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  Z A S L I A I,  L I T H U A N I A  
 
 
 
HISTORY - PINKAS HAKEHILOT  
 
 

The History of Zasliai
From: Pinkas Hakehilot - Lita [Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities - Lithuania]
By: Dov Levin, Chief Editor, and Yosef Rosin, Secondary Editor
Published by Yad Vashem, 1996, Jerusalem

Lithuanian Name: Zasliai
Yiddish Name: Zashsla
Russian Name: Zhosli

General History

Zasliai is a local town in the Trakai province. It is situated in Eastern Lithuania, on a site bordering three lakes, halfway between Kovna and Vilna. First referred to in historical sources in 1433, the same year saw the construction of the Catholic Church. In 1792, Zasliai was granted Magdeburg rights.

 

Historical Population Data

Year

Total
Population

Jews

% of Jews

1849

N/A

836

N/A

1865

1,042

653

62

1897

1,955

1,325

67

1915

N/A

1,500

N/A

1923

1,768

1,067

60

1940

2,000

1,000

50

 
     

By 1865, Zasliai had a total of 87 properties, which housed a population of 1,042, of which 653 were Jews, 371 were Catholics, 22 Starovars and 7 Prevoslavs. There were 3 synagogues, a Catholic Church and a municipality building. The commercial sector of the town comprised 18 shops, 4 tanning workshops, a flourmill and several bathhouses. Zasliai usually hosted regional trade fares five times a year. Often ravaged by fire, during the era of Russian rule, the town was transferred to the regional jurisdiction of the Vilna region and served as a provincial metropolis, on the railway routes from Kovna to Vilna and Liubavas to Rudamina. Economic activity slowed following the attainment of Lithuanian independence, due to the severing of links with the Vilna district.


Jewish Communal Life Up To 1918

During this period, the Jews constituted the majority of the population in Zasliai. They usually lived near the train station, which they used to market goods such as wood, grain and poultry. The Jewish community maintained strong economic and cultural ties with neighboring communities in Trakai and Vilna. The wealthier members of the community undertook the maintenance of communal buildings and facilities and periodically covered the cost of restoration work when required. In 1885, for example, an individual named Eliyahu Shapira donated 200 rubles toward the cost of building a new fence around the communal cemetery, in place of the old one which had been totally destroyed.

The outbreak of war in 1914 triggered the mass expulsion by the Russian military of Jews from their original settlements and in the following year around 5,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Zasliai. Some of them were given shelter in homes of local Jews while others were temporarily housed in two of the local synagogues and even in stables and cowsheds. The bulk of the assistance to the refugees was provided by the Vilna based "Yaakopa" Refugee Aid committee and the "Committee for Medical Care and Nutrition," which was established by a group of Jewish students from St. Petersburg and Vilna. A delegation from the Duma or parliament in St. Petersburg, headed by the Russian politician Kerenski (later Prime Minister of the interim government, prior to the Russian revolution) visited Zasliai to see firsthand the local Jewish community's humanitarian efforts.

At one stage, the Jews of Zasliai themselves faced the possibility of expulsion, following their refusal to turn over certain individuals to the authorities, who planned to hold them in detention until such time as allegations of espionage by Jews could be verified. Such detainees faced execution if these allegations were later confirmed. At a stormy meeting of the local Jewish community, the authorities' demand was rejected and the Jews of Zasliai stood firm, despite the threat of expulsion.

Many of the Rabbis who headed the community in Zasliai, prior to World War One, were descendants of Rabbi Itzhak Zalman and his son, Rabbi David Zalman who served as communal Rabbi for four decades until his death in 1831. He was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zalman who served until 1874. Rabbi Avraham Chaim Shas was then appointed in his place in 1888. Rabbi Shas was assisted at different times during his term of office by several other rabbinical leaders, most notably Rabbi Itzhak Meir Rabinovich and Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Sharshavski (1883-1888).

Many Zasliai Jews were keen supporters of the "Chibat Zion" settlement movement. During the years 1898 through 1900 the "Hameilitz" magazine published lists of donors who contributed funds to settlement activity in Eretz Israel, and these featured a large number of names from Zasliai. The community's representatives to the movement were Moshe Aharon Katz and Nechemia Levine.


Post World War One Independent Lithuania

With the end of World War One and the declaration of Lithuanian independence, Zasliai Jews joined their compatriots in other towns and cities in playing an active role in the democratic life of the new independent Lithuanian state. 350 people voted for the Zionist list that stood for election in the Seimas elections of 1922. The religious "Achdut" list won 58 votes while the Democrats received 7. By the mid 1920s a local representative committee had been elected.

During this period Jews made their living mainly from trades, light commerce and street vending. Many Jews earned their livelihoods as distribution agents, buying fruit and other items in bulk from local farmers and then reselling it to wholesalers in Kovna or directly to traders in Germany. Several other Jews worked as wood and grain traders with extensive business activities in other countries. By 1925, the Jewish community had its own dentist (Leah Greenberg).

In 1931, the Lithuanian government commissioned a poll, which revealed that all 20 of Zasliai's shops were Jewish owned. The poll also revealed that local Jews owned 11 workshops. These comprised a photography darkroom, a paint shop, a forging works, 2 shoe repair shops, 2 wool combing shops, a bakery, a saddler shop and 2 flourmills. 

By 1937 Zasliai had 39 Jewish tradesmen. These comprised 11 cobblers, 6 butchers, 5 bakers, 4 carpenters, 3 glaziers, 3 dressmakers, 2 tailors, a hatter, tinsmith, blacksmith and barber.

Zasliai Jews received financial assistance from the local branch of Jewish People's bank, which by 1927 had 233 customers. Also active in Zasliai was an office of the United Credit Cooperative for Jewish Farmers. Many of the town's Jews also ran small agricultural enterprises in their back yards and usually kept small goatherds. It is claimed that those who kept goats applied to the authorities to have the railway line moved further out so that they would have space to raise their livestock, and their request was approved. This may be the reason that local residents were often referred to in Yiddish as "Zashslar Zigele" (Zasliai goats).

But for all their industriousness and dedication, Zasliai Jews managed to earn only a meager livelihood, and the community's youth soon set their sights elsewhere. Many immigrated to other countries while others settled in Eretz Israel, with many joining Kibbutzim throughout the country (Givat Brenner, Yagur, Dafna, Ein Harod and Tel Yosef). Communal life in Zasliai continued to flourish despite the ongoing exodus. In addition to the local "Tarbut" Hebrew school, Zasliai also had a local Maccabi sports association with 68 members and a volunteer fire fighting team, whose equipment was purchased with donations from expatriates resident in the United States. Also active in Zasliai were local branches of Beitar and other Zionist youth movements. Interest in, and support for Zionist causes continued to increase and by 1935, the Zasliai delegation to the Zionist Congress held that year numbered 300, compared with a mere 18 who represented the community at the congress of 1927.

Rabbi Avraham Chaim Shas continued to serve as communal rabbi of Zasliai until 1938, when he was replaced by Rabbi Moshe Levine, who subsequently died in the Holocaust.

Among the famous expatriate Zasliai Jews were the linguist and orientalist Professor Ben Ziyon Halper (1884-1924); Rabbi Shmuel Menachem Katz, also known as the "Maggid (preacher) of Courland" (1887 1954) and Aharon Klaus (1914 1961), a reporter and member of the editorial board at the Israeli newspaper, Ma'ariv.


World War Two and the Holocaust

Life for Zasliai Jews first took a turn for the worse in June 1940, with the Soviet invasion and the nationalization of all businesses, which effectively deprived the community's traders of their livelihood. The Zionist parties and youth movements were all disbanded. On June 22, 1941, several groups of Zasliai Jews set out for Russia in an attempt to escape the advancing German troops. But most of them found that their escape routes were already blocked by German forces and had to turn to back.

Immediately following the Soviet retreat, Lithuanian nationalists seized control of the town and arrested all those suspected of collusion with the Soviet regime. Most of the younger Jewish prisoners were transported to the neighboring town of Kaisiadorys, where they met the same fate as local Jews. Those Jews who remained in Zasliai were put to work cleaning the streets as well as performing other forms of forced labor. They were also prohibited from leaving their homes and were forced to risk their lives by secretly venturing out and begging their non Jewish neighbors to sell them food and other essentials in return for cash or goods. Armed Lithuanians often raided Jewish homes, looting property and abusing its owners at random.

On the night of August 17, 1941, armed Lithuanians took all the remaining Jewish men and some Jewish women and moved them to a detention center in neighboring Kaisiadorys where they were imprisoned for 10 days. On August 27 (4 Elul, 5701), they were marched by local Lithuanians to a place known as the Vasiliev Canal in the Stroshon Forest, 3 kilometers north of Ziezmariai and murdered along with the local Jewish community. The surviving women and children from Zasliai were moved, on September 22, 1941 to the town of Semeliskes, where they were also murdered together with local Jews on October 6 (15 Tishri, 5701) in a grove 200 meters north east of the town. Only three women and two children survived the massacre and were given sanctuary by local farmers. All five endured considerable suffering and privation before being finally liberated towards the close of the war.

In the autumn of 1991, local authorities initiated the construction of a new steel fence around the two mass graves of Zasliai Jews and the completion of restoration work on the marble tablets on top of the graves. The tablet on the larger grave bears an inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian, which reads as follows, "Here at this place, on August 28, 1941 Nazi murderers and their local accomplices cruelly murdered 2,200 Jews from Ziezmariai, Zasliai and Kaisiadorys." The other tablet bears a similar inscription with one minor alteration. It reads instead: "1,800 Jewish women and children."

Also erected at the site were three wooden monuments, which bear the single word "pain." They were designed by the Lithuanian sculptor Kapacionas. 

     

 

Copyright 2006-2016 Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.

Material courtesy of Dov Levin.