Aran - Varena

Written by Yosef Rosin

English edited by Sarah and Mordehai Kopfstein

Aran - Varena in Lithuanian - is located in the south-eastern part of Lithuania, about 35 km distance from the district center Alytus on the right bank of the river Merkys, at the confluence of the River Varene, this being the origin of the town's name.

Aran was established at the beginning of the 15th century by Grand Duke Vytautas, who had founded a hunting estate there.

Until 1795 Aran was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, when the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times - Russia, Prussia and Austria – took place and Lithuania became partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part of the state which lay on the left side of the Nieman river (Nemunas) ) was handed over to Prussia, which ruled there during the years 1795-1807, while the other part, including Aran, became Russian.

After the defeat of Napoleon by the Russian army in 1812, all Lithuania including Aran, was annexed to Russia in 1815, first into the Vilna Gubernia and as from 1843 into the Kovno Gubernia.

In 1881 a big fire engulfed Aran. That same year the Russian rulers established a training camp and army barracks near the town, as a result of which Aran developed and several shops and barrooms were opened.

In 1847 only 158 Jews lived there, but by 1897 there were 1,473 Jews out of 2,624 residents.

In 1894 a railway line was constructed near Aran, and then connected to the Russian railway net. At the beginning of the 20th century Aran had several factories, producing cardboard, starch, tiles, bricks, lime and other items. At the end of the 19th century Aran became a county center and was included in Vilna Gubernia.

During WWI the town was badly damaged. In 1915 it was occupied by the German army which ruled there till 1918, when the Lithuanian state was established. In 1920, when Poland occupied Vilna and its region, Aran became a border town, the river Merkys separating it from the region occupied by Poland. The railway track which traversed the town was ruined and only a road connected it with other parts of Lithuania, the barracks were now being used by the Lithuanian army.

The cardboard factory and two blacksmith workshops continued to work in Aran, and during the years 1926-1940 there were also two sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients.



Jewish Settlement till after World War I

Several Jews lived in Aran already in the middle of the 18th century, but their number increased with the development of the town's commerce, and in particular as a result of its connection to the railway net. Jews prospered especially from commerce: about 30 Jewish shops made a living from the tens of thousands of soldiers in the nearby barracks. The Jews owned also several factories: 2 cardboard factories, one for the production of starch, 2 flour mills and 1 saw mill.

Letters from 1905 report the improvement in the economic situation of Aran's Jews. Some brick buildings appeared, among them a new Beth-Midrash and a house for passers-by (Hakhnasath Orkhim).

In the summer of 1894 a big fire ravished most of the town, with only 10 houses and the prayer houses left intact. Four children perished in the fire and 200 Jewish families lost all their property, becoming homeless. The Hebrew newspaper "HaMelitz" reported that on that day three carts loaded with bread and another cart loaded with used clothes were sent by the Jewish community in Meretch to help the victims of the fire.

The local corespondents of "HaMelitz" were Shalom Shtern, Yehoshua Budzon, Tankhum Reizes.

The Rabbis who served in town during these years were:

Yoel-Zelig Zalkind (1839- ?), who officiated in Aran in the middle of the sixties of the 19th century;

Eliezer-Yehudah Berman, from about 1880 till 1899;

Matityahu-Gedalyah Kabatsnik, in Aran 1900-1902;

Shelomoh-Zusman Henin (1864-?), in Aran from 1903;

Tsevi Ya'kov Bleiman, the last Rabbi of Aran, who was murdered in Utian in 1941.


Several welfare societies were active in Aran: Bikur Kholim (Sick Care), Gemiluth Khesed (Small Loans without Interest), Tomkhei Tsedakah (Charity), Lekhem Aniyim (Bread for the Poor).

The Zionist movement began to influence the local Jewish community when the first Zionist congresses assembled. In 1898 there was already a Zionist Society with 200 members. In 1899, towards the third Zionist Congress, a delegate from Aran participated in the regional conference of Russian Zionists, which took place in Vilna.

In 1898 the "Center of Correspondence" in Kishenev exchanged letters with 14 Zionist Societies of the Vilna Gubernia, including Aran.

Many names of Aran Jews appear in lists of donors for the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael from the years 1898, 1900 and 1903. "Hamelitz" (1902) names 17 Aran donors. A list from 1909 shows 29 donors: Mosheh Shumakher, Avraham-Mosheh Ruazanov, Mordehai Gordon, Hayim Kreiner, Yosef Yershansky, Shelomoh Khazanovitz, Hayim Tatelis, Avraham-Yehudah Veksler, Mosheh Frank, Y.P.Ingel, Yosef Vilkishky, Mosheh Blekharovitz, Eliezer Zusman, Eliyahu Rogovsky, Uriyah Festenstein, Ze'ev Elfman, Avraham Yezevsky, David Koran, Pesakh Khazanovitz, Kopl Galpern, Rehava'am Beker, David Gurshevsky, Hayim Mikhalovsky, A.D,Godak, Mordehai Levin, Aryeh Katz, Tsevi Lubetsky, Ya'akov Gurel, Simhah Golub.

WWI broke out in August 1914, and by the middle of April 1915 the Russian army began to retreat from Lithuania, after being defeated in the battles of Tannenberg and in the Mazurian lakes in Prussia. In the beginning of May of that year, the commander of the Russian army ordered all Jews exiled from the Kovno Gubernia into the Poltava and Yekaterinoslav Gubernias, on the pretext that the Jews were friends of the Germans and could be spying for them. For several days 120,000 Jews, amongst them Aran's Jewish population, were exiled in terrible conditions, during which they lost almost all their property.

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