Veliuona (Velon inYiddish) is located in central Lithuania on the right shore of the Neman (Nemunas) river, about 50 km. northwest of Kovno (Kaunas). It was built in the valley and on the hills adjacent to the river.
At the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries a fortress carrying the same name was built in the area. The fortress successfully resisted the recurrent attacks of the Crusader order. After the defeat of the Crusaders in the Zalgiris (Gruenwald) battle in 1410, the Velon fortress lost its strategic importance and the settlement grew into an urban settlement of fishermen and trades people. In 1500 permission was granted to Velon to have its own emblem, to maintain a market and three fairs annually. In 1772 Bernardine monks settled in that area.
Until 1795 Velon was included in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. According to the third division of Poland in the same year by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, Lithuania was divided between Russia and Prussia. Like most of Lithuania, Velon became a part of the Russian Empire, first in the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 in the Kovno Gubernia as a county administrative center. It also kept this status during the years of independent Lithuania (1918-1940).
|General view of Velon|
It seems that the first Jews settled in Velon at the beginning of the fifteenth century, as maintained by elderly people who referred to the tombstones at the old local cemetery. It was also said that the first tombstone in the cemetery was of a girl named Vikhne, a daughter of a couple of beggars; she died while passing through the town. In Velon there was a custom to mention the girl's name during the prayer of Hazkarath Neshamoth (Memorial Service of the Dead).
In 1766, there were 166 Jewish tax payers in Velon. According to the all-Russian census of 1897, 820 residents inhabited the town, of whom 573 (about 100 families) were Jewish (aboutr 70%). During that time the Jews made up the majority of the town's population; consequently, many were hurt during the numerous grim events that occurred in the town. One such incident was the Polish rebellion and retribution activities instigated by the Russian army, in particular by the Cossacks.
Many tales were told about the hero of the town, Izik the horse-man, who specialized in long trips to St. Petersburg and back. He was such a strong man that even during his recruitment to army service for Czar Nicolai the First, the recruiters could not catch him to send him to the army.
Religious and public life concentrated mostly around the two Batei Midrash, one in the lower part of the town and the second in the upper part where the house of the rabbi and the yeshivah were also located. At the end of the nineteenth century approximately thirty students studied in the yeshivah. In the years 1870-1874 the head of the yeshivah was the local rabbi Ya'akov Yosef (Ya'akov Harif), a student of the famous Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Among other subjects, he taught the Musar doctrine (Ethics). Later he moved to New York where he became the head of a yeshivah.
|Rabbi Shemuel-Menahem HaLevi Katz|
Among the rabbis who served in Velon were:
Ya'akov Braines, in Velon from 1850, who was born in the town and made his living trading in the surrounding villages;
Mosheh-Betsalel Luria (1835-1914) in Velon 1860-1869, who published many books on the Talmud;
Hayim Ratsker, 1869-1870;
Shemuel Neviazhsky, 1874-1876;
Ya'akov Zak, 1876-1913;
Shemuel-Menahem HaLevi Katz (1887-1954), in Velon 1913-1915; in 1940 he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, and served as rabbi in Tel Aviv, was a member of the Main Rabbinate, died in Tel Aviv.
The list of contributors for the benefit of the victims of the great Persian famine in 1871-72, includes names of 25 Velon Jews (see Appendix 1).
At the beginning of World War I, in summer 1915, the Russian rule ordered Velon Jews exiled to the remote regions of Russia. They were given two hours to leave their homes, under heavy threats that those who refused would be hanged.
After the war and the establishment of the independent Lithuania in 1918, a number of the exiled Velon Jews returned home. In 1921, there were 258 Jews living in the town, and the first census performed by the new government in 1923 counted 470 residents, 335 (71%) being Jews.
Following the Law of Autonomies for Minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the Minister for Jewish Affairs, Dr. Menakhem (Max) Soloveitshik ordered elections to community committees, Va'adei Kehilah, to be held in the summer of 1919. In Velon a community committee of four members was elected which functioned for several years, supported by the ministry for Jewish Affairs in Kovno.
In these and subsequent years many Jews, both single and with families, moved away to the larger towns in Lithuania or emigrated overseas.
The residents who remained in town made their living, as before the war, in small trade and crafts, and raft transport on the Neman River. Relatives from abroad supported many of their families in Velon. Almost every family maintained a small auxiliary farm next to their home.
According to the 1931 government survey Velon had three textile shops, two tool and iron product shops, two heating materials shops, two shoe factories, one sewing machine (Singer) shop, one pharmacy, one bakery, one restaurant, one wool-combing workshop and one leather-processing factory, all owned by Jews.
In 1937 twenty-four Jewish trades people could be counted in Velon: eight tailors, four shoemakers, four butchers, two bakers, two milliners, one oven builder, one carpenter, one blacksmith and one barber.
In 1929 the Beth Midrash burned down and also the economic situation of the Jews began to deteriorate. The transfer of the market from the lower part of the town where the Jewish people traded to the mostly Christian upper part damaged the Jewish economy. Jews also suffered from the open propaganda run by the Lithuanian Merchants' Association (Verslas) who spread the message not to buy in Jewish shops.
In 1939 there were twenty telephone subscribers in Velon, six of them Jewish.
Jewish children studied at the Yiddish school, and Yiddish culture was prevalent in town. The Yiddishist (Folkist) daily newspaper Folksblat had twenty subscribers in Velon, while the Zionist daily Di Yiddishe Shtime had only two. Nevertheless, there was a Zionist camp in Velon and its members participated in the purchase of Shekalim and voted for Zionist congresses as presented in table below:
|Total Votes||Labor Party
The last rabbi of Velon was Tsevi-Leib Fersky, who was murdered in the Holocaust.
In June 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following new rules, light industry enterprises owned by Jews were nationalized. A number of Jewish shops were nationalized and commissars were appointed to manage them. The 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. All the Zionist parties were disbanded. The secretary of the local communist party was a Jew, P. J. Rodansky. Some Jews were very active in the MOPR (Red Help) organization. During the elections to the Soviet institutions some of them participated in a Yiddish show staged for the local audience. Jews still comprised the majority in the volunteer Fire Brigade. At that time forty Jewish families still lived in town.
The day following the German invasion of Lithuania, Lithuanian nationalists took control of Velon and enthusiastically imposed orders against Jews that were issued by the German and Lithuanian authorities in Kovno. They also began to abuse their Jewish neighbors by forcing hard labor on them, such as carrying stones from place to place with no purpose, pushing Jews into the river fully clothed, and so on. There were no Germans in town yet, but the armed Lithuanians did what they pleased. Lawlessness ruled against Jews. The leaders who guided the murderers included Bronius Zilinskas, Jurgis Antanaitis and Stasys Bartusius.
In July 1941 all Jewish men were forced to gather at the Beth Midrash where they were kept without food and water for several days. They were then taken out, forced to stand in line with spades and led to the Augusta estate. But instead of being forced to work once again, they were led to the grove beside the estate where pits were already prepared. There, firing squads ordered Jews to throw away the spades and undress, and then they were shot. On September 4, 1941 (12th of Elul, 5701) the two surviving men, 81 women and 86 children were taken out of their homes and led to a forest near the Gystus River, 2 km. west of Velon. There they were murdered and buried. After the war the corpses of the victims were exhumed out of the pits and buried again in the mass graves of Vilki (Vilkija) in Pakarkles Forest about 2 km. from Vilki. Details of the murders resurfaced during the trial of the murderers conducted in Soviet Lithuania in 1953 and 1959.
|The mass grave and the monument at the Pakarkles forest near Vilki|
In the early 1990s, a stone monument was erected at the Old Jewish cemetery with the inscription in Lithuanian and Yiddish: The Old Jewish Cemetery. May the memory of the deceased live forever.
YIVO, New York, Collection of Lithuanian Jewish Communities, files 206-209, 1514
Gotlib, Ohalei Shem, page 59
Fridman Eliezer-Eliyahu, Memoirs (Hebrew), 1858-1926, Tel Aviv, 1926
Levin, Dov; Velon (Hebrew), Pinkas Hakehilot-Lita, Yad Vashem, 1996
HaMelitz, St. Petersburg (Hebrew) # 43-4.11.1879
Folksblat, Kovno, (Yiddish) 21.7.1930; 15.6.1935; 13.8.1935; 15.11.1940; 19.11.1940;
Kovner Tog (Yiddish), 3.7.1926
Masines Zudyned Lietuvoje (Mass Murder in Lithuania) (Lithuanian), Vol. 2, pages 300-306
List of 25 Velon Jewish donors for the victims of the great Persian famine of 1871-72 as published in Hamagid #16, 1872
JewishGen>Databases>Lithuania> HaMagid by Jeffrey Maynard
|SHACHNES||Yitzchok ben Moshe|
|TRANSPOLSKI||Zev ben Dov|
|ZALMENSH||Yitzchok ben Moshe|
|Avraham ben Sh|
|Dov ben Yehuda|
|Eli ben Aharon|
|Eli Gershon ben M Y|
|Ephraim ben Hillel|
|Pinchas ben Sh|
|Shabasai ben Yakov|
|Shabasai ben Yisroel|
|Shachna ben Tz|
|Shalom ben Yakov|
|Tzvi ben Yakov|
The above article is an excerpt from Protecting Our Litvak Heritage by Josef Rosin. The book contains this article along with many others, plus an extensive description of the Litvak Jewish community in Lithuania that provides an excellent context to understand the above article. Click here to see where to obtain the book.
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