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[Page 214]

Pumpėnai (Pumpyan)

55°56' 24°21'

Pumpėnai (Pumpyan in Yiddish) lies in the northeastern part of Lithuania, about 24 km. north of the district administrative center Ponevezh (Panevezys). The town was mentioned for the first time in historical documents from 1556. Until the eighteenth century Pumpyan was included in the principality of Birzh that had five towns and thirty four estates. The Pumpyan estate was one of the largest owned by the noble Radzivil (Radvila) family. During the entire period of their rule Pumpyan Jews enjoyed good economic conditions and security.

Until 1795 Pumpyan was included in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. 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, Pumpyan became a part of the Russian Empire, first in the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 in the Kovno Gubernia. During the years 1915-1918 the town was under German occupation. During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940) Pumpyan was a county administrative center.

Jewish settlement until World War I and afterwards

Pumpyan was one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania. Jews settled there in the middle of the seventeenth century. During the period of Va'ad Medinath Lita (1623-1764) Pumpyan was included in the Birzh district (Galil). In a list of Karaite taxpayers from 1704-05, residents of Pumpyan, who suffered from oppression and persecution, were mentioned. In the middle of the eighteenth century the Karaites moved elsewhere and Rabbinic Jews settled in their place. In 1766 there were 583 Jewish taxpayers in the town.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century a blood libel was directed at the Pumpyan Jews when they were accused of murdering a Christian boy for the Pesakh. A local Jew, Yisrael Pumpyansky, took the blame and so saved the lives of many other Jews who had been detained as suspects. The Christians burned Yisrael alive and he was buried at the yard of the synagogue. His grave was enclosed by a fence and a headstone was erected, and from that time Pumpyan Jews lived in the shadow of this blood libel.

In 1861 a fire destroyed most of the town's houses and the synagogue. Seven Jews died in the fire.

In 1881 the community acquired land near the old cemetery and fenced it. They bought building materials and erected a new synagogue on this site. They also renovated the bath house. These works were accomplished with the financial help of one wealthy man, Ben Zion Segal.

At this time the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz reported that those responsible had overlooked the importance of having a Talmud Torah, and hadn't paid the salary of twenty rubles per year to the only teacher. Because of this the pupils of the Talmud Torah were not advanced enough in Bible studies and in Russian writing. It was also reported that a third Shokhet was appointed, who received unfair preference over the other two from the community funds.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Jews were in the majority in the town. According to the all-Russian census of 1897, the population was 1,480, of whom 1,017 were Jewish (69%). These included learned and intellectual men and also several wealthy and philanthropic people who cared for the needs of the community. Most Jews made their living in small trade, crafts, peddling and agriculture (auxiliary farms). Because of the hard economic conditions, many young people emigrated, mostly to South Africa.

In 1915, about six months after the outbreak of World War I, The Russian military authorities exiled all Pumpyan Jews to the central parts of Russia.

During independent Lithuania (1918-1940)

After the war and the establishment of the independent Lithuanian state in 1918, the exiled Pumpyan Jews returned to their town and found their property plundered and their homes burnt down. Many emigrated to America and South Africa. The Jewish community in Pumpyan became smaller and its percentage of the total population fell. According to the first government census of 1923, there were 1,137 people were in the town, 372 of them being Jewish (33%).

The Hebrew Tarbuth School 1929

Following the Law of Autonomies for Minorities issued 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 Pumpyan, with its 225 Jews, the elections took place in 1919. The right to vote was granted to citizens eighteen years and older. In Pumpyan 151 were eligible and 141 of them voted. A Va'ad (community committee) with seven members was elected: four from Tseirei Zion, two orthodox and one non-party man. The committee worked for several years in all fields of Jewish life.

The Jewish children received their elementary education at the Hebrew school of the Tarbuth chain. The Tarbuth association also organized evening courses. In 1922 just fifteen people participated in these courses.

Many Pumpyan Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. Most of the youth had hopes of emigrating to Eretz-Yisrael and some joined the Kibutsei Hakhsharah (training Kibutsim).

All Zionist parties had supporters in town and votes for the Zionist congresses were as shown:

Year Total
Total Votes Labor Party
Revisionists General Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrakhi
15 1927 14 14 3 6 4 1
16 1929 32 10 1 3 3 1
17 1931 10 10  6   1 2 1
18 1933 28 23 5
19 1935 83 38 14 24 1 6

In April 1933 there was a protest meeting against the persecution of the Jews in Germany, headed by Yehezkel Shtironi. The speakers at this meeting were Rabbi M. Y. Hayat, the Gabai Y. L. Zukh, the agronomist Y. Rasein and the teacher Sh. Glitsman.

In 1937 fourteen Jewish craftsmen worked in town: three shoemakers, three butchers, two bakers, a tailor, a hatter, a blacksmith, a barber, a cloth dyer and a watchmaker.

The Pumpyan-born poet B. Byalostotsky described the town thus: “There were deep swamps, particularly in autumn. The market place was shaped like a hand with five fingers that pointed in different directions; one finger pointed to the small town of Pushalot in which only a few dozen Jewish families lived; the second finger, in the direction to the town Posvol, that was seen by the Jews as an aristocratic and exclusive place; the third led to the town Vabolnik about which rumors were spreading that robbers and murderers were controlling it, which made Pumpyan Jews afraid to use this road; the fourth finger led to the big town of Ponevezh that was the ideal of every Pumpyan Jew; the fifth road was the shortest route to the Beth Midrash and the small Shtibl next door in which the Hasidim went to pray. Between the Hasidim and the Mithnagdim friendly and peaceful relations existed”.

Pumpyan served as a center for study of Torah and was fortunate to appoint learned and well-known rabbis including:

Yits'hak ben Eliezer in the eighteenth century
Ya'akov from Shventsian
Yekhiel, whose headstone and that of his wife stood at the cemetery of Pumpyan
Mosheh Eliyahu
Shaul Shapiro (1797-1859)
Yehonathan Eliashberg (1850-1899), from 1875 in Pumpyan, one of the first rabbis of his generation to publish articles in newspapers; he was a fervent Hovev Zion and published a book of this subject along with other books on Judaism.
Aryeh Lipkin (1840-1902), in Pumpyan 1870-1878, published many books that were printed in Vilna, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Hayim HaLevi Katz (1854-1932) in Pumpyan from 1889, was an excellent orator, preached for Zionism, published many books on Judaism.

Hayim HaLevi Katz
Yohonathan Eliashberg

During the period of independent Lithuania relations between the Jews and the Lithuanians in Pumpyan were generally good.

During World War II and afterwards In summer of 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new regulations, the livelihood of many Jews was lost, including that of the rabbi. Some were even obliged to work for their living on the Shabath. All Zionist activity was forbidden and the Hebrew School was closed. At this time about 300 Jews (60 families) remained in Pumpyan.

On June 22, 1941 the German army invaded the Soviet Union. Five days later, on June 27, the Germans entered Pumpyan. Within a few days the Lithuanian activists together with the police, headed by the local Council chairman, began to take the Jews out for forced labor. They were mistreated and abused and robbed. On July 15, 1941, all Jews were forced to leave their houses and were crowded into a so-called ghetto surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The ghetto contained six Jewish houses, belonging to Shalom-Yits'hak Sandler, Mosheh Moierer, Mendl Kovalsky, Avraham Lurie, Moshe Kemer and Rabbi Hayat. There they were kept in starvation and squalor until August 26. The Lithuanians accused the rabbi of swallowing golden coins and they tortured him to death in front of his wife and his three small children. On the same day, August 26, 1941 (3rd of Elul 5701) Pumpyan Jews were led to the Pajuoste forest, about 5 km. from Ponevezh, and there beside the long pits all were shot to death. The bodies were covered with earth despite some of the victims still being alive.

Several families were taken to Posvol (Pasvalys) and from there to Zadeikiai where they were murdered together with the Jews from the region.

The mass grave in the Zadeikiai forest

The monument and the tablet on it with the inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian:
“In this place the Hitlerist murderers and their local helpers on
26.8.1941 murdered 1350 Jews, men, women, children.”

A group of survivors near the monument on the mass grave in Zadeikiai
where the Jews from Posvol, Vabolnik, Salat, Pumpyan, Jonishkel and other places were murdered.

In the 1990s the plaque on the monument was replaced.

The last Jews of Pumpyan, the pharmacist Leib Lapolsky and his family were murdered in the town a few weeks later. All the murderers were Lithuanians from the surrounding area. Their names are recorded in the archives of Yad Vashem. In the early 1990s a new plaque was erected at the Jewish cemetery with the inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian, “May they rest in their graves”.


YIVO, New York, Collection of Lithuanian Jewish Communities, file 839
Bardakh Y. (Hebrew); The Jews in the Birze princedom of the Radzivil family in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Gilad #12 (1991), pages 23-44
Gotlib, Ohalei Shem, page149
Nehamah Borukhson-Kaufman, Pumpyan. Pinkas HaKehiloth-Lita, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1996
Di Yiddishe Shtime, Kovno, 31.8.1919; 15.3.1932; 25.3.1932;
HaMelitz, St.Petersburg (Hebrew), 8.3.1881; 7.11.1882
Folksblat, Kovno, 24.4.1933

Appendix 1:

A list of Pumpyan Jewish donors for the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael as published in HaMelitz
(from JewishGen>Databases>Lithuania>Hamelitz  by Jeffrey Maynard)

Surname Given Name Comments Source Year
FRIDMAN Yechezkel b-i-l of Rabbi
Yehonason Eliasberg
  #209 1893
LEWINZOHN father of Nachman in Łódź   #4 1895
LEWINZON Yehoshua Chaim   #132 1900
Yosef ben Rabbi ABD Chaim   #132 1900
HALEVY Chaim father of Shmaryahu rabbi #232 1902
HALEVY Shmaryahu ben Chaim husband of Rivka wed #232 1902


The above article is an excerpt from “Protecting Our Litvak Heritage” by Josef Rosin. The book contains this article along with many others, plus an extensive description of the Litvak Jewish community in Lithuania that provides an excellent context to understand the above article. Click here to see where to obtain the book.


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