Description and historyPlunge, a town or shtetl in western Lithuania, 26km southwest of Telsiai and 39km east of Kretinga. The 15th century tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery indicated that there was a Jewish settlement in Plunge at that time, substantiated with documents. In 1847 there were 2,197 Jews living in Plunge. The total population in 1972 was 16,200 and in 1923 it was 4,236. The Jewish population decreased to 1,815 in 1933 and in 1939 decreased to 1,700.
The town lies on the western fringe of the Samogitian Upland, and is divided by the Babrungas river, a tributary of the Minija. The major portion of the town lying on the left bank and the railroad district situated on the right. The railroad which connects Plunge with Telsiai and Kretinga, was completed in 1932. During the period of national independence, the town served as the center of Plunge township in the county of Telsiai.
The area comprising the town has been inhabited since pre-Christian times. On the banks of the Babrungas there are two fortress hills and a barrow grave cemetery in which remains of weapons and military gear dating from the 9th and 14th centuries have been found. The town began to develop around the fortress of Gandinga. Historical sources mention the estate and eldership of Plunge in the 16th century, as Gandinga gradually began losing in importance to Plunge.
In 1617 the church of St. John the Baptist, was built by King Vasa. In 1792 King Augustus granted Plunge rights of self government. Lying at the intersection of the roads leading to the harbors of Klaipeda also known as Memel at time under German rule and liepaja. Plunge became an active commercial center, with seasonal and semi weekly markets. Horse trading reached an important part of the economy.
The estate of the Oginski was in the possession of Zubov, a Russian general. In 1873 the estate was passed to Oginski (1849-1902) who built a mansion and created a park with rare trees and seveninterconnected ponds fed by the Babrungas river. The mansion still stands today as a mansion library was acquired by the University of Kaunas.
Lithuanian economy received a major boost with the restoration of independence in 1918. The largest textile factory of Kucinskas and Pabedinskas employed over 1000 workers in 1940 and had an annual sales of 6 million litas. Plunge had tile factory, tannery, slaughter house, two brickyards, two sawmills.
During the period of Lithuanian independence, Jewish commercial enterprises were repressed and a period of intensified emigration followed. The number of Jewish population decreased from 1933 to 1939.
Plunge in 1859 had 172 buildings and had 3,595 inhabitants.
There were six synagogues and a yeshivah with 50 pupils in the town from 1930 to 1939. There were a Tarbut and Yiddish school and a Hebrew secondary school. Plunge had two libraries and a Jewish bank. Political and communal organizations and relief institution. The office of Mayor was held by Boruch Goldwater. Boruch Goldwater received the jubilee medal by President Smetona. In 1937 he left Plunge for South Africa and lived there until his death in 1952.
Another Plungianer was Mordecal Plungian (Plungiansky) a Hebrew writer. He became learned in talmudic and rabbinical literature. Mordecai Plungian dissociated himself from the extremist Haskalah ideology as well as from Orthodoxy. His work angered the religious elements. Plungian backed down and destroyed the manuscript. He wrote for the journals Kerem Hemed and wrote poetry for Ha- Shahar. In 1868 he wrote a large work on the reading of the Torah. He was born 1814 and died 1883.
Another son of Plunge was Isaac Wolf Olschwanger born in 1825. He devoted himself to secular studies. In 1878 he was elected rabbi in St. Petersburg which he held until his death.
The Germans entered Plunge on June 25, 1941. They murdered a number of Jewish youths with the help of their Lithuanian cohorts. All of the Plunge Jews were killed by the Lithuanian Nazis and their helpers of the 2nd Battalion. There were 1800 Plunge Jews executed.
There are at the present about 8 Jewish families in Plunge. Yossel Bunks is now the remaining Jewish activist dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish Museum. He is the sculptor of the mass graves of the Jews in Lithuania. Yossel Bunks has erected in the woods of Kishon, just 2km out of Plunge. There the sculptors are made of trees depicting, mother and child with the inscription Born To Live.
This article originally appeared in the March, 1996 issue of "Jerusalem of Lithuania." under the English headline: "There was once a small Jewish town in Zemaitija" and consists of reminiscences by Yakov Bunka as compiled by Hirsh-Zvi Smoliakov. Bunka, pictured below, is a wood sculptor who has created a moving Holocaust monument near Plunge (in Yiddish, Plungyan.) Photo by Laurence Salzmann.
I'm talking about Plunge, about the Jews of Plunge, and for as long as I live, I'll talk about them. For I am from Plunge, tried and true!" -- with pride speaks Yakov Bunka, a sculptor and wood carver, folk artist, known in Lithuania and abroad. "I was born here, spent my life here - went to school, got married, raised my children here, and here I am still. And what I'm about to tell you now, is just a minute part of what I could tell...
You can't say that Plunge was a puny little town. Between the two wars there lived about two and a half thousand Jews alone here. I say "lived." But you can't call everything living. Those who owned shops in the market square -- Goldvaser, Rolnik, Plungiansky -- probably lived. True, they were far from the Rothschilds, but they had accounts both in the Lithuanian bank in Telsiai, and in the Jewish People's Bank in Plunge. They were the top, the cream of the Plunge Jewish community.
To the town's "nobility" we could add three Jewish doctors, two lawyers and two pharmacists. And the list wouldn't be complete without Hasa Zaks. He owned the sawmill, the mill and the town's power station -- supplying Plunge with lumber for houses, flour for bread, and electricity -- in a word, everything a living being needs.
Not by chance did Plunge residents, Lithuanians as well as Jews, call 110v. light bulbs "Zaks", and thereby immortalized hi name. The honor I would say, is hardly something to sneeze at.
We also have the middle class of the Plunge Jewish community -- the little merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, synagogue attendants, and all manner of other half-slaves, half-beggars with great airs and not a little self-praise. Tell one of them that he's not much different from a real beggar, and watch he doesn't tear your eyes out...
I mentioned earlier that between the two wars, about two and half thousand Jews lived in Plunge. I knew almost half the town personally. But I won't talk about all of my relations and acquaintances, not, God knows because it would take a lot of paper, but simply because it wouldn't be interesting: most of the them were drab beings -- plain little Jews, on could say. Thought there were among them some interesting personalities -- exceptional, distinctive.
I'll begin with my own folk.
My grandfather on my mother's side, Mendele Ril, could, among other trades, cast spells. Do you know anything about this sort of craft amongst townfolk? No? I'll try to explain it to you. If out of fear someone's foot or hand, may he be spared, swells up like a mountain, if for no reason at all, a lump appears on the forehead, or the eye goes red and cloudy -- know that an evil eye is at work - "an ayin hore." Heaven forbid, don't go looking for a doctor, he won't be able to help you, he'll only make it worse. In that case seek the aid of a spell caster.
Jews and Christians not only from the whole of Plunge and surrounding districts, but from further towns, villages and farms as well used to call on my grandfather.
I remember one time, a farmer and his wife arrived from their village. In their cart, wrapped in a thick blanket lay their daughter. Her face was swollen and red as a beet. "You are our last hope," said the farmer to my grandfather. Grandfather performed his spells with the lemonade bottle, included a few additional circlings with his right hand about the patient's face mumbled something.. Within a week the same farmers again appeared at grandfather's house. The girl was unrecognizable - a beauty. They brought grandfather butter and eggs, a couple of hens, some cheese, vegetables, fruit -- a whole cart full.
Leibe Bunka, my father, a respected town citizen, one of two Plunge Jewish volunteers fighting for Lithuania's independence. For that he was awarded a "Freedom" medal, 8 hectares of land, lumber to build a house, a horse to work the land. My father did not turn to farming; he was an entertainer from birth. At Jewish weddings or other gatherings, he entertained people with impromptu couplets, funny stories and especially songs. He sang with great feeling, from the heart, with the help of an unusual "musical" instrument -- vibrating a match on an empty matchbox. Also, he was known as an advisor in legal matters; he wrote petitions for people, court appeals, other official papers, and all for free. Of course he didn't turn gifts away.
Having paid tribute to my family, I can with a clear conscience talk about other town residents who left an indelible impression on my.
Chaya Yose Noyakhs -- Chaya, the daughter of Yose-Noyekh --was a strapping, stout Jewish woman. On feast days she stood at the entrance of the women's side of the synagogue, and kept order; she didn't allow children without their mothers, chased away street urchins so that they wouldn't cause mischief. And she swore a blue streak. Curses followed every word. A kid pleads, "Chaya, let me into the synagogue to see my mom." Politely, nicely. But Chaya jumps on him, starts yelling, "Let you in you say? - May you let in a new soul, and throw your old one out to the dogs, Lord God of mercy!"
That's how she was, Chaya Yose-Noyekhs. Do you think she meant any harm? It's doubtful; that's just the way she spoke, nothing intentional in those curses she threw right and left...
Both Jews and Lithuanians called him Meisele Roizes. He was short and lean. His knees were as if knit together, so when he walked they clicked. Every now and then some strange sound would escape from his lips. He had a strange, amazing I'd say, ability to know the time without a watch -- he would be off by barely two or three minutes. In those days he was a real find for Plunge, because watches were not such an ordinary everyday thing. Not only kids, but bearded Jews and even serious Lithuanians would jokingly always ask him what time it was, and every time they'd get a fairly accurate answer.
There was one more extraordinary fellow -- Yankel der Bloyer, "blue" Yankel. A pitiable invalid with a shrunken hand and foot. It's hard to say whether it was because of some illness; probably a birth defect. His hands and face were blue, which is why they called him "blue" Yankel. He'd walk the streets with his little cane every Friday evening, tapping and calling, "Yidn-in-shul-arayn!" -- that is to say, "Jews, time for synagogue!"...
They were two sisters and one brother -- Flak. When God was handing out brains, He forgot to give them something, and they remained half-baked. Never mind, worse things happen no matter how hard one tries ... If only they'd have something in their pocket. But no -- the wind whistled through their pockets the same as through their heads. Still they managed -- the town wouldn't let them starve to death. They were quiet folk, didn't argue, or offend anybody. But let's face it -- a Jew cannot let many who don't offend him, pass calmly by. So a good time was had at their expense. A joke about the two Flak sisters flew from mouth to mouth ... One morning one of them wakes up and tells the other that she saw their mother in a dream. "Can't be," says the other. "I was awake and didn't see her. How could you see her asleep?..."
The eccentrics of Plunge ... one could write entire books about them. To not talk about them at all would be a sin, for it is they who color a Jewish town; without them life here would have been even more boring, drab and gloomy...
The Jewish town is gone. The Plunge of those days is gone. Ruined and demolished together with its resident Jews -- rich and poor, owners and servants, rabbis and cheder pupils, drivers and market women, along with the enlightened and the eccentrics.
There remains the notion of the "Shtetl" -- in cold scholarly discussion; there remain memories soaked in hot tears and blood, an unhealed wound.
"Jerusalem of Lithuania" is a monthly newspaper published by the Jewish Community in Vilnius -- modern-day Vilna. The newspaper is distributed in four editions: English, Yiddish, Lithuanian and Russian -- and is available by subscription for $50 a year.
The paper, part of the Jewish cultural revival that has taken place in Lithuania since its independence from the former Soviet Union, is a struggling enterprise, dependent on support from both the Lithuanian government and private contributors. I just heard last week, moreover, that the Lithuanian government may be withdrawing its support; Anyone with an interest in Jewish Lithuania, past and present, should consider subscribing or contributing in order to keep alive this voice, which reprensents a tiny living echo of a once-great Jewish community.
To support "Jerusalem of Lithuania" send $25 (personal US checks are ok) to: Jewish Community of Lithuania, 4 Pylimo Street, Vilnius, Lithuania. Fax: 370-2-227-915.
Abraham SIVE (b. 1866 d. 1947) also came from Plungian and arrived in South Africa c. 1895. Rose [SIVE] NORWICH, widow of the late Dr. Isadore "Oscar" NORWICH [nee, NORWITZ] (b. 1910 d. 1994), and daughter-in-law of Kalmen and "Ida" [OLOWITZ, nee ORELOWITZ] NORWITZ, and whose recollections are the basis for this article, is the daughter of Abraham and Lily [MACHANIK] SIVE.
Many of those who left Plungian went via Germany or through Libau, Latvia. They sailed on cargo ships to London. Some emigrants were provided care at the London Jewish Shelter on Leman Street in Whitechapel. From there, the emigrants boarded larger ships which brought them to South Africa. Generally, emigrants who went to America sailed from German ports to American ports direct.
A number of families came to South Africa from Plungian. The South African Jewish Year Book 1929, a reliable authority, notes the landsmanschaften - The Plungianer Society - Eras Achim DPlungian was established in 1904. 1929 members included: H. TEEGER, L. COHEN, H. LEVITT, M. LEWIN, K. NORWITZ, B. STUPPEL, A. HAYMAN, M. ROSTOVSKY, A. ROSTOVSKY, A. GOUCHE, L.H. COHEN, and A.W. KATZEN.
The landsmanschaften helped Plungianers to keep in close contact. There were many such societies which served not only as a social center, but also as benevolent societies offering financial assistance. The Plungianer Society never reached the size of the Ponevez Society which formed its own congregation and built a synagogue.
Rose [SIVE] NORWICH recalls from her childhood Plungianers who visited her home. People like M.I. ISAACSON who owned the original Warmbaths Hotel; Schmere KESSEL who worked for his brother in the large furniture store DE KOCK & KESSEL; the TEEGER family who arrived in South Africa via Ireland.
Later, Rose met many others like the old JAFFE family who collected art in Cape Town; Larna BRONSTEINs parents; Joe KAPELUS; Norman BERGs parents; the STUPPEL and ZINN families.
Based on the oral history of Rose [SIVE] NORWICH]
Submitted by: Steven KITNICK
Great-grand nephew of Berel ORELOWITZ
Steven Kitnick Family Tree
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Updated by BAE 9 Mar 2014