“Yanishkel” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Joniškėlis, Lithuania)

56°02' / 24°10'

Translation of the “Yanishkel” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996

Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

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 321-323)

Joniškėlis (Lith.)

Yanishkel (Yiddish)

Yoganishkeli (Russian)

Janiszkiele (Polish)

A town in the Birzh district

Written by Dov Levin

Translated by


* 95 women, 67 men
** approximately 70 families

Joniškėlis lies on the bank of the Žemupė River, about 44 kilometers southwest of the district capital, Birzai, and close to the Latvian border. In 1736 permission was given to the town to have three market days a year.

Already at the beginning of the 19th century in Joniškėlis there were a few district institutions, such as a clinic, school, and others. In the beginning of the Russian regime (1795-1842) Joniškėlis was connected to the administration of the Panevezys district that was in the Vilna region and from the years 1843 in the Kovna region. During the years of the First World War the Russians ruled in Joniškėlis, alternating from time to time with the Bolsheviks and the National Lithuanians.

Near the town is the estate of the royal family Korp, who lived in a luxurious palace surrounded by a magnificent garden. In the period of independent Lithuania (see further) the gardens were open to the townspeople and tourists. In the 30s the streets of the town were paved with stones and in 1935 the town was connected to electricity.

It seems that the first Jews settled in Joniškėlis, in the beginning of the 18th century. Most of their income was provided by the ownership of small stores and grocery stores. In the years before World War I, many of the Jews of Joniškėlis made their living by the sale of fruit. They rented orchards from the “Landowner” and from the farmers or even rented individual trees and when the fruit was ripe in the Fall they would pick it, and bring it by horse and carts to the markets, mainly to Riga, Latvia.

In the beginning the Jews of Joniškėlis paid the “per capita tax” via the community in Pumpian[1], although when the elders of Birzh made a request to Prince Polarin, in 1746, the tax was paid to the Birzh community.

Over time a wooden synagogue was erected, with an impressive holy ark decorated with wood carvings made by craftsmen and antique brass ceiling lights. There were other community institutions in Joniškėlis. Most of the houses on the main street were owned by Jews, which were built mainly with red brick and covered with tiled roofs. The other Jewish houses which were on the side streets were built of wood with roofs of wood or metal. Jews did not live in homes with straw roofs. Some of the more educated of the town were subscribed to Hamelitz and also wrote lists of events that took place in the area. Among the rabbis who served in Joniškėlis (from 1905 onward) was Rabbi Sharaga-Feivel Turetz.

At the end of the 19th century, many of the Jews of Joniškėlis emigrated to the United States and South Africa. At least six descendents of these families came on aliyah to Israel.[2]

In May 1915, the Russian army expelled the Jews of Joniškėlis to central Russia. Some of the Jews of the town settled in Panevezys.

In the years, 1920-1921, after the establishment of the independent Lithuanian government, some of the Jews returned to Joniškėlis. In October 1922, the Jews of Joniškėlis participated in the first elections for the legislature of the government of independent Lithuania. Most of the votes were given to the Zionist party. During those years, the community of Joniškėlis was a modern one that received assistance from the Jewish Administrative Offices in Kovno. At its head stood an elected community committee consisting of seven members. From an administrative point of view, the committee was partially under the auspices of the regional committee in Birzh. For example, in addition to the local matters, they also set tax rates and other similar Jewish matters. They set up a Hebrew elementary school that was a branch of the Yavne Schools. In the 1930s some 20-30 students learned there. The graduates went to study in yeshivot in Telz and Panevezys. Other graduates continued studying in the Hebrew gymnasium in Panevezys.

As a result of a policy of the Lithuanian government, the committee ceased its activities at the end of 1925. Among other things, the committee conducted a fundraising campaign for the Jews who were victims of the wars and outbreaks in Russia. The amount that was gathered (5,000 mark) was transferred to the “The Committee of the Land of Lithuania” (Natzionalrat)[3]. After the cutoff from Riga due to the marking of the border between Lithuania and Latvia, customs taxes were imposed on merchants, which resulted in a reduction of exports. The Jews of Joniškėlis then began trading in grain, linen, and eggs that were sent to Shavel[4] and also to Panevezys and Memel. In the years of the 20s and 30s the financial situation of the Jews of Joniškėlis was good.

According to the survey taken by the Lithuanian government in 1931, in Joniškėlis there were three food stores, a grocery, a haberdashery and housewares store.

In the year 1937, there were 16 Jewish craftsmen in Joniškėlis: six tailors, four butchers, two dressmakers, a shoemaker, a weaver, a tinsmith, and a fabric dyer. In 1929 there were 25 telephones in Joniškėlis, including two for Jewish merchants.

Until the middle of the 1930s the relationship between the Jews of the town and their Lithuanian neighbors and the farmers of the area were reasonable. After a branch of the Lithuanian Merchants (Verslas) was set up in the town, there was a lot of strong propaganda not to purchase from Jews and the signs of the Jewish stores were vandalized.

The social and cultural activities of the Jewish community were centered around the study hall of the town, which concentrated on more and more on politics with the years. The following are the results of the distribution of shekels and the elections for the Zionist Congresses.

    S. Z.Z. Z. AB  
14192520- -----
1519278- -----
161929.2- -----

In 1937 Rabbi Yehuda Leib Siderer became the rabbi of Joniškėlis. Benjamin Miller (1874-1949), a native of the town, was one of the founders the Zionist Organization in the United States. BenZion Segal became later on was the Academic Secretary of the Hebrew University.

In the fall of 1940, after Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union, Zionist activity was prohibited in Joniškėlis. In the Hebrew school, the language of instruction was in Yiddish. Even the financial activities diminished after the “Sovietization” of the new government. For these and other similar reasons, the hidden agitation of the Lithuanians grew towards the Jews.

The war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out on June 22, 1941. After five days, on June 27, a number of Jews from Joniškėlis tried to escape to central Russia, but most of them were not permitted to cross the Lithuanian border and they had to return to their homes. On June 27 German soldiers entered Joniškėlis and took control of the town, together with local nationalists under the command of a former officer in the Lithuanian army. Among other things, they carried out arrests and orders to execute Jews and Lithuanians who cooperated, according to them, with Soviet authorities. One of the young Jews from the local youth, Leif Lifshitz, was tortured with special cruelty before being murdered. The other Jews were victims of attacks. They were put into forced labor, beaten and humiliated, then robbed of their property. Other Lithuanians found this an opportunity to be rid of Jews and their debts to them. Thus Yochanan Furman, David Shapira, and others were shot and killed in the middle of the streets. The 10 houses in which the Jews were concentrated became a sort of ghetto. Dr. Lichtenstein was at the head of the community. Despite his efforts, the attacks, robberies and murders continued. On August 19, 1941 the armed Lithuanians expelled all the Jews – men, women, children – to the local train station. With beatings and killings they put all the Jews into four freight cars and sent them to Posvol[5], to the synagogue. On August 16, 1941 they took them, together with the Jews of Posvol, to the forest near Zidek[6], about 4.5 kilometers from Posvol, shot them, and buried them in a mass grave. Two sisters from the Todes family succeeded in running away from the scene of the murders and found refuge with a farmer until the end of the war.

In the beginning of the 1990s, a memorial stone was put in the place of the old Jewish cemetery of Joniškėlis and on it is written, in Yiddish and Lithuanian “Old Jewish Cemetery. May the memory of the dead be holy.”

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Pumpenai Return
  2. In 2006 descendants of many more families were living in Israel. Return
  3. National Council Return
  4. Sualiai Return
  5. Pasvalys Return
  6. Zidikai Return

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