1887.

 

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