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[Pages 17-18]

Chapters of the Past

 

Gorzhd

(from “The Jews of Lithuania” Volume 3, page 295)


(Gargzhdai), Kratinga District

Gorzhd is located on the border with Germany, and it is next to Memel (15 kilometers). In the days of czarist rule, whenever there was danger of a pogrom, the Jews would escape to Germany, crossing the rail station to Vigaln, and would stay there for a day or two until the danger had passed. There were among them those who did not return to the town.

It was one of the first of the Lithuanian communities. In its cemetery were tombstones from 400 years ago and more. In the historical records of the 16th century, the Jews of Gorzhd are mentioned as those appointed for collecting the border tax. In 1639 they received a letter of rights from Vladislav IV, King of Poland, who promised them complete civil rights. In 1742 King August III approved this letter.

 

gar017.jpg  Klaipeda Street  [45 KB]
Once - Klaipeda Street - the main street

 

The Jewish population in 1827 numbered 648. By 1897 their number had increased to 1,455 (about 60% of the total population). During World War I, they left because of its proximity to the border, and returned with the entrance of the Germans. The town suffered almost nothing from the war, and in the days of the German conquest, there was plenty of livelihood to be found. In 1921, 1,148 Jews resided there. During the years before the Holocaust, their number reached over 1,000.

The livelihood of the Jews of the area was primarily from exporting wood to Germany. Many worked in ferrying rafts on the Minia River which crossed the town. Millions of cubic meters of wood were sent every year to Germany. There was a noticeable number of wealthy people among the Jews (those who stood out: Ya'akov and Feivel Yapshitz, wood merchants and the owners of a famous bank in Memel).

In the year 1929, there were 269 members of the Jewish Peoples Bank. The bank was of great help to the Jewish middle class of the town.

The were a synagogue and a study-house in the town. The charitable organizations included the societies for providing food for the poor, care for the sick, staying with invalids and an interest-free loan fund which was established with the help of emigrants from the town in the United States. The local youth was educated in a Talmud Torah and in two folk schools (Hebrew and Yiddish). Likewise, there were two libraries in the town – that of the Zionists (with many Hebrew books) and of the Yiddishists.

The community life of the town was lively and exciting. The religious youth was organized in “the Glory of Youth”, and the rest in Zionist and sports groups (Maccabee). All of the Zionist parties were represented there, and likewise there was in the town a place for the training of pioneers before their immigration to the Land of Israel.

The youth would frequently organize parties and literary events, which would bring substance and content in the community life of the town.

Its famous rabbis included : R. Moshe Yofe (who occupied the rabbinical chair for 45 years, 1840-1885); his son R. Yosef Yofe; R. Yitzhok-Yaakov Rabinowitz (R. Itzile of Ponevezh); R. Aharon Volkin; R. Yitzhok-Isaac Freedman; R. Shabse-Aharon son of Moshe Shapiro; and its last rabbi – R. Meir Levin, may the Lord avenge his blood.


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Gorzd – A Shtetl in Lithuania

Chaim Shoys

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

It is a small shtetl [town], not far from Memel. Jews call it Gorzd. It is called Gargzdai in Lithuanian and the Germans on the other side of the border translated the name as Garsden. In Russian it was called Gorzhdi.[1*] The Polish name is Gorzdy.

As far as I remember, the shtetl had 200-300 Jewish families, in addition to a Christian population.[1] There were two large Jewish streets, three Christian and one mixed. As a matter of course, Gorzd could be called not a shtetele [small town] but a shtetl.

There are no written documents that would show how old the shtetl is. The only thing that might be able to tell us the oldest history of the shtetl, the Pinkes [communal registry] of the kehile [organized Jewish community], burned at the time of the First World War.

The oldest matzeyvah [headstone] that was found at the cemetery was from 1731 (5491, 20 Shevat). We must assume that the cemetery is much older because in the shtetl, Zamet, it was once the custom not to erect headstones on the graves. If a matzeyvah is present on a grave, this is from a later time.

It appears that Gordz was a considerable shtetl even before the massacre of the Jews in 1648 by the Cossacks because at the time of the massacre, Bendet Podkowe,

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the legendary refugee from Chmielnicki's slaughters about whom we will talk more at length, had settled in Gordz and lived out his years there. At any rate, the Gordz Jewish kehile is much older than the neighboring Jewish kehile of Memel. For years, the Jewish deceased were taken from Memel for burial at the large cemetery. In the past, when Gordz was in Poland, when Lithuania belonged to Russia, the Russian government forbid or created great difficulty in bringing the dead across the border. One was forced to smuggle them just like contraband.

Few memories remained among the later generations. The earlier shtetl residents, ignorant and weary, did not record anything. But there is rich, ethnographic material that can be brought from there.

 

The Shtetl a Generation Ago

Gordz experienced many wars and hostile occupations since 1914. However, a generation ago no one in the shtetl could imagine that such terrible times would take place in the future. Under the Czarist Empire, the shtetl was unchanging and idyllic, like all shtetlekh in that part of Lithuania which carried the name Zamet. It is that time when the writer of this article was still a child that we present here.

The shtetl was located very near the Prussian border. Memel, which was then Prussian, was located 15 or 16 kilometers from the shtetl. But we did not have to go so far to be outside the country. We went through the city gate only a few steps beyond the shtetl and we were in a different country.

The shtetl was small and poor. The cobblestone pavement on the few small streets was crooked and old-fashioned, going up and down, and during the wet times of the year covered in thick mud. The poorest houses were tattered and neglected and the people –

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gar021.jpg  Schloss  [50 KB]
Schloss (German castle)

 

poor shopkeepers and traders, sturdy wagon drivers and artisans – were bent by in neglect and a severe harshness.

On one side of the shtetl ran small sandy roads leading farther on into Zamet. But on the Prussian side began a wide highway that led to Memel and everything there was very different from Zamet. There it was dry and beautiful. Everything was clean and shiny and life was richer there. This was Germany.

Almost the entire shtetl was economically dependent on Prussia. Almost all of the trade went to Prussia. Almost all of the clothing and shoes that were worn here were bought in Memel. The Jews in the shtetl were as familiar with Prussia as with their own country. All spoke German,

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but not a real German, but a certain kind of special Zamet Yiddish-German language. They actually spoke Yiddish with the Germans, only changed the komets [vowel sound representing “o”] for a pasekh [vowel sound representing “a”] here and there, and in addition emphasizing haten sei, machen sei and wollen sei and they were sure that they were speaking German.[2*] The Germans in the border area were accustomed to this curious language of the Zamet Jews and understood it very well.

But this was only economic life. Spiritually, this shtetl was absolutely a piece of Eastern Europe. In fact, spiritually, religiously, there was a strong antipathy to Germany. Several pious Jews did not want to remain under any circumstance in Memel for Shabbos. True, there was an Orthodox kehile there, but true piety and the true Shabbos it was felt was only kept in Zamet. Because during warm days, on Shabbos they went to the synagogue in Memel in short suit coats without any kind of overcoat. And meat and fish, boser vegogim vakol matamim [fish and meat and all delicacies] are eaten in Memel during all of the days of the week [i.e. they are not reserved for Shabbos].

Echoes of the Past

Jews lived this way in the shtetl on the border line between two civilizations and from both sides of the border all kinds of reverberations of the events in the wider world infiltrated and were mixed in their memories.

Many stories are told about the last two wars; of the Russian-Turkish War and of the German-French. They tell about Skobelov (Skobelyev) and the Ottoman Pasha, of Moltke and MacMahon.[3*] When a young man in the shtetl was short or he behaved haughty and with an air of strength, he was given the nickname, Moltke the Hero. Bismarck was very popular in the shtetl. He was greatly admired in Memel and, as a matter of course, we also thought highly of him in Gorzd. Such a hero: took Napoleon [the Third] in captivity; a trifle. Made a ruin of Napoleon and Marshal MacMahon and received such gifts; five

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thousand million! It was said in the shtetl that they began to count the money, but it was immediately realized that this was not possible, that they would need hundreds of years for this. So it was decided to weigh the gold by the pood [weight equaling 40 Russian pounds or about 36 pounds or more than 16 kilograms].

But, Bikensfeld (Bikenzfild)* is considered an even greater hero. It is told that the Russians were already near Istanbul and it was felt that it would be woe to the Turks. However, Beaconfield said absolutely not, and the Russians did not go one step farther. It was “…that he neither stood up nor moved before him…” [Book of Esther, chapter V, verse 9]. They mainly liked to speak about how Beaconsfield quieted Gorchakov at the Congress of Berlin. He spoke and Gorchakov did not utter a sound. Once when it was time to speak about the island of Cyprus (Kipros), Gorchakov said that there is everything there except Jews and pigs. Beaconsfield answered him: “Let us both settle there.” Jews in the shtetl had great love of this anecdote and they never tired of telling it again and again.[4*]

Only stories are told of these two wars. They [the wars] did not leave any impact on the shtetl. On the other hand, the much earlier Crimean War did leave a strong, concrete impact. There are still present in the shtetl several wealthy men who became rich from the Sevastopol War.[5*] It is said that money actually lay around in the streets then, but very few had the sense to pick it up. Those times are called the makherei [business or doing work] and it is said of the wealthy men in the shtetl that they became rich during the makherei times.

No chronological system is known in the shtetl. The years are counted according to the miatezh [Russian word meaning mutiny] (the two Polish rebellions of 1831 and 1863). It is said: this one and this one's father, of blessed memory, died five years after the first miatezh. That one and that one got married for the second time exactly seven years after the second miatezh. Of the second miatezh, they speak mainly of about the książe (Duke)

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Aginski, the father of the Aginskis of Riteve [Rietavas] and Plungian and how he poisoned himself when the revolt of which he was a leader was defeated.

Many more tell stories of the first miatezh. The hero of this miatezh was the Polish General [Antoni] Gielgud. Gielgud was sure that the revolt was defeated and he and his army crossed the Prussian border in order to be interned. But an officer of the army declared him to be a traitor and shot him on the border line. This scene played itself out a few miles from Gorzd. Gielgud's grave is located there to this day, several steps on the Prussian side of the border. Gielgud, and his bad end, is still talked about in the shtetl and when someone starts off well, but has a bad end, it is said of him that “He succeeded like Gielgud.”

The historical reverberations go back a great deal further than the first Polish revolt. Stories are even told from 1812 when the French were in the shtetl; my grandfather (my father's father) once told me about a Shabbos night before Maariv [evening prayer] at the time when Napoleon went to Moscow. He, my grandfather, was born, he said, in the year of the first miatezh and he heard these stories from his mother.

Battalions of Napoleon's army went through Gorzd. Their camp was outside the shtetl in a valley where the Minya River flows. The French soldiers would go through the villages and there catch chickens and sheep and roast them in the meadows on large fires.

A deadly fear fell on everyone when it was heard in the shtetl that the French were coming. There was fear that they would kill everyone. However, in the end, they did not bother anyone.

My grandfather's father, Shaye from bergl [the hill], was a butcher. One day a French officer approached his

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Klaipeda Street (before the war)

 

house which stood a little outside the shtetl and began to call loudly: “Shlakter! [slaughterer] Shlakter!” Everyone in the house was sure that this was the French coming to oysshlaktn (oysshekhtn – slaughter) everyone. And they tried to escape and to hide. But finally with a great deal of difficulty, the French officer made himself understood, with a little French and a little German, that he was a Jew and he was looking for a Jewish shlakter (shoykhet – ritual slaughterer) who could provide kosher meat for the Jewish soldiers in his camp.

A second remarkable scene played out early on Shabbos in the synagogue. A French officer entered in the middle of the praying. The congregation in the synagogue became frightened and in the panic that broke out, they began to jump out of the windows. But

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with the movement of his hand the officer tried to calm the congregation and to convince them that they should continue praying undisturbed. How surprised everyone was when they saw that the officer was taking out a silk talis [prayer shawl] and prayed with them.


Footnote

1. The Evreiskaia Encyklopedia [Russian language Jewish Encyclopedia] reports that in 1847 Gordz had 648 Jewish souls. The census of 1897 showed 2,470 residents, among them 1,455 Jews. According to the Lithuanian census of 1923, this shtetl had 7,312 residents, of them 2,649 Jews. Return


Translator's Footnotes

1*. According to Shtetlseeker at http://www.jewishgen.org/Communities/, Gorzhdi is the Latvian spelling. The Russian spelling is Gordzh. Return
2*. haten sei, machen sei and wollen sei are the reflexive German auxiliary verbs meaning to have, to make and to want. Return
3*. Mikhail Dmitrievich Skobelev was a Russian general during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-87. Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke defeated French Marshal Patrice MacMahon at the Battle of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The battle ended with the capture of Napoleon III. Return
4*. Bikensfeld is Benjaming Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield, Prime Minister of Great Britian and a delegate to the Congress of Berlin. Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov was State Chancellor of the Russian Empire. The Congress of Berlin, a meeting of the Great Powers of Europe and the Ottoman Empire, took place in 1878, at the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish War. Return
5*. The siege of Sevastopol was a centeral event of the Crimean War. Return


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Legends from Gorzd and Vizeic [Vėžaičiai]

The stories that continue to be told here took place partly in Gorzd and partly in Vizeic [Vėžaičiai], a village 5 kilometers from Gorzd. The roads to Riteve [Retowo], Varzhan [Veiviržėnai] and Plungian [Plungė] divide there and Vizeic as a centeral point always played a role in every important event.

Vizeic was once a shtetl [town] with a Jewish kehile [organized religious community] and with its own beis-hamedrash [synagogue or house of study]. It was still called a shtetl (mestechko [Russian word indicating a town within the Pale of Settlement with a large Jewish population]) under Russia until the First World War. The local Jewish kehile became a ruin during the first Polish revolt. It was said that the Polish nobles, to whom the small shtetlekh [towns] belonged, did not want to have any Jews near them at such a time and they used all means to be rid of them.

Vizeic never had its own cemetery; their dead would be brought for burial to the Gorzd cemetery. They were also connected to the Gorzd kehile in other matters.

The following happened in 1831. The rebellion of the Poles blazed all across Zamet [the area of Lithuania in which Vizeic was located], but the Russians had already sent in their troops and hordes of Russian soldiers stood in Palonge and in Rassein. Jews had to endure great troubles from all sides; both the Poles and the Russians tortured them for their devotion to the other side. Mainly the suffering was caused by the Poles and many Jews perished

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at the hands of the Polish rebels solely for the sin that they were Jews.

In the year mentioned, during Shavous, a letter arrived for the priest in Vizeic from the Russian army in Palonge with the demand that he send the letter even more quickly to the Russian army in Rassein. There was no postal service at that time in Zamet and the entire connection was maintained by messengers, that is, poor Jews would carry a letter from one city to another for a small payment. When the priest received the letter, he immediately summoned the largest businessman in the shtetl, Zishe Zismanowitch (a great grandfather on his mother's side of the writer of this article), and asked him to provide a messenger immediately to send the letter. Zishe knew very well that refusing to provide a messenger was impossible. He called for a poor Jew from Gorzd named Welwe Faktor and sent the letter with him. Welwe fell into the hands of the Poles with the letter. He paid with his life; the Poles hung him. When Zishe learned of the misfortune, he had no more rest. Every night Welwe came to him in his dreams and summoned him to a lawsuit in heaven. Zishe asked for forgiveness from the rabbis in Gorzd and Kretinge [Kretinga]. However, they answered him that they had no remedy for him. Zishe went to his son in Palonge and there died young from heartache. (The writer of this article still remembers how Welwe Faktor's son was called to the Torah as Moshe ben haKodesh [son of the martyr], Reb Zev.)

The hero of the second story from Vizeic is Avrahamele the Maalos haTorah, a brother of the Vilna Gaon. He was called this after his book, Maalos haTorah [Virtues of the Torah].[1] This rabbi was

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famous for his brilliance and piety. His first rabbinical position was in Krasz. Later he became the rabbi in Eyragole. In his older years, he stayed with his son, Reb Eli, who was the rabbi in Neustadt (Sugint). He would also often come to his grandson in Vizeic. Many stories of miracles during the last years of Reb Avrahamele's life are told. It is said that when he would recite the Song of Songs in the Vizeic beis-medrash on Friday night, all of the lights would dance on all of the reading lecterns.

The two additional stories are very characteristic of him and his time.

The road from Neustadt to Vizeic ran along the German border. One part, the “Shnaukster Road,” was right along the border line; the Russians would travel on one side of the road and the Germans on the other side. Therefore, a great deal of smuggling across the border always took place. During dark nights, one would inadvertently wind up on the German side and then one would have trouble from the Russian soldiers for smuggling oneself over the border.

Reb Avrahamele once traveled with an experienced wagon driver from Neustadt to Vizeic. He was then already blind from old age and in addition it was a pitch dark night. Traveling on the Shnaukster Road, the wagon driver did not notice that they had gone over to the German side. But the blind Reb Avrahamele immediately advised him of this and he, the wagon driver, immediately turned back to the Russian side before the Russian border soldiers noticed. The wagon driver could not in any way understand how the blind Reb Avrahamele had recognized the road in such darkness. He asked Reb Avrahamele to clarify this wonder for him. Reb Avrahamele answered simply: “You yourself do not know how to choose the road, but you immediately feel the difference when you come to the German road. We immediately begin to suffocate from the German air.”

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Reb Avrahamele spent his last years with his son, Reb Eli, in Neustadt. When he became ill for the last time, he was taken to the German town, Keitus, to a doctor. However, he became feeble there and he could no longer be brought back. He died in Keitus. Before his death, he announced that he should not be buried in the nefarious earth of Germany, but to bury him in Neustadt. But the government did not permit any remains to be brought across the border. Therefore, there was no other choice than to carry the remains across the border as contraband. Two strong shamosim [caretakers] from the Neustadt khevre-kadishe [burial society] came to Keitus and took the remains to carry across the border. How great was their astonishment when just as they turned to leave they saw that they were already standing in the Neustadt cemetery.

The Gabbai [rabbi's assistant] Was Killed Because of Atah Horayso[1*]

An old headstone can be seen right at the entrance to the Gorzd cemetery that is covered with moss and is rotted from many years of rain. Only several lines and parts of lines can be read:

In the evening, during Atah Horayso, a fight broke out between them. And in the morning a dead body was found in the field and no one knew who killed him.
Therefore, raise a prayer with us, friends, and recite the prayer of Yoel

T

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The writer of this article heard of this from his father.

Reb Zisl Preis, that is what the deceased was named, was from among the admirable Jews in the shtetl, a scholar and a very God-fearing man. He was also the gabbai in the synagogue. He died at a very old age in 1866, but not through a natural death as can be seen by the several words on his headstone.

It was Simkhas Torah in the evening. The congregation was very intoxicated. The hordes rebelled against the elite, particularly against the gabbai. One of the horde with the name of Sroel (Yisroel) did not want anything but to buy Atah Horayso.[2*] However, Reb Zisl would in no way permit Atah Horayso to fall into the hands of boorish Jews. Agitated, Yisroel left the synagogue and, later, in a private house, swore over bread that he would take revenge on Reb Zisl. Reb Zisl knew nothing of this and, as on all Simkhas Torahs, he left after the evening prayers to visit the Rabbi, Reb Moshele Yofa to rejoice. He went home from the rabbi's house late at night and in the morning he was found lying strangled to death near his garden.

The father of the writer of this article prayed on the morning of Simkhas Torah in the same minyon as Sroel. The congregation knew nothing and recited the shakharis [morning] prayers with fervor, when suddenly Reb Zisl's brother barged in with a tumult, grabbed Sroel by his lapels and screamed, “Bandit, you have murdered my brother,” and he began to drag him from the room. Sroel answered: “I am going by myself, do not drag me,” and left with him. There was no more praying that day. That Simkhas Torah was transformed into a day of sorrow. Everyone cried and said laments for Zisl's unnatural death. Meanwhile, Sroel was placed in jail. The deceased was brought to the cemetery, but it took a long time before he was buried. The police did not permit it. The “district” doctor came from Telz [Telšiai]

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(Doctor Mapo, Avraham Mapo's son) and autopsied the deceased and permitted him to be buried.

An investigative court also came and asked each one who had seen Sroel that evening or heard him speaking (among those asked was also the mother of this writer). Meanwhile, Sroel sat in jail in Gorzd. After half of the winter had passed he was taken to the Kovno jail. Before leaving, he went to the beis-medrash to take leave. He was also called up to read from the Torah. He entered the beis-medrash accompanied by the police and with his hands in chains. He cried bitterly while reciting the blessing for the Torah. His cries and the sound made by his chains created a frightening impression on the congregation. The Rabbi, Reb Moshele, consoled him and said, “If you are not guilty, you will come back home.”

Later Sroel returned home, freed by the court. However, there was no doubt among those in the shtetl that he had killed Zisl because of Atah Horayso.

To this day, Zisl Preis's great, grandchildren live in Cincinnati.[2]

The Story of Reb Bendet Podkowa

Reb Bendet Podkowa was mentioned earlier. The writer of this article heard the legend about him during his childhood years. However, he took many facts from the book, Le-Korot Ir Yisroel ve-Rabanehim [History of the City Rabbis of Israel] by the Rassein bibliographer, Moshe bar [son of] Shlomo-Zalman Markowitz, Warsaw 5673 [1913] (the writer of this article is descended from his mother's side of this Reb Bendet).[3*]

We must begin the story with Rassein, also a city in Zamet, in the 18th century.

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Today, there is still a small kloyz [small synagogue] in Rassein that is called the Hasid's kloyz. The house in which Reb Shmuel Hasid lived stood on this spot. So it is to this day referred to by his name.

This Reb Shmuel Hasid was born in around the middle of the 18th century in Gorzd. Later, however, he moved to Rassein where he died at the age of 73. Along with two other men as pious as he, he spent days and nights studying, separated from the world and its pleasures. The two companions were the gaon [brilliant man] and cabalist, Reb Moshe, who, in his later years, became the Rabbi in Telz and the gaon and cabalist, Reb Mordekhai, who was, in his later years, the rabbi in Pokroy [Pokruojis]. In their younger years they did not have rabbinical appointments, but they sat in Rassein and they studied Torah with Reb Shmuel Hasid and practiced piety. Mainly, they sought perfection in the virtues that a pious Jew must possess. For this purpose, on erev [the eve of] Rosh Hashanah, they would all write a certain virtue on a board and seek to take it on entirely during the coming month.

This was in the time of the Vilna Gaon, to whom Reb Shmuel Hasid would not fail to go twice a year. The Vilna Gaon would call him the Zamet Hasid.

Reb Shmuel Hasid's father, Reb Borukh Bendet, also was one of the dignified Jews. He was not, in any case, a great epicurean. He carried on an ascetic life for 32 years and only ate a piece of dry bread. As his son, Reb Shmuel Hasid, also explained, he was a strict vegetarian and never tasted something that came from a living creature. Therefore, it is not correct when we think that only the Hasidim were then the source of deep religiosity and that the Misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism] were all dry people who

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only knew how to rack their brains on hair splitting arguments from the gemara [rabbinical commentaries].

However, the main thing comes first when we go back hundreds of years to the 17th century. Reb Shmuel Hasid's father, Reb Borukh Bendet, was named after his grandfather, who was called by his nickname, Reb Bendet Podkowa.[3] Why he bore such a nickname was explained by generation after generation as follows:

Reb Bendet came to Zamet from Poland. His father was the rabbi in Posen [Poznan]. As Reb Bendet had the reputation at age 10 as a genius, he became connected by marriage to an eminent rich man from Lublin and marriage terms were written that the genius would take his, the rich man's daughter. It should be understood that the rich man promised a large dowry and, on Shavous [holiday on which Jews celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai], he brought the young man to Lublin.

This was right at the time when Chmielnicki's slaughter of the Jews in Poland began. The Cossacks at that time murdered the entire Jewish community in Lublin and among the murdered was Reb Bendet's father-in-law. The mother-in-law and her daughter were among those who succeeded in escaping and saving themselves from the Cossacks. Reb Bendet also was among the escapees. However, a Cossack on a horse caught him and at full speed rode over him and trampled him. Reb Bendet lost a great deal of blood and he remained laying in a faint on the road. The Cossack thought that the Jew was dead and he rode away.


Footnotes

1. This is a small book of sermons and Kabbalah, published during the 19th century in six editions; the first time in Kopust 1827, the 6th time in Mokasz 189. Return
2. I owe thanks for a large part of this material to Bere-Welwe Milner and my brother, Yakov Shoys, two residents of Gorzd who gathered and put together this information. Return
3. Moshe Markowitz in his earlier mentioned book refers to him as Reb Bendet Podkower. However, I believe that the nickname Podkowa was later corrupted into Podkower.[4*] Return


Translator's Footnotes

1*. Atah Horayso[“You have been shown to know that the Lord is God…”] is the verse recited on Simkhas Torah – the Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law. It is a great honor to recite this verse. Return
2*. In some synagogues, the honor of reciting the Atah Horayso is “auctioned” to the man who makes the largest donation. Return
3*. The correct title of the book is Le-Korot Ir Rassein ve-Rabanehim – History of the Rassein City Rabbis Return
4*. Although it is not mentioned in the text, the significance of the nickname Podkowa in relation to the story of the Cossack is probably based on the fact that podkowa is the Polish word for horse shoe.


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On the History of the Jews in Lithuania

Dr. Hershl Meyer

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The Jewish population of Great Lithuania (that is the historic Lithuania, which took in the Vilna, Vitebsk, Grodno and Minsk gubernias [provinces]), reached around 1.4 million, or around one-tenth of the then [living] world Jewry. However, their contribution to religious as well as to secular culture was much greater compared to their numbers.

In the 12th century, Jews settled among the then still hedonist tribes of Lithuania. In 1495, an expulsion took place that was repealed eight years later. The second expulsion took place during the First World War because of the suspicion that the Jews would sympathize and cooperate with the German enemy. The Czarist regime drove over 140,000 Jews from Lithuania to various provinces of Russia where a portion of them remained. Except for these two cases, the Jews of Lithuania virtually did not suffer from persecutions until the 1930's.

In Lithuania, relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish Lithuanian populations were cordial and very friendly – firmly states Dr. Mendl Sudarski[1] and N. Kisin writes: “Lithuania was an island of security surrounded by enraged anti-Semitism. Jews in Lithuania lived as peaceful and friendly neighbors during the course of hundreds of years.”[2]

The Lithuanian Jews were not touched by the slaughters of tov-khes and tov-tet[1*] during the Chleminicki-Ukrainian rebellion against the Polish lords in 1648.

Also, much less than in the other regions of

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the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia, the Lithuanian Jews did not suffer from the waves of pogroms in 1882 and 1905. Characteristic of the relationship then between Jews and Lithuanians was the actual occurrence that my father described to us several times:

In 1905, we lived in Vezaiciai (a village not far from Gordz). My father was then a sort of “Tevye the milkman.” He produced a few kinds of cheese, which he would sell in Gordz, made from the milk that the local working peasants delivered for the lord. When the peasants received a signal from the local authorities to have a pogrom against the Jews, they came to my father to ask him how to carry it out. Some of them proposed that my parents bind their own heads with cloth to appear as if beaten. In the end it was decided that they would knock out several window panes from the windows and that they insert pillows with feathers…

No one could then imagine that 40 years later, certain classes of Lithuanians would take part in murdering the Jewish population.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Nardau was almost the only one who clearly anticipated the dangers that lay in wait for the existence of European Jewry. He explained his analysis in his work, The Conventional Lies of the Twentieth Century and in his two volume work, Degeneration, where he showed the symptoms of crisis and decay that European society and civilization began to show at that time. He warned with prophetic pathos at the First Zionist Conference about the coming catastrophe and showed the urgent necessity of quickly creating a Jewish homeland. In the background already stood the above mentioned pogroms in Czarist Russia; the Dreyfus trial and the anti-Semitic hooligans in France, after its defeat in the war with Germany and the extreme racist-anti-Semitic Hep-Hep movement [German anti-Semitic movement started in the early 19th century] in Germany (whose

[Page 36]

ideology was later taken over by the Hitlerists). Nardau did not exaggerate as several had expressed. The greater social crisis and wars transformed the 20th century into the bloodiest of all epochs and remains today the tactic of the bankrupt, oppressive regimes – to manipulate the fury and the dissatisfaction of the masses, making sure to save themselves by using the Jews as their scapegoat.

At the beginning of the 1920's, according to the statistical figures of Yakov Leszczynski, the Jews in Lithuania amounted to around seven percent or 160,000 souls out of the 2.3 million general population. The percentage of Jews and Lithuanians in the economic branches were as follows: in trade and credit, the Jewish population occupied 30% and the Lithuanians only a half percent; in industry and trades, Jews were represented with 21.6%, the Lithuanians with 4.8%; in communication, liberal professions and other professions, the Jews occupied 42.4% and Lithuanians 10.4 %; in agriculture, 6% Jews

 

gar036.jpg  Entrance to the market square
Entrance to the market square

 

[Page 37]

and 84.5% Lithuanians. In order to satisfy their cultural needs, Jews according to their number employed 36 times more people than the Lithuanians.

With the rise of an independent Lithuanian Republic in 1918, the threat to the Jews of the almost complete loss of their economic foundation was manifest. The tasks which the first, more or less democratic government of Lithuania took upon itself to modernize and expand the economy and to abolish the 98% illiteracy of the peasants. After hundreds of years of national oppression and backwardness, the aim of the government was to quickly Lithuanianize the country. Thus, the new financial, economic projects of the government gradually pushed out still more Jews from their economic positions. Here the Lithuanianization process became embedded with a surge of nationalism, and also with the persecution of Jews.

In 1926 the Lithuanian reactionaries carried out a putsch [sudden attempt to overthrow a government] that turned into a Fascist regime during the 1930's.

The economic and political situation of the Lithuanian Jews became even more limiting and threatening. Attacks increased on the Jews by the bandits using Nazi slogans. Thus, the then Fascistic Lithuanian government reared the murderers who later helped the German Hitlerists to annihilate the Jewish population.

*

The Hitlerists invaded Gorzd on the night of the 22nd of June, 1941. According to the report of Leibke Shus (who then worked in Moscow) to his father the historian Chaim Shus who was in America (both Gordzers), the Nazi beasts immediately set fire to the shtetl. They drove all of the Jews together into a garden where they were held for a few days without food and without

[Page 38]

water. On the 24th of June they took away all of the Jewish men to the trenches that were found between Laugal [Laugalia] and the barracks on Tamoczne Street. After this, they were forced to undress completely and to dig out their graves, and the Germans shot everyone there. The women and the children were taken to Anelishke [Kalniske] where they were tortured with back breaking labor and hunger.

On a late summer day, the Germans drove everyone to the Ashmonishke Forest, which lay not far from the road that led from Gorzd to Kul [Kuliai]. There, on the 14th of September, 1941, they took away the young girls, boys and small children from the mothers and murdered them on the spot. They annihilated the mothers and the grandmothers two days later.

Leibke Shus met the Gorzder, Ruchl Yami (who now lives in Kovno) and she told him that she was in the Anelishker women's camp from the first day and was the only one who succeeded in escaping from there under gun fire. “The women” – she said – “did not believe that their men would be shot… Even when Hitleristic hangmen once forced them to dance on the graves of their husbands, fathers and brothers… This was a general tragic manifestation all over. They did not believe in Vilna even when 30,000 shot Jews already lay at Panar in the mass graves. People could not imagine that they could just murder women and men, children and old people.”

Approximately several hundred Jews, among them Avraham Orenshtein and his wife Sheyndl, were hidden in Lithuania by Lithuanian anti-Fascists, underground Communists as well as a few humanistic priests who thus risked their lives. For the most part, Lithuanian Jews survived who were successful in escaping to the forests and creating partisan groups on their own initiative: the heroic Otriads under the leadership of

[Page 39]

Dr. Atlas and Tovye Bielski in Western Belarus were also known for saving and hiding many hundreds of women, children and old people in the forests until the liberation by the Red Army.

Many Lithuanian Jews fought against the Nazi beasts in the Russian Army on various fronts, among them Gordz girls such as Shoshana Osher (née Rashel), now in Israel; Sh. Rufel, Yakhe and Rozye Shlomowitz. The majority of the fighters in the Lithuanian Division that was established in 1942 in the Soviet Union, and which excelled heroically in crucial battles, were Lithuanian Jews. Gute Zucker, Boris Faysachowitz, Yokhanan Zylberg, Josl Zuckerman, Leizer Itsyk Korbman and Leizer Zucker of the Gordz Red Army fell in the battles on the Kursk and Oriol front.

*

Thirty-five years have passed since the German Fascist monsters tortured, shot and gassed and burned the six million Jews in the crematoria: fabricated “clean Jewish soap” from the bodies of Jewish children. But the beasts with their organizations, slogans and recognition, are still marching freely through the streets of cities in a number of lands. Millions sympathize with them or deny that which they did. The number of those who do not want to hear or know or want to forget this most gruesome murder of a people in the world's history is still larger.

It is said that when the Nazi assassins had surrounded the Janishoker Jews, the last words of the Janishoker Tzadek [righteous man], Reb Nakhum to his students were the following: “If several of you survive, that will be the greatest revenge that you could take on the villains; that you pursue our talk and letters [of the alphabet], because no one can annihilate letters.”

May the letters of our book of memories for our dear and individual Gordz families and all of the Jews from so many communities serve as a call and remembrance; to bind our martyrs with us in eternal life; in their struggle and our struggle for peace and the survival of our people against the sitra achra [the side of evil] for war and genocide; as a continuation of their and our national-soulful culture and its material ethical worth.


Footnotes

1. One of the chief editors of this book, Lite [Lithuania] – New York 1950. Return
2. Book, Lite Ibid. Return


Translator's Footnote

1*. Tov-khes and tov-tet are the numerical equivalent of 408 and 409 – the Hebrew years 5408 and 5409, or 1648 and 1649 – the years of the Chleminicki massacres. Return


[Page 41]

Several Characteristics of Lithuanian Jews

Dr. Hershl Meyer

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

For hundreds of years, Lithuania was famous as the center of Torah: students would come from the entire Diaspora to [study with] the distinguished scholars of the Volozhiner, Slobodker and other Lithuanian yeshivas. The Vilner Gaon (Elijah bar [son of] Shlomo Zalman), who also had done studies in scientific areas and ordered the translation of Euclid's Geometry, became the symbol of Lithuanian industry, scholarship and logical-rational elucidation of the Talmud. But, in the 18th century, Lithuanian yeshiva students began to study in Italian and German universities; a number of them became eminent doctors, philosophers or mathematicians. The Misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism] Lithuanians also became effervescent with the struggle against Hasidism; Lithuania became famous for its writers and leaders in the Haskalah [Enlightenment] movement; and immediately after for its Pleiades [cluster of stars known as the Seven Sisters, here it denotes a group of followers of the Enlightenment] poets, novelists, in Yiddish as well as in Hebrew – as well as scientists, artists and national leaders that Lithuanian Jews produced here or elsewhere.

Esteem, glorification of learning, moral health represented a Jewish-Lithuanian characteristic thread. The Yiddish intelligentsia of Lithuania excelled in its popular characteristic, as well as its connection to everything that the Jewish people had created over the course of generations, both in Yiddish and in Hebrew. Tendencies to alienate itself from the masses, through linguistic and cultural assimilation, were a rarity.

As regards the comprehensiveness of their Jewish creativity, ideas and concepts about Litvaks arose suggesting that they were an exotic or separate tribe: it was often said or written about Litvaks that they are … “cold people and indifferent,” logical, brainy people, without exaltation or

[Page 42]

ardent emotions. For example, the famous critic, Sh, Niger, writes about a thoughtful person: “He inherited from his Zagerer father, as he himself explains, the Lithuanian clarity of mind. The Litvak in him drove him to be a thinker, a logical person, a critic. His Polish ancestry came from his mother; he inherited from her the great fantasy and the flight to belle-lettres.” In other words, that in comparison to Jews from Poland, or from other places, we Litvaks lack the feeling for things of the heart. So many humorous proverbs were created over the years, such as: “A Litvak has an ample brain and a thin intestine.” And whereas he is a philosopher, a critic, he is also certainly a doubter, and as a matter of course, already “contaminated by ideology,” a not deep-believing “heretic.” There arose such memorable folk sayings as: “When does a Litvak believe – when he counts three times.” “In Lithuania one eats worms on Yom Kippur.” “I saw two Jews and a Litvak walk.” Or, “The spot where a Litvak sits has to be burned.” Or, “A Litvak repents before he sins.”

Whatever the source of the humorous sayings, they are certainly connected with the years long Hasidic-Misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism] struggle; with the anger on the part of the Polish-Galitzianer Hasidic movement with the sharp Lithuanian rejection of Hasidic mysticism and the blind belief in the “reserved opinion” of the Rabbis as an ignorant forgery of Torah and even as idolatry. But at the same time the ironic, exaggerated puns mark a certain respect of the character traits of Lithuanian-type Jews.

Permanent rules or generalizations about the nature and essence of peoples are mostly illusory, because in such cases, we do not judge according to commonsense, but according to our emotions and ingrained images. In truth, the same people are a very different people under other circumstances. And even under the same circumstances, the differences between one class of people and another is colossal. That Lithuanian Jews have respected

[Page 43]

scholars is true. There was not one Litvak who did not dream of purchasing a son-in-law who was a scholar. An eidem oyf kest [a son-in-law who studies Torah while supported by his father-in-law] was a sort of investment for the world to come, but only the wealthier could indulge in such a thing. The young of the common people had to learn a trade immediately after the first school years. The culture of the common people consisted of several Khumish [Five Books of Moses] stories, the translation of a few verses, or several lines of Chayei Adam [The Life of Man]. There was a tangible, dual connection of the general masses to subtle Gemara argumentation and hair-splitting piety.

On one side, with a look as if to “the Lord of the shtetl,” on the other side, with an often caustic irony that expressed itself in such aphorisms as: bank-kwetsher [bookworm], “Rashi says and says and we go barefoot and naked,” “where there is Torah, there is starch with clean tar,” “God loves the poor man and helps the rich man,” “God said, talk to the wall,” or “why believe, if there are eyes here,” and so on.

Besides several large settlements, the majority of Lithuanian Jews lived in shtetlekh like Gorzd: on the periphery of each of them and at a distance of only several score kilometers were located a number of such settlements. But connections between them were in the main rare: a preacher once, or a messenger from a shtetl where a fire took place. For the rare “someone else,” it was said, “a guest in the shtetl.” Perhaps, because the small apartments with mostly families burdened with many children were too crowded to welcome guests; mainly, however, because the economy in each shtetl was connected exclusively to nearby villages. They would often speak of shtetlekh not far from Gorzd, such as Riteve [Ritevai], Loikeve [Laukuva,], Shkod [Skuodas], Salant [Salantai] or Plugian [Plunge], as of distant places. Of Shavl [Šiauliai,] or Ponevezh [Panevėžys], they spoke as if about distant countries. Although with the same way of living as the other shtetl, each shtetl was proud of its virtues because of its seclusion. The other one was often mentioned with contempt or had pasted on it such

[Page 44]

sayings as: “In Pompian [Pumpenai] the pigs crow,” “If barley soup is considered eating, Eshishuk [Eišiškės] is a kehile [organized Jewish community],” “No supper can be made from Shkod farfel tsimmes [vegetable stew including small pieces of egg noodle] ,” “A Gorzd horse thief also is afraid of God.” “If not for the Lukniker [Luoke], the gentile boys would not throw stones,” “Kelmer goats also know a page of Gemara [Talmud],” “The richest man in Vaigeve [Vaiguva] does not have the means to prepare for Shabbos [Shabbat].”

 

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