Utena (Utyan)

Written by Yosef Rosin and Professor Dov Levin (Hebrew University)

English edited by Sarah and Mordehai Kopfstein

Utyan, located in the north-eastern part of Lithuania, near the Kaunas-Zarasai road, is spread out between two lakes, with the stream Vyzuona, a tributary of the river Sventoji, flowing through its middle. Utyan was first mentioned in historical documents in 1261, when the Lithuanian Great Prince Mindaugas handed the town over to a confederate, the Magister of the Livonian Order. In 1599 King Zigmund Vaza granted Utyan the right to maintain a fair, but during the "Northern War" (1700-1721) the town was ruined by the Swedes and did not recover for a long time.

Until 1795 Utyan was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, when the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times - Russia, Prussia and Austria - caused Lithuania to become partly Russian or Prussian, so that the part of Lithuania which included Utyan fell under the rule of Czarist Russia. From 1802 it belonged to the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 became a part of the Kovno province.

The St.Petersburg-Warsaw road, which was constructed in the years 1830-1835, passed through Utyan, causing it to develop rapidly. And in 1899 a narrow gauge railway line, connecting Ponivezh-Utyan-Shventsian, was constructed.

At the end of the 19th century two big fires devastated the town, when, in 1879, two thirds of its houses were burnt down, and the second fire, in 1890, ruined half the houses. However, after a short time Utyan was rebuilt, this time according to a plan, which meant many stone or brick houses were built instead of the previous wooden ones.

Germany occupied Utyan from 1915-1918, when it was developed by the forced mobilization of the local population. At the end of December1918 the Bolsheviks took over, establishing harsh Soviet rule, but in June 1919 the Lithuanian army managed to expel them, and from then on Utyan became a district center in independent Lithuania.

Jewish Settlement till after World War I

Society and Economy

Jewish settlement in Utyan was among the oldest in Lithuania. In the old Jewish cemetery, located about three km from the town, there are headstones dating back to the 16th century. During the period of "Va'ad Medinath Lita" (The Autonomy Institution of Lithuanian Jews 1623-1764), the Utyan community was attached to the "Galil" (District) Vizhun. In 1665 there were already 341 individual Jewish tax payers, which meant that the entire Jewish population counted at least 400 people, and in 1765 the Jewish population of Utyan counted 565 people.

In 1846 Mosheh Montifiori (1784-1885), the well known lobbyist for Jewish affairs, came to Russia to meet Tzar Nikolai I and his ministers, to try to improve aspects of Jewish life in Russia. Many Jewish communities presented memoranda to Montifiori, specifying their problems. Amongst them was an outstanding memorandum written by the Utyan born young Rabbi Mordehai Gimpel Yofe, mentioning that during the last famine about 150 Utyan Jews, adults and children, died of hunger. He contradicted accusations by the government that Jews are idlers and did not want to work on the land, proving that thousands of Kovno Gubernia Jews had asked to be allocated land for agriculture, but that only 16 families had actually been permitted to engage in agriculture.

In 1847 there were 1,416 Jews in Utyan, and in 1897 - 2,405, this being 74% out of a total population of 3,250.

During the second Polish uprising in 1863, the Utyan Jewish community sent a telegram of loyalty to the Tsar, and the town judge came to the synagogue and read out the Tsar's reply.

In the sixties of that century the splendid synagogue and bath house were built, for the huge sum of 10,000 Rubel.

A cholera epidemic hit the town in 1866 and many people died. The wealthy Aryeh-Leib Mats established a committee to help victims and provide medication for the poor. The "Pristav" (representative of the government) helped with money, also allowing his horses to bring grain from the villages, as peasants were forbidden to enter the town at that time.

During the big fire of 1879 mainly Jewish houses were destroyed, as they were the majority. Many Jewish communities sent help, amongst them being the Moscow community where donations were collected at the initiative of the philanthropist Ze'ev-Klonimus Wisotsky (the founder of the tea firm). As a result of the fire, the authorities prohibited the building of new houses which were not in accordance with the outline plan of the town, but to prepare such a plan took a long time. Realizing this, the Gubernator allowed Jewish merchants to erect temporary wooden buildings for their shops. Five years later, despite their protests and court applications, forty Jewish shop owners were ordered to destroy their temporary buildings, and as a result they lost their livelihood. As it was recounted, the whole issue came to the fore because of an informer on a Jewish merchant who had built a three storey house near the wooden buildings and whose business had failed.

As mentioned above, the big fire of 1890 burnt down most of the Jewish houses and their shops, including their contents. The splendid Synagogue, the great Beth-Midrash, the "Minyan HaKhasidim" and the Klois, were all ruined. The fire caused 300 families to become homeless and to live in great poverty. On the 7th of July 1890, the Hebrew newspaper "HaMelitz" published an emotional appeal signed by local Rabbi Binyamin Aizenshtat, asking generous Jewish people to help, and thus save many souls.

In consequence more and more brick and stone houses were built in Utyan, with many Jews volunteering to serve in the fire brigade, where a Jew (Aron Yosef fun Barg and later Meir Garber) was in charge for many years. The impact left by the fires was so strong, that for a long time the residents of Utyan would count the years according to them.

Utyan Jews made their living from commerce, shopkeeping, crafts and peddling, the main economic activity taking place at the weekly market and at the four-yearly fairs. Utyan Jews also dealt in timber, money lending for interest as well as taverns, and later on they opened wholesale shops.

Among the Jewish craftsmen one could find builders, fishermen, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, felt boots makers, shingle makers, tinsmiths, painters etc. The peddlers would travel through the neighboring villages with their merchandize.

At the end of the 18th century there were some Jewish owners of sawmills, but in particular Jews concentrated in establishing small enterprises. Two local Jews established workshops for knitting socks, marketing their products mainly in Vilna, but also in other places. These workshops employed poor Jewish girls, whose families lived in the lower part of the town, which had suffered from floods and from what was called "Di Blote" (The swamp). Wealthier people lived in the upper part of the town, called "Barg" (Mountain).


The education of young children — the teaching of the alphabet and reading in the "Sidur" (Prayer book) - was carried out by special "Melamdim", such as Hayim-Leizer, Shabtai-Hone, Aizik the "Shamash", Aharon Ben-Zion (Are Benche), Hayim the nipper and others. Higher level "Melamdim" at this time were Shemuel Yakobson, who was a specialist in Hebrew grammar, also Eliyahy Ber and Hayim Henakh, the latter being known as the best "Gemara" (Talmud) teacher and from whom boys after Bar-Mitsvah from neighboring towns would also come to learn. At the Klois of "Iche-Yankel" (Yitshak-Ya'akov) there was a Talmud-Torah, run by Melamed Mosheh-Nathan, where poor boys studied free of charge.

At the beginning of the 20th century a modern school, a Heder Metukan (Improved Heder) was opened in Utyan headed by Reuven Vainonsky, over the objections of the veteran Melamdim.

There were no educational institutions for girls, and parents who wanted to provide them with a regular education were forced to hire private teachers. Shortly before WW1 an educator for small children was brought in from Vilna, a woman named Granakh, who opened a Hebrew Kindergarten.

Religion and Welfare

Religious life, and in fact communal life, was focused around the prayer houses, which were partly located in the "Shulhoif" (the back yard of the prayer houses): the Great Synagogue, "the cold one", which was built in 1862 and was so called because it was not heated in winter; the Beth-Midrash and the Kloiz. Nearby was the "Minyan HaKhasidim". The prayer houses which were destroyed in the fire of 1890 were rebuilt as solid brick buildings, and were named after their builders: "Yitshak-Yakov's Shul" and "Pese-Yehudah's Kloiz". There was also another Synagogue named "Hayei-Adam". All prayer houses also served as places for studying Torah.

In 1865 many religious study societies already existed for the study of Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Agadah and Halahah. Later a society for "Remembering the Death of Mosheh" appeared, whose leader was Rabbi Shaul Getsl Tsin, later a well known Rabbi in New Jersey, USA.

The "Hakhnasath-Orkhim" society established a house in Utyan in 1876, where passers by received three meals a day as well as some money, in order to prevent them from begging from door to door.

In lists of donors for starving Jewish communities in Persia in the years 1871 and 1872, many names of Utyan Jews are mentioned (see the list of 75 names published in the Hebrew newspaper "HaMagid" in1872 at the Jewishgen Web Site, Litvak SIG by Jeffrey Maynard).

(For the Rabbis who served during the years in Utyan see Appendix 1).

Zionist and other activities

An affinity to Eretz-Yisrael was instilled among Utyan Jews, and some Utyan Jews immigrated to Eretz-Yisrael during this period: Yehudah Zarecher with his wife came to Jerusalem in 1825; Rabbi Mordehai Gimpel Yofe settled in Yehudia near Petakh-Tikvah in 1888; Y.M.Lerinman came in 1905 and opened a wine store in Jafo.

In the old Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem there are at least three headstones of Utyan Jews:

Nehamah bath Eliezer from Utyan (Wife of Tsevi from Utyan), died in 1867;

Esther (from Linkeve) bath Shelomoh HaCohen from Utyan, died in 1874;

Hirsh ben Avraham from Utyan, died in 1878.

Several families, among them the teacher Shemuel Yakobson, Dov Rubinstein and others were subscribers to the Hebrew periodical "HaTsefirah".

In lists of donors for the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael from the years 1898, 1900 and 1903 many Utyan Jews are mentioned (see list published at the Jewishgen.org. LitvakSIG by Jeffrey Maynard from "HaMelitz" 1893-1903, with 91 names). The fund raisers were Duber Rubinshtein, Shemuel Yakobson and Yisrael-Gershon Cohen.

In another list from 1909, 55 names of Utyan Jews were mentioned (see Appendix 2) The fund raisers were Shemuel Yakobson and Eliezer Helfer.

The Utyan correspondents of "Hamelitz" were: Shabtai-Zalman Margalith, Aharon-David HaCohen and Shemuel-Yakov Yakobson.

During the events of 1905 many Jewish youths were active in revolutionary movements, such as the "Bund" (Anti-Zionist workers organization) or the "Self Defense". Due to this latter activity there were no riots against Jews in Utyan and its surroundings.

In view of heavy pressure from the authorities, in particular against Jewish youth and because of difficult economic distress, many Utyan Jews immigrated to far-away countries.

(For personalities born in Utyan see Appendix 3).

During World War I

At the beginning of WW1 the Russian rulers did not exile Utyan Jews to Russia, as was the case with most of Kovno Gubernia Jews. This may have been due to Governor Veriovkin, who had estates in the vicinity of Utyan. In spite of this, because of intensive military activity before the German occupation, many Jews left the town and stayed in Russia during the war, but before this occurred, they still managed to absorb refugees from other Lithuanian towns, among them 82 children from Ponivezh.

During the three years of German occupation - from September 1915 till 1918 - Utyan Jews, together with the other residents, suffered from harsh rules and regulations which the Germans had introduced in economic and social fields. Many Jews were mobilized for forced labor, and the synagogue, which had been requisitioned during this period, housed the civil government.

Many Jewish children studied in government schools, where lessons had to be given in German, but because the teachers did not know German, the lessons were in Yiddish. The teachers were Reuven Vainonsky and Sarah Baron.

During the immediate period after the German retreat in 1918, the residents of Utyan were left without any rulers. The affairs of the Jewish population, the majority, were conducteded by a public committee whose members were Miha Shohat, Mosheh Kopilovitz, Ben-Zion Berman, Yisrael Beker and Kalman Meir Goldfain.

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