Students and/or instructors from the Ponevezh yeshiva, Ponevezh (now Panevėžys, Lith.), 1914. The Hebrew inscription at the lower left says, “1855 years of exile.” (YIVO)

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Town in northeastern Lithuania, on the Nevėžys River; the town served as a district capital. From 1843, Panevėžys (in Jewish usage, variously Ponevezh, Ponivezh, or Ponevich) was included in Kovno guberniia. Jews began to settle in Panevėžys at the beginning of the seventeenth century and engaged mainly in trade and services to local residents. In 1857, approximately 3,500 Jews (60% of the total population) lived there; by the end of the nineteenth century the numbers had reached about 6,600.

Because many Jews emigrated from Panevėžys to South Africa and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and because the local Jewish community was expelled to Russia during World War I, the Jewish population did not increase again until World War II. Most of the Jews of Panevėžys lived in the Slobodka quarter, which was frequently ravaged by fires.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, Panevėžys was a typical traditional Jewish community, most of whose members identified as Misnagdim (opponents of Hasidim), while about 15 percent belonged to the Lubavitch Hasidic sect. Community life revolved around the town’s many synagogues and kloyzn (small prayer and study halls). Additional organizations included social and welfare institutions such as a hospital (founded in 1884), the Lines Hatsedek (Righteous Lodging) society, and the Hakhnoses Orkhim (Hospitality for Visitors) society. Most of the children studied in heders (private elementary religious schools), and the poor among them in the Talmud Torah, which was organized and financed by the community. In 1909, Rabbi Yitsḥak Ya‘akov Rabinovich founded a yeshiva called Ha-Kibuts ha-Ponivezhi. Among other outstanding rabbis in Panevėžys in this period were Hillel Milikovsky and Eliyahu David ben Binyamin Rabinowitz-Te’omim.

In the early 1850s, a circle of maskilim began to grow in Panevėžys, and included, among others, Tanḥum Aharonshtam, Yehudah Leib Gordon, Yehoshu‘a Sirkin, Mosheh Prozer, Yitsḥak Rumsh, and the crown rabbi, Avraham Eliyahu Pompianski. Despite the opposition of conservative circles, maskilim expanded their activities into the field of education and in 1868 established a library.

In 1853, a government school for Jewish children was founded, and in 1861 Yitsḥak Rumsh established a school for Jewish girls, which operated until the end of the century. Both boys and girls also studied in the local secondary school and the teachers’ seminary. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, much of the town’s Jewish youth belonged to the Bund, and to Ḥibat Tsiyon and other Zionist movements.

After World War I, Jewish settlement in Panevėžys was renewed, and Jews played a central role in the town’s economic activity. Many local industrial concerns were owned by Jews; the larger among them producing beer, textile products, flour, clothing, and footwear. More than half of the town’s physicians were Jews; there were also a number of banks owned by Jews. Jewish youths could choose to attend the Yavneh Hebrew high school, a Yiddish school, a junior high school (progymnasium), a school belonging to the ORT network, or a yeshiva founded in 1919 by Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman. Also operating in Panevėžys were a Jewish hospital, an orphanage, and a “help committee,” along with the Maccabi, Ha-Po‘el, Ha-Koaḥ, and Yidisher Arbeter Klub (YAK) sports associations. In the interwar period, a variety of Zionist parties and organizations were active.

In 1940, Panevėžys, along with the rest of Lithuania, was annexed by the Soviet Union; it was conquered by the German army in June 1941. About a month later, the Jews of the town were forced into a ghetto where they suffered abuse, degradation, and torture at the hands of the Germans and their local Lithuanian collaborators. Most of the Jews of Panevėžys were murdered in the nearby forests of Pajuostės Miškas, Kaizerlingas, and Žalioji Giria. After the war, several hundred Jews lived in Panevėžys, but most of them left in the 1990s.

Suggested Reading

Raphael Hasman, ed., “Ponivez´ (Panyevez´is): ‘Ir maḥoz,” in Yahadut Lita’, vol. 3, pp. 335–337 (Tel Aviv, 1967); Berl Kagan (Kohen), Yidishe shtet, shtetlekh un dorfishe yishuvim in Lite biz 1918 (New York, 1991), pp. 363–382; Ona Maksimaitiene, Panevezio miesto istorija (Panevėžys, Lith., 2003); Hirsh Osherowitch, Mayn Ponevezh / Ponivez´ sheli (Tel Aviv, 1974); Yosef Rozin, “Ponivezh / Panevėžys,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Lita’, ed. Dov Levin, pp. 457–466 (Jerusalem, 1996); Mordechai Zalkin, “‘Mekomot she-lo’ matsah ‘adayin ha-ḥasidut ken lah kelal’?: Ben ḥasidim le-mitnagdim be-Lita’ be-me’ah ha-tesha‘-‘esreh,” in Be-Ma‘gele ḥasidim, ed. Immanuel Etkes, David Assaf, Israel Bartal, and Elḥanan Reiner, pp. 21–50 (Jerusalem, 1999); Mordechai Zalkin, “Yitsḥak Rumsh: Ben ‘haskalat ha-periferyah’ le-‘haskalah periferyalit,’” in ‘Olam yashan, adam ḥadash, ed. Eli Tsur, pp. 185–213 (Beersheva, Isr., 2005).

YIVO Archival Resources



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson