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"Yidishkeyt ("Jewishness") and menshlikhkeyt ("humanness") were the two major values of the shtetl community around which life centered. Both the sacred and the profane were integrated in this way of life. The traditional ideals of piety, learning, and scholarship, communal justice, and charity, were fused in the warm and intimate life style of the shtetl. Thus the Yiddishkeyt and the menshlikhkeyt of the shtetl were expressed in innumerable activities, all of which were geared toward the goal of living the life of a good "Jew" and were manifested in the synagogue and at home, in the holiness of Sabbath and the humdrum existence of the market, in the structure of the community and in the organization of the family.


The synagogue reflected the social structure of the community and its individual members. The synagogue, whether a shul, a Ukrainian kloyz, or a Polish shtibl, was the house of prayer, the house of study, and the house of assembly combined.The seating arrangement in the synagogue reflected the social structure of the community: along the eastern wall, where the Ark was located, were ranged the most honored members of the community, the rabbi and the sheyne Yidn (the dignified Jews), the men of learning, of substance and of status, ie, men with "status--yikus"--symbol of distinction acquired through family position in the community or individual achievement in learning, business, or community participation. The seats facing the eastern wall were occupied by the balebatim or burghers, and behind them were placed the proste Yidn or common Jews--the humble folk, usually assumed to be ignorant, poor, and uneducated. The value of the seats decreased with their distance from the eastern wall, until at the western wall were found the beggars and needy strangers. These were cared for by various community institutions as well as special associations.


The home of the individual was the basic unit in the culture and life style of the shtetl: it was founded on a patriarchal and closely knit structure on traditional lines. His home was the place where the shtetl Jew enjoyed his Yidishkeyt in the serenity and peace of Sabbath, in the rituals of the Passover seder, or in the dignity and holiness of the High Holidays. It was where he derived the nakhes--the proud pleasure--from the achievement of his children, the son, or the son-in-law. There he fed the stranger on Friday and provided meals to the poor student in the yeshivah. However the home was also part of the community, and hardly any important activity at home was separable from the synagogue or the total community. Birth and death, bar mitzvahs and weddings, illness and recovery were family events which tied the home to the synagogue, and by extension to the community. No family event was a private event, for life in the shtetl was life with people, and therefore part of the total community. Family joys, as well as family sorrow, were shared by the community, which had the right and duty to express its approval or disapproval about the conduct and behavior of the family as a whole or of each of its members. Thus community control over the life of its individual members became one of the major regulating forces in the shtetl society, which succeeded in surviving for centuries without a police force to maintain its internal law and order.


The market and marketplace were the source of shtetl livelihood and the meeting place with [non-Jewish] neighbors. The shtetl Jews served as middlemen between the big city and village economy. They brought urban products to the Polish, Ukrainian, or Rumanian peasant who visited the market, or as peddlers bought from him the agricultural produce of the villages which they sold in the city. The financial scale of these transactions limited. Only a few Jews in the shtetl engaged in enterprises on a larger scale involving substantial capital. The majority of the shtetl population lived in poverty, where the major problem was to earn enough during the week in order to be able to buy a chicken or a fish for Sabbath, or to save up enough money for Passover mazzot. To make a living the shtetl Jew tried his hand at anything and often at a numer of things. Trades and occupations could vary with the season, as well as with a special opportunity encountered at the marketplace. Men and women, old and young, were daily involved in the difficult task of parnose ("livelihood"). Often women and children remained in charge of the stall or the store, while men traveled in the area looking for bargains or peddling city wares.

*The underlying feeling of the shtetl Jew in all transactions with the [outside world] was the conviction that no matter how friendly the interaction might be, he was never sure that it would not end in bloodshed and death."

The social, political, and economic forces in the 19th and 20th centuries eroded the patterns of life which had evolved in the shtetl. Pogroms and persecutions, economic depressions and political revolutions caused mass migrations of Jews to larger cities in Europe and across the ocean to the United States."

The physical existence of the shtetl ended with the Holocaust, but the values--behavior patterns and social attitudes continued on in the children of shtetl parents."from Life in the shtetl.

Interesting links:

Life in a shtetl in Ukraine

The shtetl

The road to the shtetl

Life in a shtetl in Galicia

In shtetl David Horodok



The poor jews


Poor jews in Latvia and eastern Europe lived in wooden houses with straw roofs(Marion Werle)



A water carrier. Most cities in the Pale had no other form of water distribution than by water carrier.

According to the 1898 census there were still 5,378 water carriers in the Pale.


To Vishki

(Text translated by Vadim Dumes)


On name “Vishki” and origins of Rural District Municipality.

Vishki –

  • name of a village of historical origin, which is explained with the help of Sanskrit language (it is commonly believed that ancient predecessors of today’s Latvian and Lithuanian languages were the closest languages to Sanskrit out of all European languages – here and henceforth translator’s note)

    Sanskrit – ancient scientific and religious language in India

    Word “vish” – meaning “going inside”, “entering”

    Word “kr” – meaning “to act”, “to trade”, “to get” 

    Combining these words, an expression is formed – “place or square, which is entered to trade, act, get”. Being more concise, a “market square”.  

    Obviously, first such “market square” in our region was formed in the place which was called Vishki.  

Rural District (Pagasts) –

  • entity of administrative and territorial separation in rural areas, that was created in Latvia in 19th century when Baltic gubernija (territorial entity in Russia) was freed from nobility supervision and peasants’ municipality was formed

    Law on rural district municipalities came to effect on Feb 19 1866.

    Geographical and Population description of Vishki Rural District Territory  

Hills and valleys with partially overgrown lakes and groves are characteristic to Vishki Rural District.

District is 245km away from Riga by rail and 220mn away by road.

Closest city is Daugavpils, which is 31km away by rail and 23km away by highway.

In the middle of 20th century area of Vishki District was 201km2 and 104.4km2 in the 21st century. In the beginning of 21st century population amounted to 2,610 people, density to 25 people per km2.

In 1930’s population of the district had grown rapidly: from 8,477 people in 1930 to 10,230 people in 1940.

At the turn of the century districts population’s ethnic breakdown was as follows: 1,300 Latvians, 1040 Russians, 129 Poles, 91 Belarusians, 1 Azeri, 7 Lithuanians, 3 Romanians, 6 Tatars, 17 Ukrainians and 1 German (interestingly, it is specified she was woman).

Vishki percentage population breakdown is as follows: Latvians  - 50.6%, Russians – 40%, Poles – 4.5%, Belarusians – 3.3%, others – 1.6%. In 1930’s in districts territory, mostly in Vishki village, 4.9% of the population were Jews.

Population’s confession breakdown: Catholics – 51.49%, Russian “Old-Believers” – 30.4% , Russian Orthodox – 11.89%, Lutherans – 1.09%, other – 5.13% (judging by population’s ethnic breakdown, most of “other” category accounts for Judaism).

Castle mounds, ancient tombstones and bronze jewelry discovered in the district indicate that Vishki district was populated already in ancient times.

Historically, 4 big villages were formed in the region: Vishki village, Vishki Technical School’s village, Shpogju village and Vigantu village.

In the list of Archeological artifacts of the Vishki District 5 ancient cemeteries and 3 castle mounds are mentioned. 

Page 35:

Jews and Holocaust in Vishki

Latgale is historically a very multi-cultural region. Since the middle of the 17th century in our region a large number of Jews had migrated. This migration proceeded also into the next century.

In the middle of 19th century about 11,000 Jews lived in Latgale.

As 1804, Jews were allowed to live only in Latgalian cities and villages, as officials were afraid that due to competition fertile Polish lands could become owned by Jews.

In Vishki District Jews lived in Vishki village, where economic activity was thriving.

People’s normal life was interrupted by WWII, which started in 1939. In 1940 Latvia was occupied by Soviet Union’s army and in 1941 right after Soviet Union joining the WWII, Latvia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Daugavpils and adjacent districts were under German army control already on June 26, while on Oct 8 1941 already all Latvia was occupied.

Already in March-April 1941, by the task of A.Hitler, under the leadership of H.Himler and R.Heidrih  Germany’s Main Security Council had devised an action plan of eliminating the Jews in the occupied territories. This plan was intended as a total elimination of Jewish nation, which is known by the term “Holocaust”.

In Latvia this slaughterous operation was entrusted to general-major V. Shtalker. It was ordered to widely involve local population in the Holocaust.

This is was Nazi Germany organized crime, which was carried out by special units from Germany, involving local werewolves, in which hands arms were placed. In many cases they were joined by people with violent and statistical tendencies.

After the first line of German army, that treated locals well, also in Vishki Nazi special unit appeared in order to destroy the Jews. They were violent towards all locals, breaking into the houses and shouting “Hands Up!”, searching he houses and stealing worthy belongings.

In Vishki village, in the pub belonging to J.Bekesh, a commanding center was formed (headed by Ratnieks and his deputy Saulishs), but in the fire station – a detention centre for the locals that were accused for being Soviet collaborationists, “Reds”. 

Page 36 -37:

In Vishki District most bloody operations were organized and carried out by home-grown “zhyd-shooters” (“žīds”- Latvian for “a Jew”, which was changed after the war to “ebrejs”, from Russian “еврей”, to avoid parallels with the Holocaust. While in Russian “жид” is an offensive and derogative word, in the Baltic languages it didn’t have a negative connotation before the war. In Lithuanian, word “žydas” is still in use, the street in old Vilnius were Vilno Gaon lived is called today Žydu iela), who after the war were remembered by the elderly. They were horrified telling about inhumane atrocities these people committed.

Tragedy of Vishki Jews started in July 1941, when those involved in the local commanding centre started to recruit locals to identify and eventually bring together all Jews.

Ostrov Wood by the Vishki Lake was being prepared for the bloody operation, it was announced to the locals that Jews will be shot there, machine-guns were being installed.

Vishki District became a closed zone, all the Jews were taken to Ostrov.

Suddenly, an order came to call off the operation. Jews came back to their homes to prepare for transfer to Daugavpils Ghetto, where all the Jews had to arrive by July 26 1941.

Some Jews were shot in the village, on the Jewish cemetery. Most of the Jewish families from Vishki District (over a hundred in number), took their valuables in the bags and by the Kalnavishki road went in Daugavpils direction, both on foot and in horse carts. Those too exhausted to carry on were shot on the way.

On the way to Daugavpils Ghetto Vishki Jews were first taken to the jail house, where all their belongings were taken away. After that they were transferred to Griva Barracks, the most terrifying Ghetto in Latvia. Barracks were mostly demolished, with barely any doors or windows, in some buildings even with no roofs.

Initially there were about 23,000 Jews in the Barracks. People existed in unbearable conditions and scarcity.

On July 29 1940 “rarefaction” of Ghetto inhabitants started. Some were transferred to “better facilities” in Mezhciems Camp. Firstly, those over 60 were chosen for deadly transfers. Ghetto was still quiet, as people did not believe that column of old people taken to Mezhciems was killed (Jews were shot in the Poguljanka Forest).

On August 2 all of Latgale Jews (including those from Vishki) were prepared for “transfer to a separate camp with improved conditions”. In order no to cause hostility for “transfer”, column was accompanied by city’s (not mentioned, but probably Daugavpil’s) chief doctor-therapist Gurevich, who’s task was to provide medical care if necessary. Also this time Jews believed their executioners.

Doctor Gurevich (poisoned himself in Concentration Camp by Riga in 1944) was an eye-witness to an August 2 transfer. He later told (when he was transferred to Concentration Camps after shootings of Latgala Jews): “I saw everything. I heard shouts and moans of the poor desperate people. Some of them were fighting the murderers like lions. I saw how betrayed Jews, even wounded and bleeding to death, were attacking the executioners with their bare hands, some with stones, and were fighting till their last breath. These were strong, courageous people. About 20 shooters were wounded, and a few were strangled and taken with them to the pit”. (out of Z.Jakub’s  book Jews in Daugavpils, publ. 1993).

Only a few Vishki Jews managed to save their lives: those who fled Vishki or were hiding at the locals. Grisha Fogel and Josef Reins were hiding in Korolyevschina, but later for 2.5 years in Harcishki at Sergey Trofimov’s house. Conductor of Daugavpils Symphonic Orchestra Pauls Krumins (died in 1965 in Riga) hid outstanding violinist Cila Gradis and her sister Nadja at his friends in Vishki and later in Niderkuni village.

These were courageous people of various nationalities, who risking their own life, saved innocent people form death.

Pages of Vishki Disctrict’s history also remember Dagda’s Jews tragedy in Kalnavishki.

Locals, who today all are over 70, remember another event in 1941, a heartless, horrifying and hard-to-comprehend in today’s civilized world.

This was on one July morning, when Vishki Jews were already evacuated to Daugavpils Ghetto and their belongings were robbed. Ostrov residents noticed, that from Aglona side there was a big crowd moving towards Vishki, followed by a few horse-carts. It soon appeared that these were Dagda Jews, that were also escorted to Daugavpils. People were exhausted and hungry. Some of them were trying to hide in the rye fields, but the guards noticed them. Ostrov locals were warned not to try to hideout the Jews.

There were mixed reactions when meeting Dagda Jews in Vishki: Olga Istikovska and her mother brought water and bread to the evacuees, while “zhyd-shooters” were preparing for another blood-bath. Those imprisoned in the Fire Station were offered to participate in the shootings, in exchange for being freed from custody.

Jews were going to Kalnavishki, followed by Gypsies caught in Vishki, carrying shovels. On a Moist Hill (Slapjš Kalns), called so by the locals, there was a big pit dug out by the road. This is were the road of the Dagda Jews was to end…

At about 10:00 in the neighboring villages the locals heard machine-gun shots. After a couple of hours everything silenced. People wanted to see, to know what happened.

It turned out that the pit was full to the edges with bodies.

In early Spring 1942 from Kalnavishki Quarry water flooded towards the pit, and body parts started to appear here and there. Land flooded by blood was flattened again.

When German army backed out, Kalnavishki road was closed for a few days, around the pit a big tent was constructed and bodies were burned. Until today the elders in Vishki remember the black dust and the stench coming with the wind from Kalnavsihki.

On October 6 2002 Vishki District Municipality funded an opening of the Vishki and Dagda Jews tragedy memorial.

Locals, Dagda residents, delegation of Daugavpils Jewish Community participated in the opening of the memorial. Professor of the Daugavpils University J. Steimanis gave a speech, lecturer D. Olehnovich, researcher A. Rachinska from Jelgava, repressed citizens from Dagda and others. Candles were lit by the memorial stone, flowers were brought. Memorial stone was cut by Aivars Regzha.






A video I made about Abraham Rabkin's paintings "Mayn shtetele"