“Gelvonai” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania

55° 4' / 24° 42'

Translation of the “Gelvonai” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Raphael Julius

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996



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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

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(Pages 193-195)


In Yiddish, Gelvan

Written by Raphael Julius

Translated by Shimon Joffe

A town in the Ukmerge district (Vilkomir)

Year General
1801 1,400 ..
1866 286 ..
1914 ~100
.. 473
1934 .. ~70
1939 678 ~450
1959 407 ..

*46% of total inhabitants

The town of Gelvonai lies 15 km. distant from Shirvintos and 20 km. south of the district town Ukmerge. Lake Gelvone is 6 km. away.

Records of the Crusader order prove that in the year 1385 Gelvonai was a small settlement (village) belonging to a rich family called Zabas. Therefore it is also called by the name Zabava. In 1744, the Polish king Augustus the Third, granted it the rights of a town. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the estate was still administered by the Zabas family, which carried the title Governor Polotsk. At the end of the eighteenth century, Gelvonai began to expand rapidly, but after that, due to the French wars and the revolts of 1831 and 1863, the town suffered much damage, the number of inhabitants was reduced and it stopped developing. In 1863 it had only 30 houses. In the fire of 1895, the churches and other buildings were burnt down. The town estate owner, Graf Plater, built a new church in 1895. From December 1918 until March 1919, the town was locally administered, representing the Bolsheviks headed by a revolutionary committee. Because of the military activities of the Bolsheviks and later of the Poles, the independent Lithuanian administration was established only in the autumn of 1920.

Jews settled in Gelvonai in the seventeenth century. A gravestone in the cemetery dates back to 1659. Not far from the town, gravestones were found in a pasture but the inscriptions had rubbed off over the years. According to Jewish tradition, the place had a Jewish cemetery in the past in addition to the newer one.

Before the First World War the Jews mainly dealt in trade in grains, and export to Vilna of fowls, fruits and milk products. Until the war it was considered a prosperous town. Trade connection with Vilna was in Jewish hands. Jewish carters carried farm produce to Vilna twice a week, and on their return, they brought goods for the shops - craftwork too. Tailors, smiths, carpenters, shoemakers-was in Jewish hands. In 1913 the town had 10 shoemakers, 6 tailors, 3 carpenters, 2 smiths, 2 painters, one engraver and one miller-all Jews. The villagers from the surrounding area were forced to turn to the Jewish artisans for their needs. Many Jews were employed by the neighboring estate owners. Some made a living out of acting as agents for the local gentry. The relationship with the non Jewish neighbors was, generally, cordial.

In the period before the First World War Gelvonai had a church built of stone, a wooden synagogue, 75 dwelling houses, 22 shops, a pharmacy, a post office, a public library and a school.

During the First World War some 500 Jewish families, who had been driven out of Ukmerge (Vilkomir), Jonava and Kovno, reached Gelvonai and other places in the vicinity. A few weeks later some were again driven out. Gelvonai Jewry feared that they would share the fate of their brethren. They were permitted to remain only after great endeavor with the authorities. The community fathers stood surety for the good behavior of the Jews, and would have forfeited their lives had a Jew been caught spying for the Germans.

In 1918, while steps were being taken to found an independent Lithuania, two committees were formed, with German permission, one Lithuanian and the other Polish. The Jews joined the Lithuanian one. The Poles tried to persuade the Jews to join their committee and even threatened them, but no Jew agreed to join them. In view of their failure the Poles attempted to incite the local population against the Jews. Their spokesmen demanded that the Jews be driven out; they harassed the Jews, cut the Eruv wire and called for a boycott of Jewish shops. Their incitement had little effect.

After the war, during the period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940), the economic situation worsened. After Vilna was severed from Lithuania (a mere 50 km. from Gelvonai), trade declined in the town. According to a survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1931, Gelvonai had 4 textile shops, a grain business, a flax business, a meat shop, a heating material shop, a hide shop, a wool comb, a bakery and a textile plant. Members of the Lithuanian association Verslas supplanted the Jewish merchants and agitated among the peasants not to employ Jewish agents. Of the many Jewish artisans working before the war, only 3 shoemakers, 2 tailors and an engraver remained. The town became impoverished and the number of Jews reduced. Some of the youth went on to training farms and immigrated to Eretz Yisrael. Many immigrated to lands across the sea or moved to the large cities in Lithuania. The remainder made a living out of peddling, and a great many of these survived thanks to help received from relatives in America. Whereas in the period before the war Gelvonai was almost entirely a Jewish town, containing some 90 Jewish families and only 8-9 non Jewish ones who worked for the Jews, their number was reduced to 70. The number of Christian families rose to 80, who had their own shops, a co-operative and a well funded Lithuanian bank. With the impoverishment of the Jews, and the reduction in their number, the study house, built in the days of prosperity, and the bath house built of stone, now only heated three times a week, to save on heating costs, were now deserted. The Jewish community in Gelvonai fell apart. The attitude of the population changed too. Among the non Jews appeared agitators spreading rumors and calling for their banishment, as well as a demand to seize their shops.

At the beginning of the 1920's when the Jews still enjoyed autonomy, Gelvonai had a community which supported social welfare and religious welfare activities.

In 1918, the teacher Glintershchik started a Hebrew school, but influenced by the supporters of Yiddish, it was turned into a Yiddish language school. In 1923, a revolution took place again, and the Yiddish school became the Tarbut School, with the language of instruction being Hebrew. Many of the youth studied at the Hebrew or Yiddish high schools in Ukmerge (Vilkomir). In those years the Zionists founded a Hebrew library, a Yiddish one already existed. Now but a few came to read any of the 400 volumes on the shelves. The library had a reading room attached to it, where lectures took place on cultural matters. The Zionist party with the greatest number of adherents was the Zionist-Socialist party, (Z'S'). In the elections to the 16th, 17th and 18th Congresses, (which took place in 1929, 1933 and 1935), this party, at first under the name Z'S' and later under the name Eretz Yisrael Labor List, received the most votes.

Year No. of
Z S Zts. A B
16 1929 17 16 13 - - - - - 1
17 1931 17 17 14 - - 1 1 - 1
18 1933 .. 26 23 - 1 1 - 1
19 1935 .. 90 84 - 2 3 - 1
              National List
21 1939 29 26 4 - 4   18  

In the years 1919-1920 the community received financial assistance from Yekopo (The Jewish Committee to Assist those Suffered in the War, based on Vilna) with ever increasing amounts - from 1500 to 26,800 marks.

At the end of the 1920's, ex-Gelvonai Jews in the USA sent $1000 - to found a peoples' bank in the town. In 1930, at the request of the local Jews, a branch was opened of the Peoples Bank (Folksbank). In answer to the request of ex-Gelvonais' living in New York to the Federation of Lithuanian immigrants, the latter allocated a sum of 10,000 lit to the bank. During the depression, the bank encountered difficulties and authorities inspectorate demanded that it either close down or merge with another bank or with the Lithuanian bank. In those years, Gelvonai had 5 banks, one Jewish (in the shop belonging to H.Goldstein).

Among the rabbis officiating in Gelvonai were; Rabbi Menachem-Mendel Lifshitz, author of the book 'Birkat Menachem' (Menachems Blessings), Rabbi Yehoshua Klevan, who served until 1925 and immigrated to the USA, Rabbi Zalman-Pinchas Hakohen, son of rabbi Yehuda Leib Kaplan (born in 1854), a student at the Volozhin Yeshiva and the son-in-law of Rabbi Meir-Michl Meshat and the father of the author Yisrael-Efraim Kaplan. The last Rabbi of the town was Rabbi Daniel Einstein, murdered in the Shoah. For many years the shochet (ritual slaughterer) in the town was Rabbi Zusman-Gershon. Bitsik.

Among those born in Bitsik was Rabbi Yosef, the first born of Yehuda, rabbi in the USA and Rabbi Leib-Noach Bas, the rabbi of Shaukotas (Shkot).

During the Second World War

Immediately after the commencement of war between the Germans and the Soviet Union and before the Germans were seen in Gelvonai, the local Lithuanians began to harass their Jewish neighbors. They profaned the synagogue and vandalized many Jewish shops. After the Germans entered the town, nationalist Lithuanians arrested many Jews suspected of communism. The prisoners were sent to the prison in Ukmerge and there murdered.

At the beginning of July 1941, armed Lithuanians evicted all the Jews from their homes and led them to a swampy area not far from the town. There they tortured the men with all sorts of sport exercises, forced them to run, to dance, to fall and to rise endlessly, the torture went on for hours and then the Jews were returned to the town. Upon their return, the Jews found that their houses had been plundered. This was an action previously planned. This angered decent Lithuanians and on the following Sunday the priest preached a sermon, condemning this deed. . Consequently, some Lithuanians returned part of the spoils. But the repressions of the Jews did not cease-rather to the contrary, they increased day by day.

On September 5, 1941, all the Jews in the town were led to the Pivonija forest, known also as “The Swiss Valley” near Ukmerge, and there murdered the same day together with Jews from neighboring communities.

One family was saved from the slaughter, the husband (H. Goldstein), his wife and twins aged 7. The man owned an ironmongery shop and was born in the village. The family hid with a friendly peasant with whom they had previously deposited their property. The Lithuanians who suspected they would have to return the property to the Jews, informed on the family and at the end of 1941 they were all murdered.


Yad Vashem Archives, 0-33/879; Lithuanian Communities Collection 0-57, Reuven Kronik Testimony, Petakh Tikva; Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, file 97.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: file 1512, pp. 69415-69419, 69420-69421.
Shachat, M, Recollections, Di Yiddishe Shtime, 9.6.1922.
Yiddisher Kooperator [Jewish Cooperation] (Kaunas), # 1930, p. 21.
Morgen Zhurnal (New York), 18.8.1947.
Falksblat [The People's Newspaper] – (Kaunas), #1606, 4.8.1935.

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