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Gelvonai (Gelvan)

55°04' 24°42'

Gelvonai (Gelvan in Yiddish) is in central Lithuania, about 20 km. south of the district administrative center Vilkomir (Ukmerge). In the 1385 manuscripts of the Crusader order it was written that a small village named Gelvon belonged to the wealthy Zabas family. In 1744 King August III granted Gelvan the rights of a town. At the end of the eighteenth century the town began to grow quickly, but because of the Polish rebellions against the Czar's rule in 1831 and 1863 and the Napoleonic Wars, the town was badly damaged and its population declined. In 1863 there were only 30 houses in Gelvan. In 1895 a fire broke out and burned down the churches and other buildings. Two years later the estate owner of Gelvan, Graf Plater, erected a new church.

During World War I, from 1915 until 1918, Gelvan was under German military rule. From December 1918 until March 1919 a Soviet Bolshevik Revolutionary Council ruled the town. Because of the military activities of the Bolsheviks and later the Poles, independent Lithuanian rule was established only in the autumn of 1920 in Gelvan.

Jews first settled in Gelvan during the seventeenth century. A headstone dated 1659 has been found at the Jewish cemetery. Not far from the town headstones were scattered in a meadow; unfortunately the inscriptions can no longer be read. According to local tradition a Jewish cemetery existed before the current one was established.

Before the war Gelvan Jews dealt mainly in grain and exported poultry, fruits and milk products to Vilna. At that time Gelvan was considered an affluent town. The Jews had commercial connections with Vilna. Twice a week the Gelvan carters would travel to Vilna with agricultural products and come back laden with goods for the local merchants.

The craft professions were in Jewish hands. In 1913 Gelvan had ten shoemakers, six tailors, three carpenters, two blacksmiths, two painters, one engraver and one miller, all Jewish. The peasants from the surrounding villages were assisted only by Jewish craftsmen. More than a few Jews earned their livelihood on the estates in the vicinity. There were also Jewish middlemen who had business with the estate owners and hence also earned their livelihoods through the estates. Relations between the Jews and the non–Jews during this period were generally good.

During this time Gelvan had a solid stone church, a wooden synagogue, 75 houses, 22 shops, a pharmacy, a post office, a public library and an elementary school.

During World War I 500 Jewish families, who had been expelled from Vilkomir (Ukmerge), Yaneve (Jonava) and Kovno (Kaunas) by the Russian

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military, arrived in Gelvan and other nearby towns, but after a few weeks they were moved on again. The Gelvan Jews were afraid that their fate could be the same, but by intercession to the authorities, they were allowed to remain in their homes. The leaders of the community swore on their lives that no Gelvan Jews would be found spying for the Germans.

In 1918, during the preparations for the establishment of the independent Lithuanian state, two committees were established with German approval, one Lithuanian and one Polish. Gelvan Jews joined the Lithuanian committee. The Poles tried to convince the Jews to join them, and even threatened them, but the Jews were not swayed. Then the Poles tried to incite the local non–Jewish population against the Jews. Their speakers demanded expulsion of the Jews, they cut the Eiruv wire (the wire encircling the town according to the Shabat law) and called upon the non–Jews to boycott the Jewish shops, however their campaign didn't make any real impact.


During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918–1940)

After the war and the establishment of Independent Lithuania (1918–1940) the Polish army occupied Vilna and its region. After Gelvan was cut off from Vilna the economic situation of many of Gelvan Jews worsened.

In 1919 and 1920 the community received financial help from the YeKoPo committee (the Jewish committee for aiding the victims of the war, whose center was in Vilna) with sums ranging from 1,500 to 26,000 marks.

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 elections to community committees, Va'adei Kehilah, to be held in the summer of 1919. In Gelvan, the elected committee operated until April of 1925. In these years the committee activated social and religious institutions.

The census of 1923 recorded 473 Jews living in Gelvan.

According to the government survey of 1931 there were twelve Jewish businesses in Gelvan: four textile shops, a grain business, a flax business, a butcher shop, a heating fuel shop, a leather shop, a wool combing workshop, a bakery and a textile factory.

The Lithuanian Merchants Association (Verslas) ran an open propaganda campaign urging Lithuanians to boycott the Jewish shops and not to associate with the Jewish artisans. Of the many Jewish artisans who had worked there before the war, only three shoemakers, two tailors and one engraver remained. The town's economy declined and the number of the Jews decreased. A number of young people joined Kibbutsei Hakhsharah and emigrated to Eretz–Yisrael. Many emigrated overseas or moved to the bigger

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towns in Lithuania. Those remaining dealt in peddling and many subsisted by the help of relatives in America.

Before the war Gelvan was a predominantly Jewish town. Ninety of the one–hundred families that lived in town were Jewish; the ten non–Jewish families worked in Jewish enterprises. Then the number of Jewish families decreased to 70 while the number of Christian families increased to 90. The Lithuanians had their own shops, cooperatives and a Lithuanian bank. While Jewish numbers continued to fall, the big Beth Midrash that was built when the community flourished fell into disrepair, and the stone bath house that was heated only three times a year because of the cost also fell into disrepair. The Jewish community in Gelvan gradually disintegrated and the Christians' attitude towards the Jews changed.

Some Lithuanians spread rumors and libels against the Jews and also demanded that the Jews be expelled from the town. They also demanded a boycott of Jewish shops. In 1925, the 70–year–old Eideman couple were murdered in their home by robbers. The murderers were caught and sentenced to death.

In 1918 the teacher Glintershchik established a Hebrew school, but due to the influence of the Yiddishists, the school became a Yiddish one. In 1923 another reversal occurred and it was changed back into a Hebrew school of the Tarbuth chain.

Many of its graduates continued their studies at the Hebrew or Yiddish gymnasiums in Vilkomir. During these years the Zionists established a Hebrew library in town. A Yiddish library had already existed, but only a few people made use of its 400 books. Beside the new library, a reading room was established and lectures on cultural subjects were given there.

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The Hebrew School


Many Gelvan Jews were Zionists. The Zionist Socialist (Z”S) party was the largest of the Zionist parties. The table below shows how Gelvan voted in five Zionist congresses:


Year Total Shkalim Total Votes Labor Party
Revisionists General
Grosmanists Mizrahi
16 1929 17 15 13 1 1
17 1931 17 16 14 1 1
18 1933 25 23 1 1
19 1935 90 84 2 3 1
21 1939 29 26 4 4 National Block

At the end of the 1920s Gelvan expatriates living in America sent $1,000 to establish a popular bank in town. In 1930, at the request of the local Jews, a branch of the People's Bank (Folksbank) was established. Following the appeal by the former Gelvaners in New York, the Federation of Lithuanian Jews in America allocated 10,000 litas for the bank. However in the years of economic decline in Lithuania the bank had difficulties and the supervising authorities demanded that it close or combine with the Lithuanian bank in Gelvan. Over this time five banks operated, one of them being a private one based in the shop of H. Goldshtein.

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Among the rabbis who officiated during the years in Gelvan were:

Menahem–Mendel Lifshitz
Yehoshua Klevan, in Gelvan till 1925, emigrated to America
Zalman–Pinhas Kaplan (1840–1921) died in Gelvan
Daniel Ainshtein, the last Rabbi of Gelvan, murdered in the Holocaust.
The Shohet who served for many years was Zusman–Gershon Bitsik.


During World War II

In summer 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following the new regulations some of the Jewish businesses were nationalized, the Zionist parties and some of the community institutions were disbanded. The Hebrew school was converted into a government Yiddish school. A number of the Zionist activists were exiled to Siberia.

On June 22, 1941 the German army invaded the USSR. Even before Germans were seen in Gelvan, local Lithuanians began to mistreat the Jews, desecrating the Beth Midrash and plundering many Jewish shops. After the Germans entered the town, the Lithuanian activists detained many Jews suspected of being Communists. They were transferred to the jail in Vilkomir where they were murdered.

At the beginning of July 1941 armed Lithuanians expelled the Jews from their houses, and took them to a swampy area near the town. There the men were tortured by being required to perform “gymnastics;” they were forced to run, to dance, to fall and stand up and so on. After a few hours they were brought back to the town where they found their houses had been looted. Of course this had been planned ahead of time. Many decent Lithuanians were angry about it and on the next Sunday the local priest made a vehement speech in the church against this crime. Indeed some Lithuanians returned stolen property to the Jewish owners. However the persecution against the Jews did not stop; it became worse each day.

On September 5th, 1941 (13th of Elul, 5701) all the Gelvan Jews were taken out of the town and led to the Pivonija Forest near Vilkomir, where on the same day all were murdered together with Jews from nearby towns.

Only one family was saved: Hayim Goldshtein, his wife and their seven year–old twins. Hayim was born in Gelvan and owned an iron wares shop. The family hid at Lithuanian acquaintances, with whom the Goldshteins had deposited their property beforehand. The Lithuanians, who were afraid that they would have to give back the property to the Jews, handed over the family to the police and at the end of 1941 the Goldshtein family all were murdered.

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The mass grave in Pivonija Forest


The entrance gate to the murder site at Pivonija Forest

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The monument at Pivonija Forest



Yad Vashem archives, Jerusalem, 0–33/879, Collection of Lithuanian Jewish Communities 0–57–testimony of Reuven Kronik;
Koniukhovsky collection 0–71, file 97
YIVO, New York, Lithuanian Jewish Communities Collection, file1512
Julius Rafael, Gelvan, Pinkas HaKehiloth–Lita, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1996
Shohat M.; Memories, Yiddishe Shtime, 9.6.1922
Yiddisher Kooperator, Kovno, # 1930
Morgen Journal, New York, 18.8.1947
Folksblat, Kovno, 4.8.1935

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The inscription of the tablet at the monument reads in Yiddish, Hebrew and Lithuanian:
“At this site in the year 1941 Hitler's murderers and their local helpers murdered 10,239 Jews, men, women and children.”


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