It is likely that the first Jews settled in Utena in the 16th century, but there is no information unambiguously confirming their presence in the town. In the 18th century, the Swedish troops devastated Utena, with its population almost completely annihilated by the subsequent famine and epidemics.

Utena was revived in the second half of the 18th century and started to develop since ca. 1765. Although the town was not very big, it drew benefits from its favourable geographical location at the intersection of roads from Braslaw, Ukmergė, and Vilnius and became the site of popular fairs. At the time, there were 341 Jews living in the town. They owned 48 houses, including six inns and a shelter. In 1775, Utena had 250 Jewish residents and a Jewish school. In 1790, there were 565 Jews living in the town, out of the total number of 6,562 residents. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were 115 Jewish families in Utena living alongside 350 Catholic ones.

The town started to develop more dynamically in 1835, when it became one of the localities along a new road connecting St Petersburg and Warsaw via Zarasai and Kaunas. In 1847, 1,416 Jews lived in Utena. The same year, the members of the Jewish community asked the provincial authorities for permission to build a house of prayer. It was argued that there were 309 Jewish houses in the town and only two synagogues, while according to regulations, there should be one synagogue for every 30 Jewish houses. The application was accepted. The synagogues in Utena survived the fire which engulfed the town in 1876, consuming many of the local buildings, including Jewish shops located around the market (Market Square – now Utenio Aikštė). Later on, their owners made an appeal to the erstwhile governor, A. Balcevičius, asking for the funds for the reconstruction of the destroyed buildings. In 1890, another fire broke out. The wooden synagogue was destroyed and rebuilt a year later.

Jews were the dominant force in the local trade and crafts. In 1890, there were 65 craftsmen’s workshops operating in Utena, 38 stores, five inns, a beer-house, a pharmacy, and Lewin’s winery employing six people. In 1893, R. Bremer opened a soda water bottling plant. Sometime later, he expanded the assortment by nine other beverages. Ovsey Gold owned a textile factory. The fabrics he produced were valued by wealthy clients throughout the country.

According to the census of 1897, there were 2,405 Jews in Utena, constituting 74% of the entire population. The town continued to develop due to the construction of the Panevėžys–Švenčionys narrow gauge railway line. The tracks ran along the main street, later called J. Basanavičiaus g. Despite that, Utena had a status of a village until the end of the Russian rule; it did not gain town rights until 1924.

In the interwar period, there were five synagogues in Utena, located close to each other at the Market Square (Utenio Aikštė). Three of them have not survived to the present day. One of the two preserved buildings, once housing a Hasidic temple, now serves as a Baptist church. The other is not the seat of a municipal library. The mikveh was located on the Krašuona river bank, at 18 Maironio Street; unfortunately, the building has not been preserved.

The local Jewish community owned two cemeteries. The older one was located at Stoties Street, near the road to Vilnius. It might have been established in the 16th century by the first Jewish settlers. After the war, tombstones from the cemetery were used as a building material and the area was devastated. Today, there is a commemorative plaque at the site and several preserved tombstones are exhibited. The other cemetery is located in the forest in Šilinė, in the hills surrounding the town. It covers an area of 0.45 ha. During the Soviet period, it was abandoned and devastated by looters looking for gold. In 1994, the cemetery was finally refurbished and a memorial plaque in both Yiddish and Lithuanian was placed there.

The local Jews largely contributed to the development of the town’s economy. Traders and craftsmen conducted their activities at the Market Square (Utenio Aikštė) and in the town’s centre. Most of them owned small stores. However, there were also larger, dynamic enterprises. One of the town’s wealthiest residents was Maimon Kuchgal, who owned a roller mill, a power plant, and a sawmill. He was the co-founder and head of the Jewish People's Bank, located at 5 Utenio Aikštė. He was the first resident of Utena to own a telephone. Some of the most affluent inhabitants of the town were also two friends, Goldfayn and Simonovich. Goldfain ran the “Progress” warehouse in partnership with Zal (today, the building houses the Regional Museum). Simonovich sold golden jewellery. According to the tales of the older residents of Utena, Simonovich and other wealthy Jews hid all their valuables from the Germans in the wells belonging to “Progress.”

At 1 Utenio Aikštė, there was a store with building materials run by David Liberman. According to its advertising folder, it offered iron fittings for windows and doors, plasters, paints, fireproof bricks, and more. The same building housed an inn owned by S. Wayn and a shop of L. Lipshitz. Other buildings around the market belonged to Ruven Kabu. In the interwar period, those premises housed various stores, such as B. Berman’s haberdashery.

The Jews of Utena also had a share in the local industry. The year 1927 saw the establishment of a factory of agricultural machinery and mill turbines owned by Kaushil. The town also boasted bakeries belonging to Gurvich and David Chayet, whose products were famous for their excellent quality.

A market was held every Thursday, where food, timber, hay and grain were sold. Jews sold meat in butcher’s stalls. Among the local butchers were Chaim Burgin, Benjamin Finkel, Chaim Ringo, Yosel Zak, and Ruben Finkel.

One of the most well-known people in the town was hatter Karpuch, who ran his business at Kauno Street. In 1936, the obligation to wear caps with school uniforms was introduced. Karpuch was commissioned to sew them. His competitor was Jakub Shelkom, who had his studio on Daukanto Street. Helman Shulman was a valued craftsman producing leather goods and selling leather. Blacksmith Meir offered repairs of agricultural tools and shod horses. There were several Jewish-owned hairdresser’s salons in the town, as well as photography studios: M. Hirsh’s studio at 40 Kauno Street and Tevere’s atelier at 9 Ežerėnų Street. The latter had the habit of numbering pictures; this is how we know that his thousandth photo was taken in 1930. Another Jewish photographer was L. Demba, who immortalised the life of the town, including the visits of prominent figures, such as President Smetona.

Jews also earned their living by running bookshops, including those operating at Kauno Street, 31 Vaistinele Street, and 10 Bažnyčios Street. In the years 1926–1940, a bookshop of the “Žibintas” Catholic Association of Teachers operated at 39 Utenio Aikštė. Next to it was a small printing house of G. Segal, operating until 1940. The secondary school students used it to print their literary magazine titled Parnaso Aidai. There were two cinemas in the town. One of them, located at 1 Kauno Street, was called “Orion.” Owned by Chaim Kuchgal, it was opened ca. 1932.

Local bus services were also operated by Jews, including Leib Nates, Mendel Trauba, Henoch Goldfayn, and Ruven Karpuch. They ran between Utena and Kaunas three times a day. The ticket could be purchased for 10 litas, with each passenger entitled to take 16 kg of luggage without any additional fees. A day before the departure of a given bus, the local police station would be provided with information on the number of vehicles and the names of the drivers for the following day. This information was made public.

Some Jews were involved in agriculture. Flax, a popular crop in the interwar period, was purchased by brothers Katzov, Yosel Finkel, M. Gurvich and others. David Chayet, Samuel Kaslerzon, and Abraham Kuchgalia traded in grain. Lewin Cherny (?) and Shloma Rudashevsky ran farms.

In the 19th century, a feldsher infirmary was opened in Utena by Otto Shreiber. In 1939, there were 10 doctors and four dentists working in the town. Six doctors ran private practices. Some of the town’s older residents remember Dr. Kuklański and dental technician Wainerman, whose sister was a nurse. Dental practice was also run by Dr. Kabyt; her office was located at Kauno Street. During the Soviet occupation, private medical treatment was banned. Physicians began working in the city hospital and in outpatient clinics. Only some of them were able to leave the town during the German occupation. The others were resettled to the ghetto, and then executed between July and December 1941. Seven physicians from Utena were murdered at the time: Izrael Aks, Leib Romanov, Tauba Shklederien, Yosel Shneider, Sara Shwartz, Dina Grinblat, and Efrai Yudelovich. Among the victims of the mass murder there was also a nurse, a midwife and an orderly.

The Jews of Utena actively participated not just in the local economy, but also in the social life. In 1928, during the election to the municipal council, a single list of all Jewish candidates was formed. Bearing the name of “Vienybė” (Unity), it comprised a total of 32 people, among them 11 merchants, seven traders, two accountants, one clerk, one cobbler, one jeweller, one electrician. In the years 1927–1931, the mayor of the town was Abram Zhurat. In 1931, seven Jews were elected to the twelve-member Municipal Council.

A Tarbut primary school was opened in Utena in 1923. It was located at 7 Vyžuonų Street. In 1938, thanks to a public fundraiser, a Jewish primary school was established at 16 Vyžuonų Street (the building still exists and is used for the same purpose). Since 1930, children from wealthier homes could attend the Lithuanian secondary school – “Saulės.”

There was a Maccabi football team in the town which competed against the team from Šiauliai. In 1924, the Trimitas newspaper reported as follows: “On 19 August, at 6 p.m., the first match of the local football team against the Jewish Maccabi team took place. The match attracted a sizeable crowd. It has to be said that those who came to watch it had the opportunity to witness some quality football. (...) It had rained shortly before the match began, causing puddles to form on the slippery grass. This resulted in additional difficulties for the players. The Šiauliai team made a great effort, with most of the game taking place near the Maccabi team’s goal. The game ended with the result 5:0 for the team from Šiauliai.”

One of the most prominent Jews from Utena was Bernard Lown, born in 1921 as Boruch Latz. Having moved to the United States in 1935, he became famous for developing the modern defibrillator and for his activity in the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War organisation. In 1985, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for the latter. Another Lithuanian celebrity born in Utena was Riva Berman, one of the six daughters of the local judge and lawyer, Rachmil Berman. She won the title of Miss of Lithuania in 1937.

Germans invaded the town on 25 June 1941. The Jews were enclosed in the ghetto, which was set up along Ežero Street. They were forced to wear patches with the Star of David on their chests and backs. The German occupant confiscated Jewish property, some of it was plundered by the collaborators. Some of the local residents made attempts to bring help to the Jews. The women of Utena plead to the German commander for permission to look after Jewish children – as many as 2,000 (!); their application was rejected.

The Jews from Utena perished in three mass murders. On 31 July 1941 – 16 women and 235 men; on 7 August 1941 – 87 women and 483 men; on 29 August 1941 – 1,731 women, 582 men, 1,469 children. The victims were taken to the Šilinė Forest. There, they were forced to work, starved, tortured, and eventually executed. Some managed to hide. In 1944, after the withdrawal of the German army, Jews left their hiding places. Among those who came back to the town after the war were Vainerman, Skernelski, Druskin, and the Bliumberg family. Most soon migrated, mainly to the territory of today’s Israel.

During World War II, the centre of Utena suffered the most extensive damage, with more than a half of all buildings demolished or lost in fire. Other buildings were vandalised and plundered, including many owned by Jews. No active synagogue or shops were preserved. Nevertheless, ca. 50 Jews still lived in Utena in the 1960s. However, the Jewish religious life no longer existed there.

In 1967, archaeological research was carried out in the forests where mass executions had taken place. The recovered items now make part of the collection of the Regional Museum in Utena.

Rita Šatrovaitė, Eve Malukienė, Daiva Osipovaitė