VILKAVISKIS
          A small town in Southern Lithuania
Where the Jewish Community is no more

 
Interview with Avraham Kagnanski

Recollections
Dvora Dolev nee Adelson nee Yurkanski tells her story

I was born in Lithuania on the 5th of May 1916, in Naujoji Vilnia  [new Vilna] which is close to Vilna. I lived there until I was 4 years old.  My parents were Sara- Malcha nee Arluk, she was born in Oshmina, and my father was Tuvia Yurkanski who was born in Eisiskes.

Naujoji Vilnia

The First World War ended in 1918 however, in that area the fighting continued until 1920 - the fighting was between the Poles and the Lithuanians on who would control the city of Vilna.

Vilna had always been the historical capital of Lithuania - despite this, the Poles refused to give in and continued fighting. The Polish army, indeed the Polish nation was far larger than the Lithuanian army was and state. In the cases where the Lithuanian army was able to capture Vilna they managed to hold it for a day or two and then the control returned to the Polish army. When the Lithuanian army did manage to control Vilna, the Jewish community of Vilna always greeted them with great joy. When the following day the city returned to polish control, the Poles would wreak their retribution on the Jews of Vilna.
On one of the occasions that the Lithuanians held Vilna, my mother took the opportunity to escape with me to Vilkaviskis fearing further attacks when the Poles regained control of Vilna.

We arrived at the home of a family member, Elie (Eliyahu) Levin in Vilkaviskis. We stayed there for three weeks. Afterward we rented a room in the old part of Vilkaviskis. In the following two years, we were to change apartments six times.

Vilna and the hall area around, including Naujoji Vilnia, was to stay under Polish control and thus there was a total breakdown in communication between the Polish held areas and those held by the Lithuanians. We were to loose contact with our large Arluk family in Vilna. In Vilna were three uncles of my mother and one aunt, all having large numbers of children. Two of the uncles were owners of a large wholesale establishment for all household items, this was situated in the main street Shaduba [the street name is different today] the third uncle had a sawmill on the outskirts of the town, his wife was a high school teacher. I know that the husband of my aunt was a mechanical engineer; they were certainly connected to the upper middle class. Their education was both religious and secular. Many of my extended family were teachers, either in religious institutions or in regular high schools. One branch of my mother's family had three generations of lawyers and a judge.

My great grandfather "Saba Arluk" [the grandfather of my mother, Sara-Malcha] was the most important [honorable] of them all. I remember that he had five children, four sons (one of them - Yitzchak, was my grandfather) and one daughter. Although he had no formal rabbinical training, he taught as the leading teacher at a yeshiva from the age of 17. He was a very strong personality and certainly "ruled" his family. Other members of my family were important dealers in furs - active in the export and import of these. Another member of this family who lived in Moscow where he was the main tenor for the Bolshoi Opera Company. There he changed his name from Arluk to Orlev. He received permission to live in Moscow.

The financial situation of all of my mother's family was certainly very good. They held land by Oshmina. My grandfather Yitzchak Arluk died at the age of 35. My grandmother, Michle remained a young widow with three daughters to care for. She then sold the property and moved to Naujoji Vilnia. Her two eldest daughters, Haia-Leiba and Gitel-Mushel stayed with her, but she sent my mother Sara-Malcha, the youngest daughter, to live with her brother Abba Kozlovski and his wife Shoshe. My mother remarried Hone Vilneski who was a widower with two children-boys - they did not have any more children together. Over the years Haia and Gitel were to marry the sons of Hone Vilneski and they immigrated to America.

Abba Kozlovski and his wife Shoshe did not have any children. They raised Sara-Malka with much love as their own daughter; my mother had a wonderful childhood. Abba Kozlovski owned a great deal of property, he was a very strict man but with my mother, he was always soft and gentle. He desired to send my mother to university a thought that my mother did not want. She stayed with her uncle and aunt until the age of 13 or 14 and after that returned to Naujoji Vilnia to live with her mother and stepfather. Her uncle and aunt continued to support her. When I was born, they saw me as their granddaughter. My mother and I would visit them in the summer and they looked after us in such a warm and loving way.

After the death of his wife Shoshe there was a period of severe hunger due to the First World War, my mother Sara-Malka moved her mother, Micle to her son - Abba.  My mother returned with me [I must have three or four] to Naujoji Vilnia with idea that at the first possible opportunity we would flee to Vilkaviskis to be as far away as possible from the conflicts. After a period that we had been living in Vilkaviskis a letter arrived [it came via Latvia] that my grandmother Michle had died. Over a further period, we learnt that Abba Kozlovski remarried and with his new wife had five children.



Vilkaviskis

Vilkaviskis was a small town in Southern Lithuania - it was the administrative center of the area. I think that there were around 18,000 people of which 4,800 were Jews. There were public libraries, schools, cinemas, a public hospital and several private hospitals. There were two high schools, A Lithuanian High School and a Jewish High School - the Gymnasium Ha'Ivrit and the Ort School. There was also a German primary school.

The Jewish community was very active, there was a Jewish Kindergarten, Jewish Primary School, the Gymnasium, and the Ort trade school - in all schools, they taught in Hebrew.  In the Kindergarten, they spoke Yiddish but they know Hebrew as well. Although the tuition for study At the Lithuanian Gymnasium was free, Jews did not study there. The Jewish community was autonomous; this included the running of the "Bait Din." There were also a variety of charitable institutions. These included: "Mass Le'Col Ha'Dal,"a fund that provided interest-free loans up to the amount of 100 Lit, the sum could be returned in very small amounts. There were other organizations such as: "WIZO,""Ezra," (an organization that helped the sick). There was "Hachnasat Calah," an organization that organized weddings for brides from needy families. Another organization was for helping needy schoolchildren.   "Etzim La'Horef," preparing for winter, that provided fuel for needy families. -"Matzot Le'Pesach" and the -"Malbish Arumim" which supplied Clothing to "the Naked" and a whole variety of other charitable institutions. I remember that I would help younger children with their homework as well, I would help children prepare costumes and masks for Purim. I remember being active in these activities from a very young age.

In Vilkaviskis there where all the Zionist Youth Organizations:                 -"Ha'Shomer Ha'Tzair", -"Netzach", -"Gordonia", -"Ha'Halutz Ha'Tzair",    -"Noar Zioni Aleph and Bet", -"Ha'Halutz", -"Betar", -"The Grosmanistim",  -"Z.S." for youngsters of 16 - 17 years,  -"Mifleget Ha'Avoda" The Labour Party".

My Family.

My parents were very young when I was born. My father was the only son but he did have three sisters. When World War 1 broke out, he was able to escape to the United States and thus not to be called up for service in the Russian Army. Thus, I grew up without knowing my father. During the years of the First World War, there was no postal connection between Russia and the United States and thus there was no connection between my parents. My mother worked very hard to support us and was prepared to do everything to give me the best possible education. Despite all the handicaps, my mother did everything to give me a feeling of a warm home. The house was often full with my mother's friends.

I remember the picture of my mother sitting me down by the stove and reading to me many stories in many languages, Russian, German and Yiddish. When I started school [at an earlier age than most], she would help me with my homework.

My father began a new family in the United States and there he had three children [two sons and a daughter] I did not know of their existence and they did not know about mine. Much later in my life, I traveled to the United States and met my father, my other brothers and their families.

My School:

Whilst I was still staying with my grandparents in Naujoji Vilnia, my grandmother taught me the Hebrew alphabet and my mother taught me the Russian alphabet. I went to school at the age of five and entered the first grade. My mother, who had studied at a gymnasium in Russia, was not satisfied with the standard of the school I studied at. She removed me from this school after the second grade and provided me with a private teacher that prepared me for the "Gymnasia Ha'Ivrit". After these studies, I was able to enter the "Gymnasia Ha'Ivrit". At the High School, I excelled in drawing and a wide range of handicrafts - during the performances, I was always able to obtain the important roles.

Unfortunately, my mother was unable to support me until I finished my studies and thus I did not complete my education at the Gymnasium. I know that this caused her much pain. However, every day I went to my friend's house, Rachel Pustapetzki, and there we prepared the lessons. I read a great deal and thus was able to cover a great deal of the material that my classmates were learning. Finally, I traveled to Kovno and at the "Shwava" Gymnasium took the examinations covering the first six high school classes. Although I did not formally complete my High School education, I did everything I could and of course, the most pressing object was to help my mother support us.

The Youth Movements

I had learned about the Eretz Israel from my bible studies. At the age of 16, I joined the Youth Movement "Netzach". I was given straight away jobs to do in the "ken" [Youth Group meeting place] and I was very active.

The group "Tel Chai" was my first group that I led and I always did my very best to be fully prepared for each meeting. The children were aged between 13 - 14 they where very bright and always kept me on my toes, especially as they wanted a male youth leader and not me.

The "ken" had in most popular days about 150 children. After a while there was established in Vilkaviskis a branch of the "Young Pioneers" and they were very aggressive in gaining participants. By this time, I was The "head of the ken" of the "Netzach" organization and we had to fight to keep our kids with us. The "Young Pioneers" received assistance from their headquarters and they wanted that we should join with them. Although we received no financial assistance we were able to hold our own with the help of the monthly dues we received from each participant. You can imagine that this was a financial burden for low-income families.

My mother learnt at school in Russian before the revolution - during this time many young people were drawn to left wing political movements - so she was more drawn to left wing, tending to the Communism ideas, actually she would rather prefer that we shall move to RussiaÉ but did not stop me from becoming involved in the Zionist youth movement "Netzach" and later will joined the "Hachsharah."


This was the time when we prepared ourselves for agricultural labor and our eventual "aliyah" to "Eretz Israel". At the age of 18, I left Vilkaviskis to begin my "Hachsharah", first in Shauvlai. I was sent there to rebuild the "ken" of "Netzach" that had disintegrated.

My work in Shauvlai lasted for three years - I worked both night and day to rebuild the "ken". This included working on Saturdays. as you can imagine I was very busy. About that period I could talk a lot, the conditions were very grim, lack of work, overcrowding and lack of good food and when there was worked it was for incredibly long hours. [Sometimes a shift was 12 hours]. There where very few place of work in the immediate neighborhood so every new place of work we received with joy - despite the hardships.  One of the places we managed to receive was in the shoe and glove factory of Mr. Frenkel. Here I also worked - and was very successful at this work [darning] and the manager wanted to send me to learn this profession, but I was obligated to the youth movement.


As the "ken" grew they sent me Noah Peretz to help me, Noah managed to "infiltrate the Gymnasium at Rodnik and managed to persuade the best students to join us. They had previously belonged to the "Betar" movement. We were now the largest youth movement in the area. Later I was sent to Yonishkos - here too was a "ken" that had disintegrated.  I stayed there for 6 months, the "ken" grew, and I found a youth leader who was able to replace me.
I had been in Lithuania for 18 years, 15 years in Vilkaviskis and three years as a youth leader in Shauvali and 6 months in the small border town of Yonishkos. At the age of 21, I traveled to Italy to work with Jewish refugees from Germany. Hitler was already in power in Germany but it was still possible for Jews to leave.

"Hachsharah" in Italy

I had been involved with "Hachsharah" for over three and one half years. Certificates allowing Jewish immigration were very few, that we received, were for the German Jewish refugees. For me and for another nine girls from Lithuania and Latvia there was developed a type of system for emigration to Palestine. Because I was already over 21, I was not eligible for the "Aliyat Ha'Noar".  We developed a program whereby we would work in various European countries [Italy, Yugoslavia, Denmark and Sweden] as teachers of Hebrew as well as to instill a little Zionism and pioneering spirit.

I was sent to Italy, I was there in the status of a student of agriculture. The boys in our group work in agriculture and we three girls, we involved with the housework - we rotated the tasks, one week cooking, one week cleaning and laundering, and one week working in the vegetable garden. [This was to show the authorities that we were also working in agricultureÉ]

In the good of students that were "teaching" were members of "Haboneem" and "Work lote" youth movement, but most of them had almost no background in any Zionist youth movement.                      The majority were refugees from Germany.  We had to begin from the very beginning. I had another occupation besides agriculture - I was the Hebrew teacher and responsible for the finances of the group.  I taught them from the book "A Thousand Words" by Klako. I knew German from my studies in the Gymnasium in Vilkaviskis. These German Jewish students wanted to reach Palestine [after all no other country would take them] and not all succeeded. They had no background in Zionism, there were those in-group over 38 and even 2 families. They wanted to find a place where they could lead their lives peacefully after everything they had experienced in Germany which had included arrests and imprisonment in concentration camps. They absorbed with great difficulty only a little of what we had to offer.

In Italy was set up the "Hachsharah Chalutzit" from Milan in the North to Naples in the South, the center of our activities was in Milan.  I was sent to Grow-rice-farm near the town Livorno-Ferraris. The farm was situated near the Milan -Turin railway. The buildings in this area were all from red brick and gave the appearance of buildings from the time of the Crusades. The walls were very thick, perhaps almost 90 cm. From my window, I could see the sunsets on the Alps.  I feel in love with this view.

The local landowner who was titled as Baron, was the Mayor of Livorno-Ferraris and was also the owner of the estate where we lived and worked. He would also supervise the work of the girls who came from Southern Italy on his rice plantation/farm. I could write much about these girls.  After the miserable War in Habash/Ethiopia (1937-8), there had been very high unemployment in Italy and millions were seeing employment. The Baron and his family always treated us with great respect both as students, after all most of his workers where either seasonal workers or gypsies, many were illiterate. They were housed in the farm court that looked like a fortress surrounded with thickened walls. They receive their basic supplies from the Baron, a little rice, lentils, corn, oil and pork as well as an area for a vegetable garden. The workers spent most of the day in the rice fields covered in water and mud during the planting season. I order to enrich there's menu they would also hunt birds.

Our situation was much better, we received three large rooms - these were furnished, as these rooms had once been part of the estate of the Baron. The stove for cooking and heating used corn kernels. We received more rice and some milk, as well as dried salted fish. The Baron also helped us through his role as the mayor.

With the help of a dictionary, we learnt Italian. The guys who worked as laborers spoke better Italian than we girls. We also received assistance from the local Jewish community in particular from a very noble lady Mrs. Pargarini, her family had been in Italy for many generations. This good lady helped us in many ways, each month she would send to each one of us four and one half pounds as pocket money. She also sent us clothes, bed linen, and even second hand blankets.

After we had been a year in Italy, Hitler came on a state visit to Mussolini. Shortly after the visit, we received notification that we would have to leave Italy with two weeks. I had somewhere to return to; after all, I could have returned to Lithuania. Those refugees from Germany and Austria were severely shocked. They knew what was waiting for them if they returned "home.".Thus the few "certificates" that we received we given to them.

We the Hebrew teachers decided to attempt to receive permission to enter one of the Balkan countries. I approached the consul of Yugoslavia in Turin. I received an entry certificate for myself and for my friend Rivka Katz [later Arzi] . In the end, we also received certificates to enter Palestine.

The Voyage to Palestine

Rivka and I sailed to Palestine on the boat Galileo. The voyage took five days sailing in the Mediterranean See. On the boat was the treasurer of the Jewish Agency, Eliezer Kaplan. Also on board was Dr. Melchett, she brought with her hers boxers [dogs] that she was to give to the Hagana organization. As I stepped on the boat, I had the feeling that I was going to fulfill my dream. The ship was full to over flowing. All the third class compartments were full. We, Rivka Katz and I, needed a place to sleep - we were given a small cabin in the second-class cabins, it was a cabin for three but we were only two. The following day they gave us a small table with delicate crockery. On one of the saucers were three large black olives. My friend Rivka who had come directly from Lithuania, had never seen an olive. She put one in her mouth and immediately her expression changed; - for she had thought that, it was a black pear. I told her "Rivka here we are in a wonderful second class suite for three and there are just the two of us - if they serve us olives they must be fit to eat". I ate the two remaining olives and since then I enjoy every type of olive.

Every day sea-sickness took its toll - but I refused to be sick and walked around the boat, there were many sites so difficult to see, like that women who has been caught illegally onboard. It was a very heart-rending site, a hopeless refugee in the middle of the ocean É we were fortunate that Eliezer Kaplan was onboard and he arranged everything. I was also able to visit the threaten boxers. The days seemed so very long. However, on the fourth day, I also fell foul of the seasickness. However, by the fifth day, I no longer allowed myself to be sick. That night I stood up on deck for I wanted to see the coast of Eretz Israel.

As day broke, I believed that the dark line on the horizon is my dream-land. As every minute passed, I became tenser. At last, I could see a thin line of yellow sand and this was indeed Eretz Israel.

They sky was a pure light blue and the thin line of yellow sand told me that we would soon be arriving and I would be able to set foot on this sand. However, the boat could not enter the harbor and we had to transfer to small motor boat.