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[Page 117]

Jewish Social and Religious Life in Gorzd

by Arye Frak

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

A dynamic Jewish life pulsed in Gorzd, as in all other Jewish shtetlekh [towns], between both wars. This Jewish life was mirrored particularly in the framework of institutions, unions, organizations and a series of philanthropic groups, which bore the character of a kind of self help. However, the very distinct strength of the cultural center in the shtetl was unquestionably derived from the Zionist parties of all affiliations.

 

Zionist Parties

Their activities began in the second half of the 1920's until the capture of the Memel region by Hitler Germany on the 22nd of March, 1939.

The first party that was founded in Gorzd was the Ts. S. Party (Zionist Socialist) that was more active and influential than any other in Gorzd. Later, a split in the party took place that divided itself into Ts. S. Welt Farbund [Zionist Socialist World Union] (which was called the Linke [left]) and the Histahadut Ts. S. [Union of Zionist Socialists] – (the royte [red]).

The leaders of the Ts. S. Welt Farbund were:

Chairman: the Hebrew teacher Dovid Kutlubski.
Members of the Council: Ayzik Frydheim, the Vilna tailor (the son-in-law of Zisha the tailor), Mordekhai Leibovits, Shmeya Ilitovits and Shlomo Prak.
To the leaders of Histahadut Ts. S. belonged:
Mikhal Melamed, Sheinberg, his brother-in-law, Ayzik Wolfovits, Alter Ornshtein, the Gutmans' son Mikhal and others. Generally, both parts
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Tzeiri-Tzion [Youth of Zion]

 

lived together in peace and ran the large Jewish library together.

During those carefree years, many Gorzder emigrated to various countries such as America, South Africa and, mainly, to Eretz-Yisroel. This meant that as a result of the storm of emigration, the human potential of the parties was weakened. However, beginning in 1928 a certain revival of the party work with the influx of young strength was noticed. The religious party, Mizrakhi [religious Zionists], developed particularly animated work.

Halutzim [pioneers] from Mizrakhi, Agudas Yisroel [non-Zionist orthodox movement] and others worked in agriculture and other work. They went through hakhshore [training to prepare for emigration to Eretz-Yisroel] and prepared for a productive life in Eretz-Yisroel.

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The Mizrakhi organized Oneg Shabbos [Joy of Shabbat], Minyon Shabbos [group of 10 men to prayer on Shabbat], Kebalah Shabbos [welcoming of the Shabbat]; religious and popular songs from Eretz-Yisroel were sung, songs on Biblical motifs and they also spent their free time in collective dance. But all of this was interrupted by the capture of the Memel region by the Nazis. Then the terror for the Gorzd Jews, who found themselves near the German border, began.

Returning to Gorzd from Memel, the Jews lost their source of existence and the young tried to organize in the large cities in Lithuania: Kovno, Shawl and others. I, personally, did not see any purpose for remaining in Lithuania and looked for a way to emigrate to Eretz-Yisroel. As is known, the gates to Eretz-Yisroel were closed and I made my way to Eretz-Yisroel through illegal emigration, thanks to the help of my good friend in Memel, Shlomo Zilberstein and his brothers, Moshe and Josef. After an exhausting three and a half month trip through various lands I arrived on the shores of the country, but I was interned in a camp for a month by the English.

 

Sports Unions

During the above-mentioned period, major activities were carried out by the sports unions: Makhabi, Gigant and Tzeiri Hatakhia [Youth Reborn].

Makhabi had a large site at the sports area in the garden that during the war years, 1914-1918, belonged to Count Volmer. In this location, the Makhabi organized dance evenings, literary evening readings, discussions and so on.

Competitions would take place with the Memel sports union, Bar Kokhba, with the German sports union, with the Neustadt Makhabi, Skhod [Skuodas] and other shtetlekh.

The leaders of Makhabi were:

Zisl Markovits, the younger brother, Yudke Ornshtein, Aba Zusmanovits.

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Soccer team Makhabi Skuodas

 

Players: Leibl Luria, Ruwin-Leizer Beinigson, Feiwl Zusmanovits, Henakh Ban, Naftali Frak, who was an agile player and also a good sportsman with various sports equipment, Avraham Glojn, Josef Asherovits, Heshel Ornshtein and others.

In addition, the enlightened, educated youth founded a small sports union that was given the name Tzeiri Hatakhia. The leaders of Tzeiri Hatakhia were:

Zisl Shus (the son of Yankl Shus), Yitzhak Gutman, Avraham Ornshtein, Maks Wolfovitz and Asher Herc.

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Library

The organized youth also presented performances and the income from them would go in support of the Hebrew Library that was organized in Gorzd. Sam Saks took great interest in the library. The book fund was increased thanks to the large sums of money that he sent from America.

The librarians were: Malkala Ornshtein, Ruchl Zismanovits, Ester Furt, Ester Danishewski and Ida Erman. The library wandered from one room to another First it was in the public school; later with Hatsa Javshic. The third place was on the second floor with Mendl Luria near the Talmud Torah [school for poor boys] and at the end with the widow, Hena, across from Elihu Asher. (I do not know where the library was located after my departure from Gorzd.)

 

Philanthropic Institutions

The philanthropic institutions, Linas haTzedekh [accommodations for the needy], Bikor Kholem [help for the sick], Sa'ad LaAniyim [aid for the poor] had one purpose: to help the needy and sick people and they bore a self-help character.

Two men were sent for a night shift as soon as it was learned about a sick person in a family, in order to free the family members from a sleepless night and in order to serve the sick one. Food, free remedies and free medical treatment were brought to the houses of poor, needy families.

With Bikor Kholem – that was a branch of Linas haTzedekh, and Maos Khitin [matzo for the needy at Passover] was actually administered by the kehile [organized Jewish community], gabbaim [rabbi's assistant] and the rabbi of the Beis haMedrash [House of Study and Prayer]. It was a custom from ancient times that matzo and everything that was needed for Passover was sent to the poor. The money used for this purpose was from offerings and secret donations. The income from the theater presentations also supported this purpose.

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Dramatic Section

The founders of the dramatic section were Zalman-Leib Rubinstein and Josef Blech, both very bright talents for acting on the stage. Artists from Kovno, who appeared in interesting plays, would come to Gorzd many times.

The actors of the dramatic section were:

Shemya Ilitowitch, Rywka Man, Josef Osherowitch, Shmuel Ornstein and others. When Zalman Leib Rubenstein emigrated to America, Josef Blech replaced him as director. Sura Frak performed beautifully in various roles. Yehuda Leshem also excelled in various role and particularly as Avigil in the operetta, Shulamis [by Avraham Goldfaden]. Hantsa Glik played Shulamis, Avisholem was played by Chemes and the sorcerer was played by Ayzik Urias who was very successful with the audience. Other gifted artistic vigor was shown by Alter Ornshtein and Hantsa Akerman.
The income from the presentations would go to support needy, poor people, impoverished men who would be supported in secret.

 

Firefighter Command

In as much as Gorzd was built mostly of wooden houses, fires broke out often in the shtetl and the firemen had their hands full of work. Kalman Zilber was the fire chief, the second was Shepsl Blis and also the Zismanovitses. The Firefighter Command consisted of volunteer, young, healthy men, Jews and Lithuanians. The practice by the poszsharnikes [firemen] brought vitality to the shtetl when they would go out on the then old machines with full barrels of water in shining brass helmets with their uniforms and the public watched with great interest how the agile firemen

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climbed ladders and extinguished objects, as if they were putting out “a real fire.”

 

Religious Life

Gorzd was a pious shtetl. The most sacred spot for Gorzd Jews was the Beis-haMedrash [house of study and prayer] with a large room full of casks of holy books, Talmud, Khumishim [plural of Khumish – Torah] bound with parchment, books of Psalms, Mishnayos [rabbinical commentaries] and other sacred books. There were also a large synagogue, a Talmud Torah [religious primary school, usually for poor boys] and a small synagogue. (After the First World War, the synagogue and Talmud Torah were rebuilt with bricks after the fire, but the area of the small synagogue remained empty.)

There were many learned men in Gorzd. The head of the yeshiva was Reb Yitzhak Katsin; later he and his family emigrated to Eretz-Yisroel. (His daughter, Dora is there.) Young and old went en masse three times a day to pray collectively in a minyon [10 men required for prayer]. On Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and the Days of Awe and other holidays the houses of prayer were overflowing with worshippers.

We related to Rabbi haGaon [the sage] Shabatai Shapira with great respect and reverence and not only the Jews, even the Lithuanians related to him with great respect and when they would encounter him strolling in the garden they would greet him with great respect. His sermons were very rich in content, sharp and full of passion…

In Gorzd there were many of the righteous pious. Reb Leibe der weiser [the white one] (Yehudis Leshem's grandfather), Reb Leibe, der shwartser [the dark one]; Reb Elihayu the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]; the Rebbe Brener (he later lived in Memel) and Feiwl Brener, his son, who was an important employee in the Memel People's Bank; Reb Betzalel and his son, the child prodigy; Reb Zabulun; Reb Gershon-Feiwe Faktor; Reb Bere Welwe Milner and the Rabbi, Reb Yakov Burshtein; Reb Flatus; Reb Shmuel Ben-Tzion; Reb Feite the Shamas [assistant to rabbi] of the Beis-haMedrash and Reb Josef-Elihu the Shamas with

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his son the child prodigy; Reb Hirshe Itse Shralovits; the “shtibl [small, one room synagogue] rebbe” and great sage, Reb Heshl and many others.

This was the old generation in Gorzd that had a great influence on the Jews of the shtetl.

 

Beli Tefillah

Particularly well liked were the Beli Tefillah [men who lead prayer- Baal Tefillah is the singular form] – messengers for the community. Their praying was full of heart and feeling. It is enough to enumerate several of them such as Reb Josef Furt, the shoykhet, Reb Yitzhak-Lieb Kac, a good Baal Tefillah with a beautiful voice (he was called Itse Leibele); Reb Yehoshua-Yakov Lurie (Shaya Yanke Lurie); Zalkind with his magnificent voice; Reb Moshe Osherovits – a good Baal Tefillah, Torah reader and later also the shoykhet and Reb Welwele Shtoch, who would pray with feeling and to this day I still cannot forget his Musef Yom Kippur praying. His liturgical poem from Aseret Harugei Malchut [Ten Martyrs] would evoke tears from the worshippers. I also remember the priestly blessing of the teacher, Dovid Lam and his son Yasha. (Here the kohanim [descendants of Aaron, the priestly class] sang solo and the community of worshippers repeated after them.) Yasha was among the enlightened young men. Later he studied at a Lithuanian gymnazie [secondary school] in Kovno and he gave a fiery speech in Lithuanian on the 16th of February, the day of the Lithuanian national holiday, and even the Lithuanians admired him. It is worth mentioning the khazan [cantor], Reb Yakov Bar Kohan on whose stamp was printed “ûber-kantor.” He actually was a good khazan with a magnificent voice and on the Days of Awe he prepared a good choir with superb voices and among them, Zivik, who had a strong bass voice, Shmuel Ornshtein, Mendl Man and others.

A kind of holiness reigned in the Beis-haMedrash when the khazan prayed with his choir and the crying and pleading from the women's section added to the holy atmosphere.

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There were various religious societies in Gorzd as in other shtetlekh in Lithuania, Khevre Gemara [society to study Talmudic commentaries], Khevre Mishnaius [society to study the compiled oral Torah], Khevre Tehilim [society to recite Psalms] and the Khevre Kadishe [burial society]. The Jews in these societies studied in the Bote-Medrashim [houses of study and prayer] and studied with authorities such as Reb Gershon Feiwe, sometimes also the Rabbi, Reb Shabatai, Reb Josef Puret, the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], the head of the yeshiva, Reb Yitzhak Katsin and the Rabbi, Reb Yakov Burshtein. Jews reveled in his Talmud lessons; pearls truly poured from his mouth.

Those listening to the lessons were: Reb Eliezer-Moshe Wolwovits, a respected businessman, and his son, Ayzyk; Reb Hirshe-Itse Shrolovits; Reb Leibe-Hirsh – a respected Jew; Reb Mende-Falkes Frak, a Jew, a sage and a clever man and a giver of good advice; Reb Zisie Zusmanovits – a respected and very esteemed businessman. Dovid the lightmaker, Leizer Itsik's son, Reb Moshe Kurbman, a Jew, a God-fearing man; he would shout out his Shema Yisroel [Hear O, Israel – the central prayer of Judaism] with a strong voice so that the walls shook. He would give secret gifts to former Jewish businessmen, who later became impoverished. Only a few chosen ones knew of his support. Here in the land [Eretz-Yisroel], he was also a distinct Jew who was involved in the religious circles of the city.

Jews who studied a page of Gemara and Mishnaius privately could also be seen in various corners of the large Beis-haMedrash. Everyone was in his usual corner. Josef Hilel Shulman – a Jew, an owner of a building materials business; who in Gorzd did not know this good Jew? Yakov Gamzu – a Jew, a sagacious scholar of Talmud and a follower of the Enlightenment; Eliezer Shuster, a Jew, an artisan, but he was versed in the Gemara. Once I went into his house; I found him sitting at work and on the workstand lay an open Talmud treatise, Brokhus. Thus, he also learned while working. Elihu Ahser – a Jew, a sage and a scholar and a giver of good advice. Reb Yitzhak bar [son of] Welwe, Welwe's son Bere, Dovid Feil, Zev Shavel.

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Eliezer Akerman – Shakhne Akerman's son – was a Jew, a maskil [follower of the Enlightenment] and read many secular books. He was the chief bookkeeper for the People's Bank in Gorzd and a member of the Kehile [organized Jewish community], and a member of the Kehile council with the previous teacher, Dovid Kutlubski, Josef Furt and, I think, also Epharim Markovits.

 

Khevre Kadishe [Burial Society]

The gabbai [assistant to the rabbi] was Bere Wolf and also Ephraim Markovits. Reb Josef Ornshtein (the father of Avraham Ornshtein), Hirshe Ornshtein, the old Dovid Frak with his white beard had the duty to bring his purification tools from the poor house; he liked to perform the mitzvah [commandment]. During the summer he was an orchard keeper for his entire life and during the winter he dealt with hides. He died at the very old age of 90.

The Khevre Kadishe was greatly respected in the shtetl. The Jews of the Khevre Kadishe did their work with a great spirit of sacrifice and dedication in order to give respect to a Jewish burial.

 

Celebrations

The Jews arranged a large, kingly celebration every seven years after the Siem Shas [celebration of the completion of the study of the Talmud]. Klezmorim [musicians] played without stopping. The tables were full of all kinds of good foods like roasted goose, fish, herring, challahs and cakes and fruits of all kinds. Jews rejoiced and heard sermons from the gabbai and from the Rabbi, Reb Shabtai. The celebration of the Siem Shas was remembered for a long time

All of Gorzd came to the Bote-Medrashim on Simkhas Torah [fall holiday commemorating the completion of the yearly Torah readings]. Jews sang and the hakofus [circular procession with the Torah scrolls] in Gorzd had a good reputation. The Gorzd Jews were transported en masse by the joyful atmosphere in the shtetl; they permitted themselves to drink wine and whisky until they became drunk. They ate and drank as much as their hearts

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desired. The prayers and singing were heard far into the streets and alleys of the shtetl. It seemed that the entire shtetl was filled with Simkhas Torah

 

Tiferes Bokhurim [Splendid Young Men]

There was also a Tiferes Bokhurim [Splendid Young Men] in Gorzd who consisted of young businessmen. They had a separate minyon and studied a page of gemara together and did various work in the religious communal area.


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In Memory of Gordz

by Sheva bas [daughter of] Meir Aronovits

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, our shtetl [town], Gordz (Gargzdai in Lithuanian), which was located at that time right at the German border, was considered a shtetl with a Jewish culture. In addition to the religious institutions, there were also various youth organizations, committees for social help, two libraries, a dramatic circle that would from time to time present performances carried out by amateurs and the income from these performances would be used for various social or cultural purposes. Performances by school children would also take place, organized thanks to the initiative and active direction of the teachers.

Gordz remains in our memories as it was with its one-story wooden houses and neat streets and alleys. We remember the Friday nights on the long Klaipeda Street, where the largest number of Jews in the shtetl lived. When after eating they would go out and take a stroll, the Shabbos [Sabbath] candles in the sparkling candlesticks on the tables covered in white would shine through the windows of the houses on both sides of the street.

On Shabbas [Sabbath] afternoons during the summer the strollers were in the shtetl park. Entire families would go there and spend the time until the evening among the aromatic trees. They were busy for the entire week, but they would be here on Shabbos. The ringing voices and laughter of the children who would play together on the lap of nature was heard in the air. Young people would often stroll through the park and go down the hill to the river (the Minija) that flowed through the green, spacious, full fields through all of Gordz.

*

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Yes, the Minija still flows today as before. Klaipeda Street still exists, but instead of the earlier wooden houses, today many-storied modern brick buildings stand on both sides of the street. For the most part, people live there who came to Gordz from other towns and in general did not know of such a place as Gordz.

Only the headstones on the mass graves give evidence that Jews once lived here: the Jewish men's grave that is located in Gordz itself and the mass graves of the women and children, which is located not far from Gordz in the village of Anieliškė.

When Germany began the war against Russia, I was with my sister in Kovno. The German army advanced very quickly and occupied Kovno on the second day. The Germans immediately announced by radio that the Jews were forbidden to use all means of transportation and were forbidden to have dealings with the post office. Therefore we immediately lost all connections with Gordz.

During the first weeks after the Germans took Kovno, the bloodthirsty Lithuanian murderers carried out pogroms against the Jews. Wild bands of Lithuanians who broke into Jewish houses beat and stole everything they could find. They grabbed Jews on the streets, dragged them away to the forts (fortresses) around Kovno and killed them there. There were very many victims then. There actually was a fear of going out into the street.

Later an order was issued that Jews had to put on a yellow patch (a yellow shield [star] of David) and it was forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, only in the middle of the road. Later, the period was set during which the Kovno Jews had to leave the city and move to the suburbs of Kovno Slobodka (Williampole) into a closed ghetto.

At that time, there were still Gorzders in Kovno who we met. We spoke together about finding

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a Lithuanian who would agree to travel to Gorzd and learn about the fate of our families. And it was so: We sent a Lithuanian to Gorzd with a nice payment and several days later he returned and brought a letter with sad news. Several families had written the letter on one piece of paper. All informed us with almost the same words that the men had been taken and the women and children were located in a barn in the village of Aneliski.

This was our last connection and the last message from the Gorzd Jews. Later we learned that the men were annihilated on the third day of the war and the women and children were held in a barn until the end of September 1941 and then they were killed.

We will never forget. We will never forgive their murderers.

 

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