Panorama overlooking Panevėžys
|Nickname(s): Aukštaitijos sostinė (Capital ofAukštaitija, Lietuvos Čikaga (Chicago of Lithuania), Čikaga prie Nevėžio (Chicago atNevėžis)|
Location of Panevėžys
Panevėžys was first mentioned in 1503, in documents signed by the Grand Duke of Lithuania Alexander I, who granted the town building rights to construct a church and other structures. Alexander II, is considered the founder of the city, which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2003. The city lies on the old plain of theNevėžis River. The city name means “along the Nevėžis.” Throughout the 16th century, the city maintained a status of a Royal town. Communities of Poles, andKaraites, settled in the area as early as the 14th century. A Karaite Kenesa, and a Polish Gymnasium, existed in Panevėžys until the Second World War (the Polish version of the name of the city was Poniewież). In the 17th century, the part of the city on the left bank of the river started to develop and expand further. The town played an important role in both the November Uprising, and the January Uprising, and the fights for independence continued there in 1864. After theIndustrial Revolution, at the end of the 19th century, the first factories were established in the city, and industry began to make use of modern machinery. As products were oriented towards the mass market, banking intensified and commerce increased. The educational system became more accessible, and literacy increased, as well. By the end of 19th century – the beginning of the 20th century, Panevėžys became a strong economic and cultural center of the region. At the time it was the fourth most important city in Lithuania. It was also a center of operations by local knygnešys. One of them – Juozas Masiulis in 1905 opened first Lithuanian bookstore and printing house. The building is still a landmark of Panevėžys, and local people are proud of a bookstore that has been functional for more than 100 years.
Between the World Wars, in the newly independent Lithuania, Panevėžys continued to grow. According to the Lithuanian census of 1923, there were 19,147 people in Panevėžys, among them 6,845 Jews (36%) (in Yiddish the town’s name was פוניבעזש, transliterated as Ponevezh).
The Ponevezh yeshiva, one of the most notable Haredi yeshivas in the history of the Jews in Lithuania, was established and flourished in the town. Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (1886–1969), was its rosh yeshiva (head) and president. Known as the “Ponovezher Rov”, he was also the leading rabbi of Panevėžys. He managed to escape to the British Mandate of Palestine where he set about rebuilding thePonevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak where it still exists in modern Israel. It has a very large student body of young Talmud scholars.
The town’s population rose to 26,000 between 1923 and 1939. On June 15, 1940, Russian military forces took over the city, as a consequence of the forced incorporation of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. A number of political prisoners were murdered near the sugar factory. A large number of residents were exiled to Siberia or suffered other forms of persecution.
After Germany attacked the USSR, Panevėžys was occupied by German forces, as it had been in the First World War. It acquired the status of a district center (“Gebietskommissariate”) within the Reichskommissariat Ostland. During the Nazi occupation nearly all the Jewish population of the town was killed in 1943 during the Holocaust; only a few managed to escape and find asylum abroad.
In 1944 the city was yet again occupied by the Soviet Union leading to a new wave of political exiles and killings. After World War II, the natural process of the city’s evolution was disrupted. The Soviet Communist Party, exercised dictatorial control, and the city was transformed into a major industrial center. During the 1960s and 1980s, several large-scale industrial companies were established. The Soviet authorities also destroyed the old town and only after protests by local people was total destruction of the old city center stopped.
The number of inhabitants increased from 41,000 to 101,500 between 1959 and 1979. In 1990, the population reached 130,000. After Lithuania regained its independence, the city’s industry faced some major challenges. For some time it was regarded as a place where plastics cooperatives were making large profits. A suburban region, called Plastic Kings Castles by the locals still remains from that era and contains very big and sometimes bizarre houses.
After independence, the population of Panevėžys fell somewhat and for a while most investments went to Vilnius or Klaipėda instead. With the economic growth in the early 2000s however, investment reached Panevėžys. Babilonas real estate project, the largest such project in the Baltic States with an 80 ha land area, has been developed in Panevėžys since 2004.
The Town Centre
The Jewish Centre and its President, Gennady Kofman
Gennady’s tour of Jewish Panevezys
Ponevezh Yeshiva, often pronounced Ponevitch Yeshiva, (Hebrew: ישיבת פוניבז׳) is a world-renowned yeshiva located in Bnei Brak, Israel. Donated by Henry Krausher, it was originally established in the town of Panevėžys, Lithuania. The yeshiva has over one thousand students, and is arguably the leading Litvak-style yeshiva in Israel today.
As of January 2007 the Roshei Yeshiva were Rabbis Gershon Eidelstein, Boruch Dov Povarski and Haim Shloime Leibovitz.
Prior to the Holocaust the yeshiva was led by Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the “Ponovezher Rov”, who functioned more as the president and chief fundraiser. Towards the end of the second world war, he re-established the yeshiva in Israel. He selected and appointed RabbiShmuel Rozovsky as dean, and some years later appointed Rabbi’s Elazar Shach and Dovid Povarsky as co-roshei yeshiva.
Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman
Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (1886–1969), יוסף שלמה כהנמן, was an Orthodox rabbi and rosh yeshiva of the Ponevezh yeshiva. He was a renowned Torah and Talmudicscholar, a distinguished member of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel, a man of deep piety and sharp wit.
Rabbi Kahaneman was born in Kul, Lithuania, a small town of about 300 of which about a third were Jews. As a young boy he attended the Yeshivah in Plunge lead byRabbi Chaim Yitzchak Hacohen Bloch, who is credited for cultivating Rabbi Kahaneman’s great potential. At the age of 14 he went to study Talmud at the Telshe yeshiva, where he studied Torah until he was twenty, under the direct inspiration of Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, who saw his potential. Another mentor of his in Telshe at the time was Rabbi Shimon Shkop. He then spent a half year in Novardok yeshiva, after which he spent three years in Raduń Yeshiva studying under the tutelage of the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Naftoli Trop. He married the daughter of the rabbi of Vidzh, and became rabbi there at the end of 1911, when his father-in-law became the rabbi of Vilkomir (Ukmergė).
With the passing of Rabbi Itzele Rabinowitz in 1919, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman was appointed the new rabbi of Ponevezh (Panevėžys), one of the largest centres of Jewish life in Lithuania. There, he built three yeshivas as well as a school and an orphanage. He was elected to the Lithuanian parliament. All of his institutions were destroyed and many of his students and family were killed during World War II.
Rabbi Kahaneman emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1940 and built Kiryat Ha-Yeshiva (“Town of the Yeshiva”) in Bnei Brak and Batei Avot orphanages. Rabbi Kahaneman travelled widely in the diaspora to secure financial support for his yeshiva, which he constantly improved and extended. With the help of long time friend Rav Moshe Okun, Rabbi Kahaneman succeeded in the face of opposition in turning the re-established Ponovezh yeshiva into one of the largest in the world.
He sought to take care of many orphans and tried to rescue them from the clutches of secular Zionist organizations, especially the Yaldei Tehran (“Children of Tehran”) – children who escaped from Nazi Europe by walking across Europe to Tehran (including the famous Biala Rebbe – Rabbi Ben Zion Rabinowitz).
In contrast to the prevalent haredi opposition to Zionism, Rabbi Kahaneman showed some signs of support for the State of Israel. For instance, he insisted that the flag of Israel be flown outside of the Ponovezh Yeshiva on Israel’s Independence Day (a practice still continued to this day). He also refrained from saying the Tachanun prayer, a daily prayer of penitence, on that day as a sign of celebration. When asked about the apparent hypocrisy for his not saying the Hallel prayer, a prayer of active celebration, he answered jokingly that he was following the practice of David Ben Gurion who also didn’t say Hallel or Tachanun on that day.
Following Israel’s military successes of the Six Day War, he published an article which included the following:
My dear brothers! Can we allow ourselves to be small minded at this great and awesome hour? Should we not be embarrassed to remain unobservant of this wondrous period, when we are surrounded by obvious miracles, and even a blind person can sense the palpable miracles… the miracles, wonders, salvations, comforts and battles [Ed. a reference to the Al HaNissim prayer recited on Purim and Hannukah], that occurred in the Holy Land and in the Holy City [Ed. of Jerusalem] and the Temple Mount, even those who saw it with their own eyes, even those who experienced it themselves, they cannot manage to express the depths of their emotions. Perhaps one like myself who was wandering during those days among the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, is better capable of recognizing the tremendous miracles and can consider the nature of these wondrous events.—Rabbi Kahaneman, Beit Yaakov monthly, edition 100, Elul 5727