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Translation of Michaliszki chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of Michaliszki chapter from
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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 420-422, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(District of Vilna-Truki, Region of Wilno / Vilna)
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Michaliszki is located at the point where the Strache River flows into the Vylia, approximately 60 kilometers northeast of Vilna. It sprouted around a church that was built in 1624, and in the course of time, received the rights of a city. It was annexed to Czarist Russia at the time of the third partition of Poland in 1795. It was under German occupation for approximately three years during the First World War. After a further period of regional wars, it was annexed to Poland in 1922. During the Second World War, Michaliszki was first under Soviet rule (from September 17, 1939), and was conquered by the Germans on July 24, 1941. The Soviet Army liberated the district in the summer of 1944.
Jewish residents of Michaliszki are first mentioned in documents from the second half of the 18th century, however, it is surmised that they lived there prior to that time. In 1765, there were 396 Jewish payers of the head tax there. In the middle of the 19th century, the nobleman Kaswary Kotwicz promised favorable conditions to the Jews who settled in Michaliszki, since he regarded them as an important factor in the development of the economy. The nobleman permitted every Jewish family to purchase four dunams of land, an exceptional benefit in those days. Most of the Jews exercised their rights - they purchased land, planted fruit trees, potatoes, and other vegetables. Some of them also owned cows, goats or a horse. During the 1880s, the Jews were already the majority in the town. Alongside the farmers, there were large-scale merchants of wood and flax, small-scale merchants, shopkeepers, peddlers, and various tradesmen. All of them had ready livelihoods, and many lived comfortably. The few who stumbled upon difficulties were given assistance from the nobleman Kotwicz.
The Jews of Michaliszki had a large, fine Beis Midrash, and the children studied in traditional cheders. At the end of the century, a private Jewish school was opened in Michaliszki. The first rabbi of the community, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Karelitz, served for approximately 60 years until his death in 1880. Serving after him were Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordon and Rabbi Shabtai Mordechai Feinberg (died in 1909), the author of Afikei Meginim and Meshivat Nefesh.
The poet Avraham Dov Adam HaKohen Lebensohn  (1794-1878), one of the chief maskilim of Lithuania was born in Michaliszki. His popular nickname was Der Michaliszker). The frequent visits of the writer Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sh. Y. Abramovich) to his nephew, the town pharmacist, were a source of pride for the members of the community.
Michaliszki was bombarded during the First World War. Many of its houses were destroyed, and most of the Jews escaped. Most of them returned at the beginning of the German occupation in 1915. A shortage of basic foodstuffs pervaded in Michaliszki during the occupation, and necessities such as salt and sugar disappeared completely. The residents were obliged to provide the Germans with milk and other agricultural products from their farms. Their horses and cattle were confiscated, and many people were enlisted to forced labor, such as building fortification and repair of roads.
At the end of the war, the Jews were left without anything, and they had difficulty in restoring their homes and sources of livelihood. The American JOINT opened up a communal kitchen for the needy and war orphans, and in 1919 the Yekopo  organization built a new bathhouse and three residences for families left without a roof over their heads. Three representatives from Michaliszki participated in the first Yekopo convention that took place in September 1919 in Vilna (see entry). In 1926, Yekopo founded a charitable fund in Michaliszki. Assistance was also received from natives of the town in the United States. During the early 1920s, the community established an old age home. Within a brief period of time, life in the town returned to its normal course, and shops, stalls in the marketplace and workshops were once again opened. Nevertheless, the economic situation of the town did not return to is former state, and the Jews were forced to deal with unique difficulties in livelihood. Only a few of the large-scale lumber and flax merchants remained after the war, and the scope of those that remained shrunk. The small-scale merchants were forced to compete with the large Polish cooperative that was established after the war with government assistance and financing. Due to the benefits that it received, the cooperative was able to sell variegated merchandise at cheap prices, thereby pushing aside the small-scale Jewish merchants. In addition, the farmers began to sell their own merchandise in the Michaliszki marketplace, and no longer utilized the agency of Jewish merchants. The Jewish tradesmen, whose
hands were full of work prior to the war, also had difficulty in competing with the Polish cooperative that sold cheep clothing and footwear, and with the Polish shoemakers from Vilna who settled in the town after the war. Only the livelihood of the Jewish bakers remained almost as good as it had been previously. The renewal of their certificates was dependent on the renovation of the bakeries in accordance with the new health regulations; but even those who undertook a partial renovation received the certificates.
Jewish communal and political life reached its pinnacle after the war. Chapters of the parties and Zionist youth movements were founded in the town one after another: Hechalutz, Young Hechalutz, Hashomer Hatzair, and, at the end of the 1920s, Beitar. Graduates of the youth movements went to hachsharah kibbutzim and some of them made aliya to the Land of Israel. A Bund cell also operated in Michaliszki alongside the parties.
The Zionists and non-Zionists developed widespread cultural work. Two Jewish schools were opened in Michaliszki during the early 1920s - one Yiddish and the second Hebrew as part of the Tarbut network. Many youths continued their studies in the Jewish gymnasiums of Vilna. The Yiddish school of Michaliszki also offered evening courses for adults on topics of culture, literature, and Jewish history. A Jewish library and drama club opened in the town. Rabbi Tzvi Entin was the rabbi of the community in 1929.
On September 17, 1939, the troops of the Red Army entered Michaliszki. Administrative officials arrived in their wake and instituted Soviet rule in town. Private businesses were closed or nationalized. A cooperative was set up for workers, and new workplaces were founded for the unemployed. Many of the youth were posted in official positions. The Tarbut School was closed and the Yiddish school was operated in accordance with a Soviet curriculum. During the first weeks of the war, Jewish refugees from the district of Nazi occupation in western Poland streamed to Michaliszki.
On June 22, 1941, at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans bombed the Soviet airfield next to Michaliszki. Local residents were killed and injured during the bombardment. About two days later, on June 24, Michaliszki was conquered by the Wehrmacht. On the first night, some anonymous individuals damaged the German telephone and telegraph lines, and the suspicion fell upon the Jews. In the morning, the Germans brought all of the Jewish males to the market square. Thirty of them were hauled to the Jewish cemetery. Each of them was punished by 50 lashes of a whip, and then they were ready to shoot them. At literally the last moment, several German telephone technicians who had tried to defend them were summoned to the place. The technicians, who in the interim had already repaired the disconnected wires, supported the claim of the Jews that contradicted their involvement in the sabotage. To strengthen their claim, they recommended that Jews be placed as guards of the network. The Jewish men were freed, but several of them died later as a result of the severe beatings that they had endured. The German soldiers turned the Beis Midrash into a bakery, and used the Torah scrolls as fuel for the bakery ovens. (According to one source, they destroyed the two Beis Midrashes, desecrated the Torah scrolls, and destroyed the gravestones in the Jewish cemetery.) Before they continued their journey eastward, they set up a police force of pro-Nazi Poles and Byelorussians, leaving them in charge of the local government. The new policemen issued the first anti-Jewish decrees - the obligation to wear the yellow patch, the ban on Jews gathering in the market, the ban on coming into contact with non-Jews, and the enlistment to forced labor. The policemen also regularly participated in the exclusion of the Jews from day-to-day life and in pillaging their property. After some time, the Germans set up a Wehrmacht command and gendarme station in Michaliszki. Persecution of the Jews became a constant. One day, when the forced laborers were returning from work in the evening, the German gendarmes conducted a thorough search on their bodies and clothing. They found two Jews with smuggled foodstuffs, and they shot them to death in the city square. All of the Jews were gathered together and forced to wait for the accused to be taken out to be killed.
Michaliszki was included in the government district of Lithuania in September 1941. In October, the Jews of Michaliszki discovered that 17 Jewish youths were taken out to be killed by the S.S. in nearby Worniany (see entry). Eight of them rescued themselves from the death pit while they were still alive, and the nine who died were brought to burial. Out of fear that a similar incident might take place in Michaliszki, the Jews fled from their homes and hid in the villages and the forest. When the S.S. men came to kill them, they did not find anybody. The farmers took advantage of the opportunity to break into the empty homes and pillage property. The S.S. commander ordered the farmers to summon the Jews of Michaliszki to return. They promised that those who returned would not be harmed, and that those who refused to return would be captured and killed. After the Jews returned at the end of October 1941, a ghetto was established. At first, the German governor intended to designate 50 houses for the ghetto, but as a punishment for the escape, he reduced the allocation to half. Approximately 1,500 Jews, local and refugees, were crowded into 25 houses. As the Jews were transferred to the ghetto, they were ordered to choose a Judenrat. Yitzchak Sebirski was chosen as the head, and Z. Levin as his deputy. After a few days, a representative of the Gebietskommissar (German district governor) of Wilejka (see entry) came to Michaliszki and imposed a large fine of cash and furs upon the Jews. The entire fine was demanded to be handed over already the following day, but the head of the Judenrat Sebirski and his deputy endangered themselves, set out for Wilejka, and succeeded
in receiving an audience with the governor after many difficulties. They convinced him to reduce the payment. Later, additional payments were imposed upon the Jews of Michaliszki. The ghetto was closed off and fenced in, and it was forbidden to leave. Obtaining food from the farmers through barter was a difficult task. A typhus epidemic broke out in the Michaliszki Ghetto on account of the hunger, crowding, and poor hygienic conditions. The repeated murders also contributed to the population decline. A group of youths was sent to work in the construction lumber factory in a nearby settlement, and another large group was employed by the Todt Company in laying the railway line from Wilejka to Molodeczno (see entry). The Jews who worked on the construction of the railway line were housed in the Kuny Labor Camp next to Ostrowiec. After three months, these youths were taken out to be killed, and representatives of the Todt Company returned to the ghetto to draft new workers.
In August 1942, the last Jews of the ghettoes of Worniany, Kamelishki, Świr, and Bystszyca (see entries) were brought to the Michaliszki Ghetto. In the winter of 1942-1943, Horst Wolf, the governor of Vilna, decreed that a 50 kilometer strip on the Lithuania - Byelorussia border as Judenrein. This directive affected the four ghettoes that still remained in the border strip at that time - Asmiany, Szwiencziani, Soly (see entries), and Michaliszki. On March 25, 1943, approximately 200 Jews from Michaliszki were transferred to the Vilna Ghetto. An additional group of approximately 100 workers was sent to the work camps of Žiežmariai and Vievis near Kovno in April 1943. The rest of the Jews of Michaliszki were included in a large transport of Jews from Asmiany, Soly and Szwiencziani whose official destination was the Kovno Ghetto. On April 3-4, the Jews of Michaliszki, Asmiany and Soly boarded the transport train at the Soly station, and the Jews of Szwiencziani joined them at the Nowo-Szwiencziani station. In Vilna, they boarded a train of Jews from the Vilna Ghetto, after the Germans permitted them to join their family members in Kovno. This group included 200 Michaliszki Jews from March, including Jewish policemen from the Vilna Ghetto and their commander Yaakov Gans, who went out to accompany the transport. Along the way, Gans and his men realized that the true destination of the transport was the murder site of Ponary . They and several other Jews retuned to the Vilna Ghetto, and the Nazi gendarmes boarded the train in their place. When the train stopped at the Ponary station, others also figured out the destination of their trip. Some of them attacked the Germans and Lithuanians with their fists, with knives, and even with several guns that had been hidden in their belongings. Approximately 600 people were killed in a desperate battle, and several dozen succeeded in escaping and returning to the Vilna Ghetto. All of the rest, approximately 3,800 people including the group from Michaliszki, were murdered in Ponary. After some time, the Jews who worked in the Vievis and Žiežmariai camps were also murdered.
When the Soviet Army entered Michaliszki in the summer of 1944, the found it destroyed. Not one house remained. From the close to 1,500 Jews of Michaliszki and the region who were concentrated in the Michaliszki Ghetto, only about 30 survived until the end of the war. Four survivors who returned to Michaliszki from the forests were murdered by anti-Semites from a nearby village.
Yad Vashem Archives: 03/2530, 2487, 7530, 8906; 033/286, 1144; M1/E/10, 1903, 742; M1/Q/263, 264, 513.
Arad, Jewish Vilna in its Struggle and Destruction, pages 279, 290, 297.
Pinkas Yekopo, page 483.
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