"Vilaka" - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Latvia and Estonia


57°11' / 27°41'

Translation of "Vilaka" chapter
from Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia v'Estonia

Written by: Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1988


Project Coordinator

Mordechai Telsner

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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.

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(pp. 119-121)


(German: Marienhausen, Jewish Usage - Viliaki)

Translated by Naomi Grossman

Town in Nefet Abrenne, Blatgalle.

Population Figures

Year Total

Until the End of the First World War

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.

The Origins and Development of the Local Jewish Community

Jews first began to settle in Vilaka after the region was annexed to Russia in 1772. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the settlement's total population did not exceed a total of 70. However, around this time the local Polish landowner became interested in expanding this tiny village and he tried to attract Jews to live around his estate. It was due to his efforts that this village settlement eventually received official recognition as a town. Yet at this point the local population still did not grow significantly.

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.

Community Life

The community's first rabbi was Rabbi Benzion Don Yichiye of Lutzin (Lodz), who was appointed to the rabbinate in 1900. Before him, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Golnedsky served as the local scholar. He was a great Torah scholar who ruled on questions of kashrus and other issues. In the community's only shul there was a separate prayer room (kloiz), which was used by a small number of Chassidim. There was an ongoing dispute over which version of the prayers should be followed, which occasionally created disharmony among the community. For this reason, services were eventually organized in two separate shuls – the “big” shul, which belonged to the Misnagdim, and the “small” shul, which belonged to the Chassidim.

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.

During The First World War

During the years of the First World War, only a few families left Vilaka. At the same time, the community absorbed a number of Jewish refugee families who had fled from Western Latvia. The conquest of the town by the German army in 1918, followed by the entry of the Bolsheviks in 1919, caused little physical damage. However, when the Bolsheviks withdrew after an attack by the Latvian Liberation Army, many houses were caught in the crossfire between the artillery forces belonging to both sides. One Jewish woman was killed, while others were injured.

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.

Between the World Wars

At the beginning of the 1920s, most of the Jews of Vilaka were involved in trade and their general economic situation could be considered as satisfactory. One third of the population was perceived as wealthy. More than half of them received a medium income, while only ten families (approximately 10% of the Jewish population) needed community assistance. Such assistance was not given on a official basis. A six-member community council was elected at the end of 1920 from three non-political lists. The Joint allotted the community the funds to establish a Chessed trust, build a bath-house, and renovate a building that could be used for a school.

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 BusinessTotal Jewish Ownership
(In figures)
Jewish Ownership
(In percentages)
Grocery store 22 16 73
Butcher 6 6 100
Candies and wine 6 6 100
Textiles and haberdashery 15 15 100
Hats 3 3 100
Shoes and leather 6 6 100
Ironmongery 6 6 100
Household goods and watches 10 8 80
Barber shops and coiffure 3 2 66
Inns 2 2 100
Restaurants 2 1 50
Pharmacies 1 1 100
Miscellaneous 7 5 71

Three out of the town's four small factories also belonged to Jews.

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:

CongressYearUnited Zionist ListZionist Youth – Zionist SocialistsRevisionistsMizrachiTotal Number of Voters
16th1929 --- 9 1 --- 10
17th1931 1 14 10 2 27
18th1933 1 104 69 3 177

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.

The Second World War and its Aftermath

During the period of Soviet rule (1940-1941), most of Vilaka's Jews remained there. After war broke out between the former Soviet Union and Germany in June 1941, many local Jews were unsure whether they should flee inland over the nearby eastern border towards the USSR, or to stay where they were. After many consultations with the local rabbi, they decided to stay where they were. The Jews who decided to go east towards the USSR, nonetheless, found that the border was closed and they had to turn back. Later on, a number of Jews from Vilaka managed to cross the border and they reached the Soviet Union.

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.

After the War

In July 1944, the Red Army took control of Vilaka. The Jewish captain of the Red Army set up a memorial at the site of the murder of the town's Jews in memory of the victims of the Nazis. The inscription, which is written in Russian and Latvian, does not give any special mention of the fact that these victims were Jews. The former Jewish residents of Vilaka who later returned from the Soviet Union mostly settled in Riga. They attempted to bring the remains of the victims to a proper Jewish burial and honor their memory. However, they discovered that there were no remains left in the men's mass grave because the Germans had burned the bodies. The remains from the mass grave of the women and children were transferred to Riga for burial and a memorial stone was set up at that spot at the request of the Jews. (Unfortunately the site became very neglected and covered with weeds because local shepherds were too afraid to graze their sheep at that bloodsoaked spot.) In 1979-80, the memorial stone was transferred to the men's mass grave at the request of the remaining Jewish community. The municipality conducted an official ceremony in the presence of the army, schoolchildren and a cantor.

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)
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Solovy, Chaim, YHZ, 12/237
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Gottlieb, Sh.N., Sefer Oholei Shem
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Avotins, E., Kas ir Daugavas vanagi
Blackbook of Localities
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Esther Hager

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