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Darbenai (Dorbyan)
(Darbėnai, Lithuania)

56°01' 21°15'

Darbenai (Dorbyan in Yiddish) is situated in northwest Lithuania, in the Zhamut (Zemaitija) region, 13 km. (8 miles) north of the administrative district center of Kretinga and 8 km. (5 miles) from the Baltic Sea. It is surrounded on the east, south and north by forests. The Darba stream flows through the town.

A village named Darbenai was mentioned in documents as early as 1591. The village grew gradually and by 1701 it had become a town, and permission was granted to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.

During the Russian rule (1795 to 1915) Dorbyan was first included in the Vilna Province (Gubernia) and later, after 1843, it fell within the limits of the Kovno Gubernia. In the nineteenth century the noble Tishkevitz family owned the town and the large estate next to it . During this period and also during that of independent Lithuania (1918 to 1940), the town was considered to be a county administrative center.

During World War I (1915–1918) Dorbyan was occupied by the Germans. In June 1941, at the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union, the town was badly damaged.


The Jewish Settlement until after World War I

When the Jews were evicted from the village of Laukzeme by order of the nobility in the nineteenth century they settled in nearby Dorbyan. Here they made their living mainly by trading with the surrounding villages. They bought and sold fish, flax, rags etc. Most of the families had a barn for livestock and a house with a garden.

In October 1882, a fire broke out in the town, resulting in forty buildings being burnt down. Of these thirty were Jewish–owned shops. Thirty Christian houses remained. The situation of the homeless victims was critical with winter approaching. The October 21st, 1882 issue of HaMelitz carried a request for help for the victims of the fire. Contributors were asked to send their donations to the address of Rabbi Gershon Robinson in Plungyan (Plunge) because there was no post office in Dorbyan. In the fire of 1909, the center of the town, the Beth Midrash and the synagogue were completely

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destroyed and were never restored. Many Dorbyan Jews emigrated to Canada, South Africa, America and Eretz–Yisrael.

In 1854 Eliezer–Dov son of David, of Dorbyan, emigrated to Eretz–Yisrael. He died in 1896 and his tombstone can be found in the old Jerusalem cemetery.

According to the Russian census of 1897 there were 2,059 residents in Dorbyan 1,129 (55%) of them were Jews.

The list of contributors for the year 1909 contains the names of many Dorbyan Jews who donated money to the settlements of Eretz–Yisrael. The fund–raiser was Yisrael–Leib Cohen.


A Street in Dorbyan


From the beginning of the twentieth century, the Zionist Movement and the Agudath Yisrael were almost equally strong in Dorbyan.

The list of 30 contributors from Dorbyan who worked to help victims of the Persian famine in 1872 was published in HaMagid #10 (1872) (see Appendix 1).

The list of contributors to the Agudah Fund of 1913 contains the names of 26 Dorbyan Jews (see Appendix 2).

Between the years 1835 to 1911 there were 83 subscribers to rabbinic literature from the town of Dorbyan.

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During Independent Lithuania (1918–1940)

Following the law of Autonomy for Minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister of Jewish affairs, Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections for community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. On July 30th, 1919 elections for the community committee of Dorbyan took place and sixteen members were elected. Of 400 eligible persons, only 198 voted. Most of the elected were Zionists and orthodox Jews. At the elections of 1921, nine members were elected to the committee.


Another street in Dorbyan

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According to the first census conducted by the Government in 1923, there were 1,018 residents in Dorbyan, of whom 601 (59%) were Jews.

The committee collected taxes as required by law and was in charge of all aspects of community life. It operated until the end of 1925 at which time autonomy was annulled.

During this period Dorbyan Jews made their living in commerce and crafts. Most of them had small gardens at home. A great part of their economic activity centered around the weekly markets and the annual fairs.

According to the 1931 government survey of stores, there were 25 shops in Dorbyan, all owned by Jews:

Type of shop Owned by Jews
Grocery and farm produce 10
Grains and Flax 1
Butcher and Cattle Trade 4
Textile Products and Furs 4
Leather and Shoes 3
Hardware 1
Heating Materials 2

A survey of factories and workshops showed there were two sawmills, a flourmill, a bakery, a metal workshop, a wool–combing workshop and a factory making soft drinks, all Jewish owned.

In 1937, eighteen Jewish tradesmen worked in town: five butchers, two knitters, two boot makers, two photographers, one tailor, one milliner, one locksmith, one barber, one tinsmith and two others.

The local Folksbank was closed in 1927. It had only 53 members.

In 1939, there were twelve telephones in town, three of them owned by Jews.

After the annexation of the Memel region to Germany in March 1939, several Jewish refugee families from there were absorbed into the Dorbyan community.

The Jewish children in town acquired their elementary education in two Hadarim, the Talmud–Torah and the Hebrew school of the Tarbuth network. These institutions accommodated about 150 children in all. There were two libraries, one for Hebrew books and one for Yiddish books. In 1925 the Zionist Socialist party organized Hebrew lessons.

There was also a repertory group in town.

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Among Dorbyan Jews there were many Zionists. The results of the elections for the Zionist Congresses are given in the table below:

Year Total Shek Total Votes Labor Party
Rev. Gen. Zion.
Gro. Miz.
14 1925 60
15 1927 32 29 7 12 10
16 1929 71 24 3 8 13
17 1931 53 42 5 9 17 11
18 1933 57 18 1 12 26
19 1935 197 60 1 23 133

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


Zionist youth organizations of Dorbyan included Ivrith uTekhiyah (established in 1920), HaShomer Hatsair – Netsakh (from 1930) and other organizations. At the end of 1933 a branch of HeKhalutz was established with about forty members. In 1934 an urban training kibbutz of the HeKhalutz movement was developed. Sports activities took place at the local Maccabi branch.

Religious life concentrated around the Beth Midrash and the Kloiz. A Gemara (Talmud) Society was active in the Beth Midrash while the religious youth were organized in the Tifereth Bahurim branch.

Among the Rabbis who officiated in Dorbyan, Aryeh–Leib Shalmen should be noted. He was the rabbi for 40 years and he served simultaneously the three communities of Kretinga, Palanga and Darbenai. Eliyahu Margalioth (1816–1874) served as a rabbi until 1872. Later he was replaced by Gabai of Yeshivah Vilna–Zhamut in Jerusalem. He was succeeded by Josef son of Avraham Alexander and then by Yisrael–Iser Levin and Yits'hak Kopelovitz, who served during the period of about 1868–1888. The last rabbi of Dorbyan was Yisrael–Iser son of Shelomoh HaLevi Vaisbord. Most of the rabbis published books or brochures on religious subjects.

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HeHalutz HaMizrah training Kibutz
(Picture supplied from the archives of The Association of the Lithuanian Jews in Israel)


Members of the Gemara Society – 1929

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Men Walking to the Synagogue


Welfare institutions serving the town were Gemiluth–Hesed and Linath Hatsedek.

Dorbyan is the birthplace of Zionist leader David Wolfson (1858–1914). He became the founder of Otsar Hityashvuth Hayehudim (The Jewish Colonial Trust Ltd.) and he escorted Theodore Herzl on his trip to the Turkish sultan and to Eretz–Yisrael. After Herzl died Wolfson was elected president of the World Zionist Organization. In 1954 Wolfson's coffin was brought to Israel and buried near Herzl's tomb in Jerusalem.

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David Wolfson


Other personalities with known roots in Dorbyan were Yehoshua Bloch (1890–1957), who worked as a librarian of the Yiddish division at the New York municipal library and contributed articles to Hebrew, Yiddish and English periodicals; Nathan Slavit who wrote articles for the publication HaTsefirah and Gershon Arenzon who wrote for the publication HaMagid.


During World War II and Afterwards

In June 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, light industry enterprises owned by Jews were nationalized. A number of Jewish shops 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 the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew school was closed.

That year there were about 2,200 residents in town; 800 of them were Jews. On June 22nd, 1941, the first day of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, the German army entered Dorbyan and did not encounter any resistance. Nevertheless, heavy shelling followed and several houses were destroyed and a few people killed. The local Jews, who escaped the shelling, returned home. On their way back they were accosted by Lithuanians, who beat them. Back in town they were forced to sweep the streets, to weed the grass and clean bathrooms with their bare hands. The Germans entered Jewish homes and looted anything they pleased. Jews were not allowed to lock their homes and “night visits” became a frequent occurrence.

On Saturday, June 28th, a fire broke out on the market–square. Immediately, rumors were spread that the Jews started the fire. All Dorbyan Jews were ordered to gather together at the market square, men and women apart. Germans and Lithuanians raided the house of Rabbi Iser Vaisbord, who was in the market–square. They humiliated him, then shaved off half of his beard together with the skin of his face and beat him to death. A few Jews were then ordered to dig a pit and to bury the rabbi and other Jews who were shot for not coming to the square fast enough. All their valuables were looted. Later the Jews were forced to run from Dorbyan to Kretinga, a distance of 13 km. (8 miles). The old people were seated in carts. On the way the Germans and Lithuanians released the horses pulling the carts and harnessed the men to replace them. The Lithuanian guards whipped them incessantly. On arrival in Kretinga they were ordered to return to Dorbyan.

On Sunday morning, June 29th, 1941 (4th of Tamuz 5701) all the men aged sixteen years and over were separated from the women and led to the nearby flourmill, where they were forced to dig a pit. Here, they were shot and buried; some were still alive.

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The Jewish women were ushered to the Beth Midrash. They were not given any food or water. The crowding was unbearable. The Lithuanian guards would force their way inside during the night and rape the women. After several days the older women and mothers with many children were taken out and murdered. After a month the remaining women and children were killed too. A small group of women was allowed to live; some of them worked for Lithuanian peasants. These murders were carried out on August 15th and 16th, 1941 (22nd and 23rd of Av 5701).

The Lithuanian guards used axes, iron bars, rods and similar weapons. The last group of Jewish women was murdered on Rosh HaShanah 5702. In this manner, the life of a Jewish community that had existed for generations ended forever.

Several young Jewish women were rescued by Lithuanians, who hid them, nourished them during all the years of the war, thereby fulfilling their humanitarian obligations.

According to Soviet sources four mass graves were found in the surrounding areas of Darbenai:

  1. 100 meters (330 feet) from town on the left side of the road to Lazdininkai; the bodies of 144 men; date of massacre June 29th, 1941.
  2. Two graves in the forest on the Balto Kalno (White Mountain).
    1. 1 km. (0.6 miles) from Darbenai on the right side of the road to Vaineikiai, about 100 meters (110 yards) from the road; 300 Jewish women and children; date – end of July 1941.
    2. 2.5 km. (1.5 miles) from the town in the direction of the village Kasuciai, about 500 meters (550 yards) off the road; about 100 Jewish men and women; date – beginning of September 1941.
  3. Near village Dimitravas 7.5 km. (4.7 miles) from Kretinga, where the concentration camp for prisoners was located; 1,770 Jews, murdered between the second half of 1941 and 1944.
  4. Near the Alka Mountain, at the edge of the forest, about 1 km. northwest of Dimitravas; 510 Jewish women and children; dates August 15th and 16th, 1941

It is believed that only Jews are buried in the sites 1, 2 and 4.

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The mass grave monument near Dorbyan (Site 1)

The inscription: “All the people died not having understood that innocence was their fault.”
(by Justinas Marcinkevicius

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The monument on the mass grave at Balto Kalno forest (Site 2.1)


The mass grave monument at the Balto Kalno forest (Sites 2.2 and 4)

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Yad Vashem Archives, 0–33/979
Unzer Veg (Yiddish), Kovno. 9.11.1925
Dos Vort (Yiddish). Kovno, 24.10.1935
Di Yiddishe Shtime (Yiddish), Kovno, 18.8.1919v Di Tsait (Yiddish), Kovno, 4.12.1933
HaMelitz (Hebrew), St.Petersburg, 21.11.1882; 18.2.1889


Appendix 1

A list of 36 contributors from Dorbyan for the victims of the Persian famine in 1872. It was published in HaMagid #10 in 1872. Source: Jewishgen. Org. Databases compiled by Jeffery Maynard

Surname Given name Comment
ALTER Chaim  
ALTSHIL Gershon  
ASS Eliezer Gordon  
KOHN Feivish  
KOHN Meir  
LESKEN Boruch  
LEWIA Chaim  
NACHMAN Yehuda  
ORDONG Yakov  
ORDONG Yudel  
PINTER Mendil wife
SEGAL Bentzion  
SHALMAN Ari Leib Rabbi Gaon
TEITZ Avraham  
WOLFZOHN Yeshiyahu  
WOLFZOHN Yitzchok Eizik  
YAKOBZOHN EizikPrikastzikes  
YAKOBZOHN Yakov ben Moshe  
ZEWIN Avraham  
ZIMAN Chaim  
ZIMAN Henich  
ZIMAN Meir  
ZIMAN MeirPrikastzikes  
ZIMAN Yakov  
ZIMAN Yosef  
  Eliezer ben Avraham  
  Leib Heshil  
  Mendil Shneur  
  Mordechai Sandler  
  Tzvi Yakov  

Appendix 2

List of contributors to the Agudah Fund in 1913

Rabbi Alexander Josef
Berzan Yehoshua–Nakhman
Brutskus Leib
Davidzon H.A.
Davidzon Hayim–Aharon
Ernshtein Ya'akov–Ze'ev
Etis Ze'ev
Fraintil Shemuel
Gilis Eliezer
Gershon Ber
Golos Yehudah
Hailperin Barukh
Kaidon Manakhem
Kil Ber
Klompus Tsevi
Leibovitz Josef–Yits'hak
Levin Shemuel–Iser
Levi Shelomoh–Mosheh
Pekil Avraham–Yits'hak
Ruf Zalman
Sher Eliezer
Shevat David
Shpitz Ben–Zion
Taitz Nahum–Mosheh
Tsuker Bunem
Ya'akov Yakov


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