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[Page 39]

Girkalnis (Girtegole)

55°19' 23°13'

Girkalnis (Girtegole in Yiddish) is situated in the center of Lithuania, about 10 km. southeast from the district administrative center Rasein (Raseiniai) and 2 km. southwest from the main road between Kaunas and Klaipeda. Girtegole was mentioned in historical documents at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The estates of the town and county belonged to the Bishops of Zemaitija.

Until 1795 Girtegole was included in the Polish–Lithuanian Kingdom. At the time of the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, Lithuania was divided between Russia and Prussia. Similarly to most of Lithuania, Girtegole became a part of the Russian Empire, first in the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 in the Kovno Gubernia. From 1745 Girtegole was a county administrative center until the end of the period of independent Lithuania (1918–1940), after which it was included in the Rasein district.

During World War I the town was under German military rule from 1915 to 1918.

 

Jewish settlement till World War II

According to the Russian census of 1897, 648 people lived in Girtegole, 530 being Jewish (82%). During the period of Independent Lithuania their number decreased, so that by the start of World War II only 27 Jewish families remained in the town.

 

lit6_040.jpg
A view of Girtegole

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In 1918 Lithuania became an independent state, and 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 for community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In Girtegole the election for the committee took place in August 1919. Of 200 eligible voters, only 72 voted and a community committee of seven members was elected: three from the Akhduth (Agudath Yisrael) list, one from the General Zionist party, one from Tseirei Yisrael and one independent. In the elections of 1921 a committee of five members was elected, all non–party men. This committee functioned until the end of 1925 when the autonomy was annulled by the Lithuanian government. During those years the committee was active in all aspects of Jewish life in town.

In elections to the first Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) in October 1922, Girtegole Jews voted as follows: Zionists 92, Akhduth six and Democrats one.

Girtegole Jews mostly made their living in trade, with some in crafts and agriculture. According to the government survey of 1931 three textile shops and one grocery were Jewish–owned. In 1937 six Jewish tradesmen worked in town: two butchers, one oven builder, one blacksmith and two others.

In 1939 there were eight telephone subscribers, only one of them Jewish.

Many of the Girtegole Jews belonged to the Zionist movement and among them were voters for the Zionist congresses as presented in the table below:

 

Congress
No.
Year Total Shkalim Total Votes Labor Party
Z”S Z”Z
Revisionists General
Zionists
A B
Grosmanists Mizrahi
15 1927 3 3 1 2
19 1935 50 20 13 5 12
21 1939 29 27 3 20 4

The religious life of Girtegole Jews concentrated around the Beth Midrash.

Among the rabbis who officiated in town were:

Yehudah–Leib Openheim.
Shemuel–Naftali HaLevi Epshtein.
Meir Stolevitz (1871–1951), in Girtegole from 1903, emigrated to Eretz– Yisrael in 1933 and became Rabbi of the Jerusalem suburb Zikhron Mosheh. He published many books and died in Jerusalem. Yits'hak–Izik Broide, later a rabbi in America.
Ya'akov–Mosheh Lesin, in Girtegole from 1922
Hayim–Yits'hak Osovsky, the last rabbi, who was murdered by Lithuanians in 1941.

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In 1902 the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz #229 listed one donation from Girtegole for the settlement of Eretz–Yisrael, on the occasion of a wedding, as shown below:

 

Surname Given Name Comments Town
FRIDMAN Chaim Tzvi
husband of Chaya Druzinski from Kelme
wed in Kelme 14 Elul Girkalnis, Lith.

 

During World War II and afterwards

On June 15, 1940 the Red Army entered Lithuania. The state was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, the larger Jewish businesses were nationalized. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded.

On June 22, 1941, the first day of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, local Lithuanians took over rule of the town. They removed the Torah scrolls from the Beth Midrash, trampled and danced on them. They took the rabbi into the street, abused him and plucked his beard out together with the skin, leaving him bleeding. Groups of Lithuanians with white stripes on their sleeves abused Girtegole Jews. They took several men and five elderly women, including Mrs. Zilberman with her two sons who would not leave her, led them all out of the town and shot them.

A few days later all the Girtegole Jews, about 120 persons, were crowded into three houses belonging to Shemuel Tatz, Shimon Goldberg and Avraham Bliakher. There they were kept without food for a week. On August 21st, 1941, (28th of Av, 5701) they were dragged to a place about one kilometer from the village of Kurpiskes, where they were forced to undress and then murdered. During the murder there was a thunderstorm with heavy rain and the murderers, after finishing their job, ran to a nearby grove seeking shelter. One Jew, Yits'hak Bliakher, covered with the blood of his little son, half naked and soaked from the rain, was only lightly wounded. He managed to crawl out of the pit and ran to the local blacksmith. This righteous man helped him wash off the blood, bandaged his wounds, and supplied him with clothes and shoes, instructing him to disappear quickly. Mr. Bliakher wandered from place to place over the following years, managed to survive and was able to recall his own shocking experiences and the tragic end of the Jewish community of Girtegole. A few Jews were hidden by Lithuanian peasants in the surroundings, one of whom was detained by the authorities.

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According to Soviet sources a mass grave with 1,600–1,650 bodies was found near the village of Kurpiskes, about 10 km. southeast of the district administrative center Rasein. It is reasonable to assume that Girtegole Jews were among the victims in this grave.

In the 1990s a monument was erected on this mass grave with an inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian. At the same time a stone monument was placed at the site of the Jewish cemetery with an inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian: 'The old Jewish cemetery. Let the memory of the deceased be holy.'

 

lit6_042.jpg
The mass grave and the monument with the inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian:
“Here in this place, in 1941, the blood of about 1650 Jews – children, women and men – was spilled by Nazi murderers and their helpers, who cruelly murdered them.”

 

Sources:

Yad Vashem archives, The Koniukhovsky collection 0–71, file 42
Di Yiddish Shtime, Kovno, 2.9.1919
Naujienos. Chicago, 11.6.1949

 

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