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[Page 194]

Vyžuonos (Vizhun)

55°36' 25°30'

Vyžuonos (Vizhun in Yiddish) is located in northeastern Lithuania, about 12 km. (7 miles) north west of the district administrative center Utyan (Utena). The town is surrounded by hills, forests and lakes. Vizhun, both the estate and the town, was first mentioned in historical documents as early as the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries Vizhun was the property of the estate owners Radzivils, Tishkevitzs, Postolskys and others.

The town was totally destroyed in the wars with Sweden at the turn of the seventeenth century. Until 1795 the rebuilt town of Vizhun was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, but the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, forced Lithuania to become partly Russian and partly Prussian. That part which included Vizhun fell under Czarist Russia. From 1802 it was considered to be in the Vilna province (gubernia) and then in 1843 it fell under the jurisdiction of the Kovno gubernia, Vilkomir District.

Market days and fairs were held in the town, which then boasted several stores and pubs.

After the outbreak of World War I control of the town's governing body changed hands several times, transferring from the Russian army to that of the Germans and back again. The Germans ruled Vizhun from 1915 until the establishment of the independent Lithuanian state in 1918. For a short while the Bolsheviks were in control of the town. After 1861 and through the period of independent Lithuanian rule (1918-1940), Vizhun was a county center in the Utyan district.

Jewish Settlement before World War I

The Jewish settlement in Vizhun was one of the oldest in Lithuania and its beginning could probably be traced back to the first quarter of the seventeenth century. From 1623 until 1764, when the autonomous institution of the Jews of Lithuania (Va'ad Medinath Lita) was in operation, the Galil Vizhun (district) in Zhamut (Zemaitija) was one of three administrations of the Va'ad. A part of the Lifland region was included in Galil Vizhun and the towns of Braslav, Druya, Kreslava and also Utyan and Aniksht fell under its jurisdiction. The Vizhun community was mentioned in the scripts of the Va'ad Arba haAratsoth (the autonomous institution of the Jews of the four main districts of Poland) and after 1760 it was mentioned in the scripts of the Va'ad Medinath Lita. In 1720, according to a resolution of the Va'ad, Vizhun and its Galil paid out 1680 golden rubles for a total of 60,000 people – the Head Tax imposed on Polish and Lithuanian Jews.

According to an archival document, Jewish artisans obtained permits to work in Vizhun in 1646. In a Jewish Brisk Community letter to the Karaites in Zamut dated 1667, the Karaites were summoned to pay a debt to Heshl, son of Elyakum of Vizhun without delay.

The story of Menakhem ben Aryeh Man or Mani, the Martyr of Vizhun was passed from generation to generation. In the middle of the eighteenth century, on the eve of Hoshana Raba, a convert brought a crucifix into the synagogue and hid it under the ark (Aron Kodesh). He then spread a malicious fabrication stating that the Jews were beating and striking the crucified on the crucifix with a sallow (willow, or aravah in Hebrew). Policemen entered the synagogue, saw Jews striking with a sallow and uncovered the cross. All the men were handcuffed and walked to Vilna. They were sentenced death by hanging. One of the prisoners who was about to be sentenced, Menakhem Mani, took the blame upon himself. On the 17th of Tamuz 5509 (1749) he was duly hanged, while the remainder of the Jews were freed. This event was recorded in the Pinkas haKahal and from then on it was a quarterly custom in Vizhun to remember the soul of Menakhem Mani, “the Martyr,” who sacrificed himself to preserve the lives of his fellow Jews.

In 1766 there were 103 Jews in Vizhun. In 1859 there were 150 Jews (23%) in a population of 647. However, by 1897 the Jewish population had grown to 445 (79%) in a total population of 561.

In 1915, by the order of the Russian army, the Vizhun Jews, like most of the other Kovno Gubernia Jews, were exiled far into Russia. After the war a considerable number of them managed to return home.

Vizhun in Independent Lithuania

Following the law of autonomies for minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister for Jewish affairs Dr. Menahem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections to community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In Vizhun a Va'ad Kehilah was elected and was active in all spheres of Jewish activity through the years 1920 to 1924.

Vizhun Jews made their living in small trades, dealing with grains, poultry, flax and working in crafts. The 1931 government survey of stores and factories in the area, listed seven stores owned by Jews in Vizhun: grain, grocery, textile and leather shops, a pharmacy, a restaurant and a photo studio. There were also three factories, a power station, a flourmill and an alcohol factory owned by Hayim-Hanokh Polovin.

In 1937, there were 22 Jewish tradesmen in town: five butchers, four needle trade workers, two glass workers, two carpenters, two blacksmiths, two barbers, one oven builder, one knitter, one shoemaker, one potter and one dressmaker. The twice-yearly fairs provided an important source of livelihood for Vizhun Jews.

In 1939 there were five telephone lines in town, two of them in Jewish homes.

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A street in Vizhun

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Another street in Vizhun

The Jewish Folksbank, with its 114 members, provided some relief for the local Jews and helped them overcome daily financial difficulties. The bank services extended to the nearby towns of Dabeik (Dabeikiai), Ushpol (Užpaliai) and others.

When the Lithuanian consumer cooperative was created in 1923, strong propaganda was spread to boycott the Jewish stores. To prove the point a stereotype was created of Jews cheating the customers on weight, adding sand to sugar and water to salt, etc. Consequently, following a tumultuous period in the Jewish community, the Jews, through their community committee appealed to the Ministry for Jewish Affairs asking for advice and help. Unfortunately there is no evidence available of the success or failure of this appeal.

The economic crisis that began in Lithuania in the 1930s added to the deterioration of life for Vizhun Jews. Many families received help from relatives in America and South Africa.

Jewish children studied in the Hebrew school established in 1918 by local initiative and with the help of the local branch of the Tseirei-Zion party. The community also supported a library with mainly Yiddish books. In 1922, the Tarbuth organization organized evening classes in town with the participation of about fifteen people.

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A Purim party at school – how many Queen Esthers?

Many Vizhun Jews were Zionists: several were included in the 1872 list of contributors to the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael. The fund-raiser was Ben-Zion Neimark. There is also a list of Vizhun contributors headed by Yisrael-Gershon Kulviansky dated 1910. There were many supporters of various parties, including Agudath-Yisrael and the Z”S (Zionist Socialists). The youth leaned mostly towards the latter party and the HaShomer HaTsair youth organization. The table below demonstrates how Vizhun Zionists voted for the different parties at six Zionist Congresses:

Year Total
Total Votes Labor Party
Revisionists General Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrakhi
14 1925 15
15 1927 9 8 4 3   1
16 1929 21 11 5 1 5
17 1931 9 6 1 3 1
18 1933 34 31 2 1
19 1935 80 50 21 9

lit5_194d.jpg [30 KB]
The old synagogue

The wooden synagogue was built in the middle of the eighteenth century. Its Aron Kodesh was known for its artistic carvings. The Eliyahu Room was where babies were circumcised. The wall of the synagogue had a ring (Kune) to which offenders were bound. In addition, the town had a Beth Midrash and a Mikveh.

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One of the Batei Midrash in Vizhun

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The famous carved Aron Kodesh

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Front: the brothers Ishe-Leib and David Even, Iser Kopelansky
Seated second from left: Leizer Shteiman

(Picture from the book by Y. L. Kopelansky)

Among the Rabbis who served in Vizhun were the following:

Tsevi-Hirsh Halevi Hurvitz, the Rabbi of the three Geliloth of Zhamut Vizhun, Keidan and Birzh. He died in 1649.
Asher Ginzburg, who served from 1701, head of the religious court (Av Beth Din) of Vizhun and its Galil.
Asher was followed by the two sons of his brother, Meir and David who were each also Av Beth Din of Galil Vizhun.
Eliezer Don-Yikhya, an ardent Hovev-Zion (served 1864-1876).
Meir-Eliyahu Vainer (served from 1890).
Avraham Katz (from 1903)
Aharon Shmidt, born in Vizhun in 1866, served from 1922 until the mid-1930s. He died in Tel-Aviv in 1965 at the age of 99
The last Rabbi was Zalman Meltser, murdered in 1941.

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