“Podzelva” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania

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Translation of “Podzelva” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Josef Rosin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


Project Coordinator

Steven Weiss z”l


Aviva Neeman

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Steven Weiss

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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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Editor's note: This entry is listed alphabetically in Hebrew under Podzelva, the Hebrew transliteration for the shtetl known in Yiddish as Pazelva to the Jews, and now known as Zelva. This shtetl is not to be confused with Zelva/Zelwa, Belarus (Grodno Gubernia).

Podzelva (Hebrew, Russian), Pazelva (Yiddish), now known as Zelva in Lithuanian. A town in the Vilkomir (now Ukmerge) district, Kovno Gubernia.

(A chart showing year/population in general/Jews/percentage, not included)

Podzelva is situated in Eastern Lithuania, near a stream bearing the same name, 21 km east of the district town of Vilkomir (Ukmerge). Podzelva is mentioned in historical documents from 1373. In 1500 there is a reference to Estate Podzelva. Between 1795 - 1915 it was under Russian rule, first as part of Vilna Gubernia and from 1843 part of Kovno Gubernia. At the end of the 19th century there were in Podzelva big horse fairs. In the 19th century and at the time of independent Lithuania (1918 - 1940) Podzelva was the center of the county (Hebrew Naffa).

Jewish settlement until WWI

The Podzelva community is one of the oldest in Lithuania. In Podzelva's cemetery there were headstones from the first half of the 18th century. Before that the Jews of Podzelva buried their dead in Vilkomir. Legend has it that the chiefs of the Vilkomir town were angry at Podzelva's chutzpah for building their own cemetery and decided to exorcise them from the Vilkomir Jewish community.

In a list from 1872, a year of heavy famine in Lithuania, there are Jewish names from Podzelva who donated funds for the hungry in Lithuania. The one who ran the fund was a Jew called Avraham Ginzburg.

Until WWI Podzelva suffered six big fires. One was in the summer of 1878 when 130 houses of Jews including three synagogues and their many books were burned. Almost 200 families remained penniless. Podzelva's rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi Lifshitz, addressed in the “HaMelitz” of August 21 1878 Jewish congregations in the Diaspora to help those affected by the fire. In the spring of 1881 there was another fire in Podzelva in which 50 houses and all the shops were burned down. More than 400 people remained penniless. In the year 1887 another fire broke out in which 180 houses were burned down.

In 1915, during WWI, the Russian authorities drove the Jews of Podzelva from their town and it was completely ruined. At the time of German occupation (1915 - 1918) many of the deportees returned to Podzelva and even succeeded to somewhat reconstruct their businesses. After the end of the war the town began to be reconstructed but the Jews suffered heavily at the time of the Polish occupation that lasted about a year. In the years 1919 - 1920 the congregation was aided by “JEKOPO”.

Independent Lithuania

After the Poles retreated and Lithuanian rule was founded, there was elected in Podzelva, according to the Jewish autonomy law, a Vaad Kehila -Community Committee of seven members (vaad would be a board or a committee of the congregation). It acted for several years in all fields of life in the Jewish town. At the election to the first Lithuanian Seim, held in October 1922, the Zionist party in Podzelva received 65 votes. The other two parties, “Achdut” (“Unity”) and the Democrats did not get any votes. At the election to Podzelva's municipal council, 17 members were elected, two of them Jews.

At the time of independent Lithuania (1918 - 1940) the Jews of Podzelva lived by commerce, crafts and agriculture. According to a survey made by the Lithuanian government in 1931 there were in Podzelva 9 shops, all belonging to Jews. In addition there were in Podzelva, in Jewish ownership, several more businesses not included in the survey: 3 textile shops, 2 meat shops, 2 pubs, a pharmacy and one grain merchant. The weekly market day was their main source of livelihood. According to the same survey of workshops there were in Podzelva 2 shoe workshops and 3 wool combing shops.

In 1935 there were in Podzelva Jewish artisans as follows: 4 iron smiths, 3 shoemakers, 2 tailors, 2 dressmakers, 2 sock knitters, an oven maker, tanner, glazier, carver, bookbinder, tin smith and a watchmaker. Three or four families had plots of land and lived off of agriculture. In 1939 there were in Podzelva 10 telephones, only 2 held by Jews. From the middle of the '30s the number of Jews in the town went down. The economical crisis in Lithuania and the open propaganda held by the Lithuanian merchants organization “Verslas” against shopping with Jews hit their businesses hard and many of them looked elsewhere for their future. Many Jews lived off of the support sent by relatives in the United States and South Africa.

At that time there was in Podzelva a Jewish elementary school of the “Yavneh” set, established in 1927. Approximately 40 - 60 children attended it. The school was in a modern building belonging to the congregation and the local municipal council paid for its rent. There was also a library in Podzelva but in those years not many needed it.

Podzelva had two synagogues: one was a nice stone building and the “Mitnagdim” worshiped there and another was the Chassidim synagogue. The Rabbis in Podzelva were: Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi Lifshitz (officiated in Podzelva 1864 - 1884); Rabbi Tsvi Yehuda Kushelevitz (1890 - 1893); Rabbi Menachem Nachum Kraines (from 1898); Rabbi Aryeh Leib Levi was Podzelva last Rabbi and was murdered in the Holocaust with his congregation.

Of the welfare institutions that operated in the town “Gemiluth Khesed” is noteworthy. It was founded on inheritance funds left by some of its natives and a donation by the local Khevra Kadisha. The fund gave free interest loans at convenient installments to petty merchants and artisans and these gave livelihood to many.

Most of Podzelva's Jews were of the Zionist camp. Almost all Zionist parties had followers in the town, as can be seen from election results for Zionist congresses.

(A table shows: No. of Congress, year, total number of votes, Eretz Israel HA-Ovedet (Labor party), Revisionists, Zionim Klaliyim (general Zionists), Grosmanists, Mizrakhi.)

Youth in Podzelva was organized and several Zionist youth organizations operated in the place. Of Podzelva's natives noteworthy are Rabbi Itskhak Grudzinski, Rabbi in Shirvint and Antokol; Tsvi Nissan Golomb (1853 - 1934), Hebrew and music teacher, wrote many books among them a collection of folk melodies and prayers versions and also “names of men and women”.

WWII and After

With the annexation of Lithuania to Russia in 1940, several Jewish shops were nationalized. All parties and Zionist Youth organizations were dispersed and the Hebrew school was closed.

On June 22, 1941 war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union. By the end of that month the German army entered Podzelva. But before the Germans came a nationalist Lithuanian organization which took command of the town. Whoever had a grudge against a Jew or coveted his property took liberty to break into Jewish homes, beat up their occupants, abused or even shot them. Women who begged the Lithuanians to kill them with their husbands got an answer that soon Hitler will dispose of all of them. Two that could not bear the torture and debasement committed suicide: the doctor, Moshe Neviazhsky and Feivel Weiner. In time the orders and limitations became more frequent and Jews were taken out, beaten and abused, and had to perform all kind of debasing tasks. On August 22nd the local police chief transferred 125 Jews to the Vilkomir jail. They never returned to Podzelva and were presumably murdered with the Jews of Vilkomir and its surrounding.

On September 5, 1941 the Germans instructed all Jews to assemble at dawn at Motel Heller's barn. From there they were transported by carriages collected from the farmers of the area, to the Pivonija forest, a distance of about 4 km south-east of Vilkomir, and there they were murdered (13 of Elul 1941) in a mass grave with thousands Jews of the area. Several families managed to hide away in the vicinity but were rounded up a short while afterwards and were murdered too. The names of the Lithuanian murderers are kept in Yad VaShem archives. After the war a mass grave was found in the Jewish cemetery in Podzelva, not far from the high school, and in it were 60 bodies.

Necrology for Zelva, Lithuania

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