Varniai, Lithuania (SHENKER, KATS, KHAZAN)

Varniai, Lithuania



Jewish Population:

1897:  1,226 (39% of 3,121 population)

Family Members:

Malka Kats, 3x GGMother (mother of Gitel Shenker)

B 1822 Varniai; M Zelman Shenker; D 1855 Varniai

Shmuel Kats, 4x GGFather (father of Malka Kats)

B 1776 Varniai; M Dvora Kats

Dvora Kats, 4x GGMother (mother of Malka Kats)

B 1778 Varniai; M Shmuel Kats, 

Girsh Kats, 5x GGFather (father of Shmuel Kats)

B 1741 - Varniai

Iosel Shenker, 4x GGFather (father of Zelman Shenker)

B 1797 Varniai; M Gene Shenker ; D 1831 Varniai

Khaim Khazan, 5x GGFather (father of Iosel Shenker)

B 1779 Varniai; M Bashe Khazan

Bashe Khazan, 5x GGMother (mother of Iosel Shenker)

B 1788 Varniai; M Khaim Khazan

Berel Khazan, 6x GGFather (father of Khaim Khazan)

B ~1750 Varniai


The settlement dates back to the sixteenth century. At that time, a settlement called Medininkai, on the east bank of the stream, included the residence of the Bishop of Zamut. Later this settlement was renamed Varniai. In 1635, the town was granted the Magdeburg rights of self-rule. The emblem of the town is highlighted by a Latin inscription: Sigillium Civitatis Vornensis Ducatus Samogit (Vorne is subordinate to the Bishop of Zamut).

In 1740 a school of higher education for priests was moved to Vorne. The town fairs brought 20,000 visitors, with many from Vilna and Riga. The Northern Wars with Sweden, the rebellions against the Russian rule, and the fires and epidemics wrought havoc on the people of Vorne. In 1863, as a result of the Polish rebellion, the residence of the bishop and the school for the priests were both moved from Vorne. Nevertheless, with the construction of barracks for the local Russian garrison, the town developed economically and culturally. The number of the residents increased, and the number of professionals and artisans among them increased as well; thus at the end of the nineteenth century about 60 shops and taverns and some 30 light industry workshops were in operation in the town.

Throughout Russian rule (1795-1915), German military rule (1915-1918) and that of independent Lithuania (1918-1940), Vorne was a county administrative center of the Telz district. At the outskirts of the town the Lithuanian government established a detention camp for about 150 political prisoners, mostly with communist leanings. There were quite a few Jews among these prisoners. 

The first Jews probably settled in Vorne in the second half of the seventeenth century. The bishop granted rights to a few Jews to run taverns, sell liquor and collect taxes during the fairs. Later, peddlers, merchants and artisans arrived in town. Jews, provided the majority of tradesmen, including tailors.

Their workshops were small and run by families.

The tradesmen of the time numbered twenty-two tailors, ten carters, sixteen shoemakers, six blacksmiths, three carpenters, three hatters, two builders, one book binder, one painter and one mould-maker. There were also well known timber tradesmen: one of these, Aharon Raskin, was a very prominent member of the community. The timber was loaded on to rafts and sent to Memel (Klaipeda) en route to Germany. The local flourmill was owned by Rafael Zax. Liquor distillation plants were also run by Jews. Several families kept stores, and they would travel to the large regional town of Shavl (Šiauliai) to stock up on goods.

As the population grew, a cemetery and prayer houses were built – the Kloiz and the Shtiblekh on two of the sides of the Shul, a building with a high dome for prayers in the summer.

Later, welfare associations were established. Linath HaTsedek, Bikur Holim, Gemiluth Hesed, Hakhnasath Kalah and Hakhnasath Orkhim were among these. Social assistance was mostly provided by generous women with initiative. One such was Ida-Pesia, the wife of Aharon Raskin the timber merchant. He was also the Gabai of the local Yeshivah with its 60 students. This Yeshivah was established and directed by Nahum-Lipa Hananyah, and it existed for 35 years until his death in 1910. Many of the young people in the town studied in the Telz Yeshivah and in other Yeshivoth in the area. Quite a few acquired a general education as well.

In 1874, a blood libel was initiated by a local priest who gave money to a Christian boy to disappear from the town. Then he announced that the Jews had murdered the boy for his blood. The priest, together with a group of peasants armed with knifes and sticks, went out in the streets and attacked every Jew they met. A few were injured and taken to hospital. The uproar stopped when the boy returned home.

In 1847, 1,084 Jews lived in the town. Half a century later, according to the government census of 1897, there were 3,121 residents in Varniai, including 1,226 (39%) Jews.

Jewish agrarians were Motl Sheifer, the owner of a water-powered flourmill; David Karklaner; Hirsh Krengl; Velve Shnaider; Mosheh the Yanepoler and Shelomoh Katz the Vidmanter. They lived in the villages around Vorne.

Jewish children aged three years and older studied at the traditional Heder. A more modern school, called Heder Metukan (improved Heder) was opened several years before World War I. Most of the students came from the more affluent families. One of them, Ya'akov-David Kamzon, became famous as a writer and poet in Eretz-Yisrael. In addition to religious subjects, the school taught Hebrew grammar, mathematics and other secular subjects. There was considerable objection to this method of learning from the more conservative circles in town. As a result, the initiator and director of this institution, Yeshayah Ben Zion Fridman was questioned. He was known as a strictly religious and educated man who combined intellectuality with Zionism. Loyal to his views, he changed his surname to the Hebrew Ish-Shalom (Man of Peace). Years later, one of his sons, Mordehai Ish-Shalom, became the mayor of Jerusalem.


In June 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Significant changes in social, economic, cultural and educational life affected the Vorne Jews. Following the new rules, the larger shops and enterprises were nationalized. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and the Hebrew educational institutions were closed. The supply of goods decreased and, as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore the brunt and the standard of living dropped gradually.

On June 25th, 1941, three days after the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany, the German army entered Vorne. Before the soldiers of the Red Army in Vorne retreated, they set the arms warehouses on fire. As a result the synagogue and most of the homes in town burned down. Some of the Jews found temporary quarters in Jewish homes in neighboring towns. When they returned, they found the town destroyed by fire and under the rule of local nationalist Lithuanians, who were conducting a witch-hunt against Soviet activists. In particular, they focused their evil intentions on their former Jewish neighbors and abused and eventually murdered those whom they suspected of pro-Soviet activity. Among the first victims was a veteran teacher, Tsevi Leibovitz. The remaining Jews were forced into hard labor, cleaning debris, sweeping the streets and more.

At the beginning of July, all Jews were ordered to go to the village of Viesvenai, about 25 km. (15 miles) from Vorne. The adults walked, the aged and the children rode in carts. In Viesvenai, the Vorne Jews together with others from surrounding areas were herded into barns, stables and cowsheds. They were supervised by armed Lithuanians. After several days of maltreatment, on July 16th, 1941, the men were shot and buried in a mass grave. The women and children were sent to Geruliai village near Telz. There, they were murdered on August 30th (7th of Elul, 5701). On December 24th, 1941 (4th of Teveth, 5702) several girls who had been temporarily employed by farmers of the area and in Telz, were put to death.

Only a few managed to escape and survive.


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