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[Page 280]

Žiežmariai (Zhezhmer)

54°48' 24°27'

Ziezmariai (Zhezhmer in Yiddish), in eastern Lithuania, is situated 1 km. (0.6 mile) south of the main Kovno-Vilna road and 8 km. (5 miles) from the railway station of Koshedar (Kaisiadorys), on the west bank of the Streva River.

Ziezmariai is mentioned in fourteenth century German records and known then as Sysmare or Sisemare. It received the status of a town in 1501. Thanks to its location the town developed as a commercial and administrative center. By 1600 it had about 100 houses, a liquor factory, two flourmills, a bakery, many shops and bars; by 1780 it had seven streets.

The nearby estate was in the hands of various noblemen for many generations: among them were the families Poniatovky and Tishkevitz.

The Northern War at the beginning of the eighteenth century, devastating fires in the nineteenth century and the arrival of Napoleon's soldiers successively caused much damage to Zhezhmer.

In the 1880s and thereafter, the town's population decreased as a result of continuing emigration, but despite this, economic development flourished and the number of market days and fairs increased. In 1897 there were 231 wooden houses, eight solidly built homes and four paved streets radiating out from the market square. Being a county administrative center, government offices, schools and central institutions were established there. Under Russian rule (1795-1915) Zhezhmer was included in the Vilna province (gubernia) and during the rule of independent Lithuania (1918-1940) Zhezhmer was a county administrative center. However its development slowed down, because it was cut off from Vilna and from its district administrative center at Troki (Trakai).


The Jewish Settlement until after World War I

Zhezhmer was one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania and its beginnings can probably be traced back to the sixteenth century. At that time and for a short period thereafter Karaites lived in Zhezhmer. By tradition, the princess who owned the Zhezhmer estate and the land on which the town was built, greatly reduced the Jews' taxes as well as providing other privileges. These were registered in golden letters in an official book given to the Jews and carefully preserved for generations. Later, probably at the end of the nineteenth century, the estate owner Graf Tishkevitz wanted to collect taxes again. He forced the Jew who kept the golden book to hand it over to him and so the proof of exemption from taxes was lost. From 1795 onwards, Jewish leaseholders had the exclusive right to produce and market liquor. The Jews also owned most of the local shops and workshops.


A street in Zhezhmer


In 1766, 482 Jews lived there and by 1847 there were 713. Of the 32 shops in the locality in 1897, 30 were in Jewish hands, despite the emigration of many.

In 1895 a fire caused much damage to Zhezhmer and the Alliance Izraelite Association in Paris sent 700 rubles in aid. The members of the distribution committee were Ya'akov Ratsky, Naftali-Hertz Shaker, Yits'hak Zerakh, Mosheh Rozenberg, A.M. Antselovitz, Pinhas Katz, Mosheh Beineshovitz, Naftali Beiles, Leib Ilinsky and Mordehai Rozenberg.

Religious and social life revolved around the three prayer houses and other public institutions. The Zhezhmer Jews developed an affinity to Eretz-Yisrael long before the rise of modern Zionism, and they sent a delegate to the conference of Russian Zionists in Warsaw in 1898.

In lists of donors to the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael published in HaMelitz in 1878 and 1900, many Zhezhmer Jews appear. The fundraiser was Uriyah Vainer.

The Hebrew newspaper HaMagid published a list of 126 Zhezhmer Jews who donated money to the victims of the famine in Persia in 1872 (see Appendix 1).

The correspondent of HaMagid and HaMelitz was Idl-Yehudah Shapira.

Tsevi-Hirsh of Zhezhmer was one of first ten to obey the request of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu to emigrate to Eretz-Yisrael. He arrived in Tsefath (Safed) in 1804 and became an honored person.

In Jerusalem's old cemetery there are two tombstones of Zhezhmer Jews, Tsivyah daughter of Mordehai (died in 1890) and Yisrael ben Reuven.

According to the government census of 1897 the population of Zhezhmer was 2,795, with 1,628 (58%) of them Jews.

This is a list of the rabbis who officiated in Zhezhmer:

Yedidyah Ginzburg
Yehoshua-Heshl Eliashzon (1799-1874)
Mordehai Eliashberg (1817-1889), from 1851 until 1863. He published several books on Judaism and was one of the first rabbis to become a follower of the Khibath Zion movement.
Ya'akov MiKruzh (until 1877)
His son Leib-Yekutiel Elyon (1845-1900), for 22 years a rabbi in Zhezhmer, published several books on Judaism
Joel-Yits'hak Ketsenelnboigen (1809-1891)
Personages born in Zhezhmer:
Yits'hak-Mosheh Rumsh (1822-1894), writer and teacher. Together with his friend Yehudah-Leib Gordon in the government school in Ponevezh, he translated several books from German into Hebrew.
Avraham-Shemuel Shvartz (1876-1957), doctor and poet, one of the first Hebrew poets in America. He died in New York.
The cantors Yoke Bas and Shalom Tsemakhzon.


Zhezhmer in Independent Lithuania (1918-1940)

With so many wooden buildings in the town fire was an ever-present hazard. In 1918 a fire ruined many Jewish houses and the three prayer houses. Five years later another fire burned down a further 20 houses.

The law of autonomies for minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government resulted in the minister for Jewish affairs Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordering elections for community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In Zhezhmer the elections took place in 1920 and a community committee of eleven members was elected: five non-party men, four workers and two General Zionists. The committee was active until 1925, when the autonomy was annulled.

In 1922 Zhezhmer Jews voted in the elections for the first Seimas (Parliament) in independent Lithuania: the Zionist list garnered 406 votes, Akhduth 80 votes and Democrats 6 votes.

The first census of the new Lithuanian government in 1923 counted 2,198 residents resident in Zhezhmer. 1,205 (55%) were Jews.

Most Zhezhmer Jews made their living from small trade, peddling, agriculture, crafts and fishing. An important part of their livelihood was derived from the two weekly market days, Mondays and Thursdays. There were merchants who exported potatoes to Germany and also those who dealt in furs and leather.

According to the government survey of 1931 there were 44 shops, 41 (93%) under Jewish management. The distribution according to the type of business is given in the table below:


Type of business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 6 5
Grain and flax 4 4
Butcher shops and Cattle Trade 4 4
Restaurants and Taverns 7 6
Food Products 3 3
Textile Products and Furs 5 5
Leather and Shoes 5 5
Medicine and Cosmetics 1 0
Hardware Products 4 4
Other 5 5


The same survey listed thirteen enterprises as Jewish owned: three photograph shops, one soda factory (owned by Strazh), four wool combing workshops, one workshop for men's hats, two workshops for leather processing and two saddler workshops. There was also a flourmill owned by Yits'hak Shugen.

After the market was relocated to the periphery of the town in 1939, Jewish merchants and shopkeepers were adversely affected financially.

In 1937 fifty Jewish artisans worked locally: six tailors, six bakers, six blacksmiths, five shoemakers, five hatters, five butchers, three carpenters, two oven builders, two tin smiths, two saddlers, one painter, one dressmaker, one textile dyer, one potter, one wood carver, one photographer and two others.


The stamp of the Jewish Folksbank


The Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank) with its 156 members, directed by Dr. Sh. Sapir, played an important role in the economic life of Zhezhmer Jews. Up to 200 families were assisted by loans without interest from the local Gemiluth Hesed society, whose basic capital was estimated to have been 30,000 litas. There was also a branch of the United Credit Society for Jewish Agrarians. There were 28 telephones in 1939, 8 in Jewish houses or enterprises.


The Beth Midrash


In addition to the Beth Midrash, the Shtibl and other religious and social institutions common to most similar Jewish communities, there was an orphanage with about 20 children established in 1922 through the generosity of former Zhezhmer Jews in the USA. These emigrants helped to maintain it by donating $100 every month. From time to time they would also donate money to buy equipment for the Hebrew Tarbuth School, established in 1922 and directed by Mosheh Shofer. About 150 children studied in this school. The teachers were Zevulun Petrikansky (Poran) from Yurburg,, Shemuel Siderer and Havivah Siderer-Kaplan.


The Aron Kodesh, a gift from a former Zhezhmerer in America


Children and management of the Zhezhmer orphanage 1937


A drama society, a reading hall and the Y.L. Peretz library, with about 1,000 books, all opened in 1928.


The stamp of the Zhezhmer Linath HaTsedek society


Many Zhezhmer Jews were active Zionists and almost all Zionist parties had local members. The Zionist youth organizations were branches of HaShomer HaTsair, Betar and Benei Akiva. Maccabi, the sports organization, was active too. Despite continued emigration of Zhezhmer Jews to America, Uruguay and Eretz-Yisrael the number of voters for the Zionist congresses increased as can be seen in the table below:


Year Total
Total Votes Labor Party
Revisionists General Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrakhi
16 1929 63 48 2 4 40 1 3
17 1931 37 30 14 2 13 1
18 1933 175 177 49 8 4 1
19 1935 287 195 4 51 9 28


The rabbis who officiated in Zhezhmer during this time were Mosheh Shapira (1862-1930) from 1896 until 1930 and the last rabbi, Yisrael-Tanhum Fortman, who was murdered in 1941.

Between 1836 and 1903 there were 204 subscribers to rabbinic literature.


The Zhezhmer HaShomer HaTsair branch
The “Sheveth of the Habirim” (The younger members “Tribe”) 1932


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