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Eržvilkas (Erzhvilik)

55°16' 22°43'

Erzvilkas (Erzhvilik in Yiddish) lies in western Lithuania on the right–hand bank of the Saltuona River, 32 km. east of the district administrative center of Tavrig (Taurage). The town was mentioned in historical documents of the eighteenth century. In 1706 a church was built in the town.

Erzhvilik was included in the Polish–Lithuanian Kingdom until 1795. According to the third division of Poland in the same year by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, Lithuania was divided between Russia and Prussia. As most of Lithuania, Erzhvilik became a part of the Russian Empire, first in the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 in the Kovno Gubernia. Erzhvilik was a county administrative center after 1745 and again during the period of independent Lithuania (1918–1940) in Tavrig district.

 

Jewish settlement till World War II

Jews probably first settled in Erzhvilik in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their main living was in the small trades. According to the all–Russian census of 1897, the population of the town was 709, of whom 144 were Jewish (20%). Before World War I about 100 Jewish families lived in the town.

In 1918 the Lithuanian State was established. Following the passage of the Law of Autonomies for Minorities by the new Lithuanian government, the Minister for Jewish Affairs, Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered that elections be held for the community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) in the summer of 1919. In Erzhvilik a Va'ad (community committee) with seven members was elected: four general Zionists and three non–party men. The committee was active in all fields of Jewish life until the end of 1925.

The first government census of 1923 counted 484 residents in Erzhvilik, 222 being Jewish (46%). During this period the number of the Jews decreased as a result of emigration overseas. Before World War II only about 150 to 180 Jews (about 45 families) remained.

In the elections for the County Council in 1921, two of the twenty–two members elected were Jewish.

At that time most Erzhvilik Jews dealt in the small trades, and a few in the crafts. Almost all had land, horses and cattle and managed a rural life as did their Lithuanian neighbors, with whom they had good relations. Nevertheless many families received financial support from their relatives abroad. In general the economic situation of Erzhvilik Jews was favorable.

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According to the government survey of 1931 there were five shops in the town, with one tavern and three mixed goods shops being in Jewish hands. In 1937 there were six Jewish artisans: a glazier, a carpenter, a shoemaker, a barber, a butcher and a watchmaker.

In 1939 there were 23 telephone subscribers, four of them Jewish.

The Jewish children received their elementary education at the local Hebrew School and there was a library containing Hebrew and Yiddish books.

Religious life concentrated around the Beth Midrash. Among the rabbis who officiated in Erzhvilik were:

Ze'ev–Volf Lerman from 1890
Nathan–Neta Dogliansky
Ze'ev Rapeiko, from 1933, who was murdered together with his community.

Erzhvilik Jews began to take an interest in Zionism through the Hibath Zion movement. During the period of Independent Lithuania there was Zionist activity in Erzhvilik and there were supporters for almost all Zionist parties. The table below shows how they voted at two Zionist congresses:

 

Congress
No.
Year Total Shkalim Total Votes Labor Party
Z”S Z”Z
Revisionists General
Zionists
A B
Grosmanists Mizrahi
18 1933 56 39 11 1 5
19 1935 118 50 39 3 26

From 1932 branches of HeHalutz and Hehalutz HaTsair were active. Among other things they were involved in the fundraising for the National Funds KKL and Keren HaYesod.

Among the personages born in Erzhvilik were: Herman (Tsevi–Hirsh) Shapira (1840–1898), who studied in a yeshivah in Tavrig, became a rabbi and head of a yeshivah, left his position to study languages and science, dealt in business and became prosperous. In 1878 he quit his business and moved to Berlin and Heidelberg to study mathematics. In 1887 he became Professor of mathematics at Heidelberg University. Shapira was one of the founders of the Hibath Zion movement and supported the establishment of the Keren Kayemeth L'Yisrael Fund. At the first Zionist congress in Basel he proposed the creation of an institution for higher education in Jerusalem. He died in Köln.

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lit6_022.jpg
Herman Shapira

 

Shimon Glazer (1877–1939), translated the Mishne Torah of the Rambam into English (New York, 1927) and published “The History of the Jews” in six volumes in English (New York, 1930).

 

During World War II and afterwards

In June 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. All the Zionist parties were disbanded and the Hebrew school was closed. The small traders who made their living mostly in their auxiliary farms were not harmed economically under the new regime. In 1940 approximately 150 to 180 Jews lived in Erzhvilik.

On June 22, 1941 the German army invaded Lithuania and on that same evening they entered Erzhvilik. The Jews who escaped to nearby villages were forced to return home after several days because their Lithuanian acquaintances would no longer help them. They found on returning that the Lithuanians had looted their homes of all their possessions. The finer houses were seized by the Germans.

The Lithuanian police registered the names of the returning Jews and concentrated them in the Beth Midrash. After two days all Jews were ordered to move into seven houses in the Bath street. This area was encircled by a barbed wire fence; the Lithuanian auxiliary police guarded it, and using threats, they robbed the Jews of their money, valuables, boots. etc.

From there the Jews had to present themselves for work every morning at the market square. The labor insisted of such unpleasant tasks such as cleaning

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latrines by hand, burying the dead Soviet soldiers, and washing the floors at German and Lithuanian flats. The police beat and abused them.

On August 21, 1941, four Jewish youngsters who were active during Soviet rule and four Lithuanian Communists were shot. On August 28, 1941, the Lithuanians brought several Jewish men, owners of farms in the vicinity, and 31 local men, and imprisoned them in the Beth Midrash. At night the Lithuanians mistreated them and forced them to perform “gymnastics” for their entertainment. They also robbed them of everything that they had in their pockets and also took their garments and boots. The next morning they led them half–naked to the sand pit opposite the municipality. There 42 Lithuanian police waited ready to shoot the Jews, but the appearance of the German commander meant that the murders were delayed a few weeks.

The Lithuanians spread rumors among the Jews that they would be transferred to Batok (Batakiai) camp, about 18 km. from Erzhvilik. They also encouraged them to take anything they wanted with them.

At dawn on September 15, 1941 (23rd of Elul, 5701) all Erzhvilik Jews were loaded onto carts belonging to local peasants and were brought to the police station, where the police chief forced them to hand over all their money and valuables that they still possessed. They were then taken to the Batok camp. From the camp trucks transferred them to the Gryblaukis Forest, about 22 km. northeast of Tavrig. About 2 km. on the right side of the Tavrig–Shkudvil (Taurage–Skaudvile) road vast pits already contained the bodies of hundreds of Jewish victims. In these pits the Erzhvilik Jews were also cruelly murdered.

According to Soviet sources about 1,000 bodies were later unearthed, mainly of women and children.

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lit6_024.jpg
The mass grave with the monument at the Gryblaukis forest

 

A few dozen Jews managed to hide in the homes of Lithuanians, but after a short time they were caught and murdered, including the rabbi Rapeiko with his family. Of all the Erzhvilik Jews, only 22 survived, because they had been hidden by Lithuanian peasants. After the war these survivors delivered the names of the murderers to the Soviet authorities and many were caught and punished. A few were hanged. Eight Erzhvilik Jews had managed to escape to Russia at the beginning of the war; two of them died there.

The names of a number of the Lithuanian rescuers are recorded in the archives of Yad Vashem. So are the names of the murderers.

Sources:

Yad Vashem archives, Jerusalem, M–9/15(6); M–8/45/36/291, 278
Koniukhovsky collection 0–71, files 10, 10a, 10b
Dos Vort, Kovno, 17.12.1934
Di Tsait, Kovno, 4.10.1933
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass murder in Lithuania), Vol. 2
Sviesa (Jurbarkas) 13.4.1991

 

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