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Translation of "Vilaka" chapter
from Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia v'Estonia
Written by: Dov Levin
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem, 1988
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for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.
This is a translation from:
Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia and Estonia:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Latvia and Estonia,
Edited by Dov Levin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
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Town in Nefet Abrenne, Blatgalle.
A History of the City This settlement began as a fortified castle belonging to the Livonian Catholic religious order, which had been established in 1293 by the Archbishop of Riga. Although Vilaka was conquered by the army of Czar Ivan the Terrible in 1577, it only received the official status of town in 1825. Most of its lands were owned by the Catholic church.
During the first seventy years of the nineteenth century, around twenty-three Jewish families settled in the area. At the same time, an inflammatory article against the Jews was circulated in the Russian anti-Semitic journal, Golos, in which the Jewish merchants living in the town were accused of tax evasion. Rabbi Gittelson refuted these accusations in an article that was published in the Russian Jewish weekly, Voreisky Vestnik, (11th edition, 1873.) He also gave a summary of the occupations of the Jewish merchants and the professions of other Jewish residents in the town. From this article it emerges that three merchants were members of the second guild (R. Matric, Z. Samet and V. Gorevitz) who dealt in flax, wheat, and wood. The estate's leaseholder Israel Tchashnik and the leather merchant D. Kaploshnik employed eight other Jews. Several other Jews worked as peddlers or salesmen. In Vilaka at that time there were also four Jewish craftsmen.
When the Temporary Regulations, which prohibited Jews from settling in village communities, were introduced in 1882, the authorities removed Vilaka's status as a town, and any additional Jews were forbidden to live there. However, in 1892 its status as a town was restored, and many Jewish families from the surrounding area immediately moved in. By 1903, the Jewish community numbered 102 families, or 540 individuals. This number did not change by much for many years. For a long time the Jews formed the majority of the town's population. Some of them came from the nearby village of Kalishes, where they had worked the land.
During the decade immediately preceding the First World War, before a Jewish school was established in the town, several affluent members of the Reform movement would hire private tutors from outside the area to teach their children modern Hebrew and general subjects. However most of the community's children attended two local chedorim.
On the initiative of the Jewish residents, a group of volunteers formed a local fire-brigade in 1903, which was mostly composed of Jews. Many public and cultural activities were also organized under their auspices.
Large numbers of young Jews who were old enough to serve were drafted into the Latvian rifle brigades, which were assembled on the orders of the Latvian national government.
After the Ulmanis government came into power (in 1934), the general situation of the Jews deteriorated as the result of certain restrictions placed upon them. At the same time, many types of trade in Vilaka still remained in Jewish hands. According to a statistical survey carried out in 1935, there were 77 Jewish-owned stores and businesses in the town, as opposed to 15 concerns belonging to non-Jews, as shown in the table below:
|Occupation or Business||Total||Jewish Ownership|
|Candies and wine||6||6||100|
|Textiles and haberdashery||15||15||100|
|Shoes and leather||6||6||100|
|Household goods and watches||10||8||80|
|Barber shops and coiffure||3||2||66|
In 1921 a Jewish school, belonging to the Tsischa network, in which the lessons were given in Yiddish, opened. The school had a small library, and there were occasional lessons given by Zionist or other political parties. A number of recognized members and supporters of the Zionist-Socialist parties also came from Vilaka.
Towards the end of the 1920s, a branch of the pioneer youth movement, HaShomer haTzayir-Netzer was set up in Vilaka. Later on, a branch of Beitar was also established. The first pioneers from Vilaka emigrated to Israel in the mid-1920s. The only clubhouse in the town was affiliated to a left-wing organization, Yiddisher Kultur Farein, and it included a public library and a drama group.
Below are the results of elections held in Vilaka for the Zionist conferences:
|Congress||Year||United Zionist List||Zionist Youth Zionist Socialists||Revisionists||Mizrachi||Total Number of Voters|
Rabbi Benzion Don-Yichiye, who was Vilaka's local rabbi for twenty-six years, left a very definite impression upon the community. Everyone respected his wisdom and modesty. He was satisfied with a modest salary that was sometimes not enough to provide for his food. When Rabbi Benzion left Vilaka and returned to Lodz after his father's death in 1926, it was a terrible loss for the community. During the years of his tenure, his picture hung in almost every Jewish home in Vilaka. Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Tcherniak of Rezekne, who was educated in the yeshivos in his hometown and in Riga, succeeded him as local chief rabbi. Rabbi Tcherniak was a leader in chareidi education in Riga. Some of his chiddushei Torah were published in a book. He was later murdered during the Holocaust.
One former resident of Vilaka was Rabbi Nochum Pepperman, who moved to Kreslava after his marriage. His children were born in Kreslava, and one of them was the famous artist, Abel Pan. Rabbi Tuvia Lissitzin, rosh yeshiva of Heichal haTorah in Tel Aviv, was also born in Vilaka. Rabbi Lissitzin studied at the Slobodka yeshiva in Lithuania before moving to Israel in 1924.
Vilaka fell into German hands at the beginning of July 1941. Jewish refugees from other communities, who were passing through the town on their way to the border, including a group from the town of Balavi, were sent back to their original homes by the Germans. A short while later, the Jews were expelled from their homes and herded into a ghetto, located in a poor part of town. There they were forced into hard labor, and several acts of murder were carried out. At the beginning of August 1941, a group of German security officers arrived in the town. After separating the Jewish men from the women and children, the Germans first murdered the men and then the women and children, who were killed in a separate pit about a kilometer and a half from the town. Among the marksmen who carried out this massacre were local Latvians. It was later told that one brave Jewish mother, Leah Schneur, who was holding her small child in her arms, encouraged the other women and children who were being led to their deaths to at least die as proud Jews. This mass murder was perpetrated in the Zverinki forest, near the village of Kazukalna, several kilometers from Vilaka. One young Jewish woman was shot separately that day while she was on her way to work. A small group of Jews who found shelter among local peasants was later discovered and also murdered. It appeared that not even one of the Jews of Vilaka was spared. Of the town's two shuls, one was burned down while the other was converted into apartments. Just before the Germans withdrew, they burned the bodies of their victims.
Every year the remnants of Vilaka's Jewish community hold a memorial ceremony in the town. At first around forty people would attend annually, but over time this number has dwindled. Some have passed away, while others have moved to Israel. In 1980, only fourteen Jews were present at the ceremony.
AZM 18- 4/215 Z
AJDC Archives, Countries-Latvia (1920-23)
Goldensky, Eliyahu; Telsner, Dovid: Tripeskin, Zalman: Lissitzin, Tova; ALA, II:18
Solovy, Chaim, YHZ, 12/237
Eliav, B, Latvian Jewry
Gottlieb, Sh.N., Sefer Oholei Shem
Zeligman, Yisroel, Megillas Yichussin
Levin, Dov, The Participation of the Jews in the Wars of Independence of Latvia and Estonia
Avotins, E., Kas ir Daugavas vanagi
Blackbook of Localities
Latvijas Enciklopedija, Stokholm
Salnais, V, Latvijas ciemi
Skujenieks, M, Latvija (Zeme un iedzivotaji), (1927)
Das Volk, (2.1, 1921), (22.2.1923), (28.1.1926)
Freimorgen, (25.12.1933), (18.7.1926), (24.7.1933), (2.7.1930)
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