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Legend has it that Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas the Great, returning from Samogitia to Vilnius in 1414, found a temple (alka) of the old Lithuanian religion in the present-day surroundings of Panevėžys, but this has not been documented.
Another myth among the locals, was also that when Anna – wife of Vytautas the Great, was refreshing herself in the river of Nevėžis, and her personal servant got startled by crayfish in river waters (crayfish in lithuanian is Vėžys) – and yelled “Pani, viažys” so Anna would be careful. This was not documented, but is well known story among people from local areas.
Panevėžys, marked in a 1573 map
Panevėžys was first mentioned evidently on 7 September 1503 in documents signed by the Grand Duke Alexander Jagiellon, who granted the town building rights to construct a church and other structures. Alexander Jagiellon is considered as the founder of the city, which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2003; two renowned monuments were built in the city for this anniversary, one of which is dedicated to Alexander Jagiellon.
The city lies on the old plain of the river Nevėžis and the city name means “along the Nevėžis.” Panevėžys Mound with a flat top and 1.5 – 2 meters high embankments previously stood at the confluence of river Nevėžis and stream Sirupis (destroyed in the 19th – 20th centuries).
Throughout the 16th century, the city maintained a status of a Royal town. Communities of Poles, and Karaites, 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 16th century, the part of the city on the left bank of the river started to develop and expand further. In 1727, the Piarists, who moved to the western part of Panevėžys, built a Church of the Holy Trinity, established a monastery and a college.
In 1791, Panevėžys was granted a conditional privilege to elect the city government.
Following the Third Partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, the city was assigned to the Vilna Governorate.
In 1800, Panevėžys received a permission to build a town hall. In 1825, the Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in Panevėžys, and the Orthodox parish was founded in 1841. The city played an important role in both the November Uprising, and the January Uprising, and the fights for independence continued there after 1864. In 1843, Panevėžys was assigned to the Kovno Governorate and in 1866 the town hall was replaced with a City Duma. Panevėžys Teachers’ Seminary was the first education institution in the Russian Empire in which the teaching of the Lithuanian language was officially started.Panevėžys in the early 20th century
Following the Industrial 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 (excluding Klaipėda).
Panevėžys also was a center of operations by local knygnešiai (book smugglers). In 1880, Naftalis Feigenzonas established the first printing house in Panevėžys. At the end of the book prohibition, one of the Lithuanian book smugglers – Juozas Masiulis – in 1905 opened the first Lithuanian bookstore and printing house. The building is still a landmark of Panevėžys, and local people are proud of this heritage, symbolized in a bookstore that has been functional for more than 100 years.
Volunteers of the Lithuanian Armed Forces had liberated the city for the first time from the Bolsheviks’ forces on 27 March 1919 during the Lithuanian Wars of Independence and raised flags of Lithuania. 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 (19,197 with suburbs), among them 6,845 Jews (36%) (in Yiddish the town’s name was פּאָניוועזש, 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 the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak where it still exists in modern Israel. It has a very large student body of young Talmud scholars.
Antanas Stapulionis, commander of the June Uprising staff
The town’s population rose to 26,200 between 1923 and 1939. On 15 June 1940, Red Army 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 (merely during the June deportation in 1941 over 600 residents were exiled to Siberia) or suffered other forms of political repression.
On 23 June 1941, the June Uprising began in Panevėžys County. The most active participants of the uprising were in Ramygala and Krekenava counties. The participants of the uprising were also active in the city of Panevėžys. On 25 June 1941, the Panevėžys Staff of the June Uprising was established in the city which was headed by Lieutenant Colonel Antanas Stapulionis. One of the staff’s tasks was to oversee the order in the city, thus Antanas Stapulionis had issued an order stating that the robbers will be shot on the spot, and ordered to remove all signs which reminisced the Soviet rule. Moreover, the scouts were sent to all roads leading from the city and on 25 June, at the initiative of the rebels, the Piniavos Bridge and the food factory Maistas were demined. The Panevėžys Post Office was peacefully passed into the hands of the rebels. During the first days of the war, the NKGB units carried out repressions, arrested participants of the June Uprising and civilians who spoke out against the Soviet government; the detainees were transported to the Panevėžys Prison. As the Germans were approaching, seeing no way out, the Soviets had decided to retreat to the East and to shoot the political prisoners in the prison. Already on 27 June, the city was full of the Lithuanian Tricolor flags and without any serious clashes with the retreating Red Army in the city or its surroundings. Furthermore, on 27 June, the Wehrmacht had entered Panevėžys and in the end of June the Germans liquidated the staff of the rebels.
Soviet and Nazi annexations
Further information: Occupation of the Baltic states and Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic
Military vehicles in Freedom Square during the World War II
After Germany attacked the USSR, Panevėžys was occupied by German forces, as it had been during 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. The major massacre was in August 1941 when 7,523 Jews were executed by the German Army officers and soldiers, German-SS officers and the Panevėžys (10th) police battalion.
In 1944 the city was yet again occupied by the Soviet Union leading to a new wave of political exiles and killings. The Lithuanian partisans of the Vytis military district actively operated in the Panevėžys County from 1944 and militarily confronted with the Soviet forces in notable battles, however following the death of chief Bronius Karbočius in 1953 the staff of the Vytis military district was not restored and the last partisans were killed in action in 1956.
Rally in Freedom Square, condemning the January Events, 1991
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 partly destroyed the old town and only after protests by local population 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. After independence, the population of Panevėžys fell somewhat and for a while most investments went to Vilnius or Klaipėda instead. However, with the economic growth in the early 2000s, investment also 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.
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