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Varėna, Lithuania

54°13' 24°34'

Varena – Aran in Yiddish – is located in the southeastern part of Lithuania, about 35 km distance from the district administrative center Alytus on the right bank of the river Merkys, at the confluence of the River Varene, this being the origin of the town's name.

Aran was established at the beginning of the 15th century by Grand Duke Vytautas, who had founded a hunting estate there.

Until 1795 Aran was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Kingdom, when the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times – Russia, Prussia and Austria – took place and Lithuania became partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part of the state which lay on the left side of the Nieman river (Nemunas) was handed over to Prussia, which ruled there during the years 1795–1807, while the other part, including Aran, became Russian.

After the defeat of Napoleon by the Russian army in 1812, all Lithuania including Aran, was annexed to Russia in 1815, first into the Vilna Gubernia and then from 1843 into the Kovno Gubernia.

In 1881 a large fire engulfed Aran. That same year the Russian rulers established a training camp and army barracks near the town, as a result of which Aran developed and several shops and barrooms were opened.

In 1847 only 158 Jews lived there, but by 1897 there were 1,473 Jews out of 2,624 residents.

In 1894 a railway line was constructed near Aran, and then connected to the Russian railway network. At the beginning of the 20th century Aran had several factories, producing cardboard, starch, tiles, bricks, lime and other items. At the end of the 19th century Aran became a county administrative center and was included in Vilna Gubernia.

During World War I the town was badly damaged. In 1915 it was occupied by the German army which ruled there till 1918, when the Lithuanian state was established. In 1920, when Poland occupied Vilna and its region, Aran became a border town, the river Merkys separating it from the region occupied by Poland. The railway track which traversed the town was ruined and only a road connected it with other parts of Lithuania, the barracks were now being used by the Lithuanian army.

The cardboard factory and two blacksmith workshops continued to work in Aran, and during the years 1926–1940 there were also two sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients.


Jewish Settlement till after World War I

Several Jews lived in Aran by in the middle of the 18th century, but their number increased with the development of the town's commerce, and in particular as a result of its connection to the railway network. Jews prospered

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especially from commerce: about 30 Jewish shops made a living from the tens of thousands of soldiers in the nearby barracks. The Jews owned also several factories: 2 cardboard factories, one for the production of starch, 2 flour mills and 1 saw mill.

Letters from 1905 report the improvement in the economic situation of Aran's Jews. Some brick buildings appeared, among them a new Beth–Midrash and a house for passers–by (Hakhnasath Orkhim).

In the summer of 1894 a large fire ravished most of the town, with only 10 houses and the prayer houses left intact. Four children perished in the fire and 200 Jewish families lost all their property, becoming homeless. The Hebrew newspaper “HaMelitz” reported that on that day three carts loaded with bread and another cart loaded with used clothes were sent by the Jewish community of Meretch to help the victims of the fire.

The local corespondents of “HaMelitz” were Shalom Shtern, Yehoshua Budzon, Tankhum Reizes.

The Rabbis who served in town during these years were:

Yoel–Zelig Zalkind (1839– ?), who officiated in Aran in the middle of the sixties of the 19th century;
Eliezer–Yehudah Berman, from about 1880 till 1899;
Matityahu–Gedalyah Kabatsnik, in Aran 1900–1902;
Shelomoh–Zusman Henin (1864–?), in Aran from 1903;

Tsevi Ya'akov Bleiman, the last Rabbi of Aran,
who was murdered in Utyan in 1941

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Several welfare societies were active in Aran: Bikur Kholim (Sick Care), Gemiluth Khesed (Small Loans without Interest), Tomkhei Tsedakah (Charity), Lekhem Aniyim (Bread for the Poor).

The Zionist movement began to influence the local Jewish community when the first Zionist congresses assembled. In 1898 there was already a Zionist Society with 200 members. In 1899, towards the third Zionist Congress, a delegate from Aran participated in the regional conference of Russian Zionists, which took place in Vilna.

In 1898 the “Center of Correspondence” in Kishenev exchanged letters with 14 Zionist Societies of the Vilna Gubernia, including Aran.

Many names of Aran Jews appear in lists of donors for the settlement of Eretz–Yisrael from the years 1898, 1900 and 1903. “Hamelitz” (1902) names 17 Aran donors. A list from 1909 shows 29 donors: Mosheh Shumakher, Avraham–Mosheh Ruazanov, Mordehai Gordon, Hayim Kreiner, Yosef Yershansky, Shelomoh Khazanovitz, Hayim Tatelis, Avraham–Yehudah Veksler, Mosheh Frank, Y.P.Ingel, Yosef Vilkishky, Mosheh Blekharovitz, Eliezer Zusman, Eliyahu Rogovsky, Uriyah Festenstein, Ze'ev Elfman, Avraham Yezevsky, David Koran, Pesakh Khazanovitz, Kopl Galpern, Rehava'am Beker, David Gurshevsky, Hayim Mikhalovsky, A.D,Godak, Mordehai Levin, Aryeh Katz, Tsevi Lubetsky, Ya'akov Gurel, Simhah Golub.

World War I broke out in August 1914, and by the middle of April 1915 the Russian army began to retreat from Lithuania, after being defeated in the battles of Tannenberg and in the Mazurian lakes in Prussia. In the beginning of May of that year, the commander of the Russian army ordered all Jews exiled from the Kovno Gubernia into the Poltava and Yekaterinoslav Gubernias, on the pretext that the Jews were friends of the Germans and could be spying for them. For several days 120,000 Jews, amongst them Aran's Jewish population, were exiled in terrible conditions, during which they lost almost all their property.


During independent Lithuania (1918–1940).

Due to the occupation of the Vilna region by the Polish army in 1920, Aran became a border town and the river Merkys became the border between Poland and Lithuania. The Jewish community of Aran was also divided and 15 families remained on the Polish side of the town, but they managed to return to the Lithuanian side of the town later, and rebuilt their lives anew. During this period Aran was a county administrative center as before, in the Alytus district.

According to the autonomy law for minorities, issued by the new Lithuanian government, the Minister for Jewish affairs Dr. Max (Menakhem) Soloveitshik ordered elections to be held in the summer of 1919 for community committees in all towns of the state. In Aran a committee was elected, which collected taxes as required by law and which was in charge of most aspects of community life, acting till the end of 1925 when the autonomy was annulled.

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A street in Aran


According to the first census carried out by the government in 1923, Aran had 399 Jews (180 men and 219 women). But the number of Jews diminished, many emigrated to America, Argentina, Uruguay and some of the youth to Eretz–Yisrael. One of them, Shelomoh Kaplan (1920–1948) was killed by a shell in Jerusalem in May 1948 when rushing to help a wounded woman.


At left: Stamp of the Minister for Jewish affairs.
At right: Stamp of the National Council of the Jews of Lithuania.


During the first years of independent Lithuania (1919–1920), Aran's Jews suffered from adverse economic conditions and received help from “YeKoPo” (Committee for Helping Jewish refugees) who provided remarkable sums of money for food, timber for heating, medical care, loans for artisans and for baking Matsoth for Pesakh.

During this period Aran's Jews made their living from commerce, crafts, agriculture, and in particular from the military camps in the vicinity as well as the weekly market day every Tuesday. Many Jewish laborers worked in the cardboard factory of David Yershansky. The timber trade which had developed before the war, suffered because Vilna and its region were now on the other side of the border.

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The beautiful view and fresh air in Aran and its surroundings attracted many vacationers in the summer months, and this too added to the income of the town's Jews.

In 1937 28 Jewish artisans worked in the town: 5 tailors, 5 butchers, 4 shoemakers, 3 bakers, 3 stitchers, 2 blacksmiths, 1 hatter, 1 carpenter, 1 knitter, 1 barber, 1 photographer, 1 tinsmith. Meir Levin was the doctor and pharmacist.

The Folksbank, directed by Iser Veksler and with 99 members in 1927, played an important role in the economic life of Aran's Jews. But despite this the economic situation in town grew worse and many families left, in particular the youth, in order to search for a living elsewhere, with many moving to Kovno and others emigrating abroad.

Among the 13 telephone subscribers in 1939 there were no Jews.

Jewish children studied at the Hebrew school of the “Tarbuth” chain, with a complement of about 60 children in the twenties, decreasing to only 30 by1930. In the same year 25 boys studied at the local Talmud–Torah.


The “Talmud–Torah” of Aran 1930


Immediately after the war a library had been established, comprising about 1,500 books in 1937, half of them in Hebrew, which contributed much to the education of the youth. During these years literary and musical evenings were held, their income being donated to the library and to the “Literaten Farein” (Society of Literature), which was founded in 1937. In April of that year a party was arranged on the initiative of Ozer Ingel, who also delivered a lecture on “ Yiddish literature in accordance with the jubilee of the writer Opatoshu”, speaking Lithuanian because half the audience were Lithuanians. The artistic part of the evening was performed by Meir Levdon and Pesakh Tatarsky.

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The stamp of the “Talmud–Torah” of Aran


Farewell from a family before its emigration to America


Many of Aran's Jews were members of the Zionist movement and in the elections for Zionist congresses they voted for most of the Zionist parties, as can be seen from the results enumerated in the table below:

Year Shekalim Voter Labor Party
Rev G.Z.
Gro Miz
15 1927 15 11 2 5 1 3
16 1929 32 15 2 3 3 7
17 1931 97 78 39 8 24 7
18 1933 146 120 19 2 5
19 1935 154 132 3 4 14 1

Rev.–Revisionists; G.Z.–General Zionists; Gro.–Grosmanists; Miz.–Mizrahi

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Fund raising for “Keren HaYesod”, “Keren Kayemeth” and Kapa'i (Fund of Eretz–Yisrael workers) took place. The Zionist youth organizations active in Aran were “Gordonia”, “HaShomer–HaTsair” and “Betar”.

The Synagogue and the Beth–Midrash were the home for learning, for the “Shas” (Mishnah and Talmud) society as well as the “Tifereth Bakhurim” group for the youth.

Among the welfare societies there were “Gemiluth Khesed” and “Hakhnasath Kalah” (Support for poor brides) and the “Khevrah Kadisha” (Burial Society). In 1879 the “Gabaim” (Chairmen) of the “Shas” (Talmud) society were Yisrael Kaplansky (?) and Meir Kalvarisky, of the “Khevrah Kadisha” – Yosef Shlevin and Tsevi–Dov Levitan.

Among the personalities born in Aran were:

Shalom Cohen (1889–1955), who wrote many works of research on the history of Jewish doctors in the world, mostly written in English, some in Hebrew. He died in New York.
Avraham Blekharovitz, a known cantor, who at the age of 21 was the first soloist at the Riga State Theater. He was chief cantor in Buenos Aires in the fifties, and later on a concert–singer in New–York.


During World War II and Afterward

World War II broke out as result of the German invasion of Poland on the first of September 1939, and its consequences were felt several months later for Lithuanian Jews in general, and especially for Jews of the southern part of the state which bordered on Poland.

In agreement with the Ribbentrop–Molotov treaty on the division of occupied Poland, the Russians occupied the Suvalk region, but after the delineation of exact borders between Russia and Germany the Suvalk region fell into German hands. The retreating Russians allowed anyone who wanted to join them to move into their occupied territory, and indeed many young people left the area together with the Russians. The Germans drove the remaining Jews out of their homes in Suvalk and its vicinity, robbed them of their possessions, then directed them to the Lithuanian border, where they were left in dire poverty, as the Lithuanians did not allow them to enter Lithuania and the Germans did not allow them to return. Thus they stayed in this swampy area in cold and rain for several weeks, until Jewish youths from the towns and villages of this part of the state smuggled them into Lithuania by various routes, with much risk to themselves. Altogether about 2,400 refugees passed through the border or infiltrated on their own, and were then dispersed in the “Suvalkija” region (the part of Lithuania laying on the left side of the Nieman river).

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In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, the majority of the shops belonging to the Jews of Aran were nationalized.

All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew school was closed.

Supply of goods decreased and, as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore most of the brunt, and the standard of living dropped gradually.

The Germans were in Aran by the 23rd of June 1941, the second day of the German army's invasion into the USSR. The fast advance of the Germans prevented the escape of the local Jews, and thus all remained in town.

The first days after the occupation passed relatively quietly. On the surface nothing changed and there were no offenses against Jews. But under the surface there was intensive activity among Lithuanians in order to integrate into the “new order” and to get rid of the Jews.

The “Activists”, the local “intelligence” were headed by Adv. Minkunas, who was also the inspector of forests, as well as the secretary of the local court, post clerks and others. They now wore white stripes with swastikas on their sleeves and waited for a signal to act. And the signal was given on Friday night, the 28th of June, when all Aran's Jewish men were awoken and ordered to come to the police station in the morning with shovels in their hands. Seventy men presented themselves at the police station at five o'clock on that morning. The Lithuanian police chief delivered a venomous speech informing them that as from that day the life of Jews was not covered by law, and that they would have to work hard, because it was they who had brought disaster onto the Lithuanian people.

Amongst other things they were ordered to repair the roads which had been damaged during the fighting. The work was carried out under hard conditions, without food, without appropriate tools, and with much abuse by Lithuanian guards. In addition to the Jews being hit, they were robbed of their watches.

On the first of July Jewish youngsters who were members of the “Komsomol” (Communist youth) organization were taken to a nearby forest and shot. On the third of July the Jews were ordered to hand over their cows and bicycles. On the 10th of July a “Judenrat” of 12 members was established in order to act as liaison with the authorities and to ensure the execution of their orders.

On the 16th of the month the Jews were ordered to put a yellow “Magen–David” on their garments, with the letter “J” on the front and back of their clothes, and were also forbidden to have any contact with non Jews.

The former communists sympathizers, who by now had become policemen, Gestapo clerks etc. treated the Jews with special harshness and cruelty.

On the 12th of August 1941 Lithuanian policemen raided Jewish houses looking for young, strong men and for important and intelligent Jews. Ten men were taken and, under the pretext that they would be sent to work, were sent to Alytus, where they were murdered together with Jews brought from other small towns in the surroundings. In Aran people did not want to believe that

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they had been murdered, although no news was heard from them for a long time.

On the 17th of August Jews were forced from their homes and eleven young men were taken to an unknown place.

On the first of September 24 Jews, among them women and sick people, were taken out of the town and disappeared. Meanwhile the chief of the local police Sadauskas and the chairman of the county council Tarila extorted money and valuables from the Jews, making various empty promises.

There were Jews who managed to sneak out of the town and to escape to the nearby towns Vasilishok and Radin, which belonged to Belarus, as people then thought that these outrages happened only to the Lithuanian Jews.

On the fifth of September Jews were abducted again for so called work, but were murdered on the way. The saw mill owner Miler was brutally tortured, all his money stolen, and after his wife and his 15 years old daughter were raped in his presence, all were shot.

On Monday, the 8th of September 1941, the remainder of Aran's Jews, about 125 people, among them 70 children, were concentrated into the synagogue. Armed Lithuanians, including all the civil servants of Aran, guarded the Jews to prevent their escape. One 12 years old girl, Liba Yurkansky, managed to escape, but the Council Chairman Tarila chased her on horse back and brought her back.

Hundreds of Lithuanians from the nearby villages arrived on carts and with sacks, in order to rob Jewish property.

The next day, the 9th of September (17th of Elul 5701) all were brought to a forest not far from Aran, where they were murdered.

According to German sources 541 Jewish men, 141 women and 149 children, altogether 831 Jews, were murdered on that day.

According to the list of mass graves published in the book “Mass murder in Lithuania” vol. 2, the following are the mass graves of Aran:

In a forest 1.5 km from Aran, 200 meters on the left on the road to Druckunai village, lie 831 victims.

In Marcinkunai forest, between Lake Kastina and the railway station, some 200 meters from the station, lie about 200 victims.

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The mass grave and the monument 1.5 km from Aran

The inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian:
In this place the Hitler murderers and their local helpers in 1941 murdered 300 Jews, men, women, children.

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The inscription in Hebrew, Yiddish and Lithuanian:
“In this place the Nazi–murderers with their local helpers on the 2nd of September
1942 murdered more than 600 Marcinkoniai Jews, children, women, men.”

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The mass grave and the monument at Marcinkoniai forest



Yad–Vashem Archives–Files: M–1/E–63/19–1; 2215/2314; 0–3/640, 5760; TR–2/5096.
Koniukhovsky collection 0–71, files 34, 177.
YIVO, Lithuanian Communities Collection, file 105.
On the Ruines of Wars and Disturbances, Notebook of the regional “YeKoPo” committee 1919–1931 (Yiddish), editor Mosheh Shalit, Vilna 1931.
Gotlib, Ohalei Shem, page14.
Di Yiddishe Shtime (The Yiddish Voice) Kovno (Yiddish): 11.1.1931,
Folksblat, Kovno (Yiddish): 19.4.1937.
HaMeilitz (St. Petersburg) (Hebrew): 11.7.1894


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