“Vilkija” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania

55° 03' / 23° 35'

Translation of the “Vilkija” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Josef Rosin

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 248-251)


In Yiddish, Vilki

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shaul Yannai

A county town in the Kaunas district.

Year General
Jews %
1766 .. 652 ..
1847 .. 789 ..
1859 1,181 848 72
1897 2,012 1,431 71
1923 1,797 829 46
1938 2,035 .. ..
1940 2,090 500 25

Vilkija is situated on the bank of the Nemunas River, 30 km northwest of Kaunas, the district's city. For many years, contact with the town was only by boats that sailed on the river. The Kaunas-Klaipeda road, which was constructed in 1938, passed near Vilkija. In the 15th century, the great prince of Lithuania had an estate in the town. At the end of that century, Vilkija was the center of a sub district. In the 16th century, the town received the Magdeburg Rights. Vilkija was under Russian rule during 1795-1915, at first in the Vilnius Guberina (region) and then in the Kaunas Gubernia. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Vilkija was the center of a sub district.

The Jewish Settlement Till After World War I

Jews settled in Vilkija in the 18th century. We know this from the old headstones in the Jewish cemetery. Between 1812-1826, a local Jew by the name of Avraham-Leib Markus, led a struggle of the town's farmers against Graf Zabelo, who received the town and its surrounding areas as a gift from Czar Pavel I. The Graf wanted to turn the famers into vassals, in spite of what was declared in the Magdeburg Rights which defined farmers as free men. At the end of a 14 year struggle, Markus and his family were exiled to Siberia and the farmers submitted to the Graf. Apparently, Markus was the first Jewish political fighter in Russia who fought for farmers' rights, and paid the price by being exiled to Siberia.

It is known that already by 1859 there was a synagogue in Vilkija. The Jewish children during that period studied in a number of “Hadarim” and in the Yeshiva that were in the town.

During the 1880's, there were times when Jews were attacked outside of the town. Farmers murdered the Jewish miller, resulting in the town's Rabbi declaring a fast. The Jews of Vilkija made their living from commerce and labor. There were also Jews who had taverns (public houses for travelers). A number of Jews worked for Jewish residents of Vilkija. The latter were merchants of forest products, and the former engaged in a special profession: they transported timber on rafts on the Nemunas River. Those rowers were called “Konzhortniki”. The lumber was brought from the suburbs of Vilnius and Kaunas and was sent to Germany.

On July 14, 1903, a great fire broke out in the town, which burned down more than 40 houses. About 70 Jewish families lost their entire property in the fire. A few dozen houses of Christians, including the Church, also burned down. As a result, the farmers stopped coming to the town and the livelihood of the Jewish grocers' was harmed.

The Rabbis who served in the town's Rabbinate were: Rabbi Yehosha-Heshel Eliashson; Rabbi Gavriel Feinberg, who served for 6 years; Rabbi Khanoch-Zundel Rappaport (served from 1872); Rabbi Arieh-Leib Wolpert (from 1873); Rabbi Hillel-David Trivash (who edited from 1875 until he died in 1921 the newspaper “HaPisga” [The Apex], which dealt with religious questions and Torah issues). In 1898, a Zionist association was established in the town which maintained, among other things, a literary correspondence with “The Center of Correspondence” in Kishinev. Two delegates from Vilkija (Asher Asherovitz and Reuven-Arieh Helman) participated at the Galil Conference of the Vilnius and Kaunas regions, which met in 1899 in Vilnius. Many names of Jews from Vilkija appear in the 1898, 1900, and 1903 lists of donors for settling Eretz-Yisrael. In 1903, 12 of the town's Zionists protested in the “HaMelitz” about introducing “cultural work” into the working program of the World Zionist Organization.

At the beginning of WWI, the Russian army returned to Vilkija after retreating from the town. This time the Russian soldiers conducted pogroms against the Jews, tortured men and raped women. In the spring of 1915, at the order of the Russian regime, the Jews of Vilkija were brutally expelled from their town. Only 60% of the Jews who lived in the town before the war returned to it after the war. 20 Jewish homes burned down during the war.

The Period of Independent Lithuania

In accordance with the law of autonomy for the Jews and after a heated election, a ruling committee of 9 members was elected in Vilkija: one member was from the artisans' party and 8 were nonpartisans. Shalom Berman was elected as chairman of the committee. The committee was active in most areas of Jewish life in the town from 1919 until the beginning of 1926. In order to fulfill its missions it established sub-committees in the areas of education, taxes, social aid, and others. According to a census conducted by the committee after it was elected, Vilkija had 132 Jewish children between ages of 7-14. Furthermore, there were 90 merchants in the town: 40 of them owned stores and the other 50 were petty traders who traded in the surrounding villages. The census also counted the 50 Jews who sailed the rafts, 20 who cultivated gardens and orchards, 16 tailors, 15 who owned wagons, 10 shoemakers, 6 who grew various crops, 5 oven builders, 2 carpenters, 2 barbers, 2 who knitted hosiery. 10 families managed small pieces of land next to their houses where they grew vegetables and fruits. 30 families owned a cow. In 1925, Vilkija had a Jewish doctor (Yehuda-Leib Krestin).

When the Vilnius region was disconnected from Lithuania, the exporting of lumber declined and the Jews who sailed the rafts became unemployed. According to the above census, 50 families received supplementary income from the community's welfare institutions. 10 families subsisted only from welfare. About 300 people received “Maot Khitim” (money for flour for Passover).

In the elections to the first Lithuanian Seimas, in October 1922, the Jews from Vilkija voted as follows: the Zionist party received 214 votes; the “Folkspartei” 41 votes; and the religious party, “Akhdut” (Agudat Yisrael) 25 votes. According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, Vilkija had 18 businesses, and 17 of them (94%) were owned by Jews. The division into business branches is shown in the table below:

Branch or Type of Business Total Owned by Jews
Butcher shops and cattle 1 1
Restaurants and taverns 1 1
Clothing, furs and textile products 7 7
Shoes, leather and shoemaking 1 1
Medicine and cosmetics 1 0
Radios, sewing machines and electrical equipment 1 1
Tools and iron products 3 3
Wood and heating materials 1 1

According to the same census, Vilkija had 16 light industry factories and 15 of them (94%) were owned by Jews as shown in the table below:

Branch or Type of Business Total Owned by Jews
Headstones, bricks, cement products 1 1
Textile: wool, flax, knitting 2 2
Wood industry: sawmills, furniture 1 1
Food industry: mills, bakeries 9 8
Leather industry: production, leather workshops 1 1
Others: Barber shops, processing pig bristles, photography shops, goldsmiths 2 2

A few Jews owned passenger and cargo boats that sailed on the Nemunas.

In 1937, there were 49 Jewish artisans in Vilkija: 9 tailors, 7 butchers, 7 shoemakers, 5 bakers, 3 “Tapars” (Hebrew, “tapar”, which refers to “a craftsman in shoemaking who makes the uppers”), 3 carpenters, 3 barbers, a hat maker, a seamstress, a person who made boots from felt, a glazier, an oven maker, a painter, a blacksmith, a photographer and 2 others. The Jewish national bank (Folksbank), which had 226 members in Vilkija in 1927, played an important role in the economic life of the town's Jews. Vilkija also had a branch of the “Jewish Farmers Credit Association”. In 1939, the town had 44 telephones, 18 of them belonged to Jews.

From the middle of the 1930's, the number of Jews in the town started decreasing. The economic crisis that beset Lithuania in the 1930's, and the open propaganda of the Lithuanian Union of Merchants (Verslas) to boycott Jewish merchants motivated many Jews to seek their future elsewhere. Many of them, and in particular the younger generation, emigrated abroad and also to Eretz-Yisrael. Another reason why the number of Jews decreased in the town was the fire that broke out in Vilkija in 1937, which burned down 17 Jewish homes and 120 people remained without shelter. During the period under discussion, the town had a Hebrew elementary school that was part of the “Tarbut” network, where, on average, 150 children studied.

Religious life concentrated around Vilkija's two prayer houses: “The Kloiz”, which was made of wood, where those who sailed the rafts and also a few forest merchants prayed, and “The Shul”, that is, the synagogue, which was built according to a Bet Khoma structure and was reinforced in order to withstand any flooding from the Nemunas, and where the Rabbi and wealthier individuals prayed. During that period, the Rabbis who served in the Rabbinate in Vilkija were: Rabbi Friedman and Rabbi Shemuel-Josef Shoham, who was murdered during the Holocaust together with his community (see below). The welfare institutions that were active in the town were “Ezra” (aid), “Maot Khitim” and others.

Many of Vilkija's Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. Almost all of the Zionist parties had supporters in the town. In 1934, a branch of the Zionist Socialist Party was established in the town, and also a branch of the “HaOved”, which provided Hebrew evening courses and held evening discussions about issues related to the Zionist Movement during that time period.

The division of votes to the Zionist Congresses in Vilkija in the 1920's and 1930's was as shown in the table below:

Year Total
14 1925 7 - - - - - - - -
15 1927 15 - - - - - - - -
16 1929 13 14 2 12 - - - - -
18 1933 .. 60 55 1 3 - 1 -
19 1935 .. 285 221 - 9 16 11 28
              The National Bloc
21 1939 .. 176 151 - 7 18

The Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in the town were: “HaShomer HaTzair”, “HeKhalutz”, and others. Sports activities were held at the local branch of “Maccabi” which listed 66 members. A few of Vilkija's youth were active in the communist underground.

Among those who were born in Vilkija were: Moshe Yardeni-Zakheim (1881-1960), who had a doctorate in chemistry and was the principal of the Hebrew gymnasium in Vilkaviskis during the years 1924-1933. He was also a member of the Zionist Center and the “Tarbut” Center in Lithuania and passed away in Tel Aviv; Haim Yelin (1913-1940), an author, who was the leader of the anti-Fascist organization in Ghetto Kaunas. He was killed by the Nazis while armed with a rifle. After the war he was decorated as a fighter against the Nazis.

During World War II and Afterwards

In 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. The factories and shops in the town, most of which belonged to Jews, were nationalized. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded. The Hebrew educational institutions were closed down. The Hebrew school was allowed to teach only in the Yiddish language. The middle class, composed mostly of Jews, suffered a severe setback and its standard of living declined more and more. On the other hand, the new regime favored the communist Jews, who emerged from the underground and received important positions.

The war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out on June 22, 1941. A few days later, on June 26, the German army entered Vilkija. But the Lithuanian Nationalists got organized even before the Germans arrived in the town and took control of Vilkija. They started arresting supporters of the communist regime and in particular arrested the Jews among them. Two Jews were killed immediately; 21 others were arrested and were accused of having connections with the Russian regime. They were tried and sentenced to death. The local priest approved the verdict with a seal of approval on behalf of the Church. They were killed on July 15, in the village of Yagminiskis and were buried there, after everything they had was confiscated from them, including their clothes. When the German commander of the city arrived in Vilkija he imposed a heavy tax on the Jews and published a decree that ordered them to handover to the authorities all of their radios, cameras and electrical equipment. The German commander and his Lithuanian collaborators used to overwhelm the Jews with all kinds of “invitations”, and the Jews, who were gripped with fear, were forced to comply.

One day, the Jews were ordered to leave their homes, and to concentrate in the ghetto. Some of the men were imprisoned in the Bet Midrash, and the women and children were crowded into the house and granaries of Shimon Friedland. Both of those buildings were locked from 5 p.m. until early the following morning, and no one was permitted to go outside. Lithuanian auxiliary police guarded them from the outside. Then, young people ages 18-22 were forced to do various types of labor, such as washing the underwear of the Germans and the Lithuanian auxiliary police, cleaning their offices and polishing their shoes. Some of the men were taken to work in the sawmill in the town, where they were beaten and tortured. The Lithuanians hinted to the men that their families were in danger, but that it was possible to prevent the evil decree in return for some money. This is how the Lithuanians extorted from the Jews the money and valuables they still had.

On August 28, 1941 (5 Elul, 5701), the entire Jewish population of Vilkija and the surrounding areas were led to the Pakarkle Forest, about 2 km south of Vilkija, near the village of Jaucakiai, 1 km off the Kaunas-Vilkija road, and on the right bank of the Nemunas River, all of them were shot and buried in pits that were prepared in advance. Altogether, 402 men, women and children were murdered and buried there. The names of the murderers are kept in the Yad Vashem archives.

After the war, the corpses of those who were murdered in Cekiske, Seredzius, Veliuona and from other nearby places, were brought to this mass grave and were reburied there. The remains (bones) of about 3,500 men, women and children are buried in those mass graves. Vilkija descendents who survived the war erected a memorial on the mass grave and on it an inscription in Lithuanian and Russian.


Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, M-9/15(6); 0-3/3788; Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, file 145; a detailed list of the Vilkija households, heads of households and their descendants before the war is included in the Vilkija file, 0-57.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, files 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548.
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 342-360, pp. 16239-16721, 20753-20755.
Historical Writings, Volume 2, 3, pp. 780-785.
Kamzon, The Jews of Lithuania, Jerusalem, 1958, p. 104.
Dos Vort - (Kaunas) - 23.12.1934.
Hamelitz [The Advocate] – (St. Petersburg), 26.12.1882, 8.1.1884, 28.1.1884, 1.2.1886, 22.8.1892, 21.4.1901, 3.7.1901.
Folksblat [The People's Newspaper] – (Kaunas), 28.12.1937, 7.8.1938, 21.8.1938, 17.11.1940.
Teviskes Zinios (Kaunas), 3.9.1991.

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