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[Page 166]

Širvintos (Shirvint)

55°03' 24°57'

Širvintos (Shirvint in Yiddish) lies in eastern Lithuania, on the shores of the Sirvinta Stream, about 28 km. (17 miles) southeast of Ukmerge (Vilkomir), the district administrative center.

The town is mentioned in historical documents from the end of the fourteenth century. In 1580 it became the property of the Great Prince of Lithuania, but at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in the Northern War, the Swedes robbed the town.

After the third division of Poland in 1795 by the three superpowers of that time, Russia, Prussia and Austria, Russia annexed this section of Lithuania, including Shirvint. During Russian rule (1795 to 1915) the town was part of the province (gubernia) of Vilna.

In 1879 a station for mail carriages was established in Shirvint, as it lay on the road from Vikomir to Vilna.

After World War I ended and the independent Lithuanian state was established in 1918, fighting continued in Shirvint and its surroundings until 1922 between the Lithuanian army and the Bolsheviks, and later with the Polish army and Polish partisans. Only in the spring of 1923 was the border finally fixed between Poland and Lithuania, about 3 km. (2 miles) from Shirvint. This border was closed until 1938.

From the end of the nineteenth century and during the period of independent Lithuania, Shirvint was a county administrative center.

Jewish Settlement until after World War II

Jews probably settled in Shirvint at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Some rented land from the estate owner, Pesitsky, while others opened inns and pubs along the road between Vilkomir and Vilna, and the town grew and developed. Later, when Pesitsky evicted his Jewish tenants, their main livelihood came from keeping inns, pubs and shops.

In 1847 there were 216 Jews in the town. Fifty years later, the government census revealed that 1,864 residents resided in Shirvint, 1,413 (76%) of them being Jews.

Due to the worsening economic situation, the Lehem Aniyim (Bread for the Poor) society was established in 1881, as was a society named Ma'ahal Kasher (Kosher Meals) which supplied kosher food for Jewish soldiers serving in the local garrison. The number of Jewish soldiers increased from five to twenty-five by 1887. In 1903 the Refuah Shleimah (Complete Recovery) society was established to aid the sick in the town.

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A street in Shirvint

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Shirvint welfare committee elected by the Chicago committee

Before the war there was a Loan and Savings Bank in town.

Shirvint's social and economic connections were primarily with Vilna. Students and apprentices went there to study and to work, returning home for holidays and vacations bringing with them the big city atmosphere and news of its political and cultural happenings. Some Shirvint Jews became advocates of the Haskalah and also of the Hibath Zion and Zionist movements, with which they were very impressed. In the Hibath Zion receipt books there are names of Shirvint Jews; the receipts of the Hovevei Zion organization in Vilna for the years 1885-1888 also show donations from Shirvint Jews. Fifty Shekalim were sold locally in 1902.

A single Shirvint donor, probably to Eretz-Yisrael, Leah Bernshtein fiancée of Yitzchok Rodin of Panevezys, was listed in Hamelitz #125 of 1893.

After the 1905 revolution in Russia, fears that pogroms against the Jews could occur caused Shirvint Jewish youth to organize a self-defense group.

Rabbis who officiated in Shirvint during this period include:

Yits'hak Grodzensky (1801-1867), served in Shirvint for seven years

Yits'hak-Eliezer-Lipa Shereshevsky (1840-1920)

Menahem-Mendel HaLevi-Lifshitz, served in the 1890s, died in 1912.

Between the years 1834-1895 there were 44 subscribers to rabbinic literature.

In an 1869-1878 list of immigrants to the United States eight Shirvint Jews are mentioned; E. Segal, J.B. Openheim, E. Palemboim, B. and M. Kabaker, S. Orzhalkovsky, T. Bubtelsky, M. Manheim.

During World War I, in the summer of 1915, the Russian military ordered Shirvint Jews exiled far into Russia. During the German occupation (1915-1918) Jews from Vilna settled in Shirvint. After the war only two-thirds of the exiles returned, and had to be helped by YeKoPo (Jewish Aid Committee).

During the period of independent Lithuania, Shirvint Jews made their living from trade, crafts and peddling. Several families dealt with agriculture, their main income being earned on market days.

According to the government survey of 1931 there were 37 shops in Shirvint, of which 34 (92%) were Jewish owned. The distribution is given in the table below:

Type of business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 3 2
Butcher's shops and Cattle Trade 4 4
Restaurants and Taverns 2 2
Grains and Flax 1 1
Textile Products and Furs 6 6
Leather and Shoes 4 4
Pharmacy 2 1
Timber and Heating Material 12 1
Hardware Products 1 12
Bicycles, electrical appliances, sewing machines 1 1
Other 1 0

According to the same survey there were three wool-combing workshops and one flourmill in Jewish hands.

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A Jewish peddler in Shirvint

In 1937, 49 Jewish artisans worked there: nine tailors, nine shoemakers, six oven builders, five bakers, five butchers, three hatters, three barbers, two tinsmiths, two watchmakers, two dressmakers, one carpenter and two others.

The Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank) was established in Shirvint in 1924 and was accepted into the Union of Popular Banks in Lithuania in 1928. At this time it had 191 members, and local Jews were greatly assisted by this institution in their struggle for daily existence.

In 1939 there were thirty telephone subscribers, two of them Jewish.

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The Talmud-Torah (1938)

Slowly the number of Jews in Shirvint decreased. Being cut off from Vilna and its region as well having to compete with Lithuanian merchants, caused the liquidation of many Jewish businesses. This, and the effects of the Lithuanian economic crisis of the 1930s, resulted in the emigration of many Shirvint Jews to South Africa, America, Cuba, Mexico and Eretz-Yisrael.

About 100 Jewish children from Shirvint studied at the Hebrew school of the Tarbuth network. Some graduates continued their studies at the Or (Light) Hebrew gymnasium in Vilkomir. There were also a Yiddish school and two Talmud Torah schools with about fifty pupils, that were established by a former Shirvinter in Chicago.

Shirvint's youth divided into two groups, Zionist and anti-Zionist, which meant that there was a split in the town's cultural life; thus two different large libraries were active locally, one Hebrew and one Yiddish.

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Many Shirvint Jews were members of the Zionist movement. A society named after Nakhman Sirkin (Zionist Social Party) and the committee for Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael (The Jewish National Fund) functioned here, and initiated numerous cultural activities. The table below shows how Shirvint Zionists voted for four Zionist congresses:

Year Total
Total Votes Labor Party
Revisionists General Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrakhi
16 1929 44 16 9 2 3  2 
17 1931 29 21 6 3 7 5
18 1933 145 82 10 3 43 5
19 1935 344 181 1 5 132 64

HaShomer HaTsair, Betar and Benei Akiva were among the Zionist youth organizations. Sport activities were carried out in the local Maccabi branch.

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