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Before “Prince”, “Prensky” – “Pren” – the Jewish Name for Prienai, Lithuania.

October 18, 2013
Napoleon Crossing the Neiman River To Invade Russia - June 24, 1812

Napoleon Crossing the Neiman River To Invade Russia – June 24, 1812

My paternal grandmother, Molly Prensky, was born in Vilnius, Lithuania. At the time of her birth in 1893, the Jewish population call the place Vilna, which was the term by which I knew it as a boy. She came to the USA  prior to WW I, in 1903 at the age of 10, this according to a notation in the 1930 census. At the time she was growing up in Vilna, it was a part of the Russian Empire. Shortly thereafter Vilna would be annexed by Poland and remain in Polish hands until the advent of WW2 in 1939. Her maiden name was `Jackson’ – most likely an Americanism, certainly not a typical Eastern European Jewish or Lithuanian name.

I would like to know what her original Russian-Jewish name was, but am not certain as to how to find it, perhaps on her marriage certificate, which to date I have  not been able to locate? She married Abraham Prensky (1888-1947) from Grodno but whose family originated in Prienai, whose Jewish population referred to as `Pren’.  According to a notation in the 1930 U.S. census, Abraham Prensky arrived in the United States two years after she did, in 1905. Since my father never talked about such things, I do not know if Molly Jackson was an only child, had siblings, nor their fate. Did her family remain in Vilna? Did they immigrate like so many other Jews from Eastern Europe in that stormy period between 1880 and onset of World War One?

Pren or Prienai

“Prensky” means someone who hails from Pren. Today it is called Prienai (also Prenai, Preny). I was mistaken about its location, thinking it was a suburb of Vilnius. It actually lies some 30 km (18 miles) south of what is now Kaunas in south-central Lithuania, in a rural area that from the pictures looks something like eastern Nebraska or Iowa – good rainfall, farming country with forests nearby on the bend of a river. Cold in the winter, bitter cold but as green and lovely in the summer as anywhere. Quite rustic, belying its turbulent history. Moving west from Vilnius, Prienai lies some 89 km away, about mid distance on an east-west axis between Vilnius and Marijampoli on Highway A-16. If one goes directly south from Prienai into Belarus 108 km, one comes to Grodno, where my father’s branch of the Prensky family lived.

Pren (Priani) Jewish School, 1929

Pren (Priani) Jewish School, 1929

Prienai is located along the “terraced left back” of Nemunus River, also called (in our family) the Nieman River, which Napoleon and his 685,000 strong Grande Armee crossed in June ,1812 on his way to the aborted invasion of Russia. He re-crossed the river seven months later with only 120,000 beaten survivors. My relatives, among them rabbis and fisherman I was told, lived along this river between Prienai and Grodno from the early 1800s, their previous wanderings hidden in the midst of time. The Nieman River has its sources in Belarus from whence it runs due west. Before turning north, the river runs directly through Grodno, now in northwestern Belarus, from whence both paternal grandfather, Abraham Prensky,  and our maternal grandfather, Julius (Judah) Magaziner immigrated to the United States, Magaziner in 1904, Prensky the next year.

The Nieman then turns an almost perfect 90° north into the southern regions of Lithuania. Just prior to passing through Prienai, the river loops west and then back east again in a half circle, the Prienai Loop. Prienai sits on the bend in the loop. In central Lithuania, at Kaunas, after joining with the Neris River flowing from the east, the Nieman, now stronger and wider flows due west into the northeast corner of Kaliningrad, Russian territory wedged between Lithuania and towards the Baltic, which it enters Poland. The Nieman then enters the Baltic Sea through the fresh water Curonian Lagoon. As it flows into the lagoon the river marks the border between Lithuania and Kaliningrad.

Currently (2013) with a population of 11,000, Prienai is the district capitol of a region known for Nemunus Loop Regional Park. Today in its post Soviet, independence reality, its economy is based upon textiles, timber processing, agriculture, forestry and fishing. While there are some companies moving into the region, many have collapsed in the economically chaotic period after independence from Moscow. As with so many Lithuanian and Polish towns and cities, in Prienai virtually nothing remains of what was a vibrant Jewish presence.

Prienai's Mass Grave For Jewish Victims of Nazi (and Lithuanian Fascist) atrocities

Prienai’s Mass Grave For Jewish Victims of Nazi (and Lithuanian Fascist) atrocities

The earliest reference of a municipality in Pren is 1502. Rulers changed hands many times. For a short period, 1975-1807 Pren was ruled by the Prussians. For the next century, from 1807 through 1915 it was a part of the Russian Empire. By 1897 it boasted a population of a little less than 2000, about a quarter of whom were Jewish who were engaged in trades, crafts and small retail businesses. (For a brief history of Pren, click on this link.)

Just before the advent of World War II, the town’s population had increased to 3500, among them some 850 Jews. Some time in the late 1800s, Abraham Prensky’s family had moved from Prienai to Grodno, now in Belarus. Grodno and near by Bialystok (now in Poland) were heavily Jewish towns. By 1900 Grodno, a much larger metropolitan area than Prienai, some 25,000 of the towns 40,000 residents were Jewish.

“Afterwards the soldiers drank beer.”

The fate of Prienai’s Jews during World War II was sealed early on, on August 27, 1941 when 1100 of them, from the town and surrounding area were led to a forest just south of the town and, after digging their own graves, summarily executed. A synopsis from the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania follows:

“In mid-August, 1941, Prienai police and white arm-banders began mass arrests of Jews. Jews from the surrounding regions – Birštonas, Jieznas, Stakliškės and other locations – were taken to Prienai and held at the Prienai military post. Inquiring what was to be done with the Jewish prisoners, director of the police department V. Reivytis asked Rollkommando commander Joachim Hamann on August 25: “As an addendum to my letters of August 18, 19 and 20, 1941, the number of detained Jews in Prienai has increased to 493. I’m requesting you to issue an order to remove the detained Jews as soon as possible from the collection site because infectious diseases are running wild among them.”

“Hamann’s directive came quickly.”

“On August 25, Jewish prisoners were sent to dig ditches behind a pine grove at the military post. Two large ditches were dug. On August 27, 1941, troops from the 1st Battalion 3rd Unit (about 25–30 men) led by Lieutenant Bronius Norkus arrived in Prienai. Local police and white armbanders began sending the Jews to the killing site. They stole watches, rings, money and other valuables from the condemned prisoners. Victims were sent in groups to the ditch and shot. Troops from the 3rd Unit fired under Norkus’s command. Local white armbanders guarded the killing site and brought the victims to the ditch. Afterwards the soldiers drank beer. The Jäger Report contains an entry that on August 27, 1941, 1,078 Jews were killed in Prienai.”

Note how these executions were done by Lithuanian fascists. By the time the war ended, 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population had been exterminated, the highest percentage of anywhere in Nazi occupied territories. The Prienai massacres are typical of how it was done (Nazi SS leadership directing enthusiastic Lithuanian death squads) by mobile Nazi death squads. A more detailed description of the build up to the August 27, 1941 and the Prienai massacre itself were detailed in an eye witness account.

“On August 26 (the third of Elul 5701) the final stage of the annihilation began. On that day large groups of Jews were led from the barracks to the pits at the cemetery. It is impossible to describe the terrible death procession of hundreds of Jews from Pren and its vicinity. The first two groups comprised men only. they had to undress down to their underwear, and thus clad were led to the pits. After them came mixed groups of men, women and children. The old and ill were brought in carts. The were shot by machine guns next to the pits and then covered with lime, while many were still alive. According to eyewitnesses, corpses in the pits still moved hours after the murder.”

A biography of the foul deeds of Rollkommado Commander Hamann, directly responsible for the murder of some 70,000 Lithuanian Jews is provided at this link. He was 28 years of age at the time. SS officer Hamann went on from Lithuania to continue his illustrious career in organizing mass murder. He would be rewarded by eventually being promoted to the rank of general in the SS. In July of 1944, Hamann was a part of the delegation who offered Field Marshal Rommel the choice between suicide and death after the failed assassination attempt against Hitler. As World War Two came to an end, Hamann committed suicide rather than face a war crimes tribunal.

The Lithuanian fascist, Bronius Norkus, whose unit, the First Battalion, 3rd Unit, actually carried out the Prienai massacre fell from a horse on the eastern front in Russia in 1943 and died; his body was removed and buried in Lithuania. After the Prienai killings Norkus’ unit continued on its killing spree through October of 1941, by which time the vast majority of Lithuanian Jewry had been exterminated. Fifty eight years later, in 2001, representatives of Lithuania’s ultra-national government approved making this mass murderer’s grave a national cultural monument, which it remains today.

When Grodno was liberated by the Red Army on July 14, 1944, only 200 Jews remained. In Prienai, virtually none remained. 

The Soviet Military Offensive gaining ground in the summer of 1944, pushing the Nazi armies back towards Germany.World War II - Jan - April 1945 - 2Abraham’s father, Chaim Hyman Prensky, a rabbi who had migrated from nearby Ziezmariai in the 1850s, died in Grodno in 1895, leaving his wife Ida with seven children to fend for themselves at a time of growing pogroms in that region.  Although many relatives remained, Abraham Prensky, his five brothers – Zelig, Israel, Samuel, David, Louis and sister Bertha – were long gone, not only from Prienai but also from Grodno, when on June 24, 1941, three days after the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa – their massive attack on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Within days SS units supported by Lithuania’s own home-grown Nazis, of which there were many, essentially wiped out Prienai’s entire Jewish population.  

Three years late, now 70 years ago, in the late spring and summer of 1944, Soviet troops swept west across a broad front liberating Vilnius, Grodno, Bialystok along the way Earlier that year, in January, the 322nd Rifle Division of the Soviet Army had liberated what was left of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Southern Poland where 1.1 million people had been gassed and otherwise murdered by the Nazis as Hitler’s “empire” began to shrink before it crumbled.

__________

Part Two of the Series

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2013 6:30 am

    I remember visiting Molly at the nursing home she resided on LI – a joyous woman and a treat to have seen her smile

  2. October 19, 2013 6:56 am

    Robert…Warm greetings across the years…Do you remember the approximate years you visited her and where it was on Long Island? I’m trying to find her death certificate (and also the cemetery in New Jersey where she – and I believe her husband – Abraham are buried). Robbie

    • Robert Gallant permalink
      October 19, 2013 7:10 am

      hmmm – it was before Lisa’s birth (1974) so prob between 69-74 and I remember traveling east on LI to a well appointed nursing home (of course!) on the south shore – that’s about it – sorry wish I had more – best of luck finding!

      • October 19, 2013 7:12 am

        That helps…I was thinking she died sometime in the mid 1970s…

  3. JIM permalink
    October 25, 2013 7:43 pm

    My maternal grand-parents, arrived in the U S from Cork County, Ireland, as did your grandparents, in the early 1900’s. Indeed, a time of great change, in other lands, driving further change impacting America. Your blog is very interesting, and informative on the world.

  4. Betsy Kent permalink
    June 3, 2015 7:13 pm

    Hi,
    I came across your blog. My grandmother came from Poland, I always thought it was somewhere near Vilna. Her last name was Pren. I’ve been casually looking over the past few years to see if I can find any other Prens. Prensky…maybe!

    • June 3, 2015 7:24 pm

      Hello Betsy…I have a genealogy book of the Prenskys…I will check it out tomorrow. It sounds to me very likely that your grand mother came from “Pren”…Prianai..As mentioned in this blog entry, “Pren” was the Yiddish name for Prianai. If you look at a map of Lithuania, find Kaunas…Prianai is directly south…It is about 100 miles or so west of Vilnius (which the Jewish population referred to as “Vilna”)…I will check what I have and see if there is anything that might be useful to you…Best, Rob P.

      • May 15, 2016 3:35 pm

        Hi Rob, I was just fooling around on the web and came upon your reply from a year ago. I’m wondering if you found any of my family in your genealogy book. My grandmother came to NYC with her younger brother in 1921. Her first name was Esther and her brother was Morduch. Thanks,
        Betsy

        • May 15, 2016 6:19 pm

          Betsy…I did see if there were any connections that I could locate, but I didn’t find anything

  5. March 27, 2017 7:34 am

    My Grandmother, Lena (Cohen) came to America around 1900 at 18 years of age. She left her mother, Pearl Cohen, I think was her name, in Pren. They owned a timber farm, perhaps, on the river. Her sister, Becky, and brother, Hymie, also came to America. That is all I know. I believe that Pearl Cohen was a widow. I do have a photograph of her. I would appreciate any information on their family, if there is any. Thank you for your work.
    Amy Rubin

    • March 27, 2017 9:28 am

      Dear Amy Rubin…

      Appreciate hearing from you. What I do have is a rather extensive “Prensky” genealogy book, put together by one of my father’s cousins. I will look at it later today or tomorrow morning and see if I can find any Cohen references…and I’ll copy the history page which might be of interest to you and send it to you in the mail. Am a bit pre-occupied today so I probably can’t get round to this until tomorrow or the next few days, but I will follow up. A timber farm by the river! where my Prensky relatives were fishermen and rabbis (or so I have been told). More soon. Best, Rob Prince

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