Between the two World Wars Zarasai (Ezhereni in Yiddish), a town in northeastern Lithuania was situated near the borders with Latvia and Poland. The main road from Kaunas (Kovno) to Daugavpils (Dvinsk) in Latvia passed through Ezhereni which is 24 km. (15 miles) from Dvinsk. The town is surrounded by woods and lakes and because of its beauty was known as the &147;Lithuanian Switzerland&148;.
Originally the town was a village named Yazrusi, where, in the fifteenth century, there existed a Carmelite monastery. In 1481 the army of the Prince of Moscow, Ivan the Third, invaded this area, and in the seventeenth century there was fighting in the vicinity between the Swedes and the Polish-Lithuanian armies.
Until 1795 Ezhereni was part of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, when, with the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, Lithuania became partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part of Lithuania that included Ezhereni fell under Czarist Russian rule and from 1836 until 1915 was included in the Kovno province (Gubernia) as a district center.
In 1812 fighting erupted between the Russians and Napoleon's French army near the town, while during the Polish rebellion in 1831 groups of rebels were active in the vicinity of Ezhereni.
Czar Nikolai the First (who ruled from 1825-1855) was so impressed by the beauty of the town during his visit to Ezhereni in 1836, that he ordered it to be turned into a district administrative center, naming it Novo Alexandrovsk. It was built in a similar style to other towns in Russia and became the first town in Lithuania to develop from a plan. In 1839 it was declared a district administrative center and remained so until 1915.
Under independent Lithuania rule the Russian name of the town was rendered invalid and it reverted to its previous title of Ezhereni. However in 1929 it was decided to restore the old Lithuanian name of Zarasai, and so it has remained to this day.
By 1857 there were 163 houses, and in the second half of the nineteenth century Ezhereni boasted a district school established in 1868, a two-class Jewish school, a hospital, a Catholic church, two Pravoslavic churches and six Jewish prayer houses. Many Jewish children attended the government school.
In the nineteenth century there were many workshops, including a printing press. The main Warsaw to St. Petersburg road that passed through Ezhereni was constructed between 1832 and 1836 and as a result the town flourished. At the end of the nineteenth century a brick factory and two water-powered flourmills functioned in the town. In addition to the bi-weekly markets there were also two annual fairs, one in summer and one in winter, attended by merchants from Riga, St. Petersburg, Kazan and Kiev.
In World War I the town suffered badly. It was partly ruined and lost two thirds of its residents, many of them leaving because of the Soviet-Bolshevik rule which lasted from December 1918 until August 25th, 1919. Because of its distance from the center of Lithuania, restoration of the town after the war was slow and the economic situation deteriorated. In 1932 Ezhereni was proclaimed a vacation town.
During World War II 60% of the town's houses were ruined.
The Jewish Settlement until after World War I
Jewish settlement in Ezhereni started at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1847 there were 453 Jews residents; by 1857 this increased to 909 Jews who constituted 26% of the total population. By 1866 the Jews were the majority in town, numbering 3,562 (54%) of a total population of 6,547. The Jews traded in grain and flax, raw hide and pig bristles and dealt in shop keeping, peddling and transportation. Jewish merchants dealt commercially with the Poles of the surrounding estates and also with Vilna, Riga and Dvinsk where agricultural products were sold.
There were also many artisans: tailors, shoemakers and felt boot makers. In 1841 there were five Jewish shoemakers and six tailors. Some Ezherenis made their living from fishing in the nearby lakes. In the 1890s 1,037 Jews earned their living from seven farms on land granted by the Russian government.
The weekly markets took place on Tuesdays and Fridays, but there was also trading on Sundays. Peasants who came to town to attend church would take the opportunity to buy the goods they required.
This was a difficult economic period because of competition from Dvinsk in the grain and flax trade. The drought prevented the peasants from buying in local shops because of lack of money, while on the other hand, when there was a heavy rainfall with the resultant glut of grain, prices dropped and the merchants continued to suffer.
In 1910 the Lithuanians established cooperatives which compounded the dire problems of the Jewish economy.
A report published in HaMelitz in 1891 showed that there were many poor Jews who had little food. The fact that about 500 Jews appealed to Maoth Hitim before Pesakh was proof of the difficult situation.
There were also sanitation and health problems. There was only one doctor to care for about 8,000 people in their homes and in the town's hospital. This doctor was Yehiel-Aharon son of Mosheh Zandberg (1831-1893). He served there for about 25 years and was respected by all, Jews and Christians alike.
To the credit of the local rabbi, Mordecai Fainshtein, the number of members of Hovevei Zion in Ezhereni increased and in 1890 reached 200. Many residents donated money to the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael. 162 Ezhereni Jews were listed as donors in HaMelitz for the years 1893, 1895, 1897, 1898 and 1900 (see Appendix 1). The fund-raisers were Yehudah Shtein and Yerahmiel Berman. The correspondents to HaMelitz were Y. Fainshtein (known also as Y. Even-Yafe), Ts. Poliakov, Mosheh-Ozer Levin, Josef Frenkel and Tsevi-Ya'akov Oppenheim.
Among Ezhereni Jews who emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael were Sarah Pliner (born in 1870) who died in a fire in Ein Zeitim during the Arab riots in 1929. Sarah Azaryahu (a Hebraicized surname) was born in 1873 in Dvinsk, lived in Ezhereni from 1881 and from 1905 in Eretz-Yisrael in Yaffo, Jerusalem and finally on Kibbutz Afikim where she died in 1962. She published her memoirs in Hebrew Pirkei Hayim on Jewish life in Ezhereni.
Ezhereni had excellent Jewish institutions and societies. There were a Talmud Torah, a Hebrew elementary school, a library and six prayer houses: the great synagogue (the Shul) was built in 1858; the Beth Midrash erected on the plot of Itsele Hashem, who had duly received the visiting Czar; the Shtibl of the Hasidim called the Red Minyan; the Hasidic green building; the Beth Hamidrash at the Foot of the Mountain and the Kloiz of the tailors which was built in 1895. The community had a rabbi and two Shokhtim.
In the 1880s a controversy broke out in the Beth Midrash (Kloiz) of the tailors on the issue of appointing a new shamash to succeed the deceased beadle. The Jewish community broke up into factions and each supported its own candidate. There were eight contestants for the job and so eight factions.
In 1902 the local rabbi, Gliternik, resigned because of Orthodox intrigues, preferring to teach at the Hebrew elementary school. The official rabbi also left for similar reasons and Ezhereni Jews were unable to decide whom to appoint as a rabbi.
There was a society for supporting the Jewish poor and sick. In 1901 its income derived from its 86 members. Each paid three rubles per annum and this was augmented from any special donations, including 500 rubles from Klonimus Ze'ev Wissotzky, the founder of the Russian tea of that name. In 1901 the society's total income was 1,455 rubles. This covered the fees of doctors, the medic and a midwife. It paid for medicines, instruments, hospitalization, food and heating. Some unfortunates benefited from money grants.
In the 1870s and 1880s there were quite a few local Jewish government officials, which was a rarity in Lithuanian towns at that time. However, in 1884, a circular issued by the deputy of the Kovno Gubernator informed the people that all Jewish officials were dismissed.
In 1886 the authorities called for tenders for activating the government flourmill, but prohibited Jews on the pretext that the mill was situated outside the town. Originally an official dealing with this issue had actually allowed the Jews to participate in the tender, but due to envy, rivals informed on this official to his superiors and the authorities forbade Jewish involvement.
During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940)
With the establishment of independent Lithuania in 1918 Ezhereni was cut off from its natural hinterland. Areas in the east were occupied and annexed to Poland, whereas in the north a new border with the recently established state of Latvia was delineated. As a result communications with many settlements whose economic and commercial center had been Ezhereni were also cut off. The worst economic setback to the town was being detached from the railway line now in the Polish occupied area and from Dvinsk. Ezhereni became isolated and its total population (Gentile and Jewish) decreased from 7,128 in 1913 to 3,785 in 1923. The Jewish population concurrently decreased from about 2,500 in 1913 to 1,329 in 1923. A disproportionate number of professional people left the town.
|General view of Ezhereni|
Following the law of autonomies for minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister for Jewish affairs Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik ordered elections to community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In 1921 the elections for the community committee of Ezhereni took place and eleven members were elected, two from Akhduth, six non-party men and three independent members. The committee was supported administratively and financially by the Ministry for Jewish Affairs in Kovno. It dealt, amongst other items, with a complaint presented to the Ministry about Jews being assaulted by Lithuanians.
In 1924, the last year of the existence of the committee, its annual budget was 5,720 litas as detailed below:
|Fees for services||360||Bikur Holim||1,000|
|The Bath House||360||Rent for the rabbi||1,030|
|Tax for the Jewish
|Total Income||5,720||Total Expenses||5,720|
According to the first census in independent Lithuania in 1923, the number of Jews in Ezhereni was 35% of the population (1,329 Jews out of a total of 3,785 residents), the other residents being Lithuanians, Poles and Russians.
Five of twelve members elected to the Town Council in 1924 were Jews. In the elections of 1931 four Jews were successful, Avraham Mushelevitz, Zalman Levitas, Yisrael Traub and Hayim Melnik. The balance of the council comprised four Lithuanians and one Russian. Yisrael Traub was appointed deputy Council Chairman. In the 1934 elections three Jews and six Lithuanians were elected to the Council.
Most Jews lived in flats and houses in the main streets close to their shops. Many made their living trading in agricultural products such as furs, pig bristles, seeds. The more affluent owned shops selling home utensils and liquor. It is worth mentioning the widow Broiman who, together with her sons and daughters, owned several shops -selling galoshes (overshoes) and home utensils, as well as a bar and a restaurant.
The other Jews were peddlers, carters and artisans - blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, felt shoemakers and so on. Many manufactured clothes. There were also Jewish fishermen and fish merchants. One of the latter, Yonah Zisel, leased a farm and a lake. But sources of livelihood diminished very much during this period. Many merchants were impoverished and the poor became poorer while the numbers of these unfortunates increased.
The Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank), established in 1920, played an important role in the economic life of Ezhereni Jews. In 1923 its members numbered 345, in 1927, 335 and in 1929, 343, almost unchanged over a seven-year period. This says much for the value of the bank to the community, in light of the worldwide depression at that time.
According to the government survey of 1931, 50 shops, 41 (82%) of them Jewish owned, could be found in Ezhereni. The following table shows the type of business, its number and how many were owned by Jews:
|Type of business||Total||Owned by Jews|
|Grain and flax||2||2|
|Butcher shops and Cattle Trade||6||6|
|Restaurants and Taverns||9||2|
|Paper, Books and Stationary||2||1|
|Textile Products and Furs||6||6|
|Leather and Shoes||3||3|
|Haberdashery and house utensils||2||2||Medicine and Cosmetics||2||1|
|Bicycles and electrical equipment||1||1|
The same survey showed the distribution of 25 light industries, 16 of them (64%) Jewish owned, as shown:
|Type of Factory||Total||Jewish Owned|
|Concrete products, Headstones||1||1|
|Textile: Wool, Flax, Knitting||3||3|
|Sawmills and Furniture||1||0|
|Flour mills, Bakeries, Beverages, Candies||6||4|
|Chemical products: Spirit, Soap, Oil||1||0|
In 1935 a fire razed several Jewish houses as well as the school.
In 1937 there were 87 Jewish artisans: twenty-five needle workers, twelve shoemakers, eleven butchers, eight metal workers, six bakers, three hatters, three watchmakers, one oven builder, one carpenter, one goldsmith and sixteen others. Four families dealt in agriculture and the others were tradesmen.
There was also a match factory owned by After, a brewery owned by Hurvitz and two flour mills.
In 1939 there were 71 telephone subscribers, only five of whom were Jews.
The community in the 1930s had only three prayer houses. While before World War I the Ezherenis maintained eight Hadarim and a Yeshivah, at this time there was a Hebrew school of the Tarbuth network, whose teachers were Ya'akov Mushel, Yusman and Vilimovsky. Many of the Jewish children continued their studies in the Lithuanian high school. Their parents could not afford the extra financial burden of sending them to Hebrew high schools in the larger towns. There was also a Hebrew library and a drama society.
The following institutions and societies were active locally: a hospital, Linath HaTsedek, Gemiluth Hesed, societies for studying Mishna, Ein Ya'akov and others. The municipality maintained a home for aged Jews and Russians.
|Hehalutz HaMizrahi branch 1934|
Almost all Zionist parties and youth organizations were represented in Ezhereni. HeHalutz HaMizrahi, HaShomer HaTsair, Betar, and the religious Benei Akiva were particularly active. Maccabi with 128 members controlled local sports.
The results of the elections for the Zionist Congresses are given in the table below. (In 1931 the elections took place at the Jewish Folksbank.)
|Total Votes||Labor Party
|HaShomer HaTsair branch in Ezhereni 1935 - an impressive number|
Rabbis who officiated in Zarasai during these years included:
Shimon Berman - in the 1870s
Leib Shapira - died in 1880
His brother, Rafael Shapira (1837-1921), in Novo Alexandrovsk in 1886
Mordecai Fainshtein (1836-1903)
Meir-Shalom HaCohen, who signed a Zionist appeal in 1900, died at the age of 30
The last rabbi of the community, Eliyahu Reznik, was murdered in the Holocaust.
During the years 1845-1911 there were 81 subscribers to rabbinic literature.
Among the personalities born in Ezhereni were:
Eliyahu Naividel (1821-1886) published two textbooks on the Hebrew language (in Warsaw, 1874 and 1882). He died in Warsaw.Heads of the illegal communist party of Lithuania were imprisoned in the town prison, among them Miriam Hodosh and R. Ger.
Menahem Glikman (1870-1945), graduate of the St.Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1903, died of hunger in 1945 in Leningrad.
Yuri Pen, born in the 1870s, a famous Jewish-Russian artist, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, he died in Vitebsk, Russia.
|HaShomer HaTsair at a march - standing still|
In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. The majority of shops belonging to the Jews of Ezhereni were nationalized and commissars were appointed to manage them. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and most community 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.
When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, Ezherni Jews were at first not concerned, thinking that they were far removed from the front. In fact, the German army entered the town later than in many other towns in Lithuania, so that when the Red Army retreated through the town and masses of refugees arrived, the Jews panicked. Many attempted escaping to Russia, but groups of armed Lithuanians ambushed and shot them on the roads. Not many succeeded in reaching Russia. However, more than twenty escapees served in the Lithuanian division of the Red Army.
Even before the Germans entered the town, Lithuanian nationalists took over and inevitably started their abuse of the hapless Jews. Stories of the atrocities of the local Lithuanians are plentiful. The local gang of rioters was headed by a Russian named Kazanov and his helpers, the teacher Shakys and the former police commandant Bruzikaitis. A Jew, Leib Banke (or Benke), was buried alive in the center of the town. A Pole, Pashkevitz, forced the octogenarian Jewish flourmill owner Ber Novik to run through the streets with a picture of Stalin displayed on his back.
On August 26th, 1941 the now doomed Ezhereni Jews were gathered together and then ordered onto carts brought to the town. They were informed that they were going to Rakishok (Rokiskis) to work and instructed to take some food and clothing with them. They were promised a speedy return. The naive Jews, who had recently witnessed worse events, believed what they were told. The Lithuanian mayor provided the rabbi and two respected community men with letters of recommendation which stated that these are virtuous people, good Jews, asking to accept and treat them well. And he was believed! The convoy left on the road to Utyan (Utena) guarded by armed Lithuanians.
In the evening, after traveling about 15 km. (9 miles), not far from the town of Antaliepte, the convoy left the road and entered the Deguciai forest. The people were ordered to get off the carts and to undress. Seeing the pits awaiting them, a terrible outcry arose. The women refused to undress and began to scatter, but the guards unleashed their machine guns and soon all the Jews were dead. The infamous, inhuman Pole, Pashkevitz, now one of the guards, dragged an invalid, Yerakhmiel Shtulper, who had no feet, to the murder site and threw him into the pit alive. Other Jews who were murdered there were from Antalept (Antaliepte), Dusyat (Dusetos), Salok (Salakas), Turmont (Turmantas), Rimshani (Rimse) and Duksht (Dukstas). Only two men survived the massacre. For some time they wandered around in the vicinity. They were still alive in 1943, but later one of them, Hayim Shulman was shot and the other, whose first name was Aharon, committed suicide when he realized that there was no hope of survival.
A German source believes that 2,569 Jews, including 687 children, were murdered on that day, but other information gives the number as about 5,000. The mass grave lies in the Krakynes forest, 500 meters (550 yards) from the Deguciai - Dusetos road.
Two Jews were left in the town. One of them, Yisrael Traub, about 60 years old, was accepted by the Lithuanians (during the 1930s he was a member of the Municipal Council and a deputy Mayor). He was appointed to sweep the streets, but this favor did not last long. Yisrael too became a victim of the shooting. The second Jew, Yerakhmiel Shnaider, was married to a Russian woman. He hid in his house and probably became tired of sitting at home or, perhaps his wife insisted he go to work. One Sunday Shnaider went to church with his wife and her family. In the house of prayer, the Russian Kazanov recognized him, took him out during the service and despite the pleading of his wife and her mother, led him to the forest, forced him to take off his Sunday clothes and killed him.
The marker pointing to the massacre site carries the inscription
Let us make sure that this tragedy is never again repeated.
One of the ditches filled with the remains
of the thousands of innocent Jewish people
|The monument on the mass graves|
According to a Lithuanian source a Lithuanian named Karolis Mikutevicius hid a Jew named Berka (?) with his four family members.
Ezhereni was liberated by the Red Army at the end of 1944. After the war the survivors of Ezhereni and the surrounding towns erected a monument on the mass graves on which was written in Yiddish and Lithuanian: Here at this site the Nazi murderers and their local helpers cruelly murdered 8,000 Jews children, women, men of Zarasai and the vicinity on the 26th of August 1941.
Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem-M-1/319/210; M-9/15(6); M-33/981; M-35/80; TR-2 report 88; 0-3/4128, 5993, 6836; 0-53/320; Lithuanian communities collection 0-57, file A; Koniukhovsky collection 0-71, file 73
YIVO New York-Files 55/1701, 55/1788, 13/15/131, Z-4/2548
Bakaltchuk-Felin, M. (editor) Yizkor Book Rakishok (Yiddish), Johannesburg 1952, pages 306-323
Rafi Julius - Ezhereni (Zarasai) (Hebrew), Pinkas Hakehiloth-Lita, Yad Vashem Jerusalem, 1996
Dos Vort, Kovno (Yiddish) 11.11.1934
Di Yiddishe Shtime, Kovno (Yiddish) 29.10.1924; 19.6.1931
Folksblat, Kovno (Yiddish) 4.1.1934; 28.4.1935; 9.8.1935
HaMelitz, St. Petersburg, (Hebrew) 17.10.1873; 21.11.1872; 17.12.1886; 20.5.1893; 2.7.1893; 28.11.1903; 15.9.1903
Indrasius Vytautas - Zarasieciai Didziojo Tevynes Karo Frontuose, (Zarasai People at the Fronts of the Great Homeland War) Zarasai 1984
Naujienos, Chicago 1949
A list of 162 Ezhereni donors to the Settlement of Eretz-Yisrael
(From JewishGen.Org/Databases/HaMelitz. Compiled by Jeffrey Maynard)
|Surname||Given Name||Comments||Source in Hamelitz||Year|
|DEITZ||Dov Ber husband of Ane Plot||wed 22 Av||# 192||1893|
|DOBRIA||Chaim ben Yosef father of Zanwil||#107||1898|
|DOBRIA||Zanwil ben Chaim husband of Rivka Tobias||wed||#107||1898|
|EWENTSHIK||Eliahu Elias husband of Yente Elena Hirshowitz||wed||#142||1900|
|FEINSHTEIN||Mordechai father of Yitzchok||rabbi gaon ABD||#224||1895|
|FEINSHTEIN||Yitzchok son of Rabbi Mordehai||#224||1895|
|FEINSHTEIN||Yitzchok son of the Gaon, ABD||#26||1900|
|GARBER||Feige mother of Miriam||#107||1898|
|GARBER||Mendil husband of Leah||wed 1896/7||#19||1897|
|GARBER||Miriam bas Feige wife of Moshe Plok||wed||#107||1898|
|GORDON||Sarah sister of Aharon Leib Rachman||#274||1897|
|HEILPEROWITZ||Reizil wife of Chanoch Henoch Itelmahn||wed||#107||1898|
|HIRSHOWITZ||Moshe Meir father of Yente Elena||#142||1900|
|HIRSHOWITZ||Yente Elene bas Moshe Meir wife of Eliahu Ewentshik||wed||#142||1900|
|HOCHENBERG||Mordechai husband of Sarah Olshwanger||wed 1896/7||#19||1897|
|HOFENBERG||Michal ben Mordechai||first son born 1898||#107||1898|
|HOFENBERG||Mordechai father of Michal||#107||1898|
|ITELMAHN||Chanoch Henoch ben Osher Shmaya husband of Reizel Heilperowitz||wed||#107||1898|
|ITELMAHN||Osher Shmaya father of Chanoch Henoch||#107||1898|
|LEWIN||Freidel bas Zalman wife of Menachem Mendel Parparow from Gewel||wed 2 Adar||#60||1895|
|LEWIN||Menachem Mendel||# 113||1893|
|LEWIN||Mendel husband of Chana Biderman from Dvinsk||wed||#142||1900|
|LEWIN||Yafne (?) sibling of Menachem Mendel in Daugavpils||#65||1897|
|LEWIN||Yehuda ben Asher||#173||1898|
|LEWIN||Zalman father of Freidel||#60||1895|
|LIFKOWITZ||Avraham brother of Moris||#173||1898|
|LIFKOWITZ||Moris brother of Avraham||#173||1898|
|LUTKER||Olga bas Z wife of Chaim Yakov Shtern||wed in St. Petersburg||#173||1898|
|LUTKER||Z father of Olga||#173||1898|
|NEIHOIZ||Hene Miriam bas Tzvi wife of Michal Sheinker||wed||#107||1898|
|NEIHOIZ||Tzvi father of Hene Miriam||#107||1898|
|OLSHWANGER||Sarah wife of Mordechai Hochenberg||wed 1896/7||#19||1897|
|PLOK||Moshe husband of Miriam Garber||wed||#107||1898|
|PLOT||Ane wife of Dov Ber Deitz||wed 22 Av||# 192||1893|
|PLOT||Chaya Sarah bas Meir Eliezer wife of Moshe Ozer Lewin of Dvinsk||wed||#26||1900|
|PLOT||Meir Eliezer father of Chaya Sarah||#26||1900|
|RACHMAN||Aharon Leib brother of Sarah Gordon||#274||1897|
|RACHMAN||Aharon Leib s-i-l (?) of Raphel Shtern||#173||1898|
|RODWAGIN||Dov Ber Yitzchok||#26||1900|
|SHEINKER||Michal husband of Hene Miriam||wed||#107||1898|
|SHTERN||Chaim Yakov ben Raphel wife of Olga Lutker||wed in St. Petersburg||#173||1898|
|SHTERN||Raphel father of Chaim Yakov f-i-l(?) of Aharon Leib Rachman||#173||1898|
|TOBIAS||Rivka wife of Zanwil Dobria||wed||#107||1898|
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