Independent Lithuania 1919 -1940

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

Volunteer Fire Fighters of Vilkaviskis
"Honor God, help your neighbor"

120 years ago in Vilkaviskis, three people formed a team and started to develop organized activities. In independent Lithuania, the number of members reached a hundred. The hundred had their own home, equipment, flag and the respect of the people of Vilkaviskis. The group, founded on the basis of volunteerism, was called the Vilkaviskis Firefighters' Society.

Interestingly, in the interwar period, the reins of all Lithuanian firefighters were held by a person from Pilviskai. There were both army and volunteer firefighters' societies in Vilkaviskis. The firefighters' headquarters was considered a model for other towns in the district. In Vytautas Street, there is a preserved house built in 1924 exclusively for the Vilkaviskis fire fighters.

At the end of the 19th century, repeated fires drowned the city in smoke and human tears. The wooden houses with thatched roofs caught fire at the slightest spark. Residents constantly demanded that a fire brigade be set up in the town. But the Tsarist authorities would not give permission. There was a fear of repeated Polish and Lithuanian uprisings, or any organized activity.

Three huge fires devastated the town in 1882-1888. More than three hundred dwellings were destroyed. Many homeless people left Vilkaviskis. The population was halved. The town, was in danger of disappearing. But the lamentations of the townspeople did not change the opinion of the Governor of Suwalki.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Vilkaviskis was more than 70% Jewish. Thanks to the efforts of the town's intellectuals, the Jewish Marijampolskis, Šefleris and Lipskis, a volunteer fire brigade was established in Vilkaviskis in 1899. The official permission from the Russian Imperial Firefighters' Society was received on 24 July. In the past, the townspeople who had experienced fire rages did not need to be called upon. Within a few days, a full team of volunteer firefighters was assembled.

During the First World War, almost all of the accumulated equipment was lost. The Germans took the tools to the front. The old firefighters of the town left for the Russian Empire. The remaining firefighters were already putting out fires as Kaiser's officers marched through the city streets.
After the restoration of independence. The Beth Midrash, which stood next to the synagogue, temporarily housed the entire team. The holy books were studied in this place.

The Society was made up exclusively of intellectuals. Jonas Vilčinskas, an old firefighter and the town's burgomaster, was elected chairman of the Society in 1922. During a fire, he and other volunteers used to put out the flames. The chief of the team was also the town doctor E. Račkauskas. The Society was composed of retired officers, the secretary of the police station, the owner of the town's pharmacy, the commanders of the rifle squads, the adjutants of the army regiment, and merchants. At one point the number of members exceeded one hundred.

At the time of a fire, rescuers wore tarpaulin suits. Later, the team was motorized - the first motorized water pump was bought. Initially, the water hoses were rolled on a wooden trolley with wheels. The municipality bought an electric siren, 60 firefighters' suits and donated 2500 litas every year. To extinguish fires, they had to use horse-drawn carts, and later auto trucks adapted for firefighters. There were three of them. The tank had a capacity of 1000 litres of water. There was military discipline in the team, and those who disobeyed were dismissed from their posts. The Vilkaviškis firefighters would arrive at a fire in Virbalis in 8 minutes.

The fairs in Königsberg were used to buy machinery and
tools. Soon, the city had two manual fire-fighting vehicles. On the initiative of the burgomaster J. Vilčinskas, a brick fire shelter was erected on Vytautas Street in the city center in 1924. Today, the house, which is listed in the Register of Cultural Heritage (the building next to the current bathhouse), houses clothing and shoe shops.

In the interwar period, a stage was set up inside the firehouse. There were regular performances and lotteries. In this way, the Society's budget was supplemented by income from ticket sales and the renting of the hall. The brick shelter was heated and tidy. In the most respectable place on the wall hung a portrait of President A. Smetona.

In 1934, 300 guests
flocked to Vilkaviskis. Delegations of firefighters came from the German towns of Stalupėnai, Gumbinė, Eitkūnai, Širvintos. That year, the Society celebrated its 35th birthday. Services were held twice: in the synagogue and in the local garrison church (today's Orthodox church). After the parade in the market square, the guests gathered in the firemen's hall. Greetings and toasts were given. In the press, this was referred to as a communal refreshment. In the evening, a "banquet" was held at the City Club. This was followed by an outing to the Uosija forest. However, when the weather turned sour, it was decided to hold a dance in the fire hall. The dancing was described as a general entertainment which lasted until 5 am.

Inside the fire hall on Vytautas Street, a photo album was stored on the chief's desk. Nearby, on a shelf, was the Society's bookstore - several hundred beautifully bound sets of books and magazines. In the interwar period, it was popular to bind the annual subscriptions into covers. There was a huge flag. On one side of the flag was the emblem of the firefighters, and on the other side was the gilded coat of arms of the town of Vilkaviškis. The flag was blessed by the Chancellor of the Vilkaviškis Curia, Prelate Laukaitis. J. Skinkys, a long-time firefighter and owner of the town's pharmacy, had equipped the first aid room at his own expense. A small museum with old and unused firefighters' tools is located in the garage in the yard.

Kalvarija firefighters wrote in 1938 when they visited our town, "if you want to see an exemplary provincial volunteer fire brigade, you should go to Vilkaviskis". The press of that time wore wreaths of laurels to Jonas Vilčinskas, the chief, ideologist, organiser and supporter of the team. It was stressed that his influence was also felt by other teams in the district. After spending six years as the town's burgomaster, in 1926 Vilčinskas immersed himself in firefighting matters. In 1940, he formed the Vilkaviskis Rescue Service for the last time. The annual report was discussed. It was their last meeting. The further fate of Vilčinskas is unknown.

Deceased members of the Society were commemorated on a plaque. The firefighters' slogan: "Glory to God, honour to our neighbour" was engraved on the names of the deceased in their memory. To you, who spared yourselves to save the life and property of your neighbour, following your noble sacrifice, we dedicate this memorial plaque. Vilkaviškis Volunteer Fire Brigade. 1939."

From an article "

The fire station "Gaisrine" from a 1940 map of Vilkaviskis
Vilkaviškis firefighters at their fire station 1936, Vilkaviškis District Suvalkija Sūduva Culture Centre-Museum
After World War 1 Fire men  next to the Beit Midrash
Meir Warshawsky in a fire fighter uniform, Vilkaviskis, 1935 He was Manager of the Electricity Station and public figure
Members of the fire fighters in Vilkaviskis, 1922
Representatives of the Fire Fighters in Vilkaviskis, 1920.
Fires in Vilkaviskis

This site was built by Ralph Salinger of Kfar Ruppin, Israel
It is built to the glory of the Jewish Community of Vilkaviskis
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