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History of Jonava

Excerpted from Beginning, Growth and Destruction by Itzchak Judelvitch in Yizkor book in memory of the Jewish Community of Yanova edited by Shimeon Noy (Irgun Yotzei Yanova, Tel-Aviv, 1972).

Janowa was a small town, inhabited by some 4,000 people, located north-east of Kovna. The town was situated on the main highway, on the crossroads of the railroad, the highway and the river which connected it with both Russia and Germany. Janowa sat on the banks of the Vilia River (Nerys, in Lithuanian) -- a wide body of water which starts north-east of Vilna and has its outlet in the Nieman river in Kovna. The railroad trains from Liboi on the Baltic Sea would pass through on a high steel bridge east of the city on their way to Romani in the south of Russia. A wooden ferry boat connected both sides of the St. Petersburg-Warsaw highway. This ferry crossed the width of the river from bank to bank and transported people and vehicles. . . .

Janowa, which was founded at the beginning of the 17th century, is named for king Jan-Saveski. Several hundreds of years ago there was a small Jewish community in the Christian village Skarull, which lies on the left bank of the Vilia, and even to this day remnants of a Jewish cemetery are to be found there. At the end of the 18th century, the Jewish Community began to concentrate on the right bank of the river, on the lands of the nobleman Kosakovski.

The Water Carrier

The whole little village, with its cobble-stoned, criss-cross streets and market place, was inhabited by Jews; on the outskirts of the village, on two unpaved streets, the Gentiles lived in wooden houses,  surrounded by fruit trees and vegetable gardens. The wider street, which faced the Jewish cemetery and the water-mill, led into the road to Kidani, and indeed was called Kidani Street. It served as a promenade spot on [Saturdays] for the [population].

The natural and geographical characteristics of the city gave it many sources of income. The rich forests provided plentiful lumber -- raw material for the manufacture of furniture and for the building trade and a major item of export to Germany. This provided a source of income for many lumber dealers, lumber-jacks and handlers of wood. . . . On the convenient roads many people found employment as chauffeurs, transporting people to Kovna, Vilkomir and to the railway station outside the city. The vehicles of these chauffeurs and those of the farmers and landlords in the vicinity provided the foundation for many local trades; smithery, tannery, wagon-making etc.

The city was the center for a large rural population in the neighborhood--Poles Lithuanians who had become assimilated to the Poles, minor noblemen and farmers, "Starobriadcy", old-fashioned Russians whom the Communities transferred from distant places etc. These people provided a source of income for shopkeepers and tradesmen as: tailors, shoemakers etc. Twice weekly there were market days at which time the streets would become impassibly filled with wagons of the farmers and their families. The shouts of the bargaining, the grunting of the pigs and the neighing of the horses could be heard from every corner of the town; and in the late hours of the night the singing of the drunkards from the beerhalls would bellow forth. The stores would become crowded with customers and the tradesmen would be swamped with work.


Unlike most of the Lithuanian towns, Janowa was economically and demographically well established. A special type of personality developed in this atmosphere--healthy specimens of masculine strength who lived by the sweat of their brow--people who attended the synagogue on Saturday and did strenuous physical labor on week days, who knew how to deal with the neigh[b]orhood rowdies--whether it was just "innocent boisterousness" of drunkards on market days or actual attempts at rioting bearing a deeper significance. There was also a wealthier sector of the population, people of education and culture; among them those who were educated in the modern sense -- successful in business and concerned with community affairs.

The older generation devoted their time to local, traditional community affairs as: poor-relief (Maot Hittim), synagogue building, religious school, community property, public bath etc. The younger generation embarked upon greater ideological horizons: political parties, youth movements, culture clubs etc. When turbulence was felt in Russian politics and in Russian Jewry, Janova did not lag behind the other great centers of population. In the early years of the Revolution, at the beginning of the century, the town had "representatives" of all the revolutionary parties and the stock market (on Bulvar Street) hummed with excited discussions until the late hours of the evening. In the period between both World Wars, the community life was divided into two extremes, Zionism and leftist Yiddishism which tended toward communism. However, they were both engaged in constructive activities, they put up schools, established evening courses and libraries, and they collected moneys for more distant objectives -- for Zionist funds on the one hand and for communistic causes on the other.

The many possibilities to learn different vocations in Janova persuaded the Central Committee of Pioneers (Hehalutz) to channel groups of "halutzing" there and was the initiative of the local Zionist youth, a Pioneer Center (Beit Halutz) was founded which provided a home for the visitors and a center of Eretz-Yisrael spirit and culture.

There were seven synagogues in various parts of the town which served as centers for the traditional, spiritual needs of the community. They also served as meeting-halls in times Mende di Kop Hoorof emergency. The largest of these were the "Beit Knesset Hagadol" and the "Bit Medrash Hagadol". These buildings were located in one large fenced-off area and nearby, outside the fence, was the small synagogue "shtiebel" of the Habad Hasidic -- a simple modest building, so suited to an intimate circle of people who were primarily concerned with their own social relationships. There were also other little synagogues, the "Kloiz" of the peddlers, the "Kloiz" of the stone cutters (this proves that in years gone by stone-cutting and peddling were important sources of income for the community). There were also "Kloizlach" of smiths, drivers, etc.


In the history of the town there were several serious catastrophes which served to signify special dates, as: after the first fire (1894), after the second fire (1905). In these fires, especially the second, almost the whole town was consumed and the community was left homeless, practically naked and impoverished. During such crises the very positive character of the community was revealed. On the morrow they started to rebuild the town and on the mounds of ashes put up pretty stucco houses, some of which even boasted of an "architectural style".

At the beginning of the first World War the town was shaken by an army order which decreed the evacuation of all Jews from the town. Part of the community wandered off to the far corners of Russia and many did not return. The rest concentrated in Vilna and the surrounding territory and returned after the German conquest. At the end of the War Janowa embarked upon a program of social and economic development. The town's character changed from traditionally provincial to modern. The drivers exchanged their horse-drawn carts for automobiles and work shops became factories. The youth began to feel a need for the secondary schools and universities which were located in nearby Kovno. The development of the community and the improvement in the communication lines to Kovno made that city even more important to the town of Janova and , many inhabitants moved to Kovno and the little town lost its social and cultural independence.

At the end of the 19th century emigration from Janova started with the majority heading for the U.S.A. and South Africa. The current of emigration varied in accordance with the pace of the general emigration of Jews from Russia. Between both World Wars the movement of emigrants to Israel started. Almost half of the first pioneering group "Ahva" which left Lithuania immediately after the first World War was made up of youths from Janova. This group formed the basis for several settlements in Israel.

The emigrants maintained their ties with Janova; they supported needy relatives and even gave generous assistance to public projects. Groups of Janovites can be found all over the world and in Israel too -- the remnants of the Janova community.

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Updated by Peggy Mosinger Freedman, January 1, 2018