A small town in Southern Lithuania
Where the Jewish Community is no more
These interviews were made in the hope of saving for future generations the stories of Jewish Vilkaviskis
Mrs Gila Shoham describes life in Vilkaviskis
Mrs. Gila Shoham describes Vilkaviskis
Vilkaviskis was the town that acted as an administrative center for the area.
Vilkaviskis sat at the junction of the roads to Mariampole, Pilvaskai, Kybartai and Virbalis.
In the center of the town was the market square and around the square were shops most of which were owned by Jews.
Most of the houses where one storied wooden buildings - there where several two story buildings made from bricks, the houses of Pustapetski, Uliamperl, Aronberg, Zinemsky, Vitzberg, Lomjon (London?) and Weber
The market took place twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays here villagers would bring their goods to town. They would bring fruit and vegetables, chickens, milk products, cheeses and yoghurt. The Jews had a "Beit Shitar" shita striebel, slaughter house for chickens, here the chickens would be killed for a small fee and the carcasses were plucked as well, if requested. Jewish women would sell salted fish according to its quality and size, also on sale where live fish. Salted fish and potatoes where consider as food for the less well off.
Four km from the town was the railway station - the train would run to Kovno and in the other direction to Kybtai, on the border with East Prussia.
Behind the house of Pustapetski was the Bus Station, here operated several private buses that were owned by Jews and some private cars, one of them was owned by..................................?.
Running through the town was a river, and over the river where several wooden bridges. In winter the river would freeze over and could be skated on.
There where four flour mills, three of which were owned by Jewish families, Starkovisky, Kisinsky and Teitelbaum. As well there were three mills that milled ????. for oil. These where owned by brothers Tversky, Starkovsky and Sharkansky. There were several bakeries that were also owned by Jews, they baked different types of bread, challah, rolls and before the holidays cakes. There was also a government cooperative "Jidas" here after Purim. There were also several bakeries that baked matzot, the largest was owned by my grandfather Shmiel Smilig. In the bakeries all the work was done by hand. Other than matzot they also sold matza flour and bread crumbs for soup - matza fferluck all the work including the "test" was supervised by the mushgiack kashrut, and all the workers wore white coats and had their heads covered.
Before Pesach all the women "balabustot" would prepare special sweets "tzgaluck" dried and i.............................. and tourch cakes.
Before Pesach all the special dishes were cleaned and after the holiday wrapped up ready for next year's use.
In Vilkaviskis there was a government hospital as well as two private hospitals. One was owned by the Jewish doctor, Dr. Rachkovsky and the other by the Lithuanian doctor, Dr. Bubalis. The were two other Jewish doctors, Dr. Adner and Dr. Shapira. There were two midwives, Rauzak and Marianovsky. There were Jewish dentists, who worked from their private clinics, ..............................................................
There was a Jewish school, the headmaster was Mr. Kleinstein. There was also a Lithuanian High School where several Jewish children studied. In 1919 the Gymnasium Ha Ivri was founded - the fees where according to the ability of parents but I knew that some children studied for free. When the school moved to its new premises on the first floor was the trade school ORT.
There where several print shops owned by Mr. Zolberg and Mr ??????? When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940 these were nationalized and Mr. ÉÉÉÉ..was put in charge.
At the side of the town were concentrated several synagogues, Beit Midrash, Cheder, and a Yeshiva. The large synagogue was known as the Great [or Large] Synagogue and it was over 300 years old. During the Soviet occupation it became a store-house for grain. The entire neighborhood was burnt and destroyed during the war. There was a Hasidic synagogue a little distant from these buildings, if I remember correctly there were several other prayer houses in the town. Near the synagogue was the Jewish Old Age Home and next to this was a beautiful garden that contained many exotic trees, plants and flowers. On Saturdays and Holidays Jewish families, many with their children, came to visit and play in these gardens. This building survived the war and afterwards it became a woman's hospital.
The Rabbi of Vilkaviskis was Rabbi Grin, he lived with his family close to the Great Synagogue. I remember that a group of armed Lithuanian hooligans made life very difficult for Rabbi Grin and his family. His son had married Cila Friedman ............................. shortly before the outbreak of the war. She survived the war and today lives in Holon.
In Vilkaviskis there where several Jewish Youth groups, Halutz, Shomar HaZir, , some shared the same club house and some had their own. Here the young people would meet in the evenings. Not everyone had an ideological connection to these movements but it was a place to meet attractive partners who knew how to dance and to court. Several times a year there was a large party with a show written by the young people, all the scripts, the singers, the production and the actors were members of the same club.
In Vilkaviskis were two banks - a government bank and a much smaller private Jewish bank.
In the town were the Court House, the Municipal Offices, police station, post office, an army base , in all the places very few Jews worked. There was a volunteer fire brigade - which had many Jewish participants. At the times of official holidays they would march in the authentic uniforms. They fire brigade volunteers would be accompanied by Jewish musicians.
The Afriesky brothers had the franchise for importing goods, particularly sugar and salted fish from Northern Europe. Kawaker was responsible for the export of grain, I am sure that there were others but I do not remember their names.
There was a factory for the production of soda water, there was a workshop for the production of modern dresses - this was owned by the Chazan family. Here worked Mrs. Balabeck, she was famous for her worked and women gave from other towns to have dresses made by her.
I remember that during the period of 1939 - 1940 there came to Vilkaviskis Jewish refugees from Suwalki, Poland, they were brought by Jewish volunteers. Some of them married men from Vilkaviskis, Menachem Oppenheim and Mayer Josef Penn [the brother of Morris Penn]
A week before the German invasion of Lithuania that is 14-15 June, many thousands of people many of the Jews where deported by the Soviets to the very north of Russia, Kombi Yacuta.
In Vilkaviskis it was the law that the house owners were responsible to the cleanliness of the footpath in front of their property. A policeman would regularly check and anyone who had dirt in front of the house had to pay a fine.
The Lithuanian flag had 3 colors, yellow, green and red, it was required that you kept the flag cleaned and ironed and ensure that the colors did not fade. At the times of National Holidays and other special events you were expected to show the flag in an appropriate manner.
In 1914 there where 8000 people living in Vilkaviskis, 65% Jewish, 20% Lithuanians 13% German and the remainder either Russians or Poles. During the Second World War the city changed hands several times most of the houses were destroyed. Before the war there were around 800 houses and in 1944 there only remained 48.
I visited the town during the autumn of 1944 and found only two Jewish families that had survived: the couple Shapiro and Meir Rotshtein; they told of their experiences. It was possible to stand on the site of the town almost nothing remained it was even impossible to recognize the streets. Only those who had lived there before the war could try and imagine what the town had looked like before the devastation.
Till now I have not mentioned that there was a large camp of the Lithuanian Army, besides the camp there was a large sports stadium, here there would be held horse races and there was also a Jewish football team.
Near here was the site where the Jewish community was destroyed. On the 28 July 1941 the men were killed and at the end of Rosh Hashanah the remainder of the Ghetto were killed, women, children and old people. This we know from those who survived.