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[Page 206]


Varniai (Vorne)

55°45' 22°22'


Varniai (Vorne in Yiddish) lies in the western part of Lithuania, in the Zamut (Žemaitija) region, on the west bank of the small stream Varnele, about 30 km. (18 miles) south of the district administrative center, Telz (Telšiai). The large Lake Lūkstas is situated to the south of the town while there are two other small lakes on the north side.


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Vorne youngsters rowing in Lake Lūkstas


The settlement dates back to the sixteenth century. At that time, a settlement called Medininkai, on the east bank of the stream, included the residence of the Bishop of Zamut. Later this settlement was renamed Varniai. In 1635, the town was granted the Magdeburg rights of self-rule. The emblem of the town is highlighted by a Latin inscription: Sigillium Civitatis Vornensis Ducatus Samogit (Vorne is subordinate to the Bishop of Zamut).

In 1740 a school of higher education for priests was moved to Vorne. The town fairs brought 20,000 visitors, with many from Vilna and Riga. The Northern Wars with Sweden, the rebellions against the Russian rule, and the fires and epidemics wrought havoc on the people of Vorne. In 1863, as a result of the Polish rebellion, the residence of the bishop and the school for the priests were both moved from Vorne. Nevertheless, with the construction of barracks for the local Russian garrison, the town developed economically and culturally. The number of the residents increased, and the number of professionals and artisans among them increased as well; thus at the end of the nineteenth century about 60 shops and taverns and some 30 light industry workshops were in operation in the town.

Throughout Russian rule (1795-1915), German military rule (1915-1918) and that of independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Vorne was a county administrative center of the Telz district. At the outskirts of the town the Lithuanian government established a detention camp for about 150 political prisoners, mostly with communist leanings. There were quite a few Jews among these prisoners.



The Jewish Settlement until after World War I

The first Jews probably settled in Vorne in the second half of the seventeenth century. The bishop granted rights to a few Jews to run taverns, sell liquor and collect taxes during the fairs. Later, peddlers, merchants and artisans arrived in town. Jews, provided the majority of tradesmen, including tailors.


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Jewish homes in an alleyway


Their workshops were small and run by families.

The tradesmen of the time numbered twenty-two tailors, ten carters, sixteen shoemakers, six blacksmiths, three carpenters, three hatters, two builders, one book binder, one painter and one mould-maker. There were also well known timber tradesmen: one of these, Aharon Raskin, was a very prominent member of the community. The timber was loaded on to rafts and sent to Memel (Klaipeda) en route to Germany. The local flourmill was owned by Rafael Zax. Liquor distillation plants were also run by Jews. Several families kept stores, and they would travel to the large regional town of Shavl (Šiauliai) to stock up on goods.

As the population grew, a cemetery and prayer houses were built – the Kloiz and the Shtiblekh on two of the sides of the Shul, a building with a high dome for prayers in the summer.


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One of the prayer houses in Vorne


Later, welfare associations were established. Linath HaTsedek, Bikur Holim, Gemiluth Hesed, Hakhnasath Kalah and Hakhnasath Orkhim were among these. Social assistance was mostly provided by generous women with initiative. One such was Ida-Pesia, the wife of Aharon Raskin the timber merchant. He was also the Gabai of the local Yeshivah with its 60 students. This Yeshivah was established and directed by Nahum-Lipa Hananyah, and it existed for 35 years until his death in 1910. Many of the young people in the town studied in the Telz Yeshivah and in other Yeshivoth in the area. Quite a few acquired a general education as well.

In 1874, a blood libel was initiated by a local priest who gave money to a Christian boy to disappear from the town. Then he announced that the Jews had murdered the boy for his blood. The priest, together with a group of peasants armed with knifes and sticks, went out in the streets and attacked every Jew they met. A few were injured and taken to hospital. The uproar stopped when the boy returned home.

In 1847, 1,084 Jews lived in the town. Half a century later, according to the government census of 1897, there were 3,121 residents in Varniai, including 1,226 (39%) Jews.

Jewish agrarians were Motl Sheifer, the owner of a water-powered flourmill; David Karklaner; Hirsh Krengl; Velve Shnaider; Mosheh the Yanepoler and Shelomoh Katz the Vidmanter. They lived in the villages around Vorne.

Jewish children aged three years and older studied at the traditional Heder. A more modern school, called Heder Metukan (improved Heder) was opened several years before World War I. Most of the students came from the more affluent families. One of them, Ya'akov-David Kamzon, became famous as a writer and poet in Eretz-Yisrael. In addition to religious subjects, the school taught Hebrew grammar, mathematics and other secular subjects. There was considerable objection to this method of learning from the more conservative circles in town. As a result, the initiator and director of this institution, Yeshayah Ben Zion Fridman was questioned. He was known as a strictly religious and educated man who combined intellectuality with Zionism. Loyal to his views, he changed his surname to the Hebrew Ish-Shalom (Man of Peace). Years later, one of his sons, Mordehai Ish-Shalom, became the mayor of Jerusalem.

The Hibath Zion movement was very active in Vorne. In 1898, it had 100 members. The list of donors to the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael published in HaMelitz in 1898, 1899, 1900 and 1903 contained 127 names of Vorne Jews (see Appendix 1). The fund-raisers were as follows: in 1898, Hayim Gutman, Zalkind Likht; in 1899, Hayim Levin; in 1903, Hayim Leshem.

The cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem has at least five headstones of Vorne Jews:

Rabbi Simhah son of Eliyahu, died 1865
Rivkah-Leah daughter of Yehezkel-Pinhas, died 1867
Peshe daughter of Yehudah, died 1869
Dusha wife of Faivel, died 1869
Yehezkel-Pinhas son of Mordehai, died 1871
With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the Germans bombed Vorne. Most of the Jews ran for shelter, but several days later, after the German army occupied the town, they returned home. Throughout that war, Vorne residents were under strict German rule and, among other orders, endured the forced labor imposed on many of them. However, Jews gained permanent representation in public affairs on behalf of the community, which had established a good rapport with the local German commander. Nevertheless, a local group of Jewish youths still found it necessary to find secure hiding places for the forced laborers, and helped many to escape.

A local Rabbi reported to German authorities in 1918 that seven Jews died in the first quarter of that year: five women, one man and one child.

After World War I, there was still no peace for Vorne and the surrounding areas. Sporadic fights among the Lithuanians and other nations continued and the Jews feared that the unrest would result in pogroms. To be ready for this potential evil, a self-defense group of Jewish youths armed themselves with pistols. They were trained by German deserters hired by the community. These Germans together with the Jewish youngsters stood guard over the community until stability was restored to the region.

The Rabbis who served in Vorne during this period were:

Shemuel Shmelke Itinga (died in 1902)
Benjamin Verber (also died in 1902)
Josef-Leib Blokh, (1849-1930) served in Vorne between the years 1902-1904 and later became the director of Telz Yeshivah
Shalom-Yits'hak Levitan (1878-1941) served in Vorne 1908-1909, published several books on Judaism. He was murdered in the Holocaust
Yisrael Yehoshua Segal, son of Shemuel-Aryeh, born in 1864 (in Vorne from 1898).
Between 1839-1934, there were 21 subscribers to rabbinic literature in Vorne.



The Period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940)

With the establishment of the independent Lithuanian State in 1918, most Vorne Jews were old town residents who had lived there before World War I. They continued to make their living in the trades, small commerce and crafts.

Following the Law of Autonomies for Minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister of Jewish affairs, Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik ordered elections to community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In July 1920 the elections to the community committee of Vorne were held and nine members were elected: three General Zionists, three non-party men, two tradesmen and one affiliated to the Mizrahi party. The committee served in most fields of Jewish life until the law was annulled in the spring of 1926. Jewish representatives were elected to the municipal council of Vorne.

The survey conducted by the community committee in 1920 revealed that there were approximately 800 Jewish residents in town, 54% of them women. Those under 18 years of age comprised 43% of the population, the age group of 19 to 50 was 37% and those between the ages of 51 and 85 the balance (20%). 70% of the Jews were born in Vorne. Among the 132 gainfully employed persons, 34 were shopkeepers, 22 were small traders and peddlers, 14 were shoemakers, eight tailors, eight bakers, eight butchers, four carters and drivers, four melamdim (teachers), three hat-makers, three pharmacists, three tinsmiths, two builders, two carpenters, two cantors, one doctor, one watchmaker, one porter, one Klizemer (musician at Jewish weddings), one bath attendant, one tanning worker, one hostel owner and one dental assistant.

The Government survey of 1931 listed 23 shops in Vorne, 21 (91%) Jewish owned. The distribution according to the type of business is presented in the table below:


Type of business Total Owned by Jews
Groceries 4 3
Butcher shops and Cattle Trade 4 3
Restaurants and Taverns 1 1
Food Products 1 1
Textile Products and Furs 5 5
Leather and Shoes 2 2
Haberdashery and house utensils 1 1
Watches, Jewels and Optics 1 1
Hardware Products 2 2
Bicycles, electrical equipment, sewing machines 1 1
Transportation, Machines 1 1


Also listed in the same survey, were three barbershops, a power station, a workshop for wool combing and a flour mill, all owned by Jews of Vorne.

With the decrease in Vorne's Jewish population, Jewish trade decreased proportionately. In 1937, only 40 tradesmen remained in the town: ten shoemakers, six tailors, four carpenters, three butchers, three watchmakers, three tinsmiths, two hat-makers, two oven builders, two blacksmiths, one binder, one barber and three others.

In 1939, of the 24 telephone lines in Vorne, four were in Jewish homes.

In the 1920s, a Hebrew school with Tarbuth affiliation, a library, a drama group and the Folksbank (Popular Bank) were established in Vorne. The Folksbank had 107 members in 1927, and by 1929 the number had decreased to 92. Although the bank provided great assistance, the condition of the Jewish shopkeepers and tradesmen deteriorated from year to year. The systematic anti-Semitic propaganda of various Lithuanian associations contributed to these difficulties.


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The Market Square in Vorne


There were verbal and physical attacks against the Jews and their language on numerous occasions. On October 9th, 1923 all Jewish signs in the town were smeared with tar. October 15th, 1935 saw a blood libel initiated against the Jews. As a result, two were injured and thirty-nine windows in Jewish homes were broken. On November 11th, 1936 one Jew was murdered and thirty-three sustained injuries at the hands of Lithuanian neighbors and peasants at the town fair.

These events and the worsening economic situation resulted in many Vorne Jews emigrating to South Africa, South America and Australia. Some chose Eretz-Yisrael: these were the youngsters of the Zionist camp. One such Zionist was Mordecai Ish-Shalom (the son of the founder of Heder Metukan): he organized the Hehalutz branch in Vorne. He was one of the first stonecutters in Eretz-Yisrael and later became the mayor of Jerusalem.

Several young Jewish people joined the Communist party: a few of these were arrested for their subversive activities and were imprisoned in the detention camp outside the town.


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Going to the synagogue


Besides the HeHalutz branch, there were also many other Zionist youth organizations, including HaShomer HaTsair. Zionist and sports activities were also organized by the local Maccabi branch. Almost all the Zionist parties had supporters. In the table below we can see how Vorne Zionists voted during five Zionist congresses:


Congress
No.
Year Total
Shkalim
Total Votes Labor Party
Z”S Z”Z
Revisionists General Zionists
A B
Grosmanists Mizrakhi
15 1927 38 29  5  10 1 6 7
16 1929 45 27  2  3 12 7
17 1931 62 49  7  13 7 9 13
18 1933 77 59 4 9 5
19 1935 249 127 58 64


Rabbis who served during this period in Vorne included:

Ya'akov son of Zevulun Abramovitz (1880-1937), from 1925-1937,
Aba Shur (1909-1941), the last rabbi of Vorne, who was murdered in the Holocaust.


Among the personages born in Vorne were:

Boris-Zalman-Dov Shatz (1866-1932) emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1906. He was an artist – a painter and a sculptor – and founded the Betsalel School of Arts in Jerusalem. He died in Colorado, in the USA.
Mosheh Dov Magid, born in 1901: from 1934 he lived in Eretz- Yisrael and was a member of the Mizrahi center and of the Municipal Council of Tel Aviv.
Zalman-Pinhas Nathans (1893- ?), arrived in America as a young man, graduated at New York University and was a teacher of mathematics and physics in New York high schools. He published "Nathan's Popular Explanation of Einstein's Theory of Relativity" (NY, 1931) in Yiddish. In the 1930s he lived in New Rochelle, New York.
Ya'akov-David Kamzon (1900-1980), lived in Jerusalem from 1926. A writer and poet in Yiddish and Hebrew, he published his book Jerusalem and many children's books; in 1959 published the book Yahaduth Lita with many photos of Jewish communities in Lithuania (Publisher Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem).


During World War II

In June 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Significant changes in social, economic, cultural and educational life affected the Vorne Jews. Following the new rules, the larger shops and enterprises were nationalized. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew educational institutions were closed. The supply of goods decreased and, as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore the brunt and the standard of living dropped gradually.

On June 25th, 1941, three days after the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany, the German army entered Vorne. Before the soldiers of the Red Army in Vorne retreated, they set the arms warehouses on fire. As a result the synagogue and most of the homes in town burned down. Some of the Jews found temporary quarters in Jewish homes in neighboring towns. When they returned, they found the town destroyed by fire and under the rule of local nationalist Lithuanians, who were conducting a witch-hunt against Soviet activists. In particular, they focused their evil intentions on their former Jewish neighbors and abused and eventually murdered those whom they suspected of pro-Soviet activity. Among the first victims was a veteran teacher, Tsevi Leibovitz. The remaining Jews were forced into hard labor, cleaning debris, sweeping the streets and more.

At the beginning of July, all Jews were ordered to go to the village of Viesvenai, about 25 km. (15 miles) from Vorne. The adults walked, the aged and the children rode in carts. In Viesvenai, the Vorne Jews together with others from surrounding areas were herded into barns, stables and cowsheds. They were supervised by armed Lithuanians. After several days of maltreatment, on July 16th, 1941, the men were shot and buried in a mass grave. The women and children were sent to Geruliai village near Telz. There, they were murdered on August 30th (7th of Elul, 5701). On December 24th, 1941 (4th of Teveth, 5702) several girls who had been temporarily employed by farmers of the area and in Telz, were put to death.

Only a few managed to escape and survive.

In 1989 only 6 Jews lived in Vorne.


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The mass grave near Viesvenai


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The mass grave and the monument near Geruliai


Sources:

Yad Vashem Archives, Koniukhovsky Collection 0-71, files 36, 37
YIVO, New York, Lithuanian Communities Collection, files 179-191
Ish-Shalom M., BeSod Hotzvim Ubonim (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 5741 (1981)
Elitsur Sarah, Biyeri UBamistarim (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 5746 (1986)
Milner M., Me'Eiver LaKav HaHayim (Hebrew), Tel Aviv 1981
Fridman Sh.Z., BeDarhei HaRuakh, Jerusalem, 1980
Di Tsait (Yiddish), Kovno, 6.5.1924
Masines Zudynes Lietuvoje (Lithuanian) (Mass Murder in Lithuania), Vol. II, page 41
Naujienos (Lithuanian) Chicago, 11.6.1949



Appendix 1

List of 127 Vorne Jewish donors to The Settlement of Eretz-Yisrael
from JewishGen>Databases>Lithuania>Hamelitz by Jeffrey Maynard


Surname Given Name Comments Source in Hamelitz Year
AIZIKMAN Aizik   #108 1900
ARONOWITZ Shmuel Meir   #108 1900
BALNIK Yitzchok   #132 1898
BALNIK Yitzchok   #108 1900
BALNIK Yitzchok   #23 1901
BATZFON Leib   #23 1901
BATZFON Lev   #204 1895
BATZFON Yehuda Leib   #132 1898
BERMAN Tzvi   #132 1898
BORSHTEIN Moshe   #132 1898
BROIDA Zev   #132 1898
BROIDA Zev   #23 1901
CHAIMOWITZ Ezriel   #151 1898
CHAIMOWITZ Ezriel Yitzchok   #132 1898
CHAIMOWITZ Gershon related to Nochum Shlomo Chaimowitz from Taurage   #247 1895
CHAMERDIL Shaul Yehuda   #108 1900
CHANANIE Beile Rochel bas Nochum   #23 1901
CHANANIE Beinish   #23 1901
CHANANIE Nochum Lipman   #23 1901
DIMANT Yitzchok   #108 1900
DIMANT Yitzchok   #23 1901
DOGILEWITZ Hersh   #23 1901
DOGILEWITZ Yehoshua   #108 1900
DOMBE Zelig Leib   #132 1898
EPHRIN Yisroel   #132 1898
FRIDMAN Bentzion   #108 1900
FRIDMAN Bentzion b-i-l of Leah Reitzkin husband of Reitze   #23 1901
FRIDMAN Reitze wife of Bentzion   #23 1901
GODON Yeshiyahu   #23 1901
GOLDING Chaim   #23 1901
GOLDSHTEIN Dovid husband of Leah Reitzkin wed 5 Kislev in Manchester, UK #23 1901
GOLDSHTEIN Meir   #108 1900
GOLEMBA Yisroel   #23 1901
GOLUMBA Yisroel   #185 1895
GRAF Meir   #132 1898
GRIN Meir Shub #132 1898
GRIN Meir Shub #108 1900
GROF Meir   #23 1901
GROZ Yitzchok   #132 1898
GUTMAN Chaim ben Tzvi Eliahu   #132 1898
HAGNI Beila   #108 1900
HAGNI Binyomin Beinish   #108 1900
HAGNI Moshe   #108 1900
HILLEL Yakov   #132 1898
KATZ Raphel Shabasai   #108 1900
KATZ Yakov Hillel   #108 1900
KATZ Yisroel   #108 1900
KATZ Zalman Yitzchok   #132 1898
KAMZOHN Meir   #132 1898
KATZ Zalman Yakov   #108 1900
KLOP Yakov   #108 1900
KOZNITZKI Yakov   #108 1900
KWEINGIL Meir   #23 1901
LEIK Ephraim Eliezer   #108 1900
LEW Yehuda Leib   #108 1900
LEWI Yakov Elchanan Shatz #108 1900
LEWIN Yakov Elchanan Shatz #132 1898
LEWITAN Chaim Meir   #132 1898
LIBZOHN Don Arieh   #23 1901
LICHT Binyomin   #132 1898
LICHT Ephraim Eliezer   #132 1898
LICHT Zalkind   #132 1898
LICHT Zalkind   #108 1900
LIN Tzvi   #23 1901
LURIA Dovid   #132 1898
LURIA Nachum   #132 1898
LURIA Nachum   #108 1900
LURIA Nochum   #23 1901
LURIA Yakov   #108 1900
MAGID Beinish   #23 1901
MAGID Binyomin Beinish   #108 1900
MARIK Dovid   #132 1898
MARIK Yosef   #23 1901
MELAMED Shimon Yehuda   #108 1900
NADIL Tzemach Dovid   #108 1900
NAWAITZ Mordechai Eliezer   #108 1900
NOWITZ Mordechai   #132 1898
OLSHWANGER Aharon   #108 1900
OLSHWANGER Eli   #132 1898
OLSHWANGER Ezriel   #132 1898
OLSHWANGER Ezriel   #108 1900
OLSHWANGER Ezriel   #23 1901
OSHROWITZ Peretz   #132 1898
PIL Ephraim   #132 1898
POHINSKI Menucha   #108 1900
POLINSKI Chaim   #108 1900
POSHINSKI Chaim   #23 1901
POSHINSKI Miriam   #23 1901
PRINGEL Tzvi   #108 1900
PUSHANSKI Chaim   #23 1901
PUSHINSKI Chaim   #132 1898
RADALIE Avraham Dov   #132 1898
REINES Shneur   #132 1898
REITZKIN Eliezer brother of Leah & Sheine Feige   #23 1901
REITZKIN Leah sister of Eliezer & Sheine wife of Dovid Goldshtein wed 5 Kislev in Manchester, UK #23 1901
REITZKIN Sheine Feige sister of Eliezer & Leah   #23 1901
ROSTENBERG Dovid   #108 1900
ROSTOWSKI Gitl wife of Chaim Gutman from Kelme wed in Varna #123 1897
ROT Aharon Leib   #108 1900
ROTTENBERG Dovid   #132 1898
ROZ Dov Moshe   #132 1898
ROZENTHAL Tzvi Yehuda   #132 1898
ROZINSHTEIN Zev   #108 1900
SEGAL Dov   #132 1898
SEGAL Aizik   #23 1901
SEGAL Dovid   #108 1900
SEGAL Dovid   #23 1901
SHAIBET Yakov   #23 1901
SHEFTIL Yehoshua   #108 1900
SHER Aharon   #132 1898
SHER Tzvi Menachem   #132 1898
SHER Yitzchok   #108 1900
SHMIDT Dovid   #132 1898
SHNITZ Moshe   #108 1900
SHNITZ Moshe   #23 1901
SHOCHAT Shimon   #132 1898
SROL Yakov Zev   #108 1900
TALPIOT Avraham uncle of Leah Reitzkin   #23 1901
TZIN Aharon   #132 1898
TZIN Eli   #108 1900
TZIN Eli   #23 1901
TZIN Eliahu   #132 1898
ZAK Dov Ari   #108 1900
ZAZINSHTEIN Zev   #23 1901
  Shaul Yehuda   #132 1898
  Yosef ben Zelig   #132 1898
  Yosef Zev   #108 1900



The above article is an excerpt from “Preserving 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.

http://www.pickmanmuseumshop.com/prourlihevoi.html


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