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Vilkaviškis (Vilkovishk) {Cont.}

During the Period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940)

Society and Economy

When the German occupation ended after the war and the Lithuanian state was established, Jews of Vilkovishk started to return home. The economic situation of the returning residents was very bad and they needed help. A Jewish relief committee was established in Vilna which provided financial help to needy communities in Lithuania (see document below, written in German – Wladislawow is the old name of Kudirkos Naumiestis).

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A view of Vilkovishk with the Old Synagogue in the background

The autonomy law issued by the government regarding minorities in Lithuania, including Jews, gave substantial encouragement to social and economic life. Elections for the Community Committee took place in 1919 and the two workers parties, “Poalei Zion” and the “Bund” won an absolute majority. The first meeting of the Committee took place on the 30th of December 1919, with Misler being elected chairman, and because the protocols were written both in Hebrew and in Yiddish, Bilotsky was elected as the Hebrew secretary and Guterman as the Yiddish secretary (see document below written in Hebrew).

During the years of its existence the Committee collected taxes as required by law and was in charge of all aspects of community life.

During the elections for the municipal council, which took place in 1921, 11 Jews out of 21 council members were elected, in the 1924 elections there were 12 Jews in a council of 24 members, and a Jew officiated as Chairman of the District Council. In 1931, 8 out of 12 council members elected were Jews: Avraham Liudvinovsky, Bendet Rabinovitz, Shelomoh Reizen, Ya'akov Rozenholtz, Reuven Haskel, Yosef Kabaker, Avraham Makovsky and Mordehai Zimansky. But in the 1934 election only 6 Jews were elected, out of 12 council members. Meir Varshavsky, the Deputy Mayor and treasurer of the municipality for many years, was also a Jew. In 1936 there were 7 Jews among the 19 employees of the municipality. Among 110 government officials there was only one Jew.

According to the first survey arranged in Lithuania in 1923, there were 7,263 people in Vilkovishk, including 3,206 Jews (44 %).

When conditions stabilized the Jews started to reestablish their businesses and to establish new enterprises, but the town did not return to the status it had before World War I. The brush industry, which had sustained hundreds of families, became more and more restricted, until by 1935 this branch only employed about 50 workers, who also suffered from labor conflicts with their employers. The reason for this crisis was the shortage of raw materials in Lithuania and the prohibition of export by the USSR, who was the main supplier of bristles.

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The first page of the first meeting
of the Community Committee

In these years the signs on Jewish shop were written in Lithuanian and Hebrew or Yiddish, but after a short time they were smeared all over with tar at night.

The committee was active until the end of 1925 when the autonomy was annulled by the nationalist government who took over the rule in the state.

Another reason for the deterioration of Vilkovishks economy was the construction of the railway line Kazlu Ruda-Marijampole-Kalvarija-Alytus, which transferred economic activity from Vilkovishk to Marijampole. The annulment of the autonomy and the seizure of rule by the Nationalist party in 1926 also caused a deterioration of conditions for Jews in Vilkovishk. The new rule encouraged the establishment of Lithuanian consumer cooperatives in order to compete with the Jewish merchants and also imposed heavy taxes on them. The total closure of the border with Poland cut off trade with this country and land reform which was carried out by the government took away part of Jewish owned land, adding to the worsening of economic conditions of Vilkovishks Jews.

Despite this the Jews established new enterprises, such as for the extraction of oil, for soap, cigarettes, a flour mill, a printing press etc., and with all the difficulties the number of Jews in Vilkovishk did not decrease. Only a part of the youth immigrated to Eretz Yisrael or moved to other towns in Lithuania.

According to the 1931 government survey of shops in the state, Vilkovishk had 154 shops, including 130 owned by Jews (84%). The partition according to the type of business is given in the table below:

Type of the business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 14 13
Grains and Flax 11 10
Butcher's shops and Cattle Trade 17 12
Restaurants and Taverns 19 10
Food Products 9 9
Beverages 6 6
Textile Products and Furs 22 21
Leather and Shoes 9 9
Tobacco and Cigarettes 1 1
Haberdashery and Home Utensils 11 11
Medicine and Cosmetics 4 2
Watches, Jewels and Optics 3 3
Bicycles and Sewing Machines 2 1
Tools and Steel Products 6 6
Building Materials and Furniture 2 2
Heating Materials 8 8
Overland Transportation 3 2
Stationery and Books 2 1
Miscellaneous 5 3

According to the same survey Vilkovishk had 50 light industry factories, 42 of them owned by Jews (86%), as can be seen in the following table:

Type of the Factory Total Jewish Owned
Metal Workshops, Power Plants 3 2
Headstones, Bricks 1 0
Chemical Industry: Spirits, Soaps 4 4
Textile: Wool, Flax, Knitting 2 2
Tar Industry 1 0
Paper Industry: Printing Presses 2 2
Beverage. Cigarettes 13 10
Dresses, Footwear 5 5
Leather Industry: Production, Cobbling 2 2

By 1937 Vilkovishk counted among its working population 87 Jewish artisans, as follows: 16 tailors, 11 bakers, 10 butchers, 10 barbers, 7 shoemakers, 4 hatters, 3 watchmakers, 2 seamstresses, 2 painters, 2 tinsmiths, 2 leatherworkers, 2 stitchers, 1 rope maker, 1 carpenter, 1 photographer, 1 oven builder, 1 glazier, 1 electrician and 10 others. Most of them were organized in “The Association of Jewish Artisans” which had a club and a loan fund.

In addition to the merchants, industrialists and artisans there were 35 families engaged in agriculture. There were also 7 buses, 3 of them owned by Jews, and out of the 4 taxis 1 belonged to a Jew (in 1935).

From 1926 the manager of the power station owned by the municipality was the Jew Meir Varshavsky, who was praised for his work, as well as a Jewish mechanic who worked in the station. At the end of 1935 both were dismissed, the employers using the excuse of “restrictions”. The district engineer was also Jewish.

An important factor in the economic life of the town was the “Folksbank” established with the help of the “Joint” in 1928, when it had 718 members. By 1935 it had only 368 members: 79 shop owners, 56 artisans, 48 merchants, 37 workers, 32 free profession owners, 31 agrarians, 21 cart owners, 12 industrialists, 8 clerks and 44 miscellaneous members. The capital of the bank was 55,000 Litas (1$=6 Litas). Loans to the amount of 300,000 Litas were given and the total sum of deposits came to 170,000 Litas. Wholesalers used the services of the private bank of Yosef Sperling.

In 1939 there were 190 phone owners in town, 64 of them belonging to Jews and Jewish institutions.

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