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Map of Lithuania

[Page i]

Preface

Because Preserving Our Litvak Heritage, which dealt with the history of 31 towns was so well received, Josef Rosin continued his efforts, and provides us with Volume II covering an additional 21 towns in Lithuania. In order to fully appreciate and understand the history of each town, the reader is urged to first read the Introduction, written by the eminent scholar of Lithuanian Jewish History, Professor Dov Levin, retired chair of the Department of Oral History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Both Dr. Levin and the author, Josef Rosin, are natives of Lithuania, raised in Jewish communities and therefore entitled to be called “Litvaks,” a title they both proudly wear. Levin grew up in Kovno and Rosin in Kibart, each living in their hometowns until the start of World War II. They met in the Kovno Ghetto where they were active in the anti–Nazi underground and later in the forests of Lithuania as partisan fighters against the German and Lithuanian Nazis. Both men, now retired, have devoted many years to collecting and assembling information on Litvak history.

In 1996 Yad VaShem published their work, Pinkas Hakehilot. Lita in Hebrew (Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania); it is a monumental work of more than 750 pages detailing the specific history of over 500 Litvak towns. Professor Levin was the editor and Josef Rosin, who wrote about 80% of the entries, was the assistant editor. Unfortunately this significant work is not accessible to the English reading public because it is written in Hebrew. This book by Josef Rosin provides an account of an additional 21 communities, even more detailed than that presented in Pinkas Hakehilot. Lita (Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania), as the author is now able to elaborate and offer details that could not be included due to space limitations. Further, Rosin mined the memories and photograph albums of many residents of these towns now living in Israel and elsewhere, to compile an even more comprehensive picture of these communities. It is truly fortuitous that he accomplished this task in good time, because today, in 2007, those survivors who were young adults in 1941 are now well past their 80th birthday. As we discovered, the younger generations are finally starting to search for their history as it existed in their Litvak past, and so we are all extremely fortunate to be able to benefit from the thorough research on which this book is based.

It is our distinct honor and pleasure to have been able to work with Josef Rosin and Professor Dov Levin and thus bring this book to the English reading public.

Don Loon and Joel Alpert, Editors
Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5767, September, 2006


[Page ii]

Introduction

On the eve of the Shoah the Jewish population of Lithuania, including the Vilna region and the refugees from Poland, numbered approximately a quarter of a million souls. Although this represented only around 0.9% of world Jewry during the twenty years of independent Lithuania, it was long recognized as a specific religious–cultural unit as compared to the neighboring Jewish centers of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Lithuanian Jews were distinguished by their intellectual and rational attitudes. For good reason the Lithuanian Jews were not only nicknamed Litvak, but also Tseilem Kop (“Cross Head”), suggesting that the Lithuanian Jew would be ready to strike out vertically and horizontally (in the form of a cross, G–d forbid) in order to achieve his goal, or alternatively to cross–check his findings in order to reach absolute truth.

These attributes and others not only had implications in daily life, but also resulted in various phenomena, currents and systems in the socio–cultural strata, for example the reservation of the majority of Lithuanian Jews to the concepts of “False Messiahs” and their opposition to Hasiduth (Chassidism). Their diligence was exemplary in studying the Torah in the Synagogues (Batei Midrash), the Yeshivoth Ketanoth (Junior Yeshivoth) and especially in the Great Yeshivoth. Jewish Lithuania was famous for the great Yeshivoth of Slabodka, Telzh, Ponivezh and Kelm* (* indicates that this town is one of the 21 towns covered in this book), where hundreds of foreign students also studied. The Salant community was also well known, because it was from here that the Musar (Ethics) movement began and spread through Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. The Musar principles were based on the use of intellectual activity and knowledge to correct and improve the behavior of the individual. Lithuanian Jewry was also known for fostering the Hibath Zion movement and later for practically adopting the Zionist idea, while exhibiting an almost simultaneous openness to the challenge of the Haskalah (the Enlightenment Movement), whether it be in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian or German.

The city of Vilna (also called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”) not only became a worldwide center of Jewish religion but was also the abode of such famous persons as Rabbi Eliyahu (the Vilna Gaon), Rabbi Hayim–Ozer Grodzensky and many others; moreover it was the cradle of the religious Zionist movement (Mizrahi) on the one hand and of the socialist workers movement (Bund) on the other. In due course the Institution of Yiddish Culture (YIVO), now established in New York, was born in this city.

Historically it seems that these impressive attributes and achievements, as well as the special character of Lithuanian Jewry within the Jewish world, developed alongside prolonged struggles for their economic and civil rights among their ethnic Lithuanian neighbors, and this in spite of frequent changes of rulers.

The first settlement of Jews in the Great Lithuanian Duchy, also named Magnus Ducatus Lithuaniae, began in the fourteenth century by invitation of the Grand Dukes Gediminas and Vytautas (Witold). In 1388, one year after the Christian–Catholic religion was introduced throughout Lithuania, the Jews were also granted a preferred civil status and incomparable bills of rights in many different spheres, such as protecting their bodies and property; freedom to maintain their religious rituals; significant alleviation in the field of commerce and money lending, in relation to Christians. There was also a particular regulation protecting Jews against blood libels. But in 1495, only three years after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry, Grand Duke Alexander expelled all Jews, then numbering more than 6,000, from Lithuania and confiscated their property. Eight years later, when he was elected King of Poland according to the joint rule of these two countries, he allowed Lithuanian Jews to return to their homes and gave them back some of their property. Most of the privileges granted by Vytautas were left intact: for a long period after this event they were of some importance in preserving the legal, civil and economic status of the Jews.

This situation often caused envy among the Christian townspeople, mostly Germans, who were organized in merchant and artisan unions (cechy) and who for a long time had enjoyed the Magdeburg Rights according to the precedent granted to merchants in the town of Magdeburg in Germany; they now perceived the Jews as competitors who had to be fought. For example, they managed to have an edict proclaimed (De non tolerandis Judaeis) forbidding Jews to settle in Vilna, the capital of the duchy, and to trade there. In time this interdict lost its significance. However, insults to Jews by urban Christians, including students at theological seminars in this town and others, continued for centuries.

This was not the same problem that confronted the Jewish population in the northwestern region of the Lithuanian Duchy known as Zemaitija or Samogitia (the Jews called it Zamut). In contrast to the eastern region, Aukstaitija, and the south–eastern parts of the duchy, most of this region was settled by ethnic Lithuanian tribes who, in contrast to most of their brethren, had accepted the Christian–Catholic religion relatively late (1413) and, because of their religious background, had not yet been stricken with Judophobia.

The first Jewish settlers in Zamut earned their living by customs and tax collection. A further wave of Jews settled in this region following the expulsion of Jews from Vilna (1527) and Memel (1567). At this time there were already Jewish settlements in Zamut – in Alsiad* (Alsedziai), Utyan (Utena), Birzh (Birzai), Zhager* (Zagare), Yurburg (Yurbarkas), Palongen (Palanga), Plungyan* (Plunge), Pokroy (Pakruojis), Keidan (Kedainiai), Kelm* (Kelme), Shadeve (Saduva) and other towns.

A considerable improvement in the condition of the Jewish population and in the relationship between Jews and the entire population occurred during the period of the unification of the Great Lithuanian Dukedom with Poland within the framework of the Polish Republic Rzeczpospolita (1569–1795).

Then and for many decades after, feudalism reigned in Lithuania. Most of the population continued to make their living from agriculture as before and from breeding cattle and poultry, from fishing in the rivers and lakes and from harvesting trees. A few, mainly Jews, were peddlers, while even fewer Jews dealt with the import and export of agricultural products. Very few Jews, generally those close to the establishment, were granted the privilege of leasing the collection of levies. With the improvement of roads and sailing routes on the rivers, most of which flowed into the Baltic Sea, there was a gradual increase in commercial activity, especially the exporting of timber, flax, grains, poultry, cattle and dairy products. As a result taverns and storehouses were established near the crossroads and at river ports. These small settlements developed into villages and towns where many Jewish artisans and merchants settled. Until the eighteenth century in the area of ethnic Lithuania, recognition as a town was granted to 83 settlements and rights to commercial trade to 87 settlements. In fact there was no significant difference in rights between a small and a big town.

An additional factor for Jews becoming firmly established in the economic sphere was the significant growth in the number of Jews employed by nobles and estate owners to manage their estates, and also in the leasing of barrooms and taverns in rural areas. As a result, the Jewish bartender or manager was exposed to the hostility of the rural population, which regarded him as an agent of the noblemen who wished to exploit them.

Although most ethnic Lithuanians were already Christians, the belief in devils and ghosts had not yet disappeared and now the Jew replaced these evil symbols. It was not difficult for the Lithuanians to believe in the veracity of the blood libels, a phenomenon that continued to exist until recently.

Despite this, Western Lithuania, and in particular the Zamut region, became a relatively safe haven for thousands of Jewish refugees who survived the Period of Tribulation (1648–1667) that started with the mutiny of the Cossacks headed by Bogdan Khmielnitsky, and ended with the occupation of Vilna by the Russian army. At the same time, the Black Plague ravaged the population of the region.

The Va'ad Medinath Lita (The Lithuanian Jewish Council) played an important role in maintaining good relations between the general population and the Jews, as well as among the Jews themselves. This Va'ad was a quasi–autonomic authority of the union of Jewish communities in the Polish Republic Rzeczpospolita. During the 138 years from 1623 to 1761, this authority effectively and honorably represented the day–to–day interests of about 160,000 Jews in the Lithuanian Dukedom vis–a–vis the rulers and also managed to protect their physical safety and dignity against hostile elements in the Christian population. After the Va'ad was organized, the communities of the Ethnic Lithuania region were included in an administrative unit called Galil Zamut. Later this was renamed Medinath Zamut which included several sub–units in Birzh, (Birzai), Vizhun* (Vyzuonos), Plungyan* (Plunge) and elsewhere.

Far–reaching changes in the legal and civil status of the Jews occurred during the third division of Poland in 1795; then, most of Lithuania was annexed to Russia and became known as The North–Western Zone, thereby becoming an integral part of the Russian empire. In addition to the provinces (Guberniae), Vilna in the northeast and Grodno in the south, the provinces of Kovno in the north–west and Suwalk in the southwest were also added. This arrangement continued more or less until World War I.

Of the twenty–one Jewish communities reviewed in this book, eleven were situated in the Aukstaitija region which during Czarist rule was in the Vilna Gubernia, with the other ten in the Zemaitija region in the Kovno Gubernia (see map).

At the end of the eighteenth century there were several areas in this region where half of the population was Jewish, while in a few the Jews enjoyed a decisive majority. In urban settlements, Jews usually tended to concentrate in a defined area, a Jewish quarter, sometimes called “The Jews' Street”. Jews who were scattered or lived outside this area were strongly linked to and remained in close contact with those living within the Jewish quarter.

As in other areas in western Russia at this time, this region was also proclaimed as belonging to the Tehum HaMoshav HaYehudi (The Jewish Pale of Settlement), where many restrictive edicts and harsh limitations were imposed on the Jewish population, resulting in great hardship and which continued almost until World War I.

At the same time the government was troubled by the isolation of the Jews and tried to deal with this problem in different, sometimes contradictory ways. Thus in 1804 Jews were forbidden to live in the villages and to sell alcohol to peasants, but they were allowed to live as peasants on land allocated to them by the government. Schools were opened for Jews, and in Vilna, a Beth Midrash (Seminary) for Rabbis was permitted. In fact these institutions served as centers for the development of a strata of learned men who spoke Russian, which gave them entry into the lower echelons of the social and academic establishments. Most Jews, whose main living was based on contact with peasants and the poor and who lived in the villages and in small towns, managed to survive with a minimal knowledge of the Polish and Lithuanian languages. However, among the narrow layer of Lithuanian intelligentsia, still loyal to a great extent to Polish culture and statehood, there were accusations that these Jews were, in fact, causing the spread of Russian culture on behalf of the ruling class. As a result the Jews found themselves “between the hammer and the anvil” in times of war, as during the invasion of Lithuania by Napoleon in 1812. Some of them, favorably impressed by their contacts with French officers, supported the provisional authority established by the French army and even helped to provide information. But the majority remained patriotic to mother Russia. The Jews were thrown into even more critical situations during the Polish uprisings against Russian rule in 1831 and in 1863: on the one hand they were suspected of sympathy with the rulers and some of them were murdered, whereas on the other hand the Cossacks, who had been sent by the rulers against the Poles, abused the Jews after expelling the rebels.

During the 1905 Russian revolution, progressive circles among Lithuanian Jews expressed their support for the Lithuanians, requesting national autonomy in ethnic Lithuanian regions; i.e. in most of the areas of the Vilna and Kovno Guberniae and, in particular, in the Neman (Nemunas) and Vilija (Neris) river basins.

In view of the elections to the all–Russian parliament (Duma) which took place in the years 1906–1917, preliminary agreements for were arranged collaboration between Jews and Lithuanians: as a result three Jewish delegates were elected from the Kovno and Vilna Guberniae. At approximately the same time the local branch of the social democratic party in Lithuania published a proclamation in Lithuanian denouncing pogroms against Jews in these Guberniae.

From the start of World War I the Russian army organized attacks on Jews in several towns in Lithuania, including Kuziai, on the pretext that they supplied information to the German army. Despite this libel being strongly refuted by a committee on behalf of the Duma, the military authorities did not retract their accusation. Furthermore, in the summer of 1915, before their retreat from the Kovno Gubernia when under pressure by the German army, they exiled 120,000 Jewish citizens into remote Russia.

The German military administration (Oberost) imposed strict adherence to orders on Jews as well as on other residents, but their relationship to Jews was correct and they even made allowances for Jewish cultural requirements.

This attitude was prompted by the presence of several Jewish officers in the German army. Also the identity cards issued to Jews were printed in German and Yiddish. For political reasons the Germans did not allow the establishment of an autonomous framework for Jews, despite the intercession of noted German Jews. A deputation of prominent local Jews, including the chairman of the Vilna community, Dr. Ya'akov Vigodsky, Rabbi Yisrael–Nisan Kark from Kovno and others, represented Jewish interests. Some of them advocated collaboration with Lithuanian delegates regarding the establishment of an independent Lithuania.

Considerably closer relations between Lithuanian Jewry and Lithuanians at the political level could be seen at the end of World War I when Lithuania was proclaimed an independent state. Being interested in acquiring the support of world Jewry, the Lithuanian government granted a broad cultural autonomy to the Jewish minority. Despite the massive participation of Jews in the independence war of Lithuania and their empathy in the struggle against the seizure of the Vilna region by the Polish army, many Jews were nevertheless wounded in pogroms by Lithuanian soldiers in Ponevezh (Panevezys), Vilkomir (Ukmerge), Kovarsk* (Kavarskas) and other places. Frequent organized offensives against Jews, such as smearing tar on signs written in Yiddish on shops and on the premises of liberal professionals, were carried out in the temporary capital of Kovno (Kaunas) and in other towns.

In the short period 1920–1925, which can be called the Golden Era of Lithuanian Jewry and the peak of its autonomous status, public Jewish issues were managed by local community committees: these were supported and guided in their daily functions by such central institutions in Kovno as the Jewish National Council, the highest institution of the autonomy, and the Ministry for Jewish Affairs.

The education system in Hebrew and Yiddish, serving about 90% of Jewish children and the network of popular banks (Folksbank) in 85 settlements, were some of the many achievements during the autonomy period. In most towns, branches of Zionist parties and Zionist youth organizations were active.

 

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Stamp of the Minister for Jewish affairs   Stamp of the National Council of Lithuania's Jews

 

Between the two World Wars a considerable number of Jews emigrated to Eretz–Yisrael. Hayim–Nakhman Bialik, when visiting Lithuania and hearing Hebrew spoken in the streets, was so impressed that he called Lithuania the Eretz–Yisrael of the Diaspora.

In contrast to the Zionists, the radical religious camp (Agudath Yisrael) and the Yiddishist camp (Folkists, Bundists and Communists) were numerically fewer. Although Hebrew was spoken in educational institutions, in youth organizations and also in a number of houses, the daily language was Yiddish, which was also the language of the six daily newspapers and other publications.

According to the census of 1923, its 156,000 Jews (7.6% of the entire population of Lithuania) was the largest minority in the state. The Lithuanian majority numbered 1,701,000 persons (84%). Most Lithuanians were peasants. More than half of the Jews dealt in commerce, crafts and industry and the remainder worked in transportation, liberal professions and agriculture. Two thirds of the Jews lived in the temporary capital city of Kovno (Vilna and a region around it were annexed to Poland during this period) and in cities such as Ponevezh, Shavli (Siauliai) and Vilkomir, while the rest could be found in 33 smaller cities and in 246 smaller towns and rural villages.

In spite of the high degree of loyalty which Jews showed to Lithuania and their willingness to fulfill their civil obligations to the state, by the end of the 1930s a considerable sector of the Lithuanian public and authorities decided to restrict the economic livelihood of the Jews. A prominent role in a defamation and incitement campaign on this subject was carried out in cities and towns by members of the association of Lithuanian merchants and artisans, Verslininkai. In their journal Verslas they even advocated the prohibition of the employment of Lithuanian women by Jews.

At the same time the number of blood libel incidents, the so called use of blood of Christian children for baking matzoth, increased. Assaults on Jews increased, on students in Kovno University, and also on people in the streets. Given that specific malicious incidents, such as shattering windows in synagogues and setting fire to wooden Jewish houses, were carried out in several villages simultaneously, one can conclude that they were organized country–wide. It eventually became clear that some nationalist circles, which favored these actions, had close contacts with various groups in neighboring Nazi Germany, in spite of the fact that at about the same time (March 1939) Germany annexed the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda (Memel), through which numerous Jewish residents narrowly escaped.

This situation, as well as economic depression during this period, which affected the Jewish sector in particular, strengthened left wing political circles among the Jews. Due to international tension and the prospect of war, emigration to America, South Africa and Eretz–Yisrael was restricted.

With the return of the Vilna Gubernia to Lithuania at the beginning of World War II (October 10th, 1939), the Jewish population, including war refugees from Poland, increased to 250,000. Despite the difficult situation, Lithuanian Jews came to the assistance of the Polish refugees and warmly welcomed the return of Vilna Jews, with whom contact was renewed after 19 years. This stopped to a great extent on June 15th, 1940 when all Lithuania fell to the Red Army and Soviet–Communist rule was implemented, with all that this implied. Despite the misgivings of many Jews, mainly business owners and those from the Zionist sector, the new regime was accepted positively, particularly when the alternative was that Nazi Germany could have taken over instead.

Despite Soviet rule in Lithuania lasting for only one year, from June 1940 until June 1941, the Jews experienced severe changes to their social and economic status. With Sovietization they were adversely affected by the nationalization of the commercial (83%) and industrial (57%) sectors; by the elimination of the Hebrew education system and the religious institutions, the pride of Lithuanian Jewry; by reduction of the Yiddish press and the closing of all public and political organizations except those connected to the Communist party. A section of Jewish youth, particularly former members of Zionist youth organizations and Hebrew educational institutions, organized secret underground circles, where they maintained intellectual and social activities in Hebrew in a national spirit.

During that year the Soviet government imprisoned several Jewish leaders, local Zionist activists and merchants. All were exiled to Siberia and to other remote areas in the Soviet Union. Others who were destined for the same fate, but had meanwhile been overlooked for some reason, changed their addresses. During this period about 7,000 Jews, including refugees from central Europe and Poland (among them Menahem Begin, the future Prime Minister of Israel) were detained and exiled.

Even though Soviet rule caused obvious suffering to the Jewish population, the Lithuanians blamed the Jews for the loss of their independence, calling for revenge. Meanwhile the Lithuanian national underground (L.A.F. – the Lithuanian Activist Front) which had been established in Berlin on November 17th, 1940, strengthened its secret contacts with Nazi Germany and incited Jews, preparing for an uprising against Soviet rule in expectation of an invasion by the German army.

And indeed, during the first days of war between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, many Jews were cruelly murdered by their inhumane Lithuanians. Only a small number managed to escape to the Soviet Union, where some fought against the Nazi German army in the Lithuanian Division of the Red Army.

Since the German army managed to overrun Lithuania in a few days, the majority of Lithuanian Jews remained under Nazi occupation, while the hostile Lithuanian population stepped up their bloody pogroms, raping and robbing their Jewish neighbors.

Very often these terrible events occurred long before the soldiers of the German army arrived at the settlements where Jews had lived for generations. Salat* (Salociai) was such a settlement.

Thousands of Jews all over Lithuania were imprisoned in jails and in other locations which would later serve as mass murder sites, following a precise German plan which was executed with great enthusiasm by the Lithuanian military, the police force and local volunteers. The “Organized Murder Units” would appear in villages where Jews lived, usually after the first pogroms. The scared and hapless Jews were brutally concentrated into synagogues (which became, in fact, torture sites), in market places, on isolated farms or in other buildings. From there they were led, first the men, then the women and children, to the mass murder sites. Here they were forced, while being tortured, to hand over jewelry and other valuables they had carried with them, to undress and to descend into previously prepared pits where they were shot by gun and machine–gun fire. The wounded and those still alive were buried together with the dead in mass graves; their clothes and property were plundered by the murderers and local residents.

About 40,000 Jews who survived the mass murders in the summer and autumn of 1941 and who were destined to serve as a temporary labor force for the German war effort, were imprisoned in ghettos in Vilna, Kovno, Shavli, Shventsian (Svencionys) and in several labor camps in eastern Lithuania. The despairing Jews were subject to inhumanly organized murders, euphemistically called “Actions”, and many were deported to countries outside Lithuania. With the Soviet–German front drawing nearer at the end of 1943 and in the first half of 1944, the ghettos and labor camps were liquidated and their remnants transferred to concentration camps in Estonia and Germany. When the Red Army returned to Lithuania in the second half of 1944, there were then about 2,000 Jews in Soviet partisan units and the same number in hiding places, where they had not been discovered. Others had found shelter with non–Jews, mostly in villages far from the central towns of Lithuania. If one adds the number of Lithuanian Jewish survivors to those who escaped or were exiled to Russia, and to those who survived the concentration camps in Germany, Estonia and elsewhere, it would seem that 94% of the 220,000 Jewish residents fell victim to the Nazi occupation, the greatest percentage in all Europe. It is not surprising that most of the remnants of the Shoah left Lithuania's blood soaked earth: a considerable number of these survivors emigrated to Eretz–Yisrael.

One of those privileged to arrive in Eretz–Yisrael before the State of Israel was established, was engineer Josef Rosin, the author of this book: he alone survived when his entire family was murdered in 1941 together with all the Jews in Kibart (Kybartai), western Lithuania.

Fifty years after the complete destruction of his community, Josef Rosin decided to commemorate the loss of his family and community by producing the Yizkor Book Kibart, which was published in Haifa in 1988 by the The Association of former Kibart Citizens in Israel. In October 2003 a second extended and updated edition of this book was published, including more impressive photographs of Kibart community members, their institutions, their houses and important documents of community life.

This Yizkor book and thirty more articles on other Lithuanian Jewish communities, some of them situated not far from his home town, were included in his next book of 703 pages.

 

Preserving our Litvak Heritage
A History of 31 Jewish Communities in Lithuania

by Josef Rosin

Edited by Joel Alpert. Introduction by Professor Dov Levin

Published by JewishGen, Inc. 2005

Now, in this second volume, the author again presents his material in a similar manner to that of the Hebrew book “Pinkas Kehilot Lita” (The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania): the history of every community is divided into the three main periods in which it grew and developed. These periods were:

  1. From the settlement of the first Jews (often during the fourteenth century) until after World War I in 1918.
  2. The period of independent Lithuania between the two world wars, 1918 to 1940.
  3. The duration of World War II and the fate of Jewish communities at the hands of the Lithuanians and the Nazis, with losses of about 94%. Also described in this period is the fate of the few known survivors to date.
The history of Lithuanian Jewry from its flourishing beginning until its bitter and tragic end may be described as “From zenith to nadir” or literally, “From the highest pinnacle to the lowest depth.”

Population statistics presented in the following tables show the early growth of Jewish communities in the 21 towns, their reduction during the second period, and finally their absolute destruction. This also applies to all the 21 communities in this book. Furthermore, a graphic picture (table 1) of their impressive growth to the end of period 1, their shrinking in period 2 and their absolute destruction in period 3 is given in the two tables below.

Table 1 includes data of the Jewish population gleaned from the three census surveys of 1847, 1855/57 and 1897 carried out in Lithuania under Czarist Russian rule. In addition to the absolute growth of the number of Jews in almost all of the 21 towns, they were the absolute majority in 14 of these centers by the end of the century and this despite the great emigration of Lithuanian Jews to overseas countries during this period.

 

Table 1. The Jewish Population according to the census surveys of 1847, 1855–57, 1897

Town 1847 % 1855–7 % 1897 % Remarks
Alsiad ––– –– ––– ––– 295 27  
Antalept ––– –– ––– ––– 474 85  
Balbirishok ––– –– 1,167* 48 925 45 *1861
Dorbyan ––– –– ––– ––– 1,129 55  
Ezhereni 453 –– 909 26 3,348 53  
Gruzd ––– –– ––– ––– 482 41  
Kelm 759 –– ––– ––– 2,710 69  
Kovarsk 342 –– ––– ––– 979 63  
Mazheik ––– –– ––– ––– 435 21  
Payure ––– –– ––– ––– ––– –––  
Plungyan 2,917 –– ––– ––– 2,502 56  
Rogeve 852 –– ––– ––– 1,223 69  
Salok ––– –– ––– ––– 1,582 66  
Salat ––– –– ––– ––– ––– ––– 300 in 1914
Shirvint 216 –– ––– ––– 1,413 76  
Shukyan 569 –– ––– ––– 624 63  
Ushpol 515 –– ––– ––– 691 93  
Vorne 1,084 –– ––– ––– 1,226 39  
Vizhun ––– –– 150* 23 445 79 *1859
Zhager 2,266 –– ––– ––– 5,443 60  
Zhezhmer ––– –– 1,372* 74 1,628 58 *1867
Total: 9,973       27,554    
Over 50% of
Population
      1   14  

(*) In 1923 the first census in independent Lithuania was carried out.

 

Table 2. Jewish population of all 21 towns during the period of Independent Lithuania (1918–1940), according to the census of 1923

Yiddish Name Jewish Population % Total Population  
  *1923   1945* After 1945
Alsiad 199 19 0  
Antalept 367 63 0  
Balbirishok 560 72 0  
Dorbyan 601 59 0  
Ezhereni 1,329 35 0 65 Jews in 1959, 45 in 1970
Gruzd 142 10 1  
Kelem 1,599 55   21 Jews in 1959
Kovarsk 436 42 0  
Mazheik 682 16   + 1 Jew in 1959
Payure 280 58 0  
Plungyan 1,861 44   138 Jews in 1959
Rogeve 593 58 0  
Salok 917 49 0  
Salat 174 28 0  
Shirvint 1,053 46   2 Jews in 1959
Shukyan 324 41 0  
Ushpol 551 36 0  
Vizhun 367 27 2  
Vorne 843 43   6 Jews in 1989
Zhager 1,928 41   7 Jews in 1959
Zhezhmer 1,205 55 0  
Total 16,011   3  

(*) In 1923 the first census in independent Lithuania was carried out.
(**) In January 1945 all Lithuania was liberated from the Nazis.
(+) The Jewish population increased compared to the census of 1897, whereas in all the other towns it diminished.

 

Table 2 shows data of the Jewish population in the 21 towns during the period of independent Lithuania revealed by the census of 1923. It would seem that their numbers had decreased to a noticeable degree in most of the towns. Only in one town, Mazheik* (Mazeikiai) did the Jewish population increase to some extent. In spite of administrative manipulations by the authorities, the Jews retained their majority in seven towns: Antalept* (Antaliepte), Balbirishok* (Balbieriskis), Dorbyan* (Darbenai), Kelem* (Kelme), Payure* (Pajuris), Rogeve* (Raguva) and Zhezhmer* (Ziezmariai).

There is no doubt that the diminishing numbers of Lithuanian Jews was a result of the increasingly hostile attitude to Jews in the Lithuanian provinces. This foreshadowed the impending slaughter of Jews in Lithuanian towns in the summer of 1941 long before the first German soldier appeared.

A laconic but very reliable expression of what happened from then until the end of 1945 when Lithuania was liberated from the various murderers of the Jews, is given in the penultimate column (1945) in Table 2 where the conventional arithmetic symbol “Zero” is scattered over most of the table, serves as a grim reminder that 100% of the Jews were exterminated in those places.

The reader will understand the considerable differences between relatively large communities where there were more than a thousand Jews in the period of independent Lithuania (e.g. Kelm*, Plungyan*, Ezhereni* (Zarasai)) and smaller communities which numbered only several hundreds (e.g. Gruzd* (Gruzdziai) or Salat*).

Despite this difference and others, the Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank) had branches in almost all the communities described in this book.

Regarding the religious and cultural aspects, several eminent communities should be recalled, namely Vorne*, Zhager*, Plungyan* and Kelm*.

Note that while Jewish numbers rose in most communities, they were above 50% of the population in fourteen of the towns, despite the great emigration during this period.

The basic way of life of the communities reviewed in this book shows community life directed first of all to fulfilling religious commandments, e.g. Hevroth Kadisha (burial societies), cemeteries, synagogues and different Minyanim. In bigger communities there were prayer houses for groups of worshipers of the same profession, such as artisans, merchants, shop owners, synagogue beadles etc. Special institutions for studying the Torah were established: Batei Midrash for adults, Hadarim for children and Yeshivoth Ketanoth (small Yeshivas) for youngsters. In most of the communities various groups of volunteers, acting under different names, worked in welfare organizations, including Bikur Holim for medical help and hospitalization; Linath Hatsedek to support the poor and sick and to supply free medicines; Gemiluth Hesed providing small interest free loans to the needy; Zokhrei Petirath Neshamah, for commemoration of the deceased.

Although the Hasiduth was not accepted by the majority of Lithuanian Jewry, the struggle between them and the Hasidic minority became moderate. In towns like Ezhereni*, Antalept*, Salok*, Kupishok (Kupiskis), Rakishok (Rokiskis), Ushpol* (Uzpaliai), Utyan and others in the northern part of the country and in Kovno, Hasidic communities and the Mithnagdim communities acted side by side de facto and in peace.

Several communities established Volunteer Fire Brigades. These brigades, on more than one occasion, fulfilled an effective role in protecting Jewish communities in times of pogroms and riots. Here it must be noted that almost every town in Lithuania was ravaged by fire. Since most houses and synagogues were constructed of wood, most of the Jewish population was at some time rendered homeless. In such cases, the community Rabbis would publicize the disaster by mail, messengers and in later years also in the Jewish press in Hebrew and Yiddish, pleading for aid from near and far communities. On the whole help arrived as requested, and similar methods were adopted when other disasters struck, such as a virulent cholera epidemic.

It is worth mentioning here the Jewish solidarity in the communities of Vorne*, Vizhun*, Zhager*, Zhezhmer*, Mazheik*, Kovarsk*, Rogeve*, Shukyan* and others, that expressed itself in donations of money to Jewish communities outside Lithuania, as far away as Persia (Iran) and certainly Eretz–Yisrael.

To illustrate this phenomenon, hundreds of donors' names are listed in this book. They were published in the pages of HaMagid from 1872 (566 names) and Hamelitz (828 names) from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. This may be valuable for descendants seeking reference to their ancestors whose tombstones in the cemeteries of Lithuania have been ruined by weathering or vandalism.

I am privileged to have known Josef Rosin for more than sixty years, since 1943 in the Kovno ghetto: there, we became partners in social and cultural activities in the underground organization of survivors of the Zionist–Socialist youth organization HaShomer HaTsair. Already then Josef was outstanding for his knowledge of different subjects and his moderate and balanced point of view. In particular, he gave us immeasurable pleasure in the depressing atmosphere of the ghetto – he would play his wonderful music on his Garmoshka (Mouth organ). Later his melodies soothed us in the heavily forested partisan woods of eastern Lithuania, where we were privileged to be partners in the fight against the German Nazis and their local allies. This pleasant tradition continued, when in October 1945 we were together on an Italian fishing vessel, which transported 171 illegal Shoah survivors to Eretz–Yisrael. During those seven very difficult and trying days on board ship, he was given the job of allocating the scarce drinking water to the passengers. (It is doubtful that he then foresaw that, about half a dozen years later, he would hold the position of a department head in TAHAL – The Water Planning Authority for Israel!).

We arrived safely in Eretz–Yisrael, having evaded capture by the British police as illegal immigrants. Both of us joined Kibbutz Beth–Zera in the Jordan valley and there we worked for some time in the banana plantations. Even after he went to study at the Technion in Haifa and I at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, we would meet at least annually with other friends who had shared our ideals and life in the Kovno ghetto. And, of course, we and our families would again enjoy the music from his ever–present mouth organ.

In due course we came to cooperate even more positively at this scientific–literary level. This happened at the beginning of the nineties, when I was elected by the directorate of Yad Vashem to serve as chief editor of the book Pinkas Kehilot Lita.

Knowing well his involvement and expertise concerning Jewish life in Lithuania and also his accuracy when writing, it was natural to approach Josef Rosin to accept the assignment of assistant editor. I am glad to state that from that time until the publication of the first edition of the Pinkas Kehilot Lita in 1996, we were blessed with productive and beneficial working relations, which, if indirectly, gave rise to this book.

I wish to praise him for his great efforts in obtaining documentary and photographic evidence from many places in the world in order to enrich the visual and historic dimensions of our people and the main events referred to in this book.

The author also deserves appreciation for his care in including with awesome reverence most of the names of his hometown Jews. In view of the terrible tragedy that the Jewish people experienced, it is essential, in my opinion, to repeatedly mention the Jewish names of villages and even more so the names of Jews, particularly those who did not leave relatives or descendants. We hope that, in this way, their names, at least, will not be lost.

Finally, it is appropriate to mark with gratitude and appreciation the professional work of the outstanding American–born Litvak, our mutual friend Mr. Joel Alpert, who invested much energy in preparing this book with all its components and appendices which also have great historical value and human importance. This is an act of true kindness (Hesed shel Emeth) for the hundreds of people of Kibart and the other twenty Jewish communities that were destroyed, never to rise again.

Professor Dov Levin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Yerushalayim, 15th of Shevat, 5766, 13 February 2006


[Page xviii]

About the Author, Josef Rosin

I am a native of Kybartai (Lithuania). I was born on January 24th, 1922 to Hayah (nee Leibovitz) from Marijampole and Yehudah Leib Rosin from Sudargas (Lithuania). They were the owners of a paper and stationary shop in Kibart (the Yiddish name of the town).

I received my elementary and high school education in Kibart, Virbalis and Marijampole. During the years 1939 to 1941 I was a student at the Civil Engineering Faculty of the Kovno (Kaunas) University.

I left my home for the last time on Friday, June 20th, 1941, just two days before the German invasion into the USSR began. My parents and my sister stayed in Kibart and were murdered together with all the Jews of the town, in July of the same year. I was in the Kovno Ghetto for more than two and a half years until the beginning of February 1944, when I escaped into the woods (first into the Rudniki forests and later into the Naliboki forests in Belarus). I remained there until the liberation by the Red Army. In August 1944 I returned to Kovno. At the end of March 1945, I joined a group of young Lithuanian Jews who determined that we should leave Europe and make our way to Eretz–Yisrael; we became part of the movement that became known as the Brikhah (Flight) movement. I left Lithuania and after the tribulations of illegal travel through Poland, Slovakia, Rumania, Hungary, Austria and Italy, I arrived in Eretz–Yisrael on October 24th, 1945 on a ship of Ma'apilim (Illegal Immigrants). During the stay in Rumania I married Peninah (nee Cypkewitz) from Wloclawek, who had made a similarly difficult journey from Poland.

We lived in Kibbutz Beth–Zera in the Jordan Valley for nine months. In the autumn of 1946 we left the Kibbutz and moved to Haifa, with the aim of continuing my studies at the Civil Engineering Faculty of the Technion. I was accepted in the second course (as a second year student) and after a delay of yet another year because of the War of Independence, I completed my studies in 1950 with the degree of Engineer. In 1958 I received the M. Sc. in Agricultural Engineering from the Technion.

During the War of Independence I served in the Air Force in the Aerial Photography Unit and was discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant. I served in the Army Reserves until the age of 54.

During the years 1950–1952 I worked at the Water Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and with the establishment of Water Planning for Israel (Tahal), I joined this firm, where I worked until my retirement on the April 1st, 1987. For more than twenty years I held the position of Head of the Drainage and Development Department of that firm.

In 1989, I published my Memoirs in Hebrew, and in 1994 in English.

Between 1987 and 1994 I wrote many entries for the Hebrew book Encyclopedia of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania (Pinkas Hakehilot Lita) and participated in publishing this book as the Assistant Editor. This book was published by Yad Vashem in 1996, edited by Professor Dov Levin.

In 2001 and 2002 I was the assistant editor for the publication of the Memorial Book of the Jewish Community of Yurburg, Lithuania – Translation and Update.

In 2005 I authored Preserving our Litvak Heritage – A History of 31 Jewish Communities in Lithuania. This current book is a continuation of that effort.

I have a married son and a married daughter and four grandchildren.

*******

This book contains articles on the history of twenty–one Jewish communities, half of them in the Zemaitija region (Mazeikiai, Zagare, Plunge, Kelme etc.) and half in the Aukstaitija region (Zarasai, Vyzuonos, Ziezmariai, Sirvintos etc.) (see Map).

The pictures included in the articles come from various sources: for pictures provided by individuals, their names are printed beneath the pictures. Others are taken from the four volumes of Yahaduth Lita (Lithuanian Jewry) published by The Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, Tel Aviv, and the Archives of the Association and Yahaduth Lita Lita (Lithuanian Jewry)published by Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem. Pictures of the massacre sites and the monuments erected on them are taken mostly from The Book of Sorrow, Vilnius 1997.

 

Common sources used:
Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem.
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem: 55/1788; 55/1701; 13/15/131; Z–4/2548.
YIVO, NY–Lithuanian Communities Collection.
Kamzon Y.D.: Yahaduth Lita (Lithuanian Jewry) (Hebrew), Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem 1959.
Yahaduth Lita (Lithuanian Jewry) (Hebrew), Tel–Aviv, 1960–1984, Volumes 1–4.
Cohen Berl: Shtet, Shtetlach un Dorfishe Yishuvim in Lite biz 1918 (Towns, Small Towns and Rural Settlements in Lithuania till 1918) (Yiddish), New–York 1992.
Pinkas haKehiloth Lita (Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Lithuania) (Hebrew). Editor: Dov Levin, Assistant editor: Josef Rosin, Yad Vashem. Jerusalem 1996.
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Mass Murder in Lithuania) vol. 1–2 (Lithuanian), Vilnius 1941–1944.
The Book of Sorrow (Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Lithuanian), Vilnius 1997.
The Lithuanian Encyclopedia (Lithuanian), Boston 1953–1965.
The Small Lithuanian Encyclopedia (Lithuanian), Vilnius 1966–1971.
From Beginning to End (The History of HaShomer HaTsair Movement in Lithuania) (Hebrew).
HaMeilitz (St. Petersburg) (Hebrew).
Dos Vort, Kovno (Yiddish).
Folksblat, Kovno (Yiddish).
Di Yiddishe Shtime, Kovno (Yiddish).
Particulars of each town are printed at the end of each article.

Acknowledgments:

Many thanks to my relative and friend Joel Alpert for initiating, compiling, proofreading, editing and organizing the publishing of this book.
To my good friend Professor Dov Levin for his encouragement and advice.
To my friends Sarah and Mordehai Kopfstein who edited my poor English in half of the articles.
To my cousin Fania Hilelson–Jivotovsky for editing the English in the other half of my articles.
To Peninah, my beloved wife for almost sixty years, for her wise and sensitive remarks.
To Don Loon for editing and Susan Levy for proofreading the manuscript.
To the JewishGen organization for their willingness to publish this book and specifically Carol Skydell for her enthusiastic cooperation and participation in this effort.
J. R.

Notes to the reader:

1. All the Yiddish and Hebrew names were transliterated anew according to the rules issued by YIVO for this purpose. 2. Dates in the book are written according to the European standard, as day–month–year, so that, for example, Dec. 15, 1955 would be abbreviated as 15.12.1955. 3. The Lithuanian names of the towns and places are printed without the particular Lithuanian letters and symbols due to technical difficulties.


[Page xxii]

Glossary Of Non–English Terms

Agadah – Homiletic passages in Rabbinic literature
Agudath–Yisrael – Orthodox anti–Zionist organization
Aliyah (Ascent) – Immigration to Israel
Aron Kodesh – The Holy Ark in the Synagogue
Ashkenazi – Jew from Central or Eastern Europe
Benei–Akiva – Religious Zionist youth organization
Berith–Milah – Circumcision
Beth Midrash – A Synagogue for praying and studying the Torah
Bikur–Holim – Welfare Society for Helping the Ill
Beitar (Brith Yosef Trumpeldor) – The Revisionist youth organization
Bimah – Platform, mostly in the middle of the Synagogue, for reading the Torah
Bund – Jewish anti–Zionist workers organization
Ein Ya'akov – collection of legends and homilies from the Talmud
Eretz–Yisrael – The Land of Israel
Ezrah (Help) – welfare society who took over the functions of the Community Committees after their liquidation in many communities
Gabai, (pl. Gabaim) – Manager of a Synagogue
Gemara – Talmud
Gemiluth Khesed – Small loans without interest to the poor
Gordonia – Zionist Socialist youth organization
Grosmanists – Jewish State Party led by Meir Grosman
Gubernia (Russian) – Province
Hakhnasath Kalah – Welfare society for helping poor brides to get married
Hakhnasath Orkhim – Welfare society for accommodate passers–by
Halakhah – Legal part of Jewish traditional literature
Hamelitz – an Hebrew weekly newspaper founded in 1860 in Odessa, later a daily newspaper in St.Petersburg, was closed in 1903
HaMagid – an Hebrew weekly newspaper, founded in 1856, was printed in Prussia near the border with Russia, was closed in 1890
HaNoar HaZioni – The youth organization of the General Zionist party
HaPoel – the sport organization of the Z.S. party
HaShomer–HaTsair – leftist Zionist youth organization. In Lithuania its official name was: “The Young Guard Organization of Hebrew Scouts”
HaShomer–Hatsair–Netsakh – a splitting of the main organization of “The Young Guard Organization of Hebrew Scouts”
Havatseleth HaSharon – Lily of the Sharon. A beautiful flower growing in the Sharon region of Israel
HeKhalutz (Pioneer) – Organization with the goal to enable its members to move to Eretz–Yisrael after first undergoing a serious course of training particularly in agriculture
Ivrith uThekhiyah – Hebrew and Revival
Khalutz or Halutz, (pl. Halutsim, Halutsoth) – Pioneer
Hitakhduth – Federation of several Zionist Socialist parties
Humash – First Five Books of the Bible (Pentateuch)
Kadimah – Forward.
Kadish – Liturgical doxology said by the mourner
Kahal – Assembly
Karaite – member of Jewish sect originating in the 8th century, which rejects the Oral Law
Khalah, Halah – Loaf of bread made of white flour, prepared specially for Shabath
Khevrah–Kadisha (Hevrah) – Burial Society
Kheder (pl. Hadarim) – Religious Elementary School
Kheder Metukan – Improved Kheder in which secular subjects were also taught
Khupah – Marriage ceremony
Keren Kayemeth Le'Yisrael (KKL) – The Jewish National Fund. Its goals were buying land, planting groves and other reclamation works in Eretz–Yisrael
Keren Tel–Hai – The fund of the Revisionists after they split from the Zionist Organization
Keren Ha'Yesod – Jewish Foundation Fund
Khibath Zion (Love of Zion) – a 19th century movement to build up the Land of Yisrael before the establishment of the Zionist organization
Khovevei Zion – Members of the above–mentioned movement
Khasidim – a sect in Judaism founded by Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov
Khevrah – Society
Kibutz Hakhsharah – Training Kibutz for the Halutsim before their Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael
Klois – a small prayer room
Kultur Lige – Culture League, association of Yiddishists
Lekhem Aniyim – Welfare society for supplying bread to the poor
Linath HaTsedek – Welfare society for helping the ill
Magdeburg Rights – the Constitution of Magdeburg was an example of almost full autonomy for many towns in Eastern Europe
Magen David (The Shield of David) – The national emblem of the Jewish people
Malbish Arumim – Dress the naked
Maoth – Money
Maoth Khitim – Charity Fund for the poor for buying flour for Matsoth
Matsah (pl. Matsoth) – Unleavened bread for Passover
Matsah Shemurah – Guarded Matsah of wheat kept dry from the time of reaping
Melamed (pl. Melamdim) – Teacher in a Kheder
Meshulakh – Emissary for collecting money for different institutions in Eretz–Yisrael
Midrash – Homiletic interpretation of the Scriptures
Mikveh – Ritual bath
Minyan (pl. Minyanim) – Ten adult male Jews, the minimum for congregational prayer
Mishnah – Collection of Oral Laws compiled by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, which forms the basis of the Talmud
Mithnagdim – Opponents to Hasidim
Mizrahi – Religious Zionist party
Mohel – Circumciser
Moshav Zekeinim – Home for the Aged
Oleh ( pl. Olim) (Ascending) – Immigrant to Israel
Olim LaTorah – called up to the weekly bible portion
Orakh Hayim – The first column of the Shulhan Arukh of Rabbi Josef Caro
ORT Chain – International organization for spreading vocational education among the Jews
OZE (Initials of the Russian name) – International organization for improving the public and personal hygiene of the Jewish population, in particular of the school children
Pinkas – Notebook, Register
Pesakh – Passover
Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) – Socialist workers party
Poale Zion –Smol (Workers of Zion–left) – Radical leftist party, was forbidden by the Lithuanian government
Rosh Yeshivah – Head of a Yeshivah
Sepharadi – Jew of Spanish stock
Shamash – Synagogue beadle
Shas (Abbreviation of Shisha Sidrei Mishnah) – The six books of the Mishnah
Shekhitah – Ritual slaughtering
Shekel (pl. Shekalim) – the membership card of the Zionist organization that granted the privilege to vote at the Zionist Congresses
Shokhet (pl. Shokhtim) – Ritual slaughterer(s)
Shtibl (pl. Shtiblakh) – Small prayer room for people of the same profession
Shul – Synagogue
Shulhoif–The backyard of the Synagogue
Shulkhan Arukh (The prepared table) – authoritative code of Jewish laws, written by Yoseph Caro (1488–1575)
Sidur – Prayer book
Somekh Noflim – Loans without interest for people who lost their business or property
Suvalkija – the Region of Lithuania on the left side of the Nemunas (Nieman) river
Tallith (pl. Tallithoth) – Praying shawl
Talmud – The commentaries on the Mishnah
Talmud Torah – Religious school
Tarbuth Chain (Culture) – Zionist Hebrew chain of elementary schools
Tehilim – Psalms
Tefillim – Phylacteries
Tifereth Bakhurim – Orthodox boys organization
Tomkhei Tsedakah – Charity
Tsair – Young
Tseirei Zion – Young Zionists party
Tsedakah Gedolah – Charity
Va'ad – Committee
Va'ad Kehilah – Community committee
Va'ad Medinath Lita – Autonomous organization for Jewish communities in Lithuania (1623–1764)
Verslas – Lithuanian Merchants Association
WIZO – Women International Zionist Organization
Yavneh Chain – Religious Zionist Hebrew schools
Yeshivah (pl. Yeshivoth) – Talmudical college
Yeshivah Ketanah – Small Yeshivah
Yiddishist – Ideological fan of Yiddish
Z.S. – Zionist Socialist Party
Z.Z. – Tseirei Zion Party – Young Zionists

 

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