We remember those little towns and they are the best memories we have from those days. Indeed, the little towns are no longer. Hitler's "deluge" flooded them, destroyed them, desecrated their temples and dispersed their bones over the fields and forests of Lithuania.
Shall my humble pen be able to set up a memorial for the semblance and image of our little town on the shores of the Neiman? My town was destroyed by villains, the Germans and the Lithuanians. For hundreds of years they were our neighbors. We were like everyone else, we Jews, part of the Lithuanian landscape, we the sons of a southern Semitic tribe in the far North.
The name of my little town was Yurburg. The Jews called it Yurbrik. The little town was situated on the shores of the Neiman, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the then capital Kovna. About 600 Jewish families lived in Yurburg and about 50 Christian families. Yurburg was situated in a small valley; on one side were the fields of the Lithuanian farmers and on the other side the Neiman was its border, its steely blue waters flowing along courageously and sometimes flooding its shores. Beyond the Neiman were dense forests and the farmers' homes covered in straw of the little Jewish village Shodina (Saudina). On the side of this village was the estate of a Baron, its white houses could be seen from afar. The connection with the capital was via the Neiman on which steamships sailed with glorious names such as "Kistotis", named after one of the historic Lithuanian princes, "Laitova" -Lithuania and "Tavina" - fatherland.
The water of the Neiman flowed into the Baltic sea. But my little town was the last stop for the steamships, while the German border was merely 10 kms. away. Rafts would sail on the Neiman as well, made of tree trunks, harvested in the Lithuanian forests.
The Jewish tradesmen would sail these rafts to Germany. "Good" Jews would sail on these rafts, praying and studying Talmud . . . thus a "good" Jew would stand next to the large steering wheel while his small prayer shawl flowed in the wind and he would study the Torah. And at night the stars would shine brightly and the dark shadows would move along silently on the water. Rafts from the world of imagination! These were Jews from the little towns of Vilki and Sardanik. Jews, Torah scholars who chose hard and dangerous work to make a living. The Neiman was their source for making a living. Jewish fishermen, porters on the steamships, carriage owners who transported the "Passagiere" to the little town, ticket vendors on the ships and visitors.
When you would come to our little town from the side of the Neiman, you would see the entire town in front of you. First of all you would see the sand lands, humble vegetable gardens planted with potatoes, and the Mitova river next to them, whose water flowed into the Neiman. The shrill voices of frogs would be heard in the water of the small lake in the "Zarda", before the town.
And here comes the town itself - a gray block of one-storey wooden houses, while on one side the red bell towers proudly rise up and the red roof of the Lithuanian Catholic church, and on the other side - the high house with the three roofs of the synagogue.
In my dream I am walking through my town, which is no longer, which was destroyed and burned down while the bones of its martyrs were collected in the forest next to my little town and buried in a large mass grave in the cemetery, at the initiative and with the efforts of the few who were left behind.
Here comes the street of the butchers "Yatkaver Gass", with its crooked doors and windows, as in the paintings of Chagal. The street is paved with cobble stones, and here too is the large bakery shop of Kraid (Ben Craine's mother's bakery....note added by Joel Alpert). And the butchers - Jews who observe the Torah, who in the days of the high holidays would "lead" at the synagogue and the sounds of their prayers would lament the bitter fate . . . only the last and terrible fate, that of Hitler - may he burn in hell - the days of the Holocaust they could not lament and they were sent to their death as sheep to slaughter.
And from the street of the butchers, through short alleys, we arrive at the main street of our town - "Kovner Gass" (Kovna Street), a street on which almost all the houses are two-storey brick buildings. Most of the town's shops were on this street.
I remember there were weaving workshops there, and a grocery store and a wholesaler and retailer, and there were pharmacies, three hairdressers, Lapinsky's beer agency, two shops for kitchenware and paint. And there was the large store for farming tools and agricultural machinery of Greenberg, who was one of the town's wealthy men and engaged in thriving business with the Lithuanian village. And further on the shop where hides were sold, and the large store for stationery and books of Shachnowitz. And there were the two hotels of Matel Kamel and Feinberg. And thus we arrive at the municipal market, which each Monday and Thursday would be full of horse carts and the noise of the villagers. Next to this market stand the town's two synagogues - the House of Prayer and the Great Synagogue.
Further on is Feinberg's hotel and the Lithuanian citizen's club, the large yard of the Feinberg brothers; four brothers in the family, owners of the lumber mill, the flower mill and the electricity plant which supplied the town's electricity, from 6 o'clock in the evening to midnight. The electricity allowed the town's two little movie houses to show movies and bring the inhabitants of Yurburg in touch with the beautiful world outside - to get to know Emil Yaningas, Konrad Feit, Paula Negri, Charley Chaplin, and all the other famous actors. If a successful movie was shown at one of the movie houses, the other was empty that evening. The town's youth loved the movies, which took them out of their isolation. The movie house was open on Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday. Movies at that time were still "silent"; the movie was accompanied on the violin by Poliak Steimatzky and an old spinster played the piano - it was said she had a profoundly philosophic view of life. The second movie house operated without musical accompaniment. The movie house owner was afraid to incur unnecessary expenses. The movie house's billboards, the "Affiches" painted in various colors were set up in a wooden frame next to Shachnowitz's book store. The boards were painted by Levin, a nice young man, who would receive a few cents for this and a few free tickets.
The movies would stir up longings for the world outside, would entice people to leave the town and its boring life behind. There was always talk about emigration in town, and the imagination traveled around the globe. Distant countries were mentioned. And some boys and girls went on training courses organized by "Hehalutz" and they would wait a few years in order to obtain one of the few available certificates to go to "Palestina". Mexico was mentioned, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Chile. America, Canada and South Africa were not mentioned, as these countries were "locked with seven locks," and there was no hope of getting there.
These were the 1920s and they "excelled" in lack of purpose . . . , however, only part of the town's youth was lucky enough to be saved and arrive in one of those distant countries. It is presently possible to find people from Yurburg all over the world, even in far-away Australia. Thus part of the youth was saved from destruction in the days of the Holocaust.
Let's walk on along the roads of our town. The next street is Kalishu street, named after a neighborhood village. What is so special about this street? - Nothing at all, except for the fact that it is our street, the street of my family and my aunts Rocha and Friedel. This street starts at a two-storey house where the Kizel family lived, a family all of whose members emigrated to distant Canada. One of the sons was my best friend, Rafael, or Rafelke Kizel. The others, the grown-ups, did business with the Lithuanian village, fodder, hides and linen. The younger ones studied at the Kovna gymnasia. The Kizel family was a large family blessed with many sons and daughters.
Further on, on the same street, there were a few modest shops and the "Stadola" of the hotel owner Motel Kamel. The "Stadola" was usually empty, but once, not in my time, it was used as a stable for the horses of the "Posta". The post coaches would go in and out there. The coachmen would rest at the hotel, and the horses in the stables. Opposite the large horse stables was the small house of Hane "Der Zaigermacher", the only clock maker in town, a kind Jew, who adopted an orphan and took him into his home. All sort of clocks were ticking on the walls of his workroom. When Hane would repair a clock this would be in "Garantia" - the clock "ran" for a long time. Hane would also be called upon to repair the large wall clocks of the "Knaiz" palace, of Prince Vasilchakov, at the end of town, in the large park.
Further on we stand in front of the large two-storey home - a beautiful house - of Rabbi Yehuda Rabinowitz. This was the most beautiful and largest house of which the town was very proud. This house could easily have stood next to other houses even in Petersburg, Russia's capital. It was not only a home, but also a large yard with all sorts of structures. The yard was paved with stones, not like the other yards in town, which in fall and spring, when the snow melted, would be full of dirt and mud and puddles of water impossible to pass. The house was a luxurious residence with strong brown oak doors with bronze handles. The windows were high and shining. When I was a little boy, Yehuda Rabinowitz was no longer alive. I knew that Rabinowitz had built the "Talmud Torah", a large wooden building with an attic. And there was a large yard around it too, a place where the town's poor children could play.
Rabinowitz was the richest businessman in town, he traded in timber and he had business connections with Germany. His picture hang in the school's largest hall, where all the town's weddings were held. In one of the houses, green in color, lived Doctor Rabinowitz, the late Yehuda's son. He was the town's important physician, a bachelor, who was only interested in medicine. The town's carriages would arrive at his home filled with fresh straw and carpets in order to take the doctor to a patient in the village. On one of Dr. Rabinowitz's visits to "Shaodina" (Saudina), the little Jewish village on the other side of the Neiman, he suddenly felt ill. He said to one of the Jews: "go tell my family that I am not feeling well and that I am about to die". He arrived at his home very sick and died.
My late mother, blessed be her memory, sent me together with the other children of the town to recite psalms next to his body covered in black. Dr. Rabinowitz often treated me during his lifetime and he stitched the sole of my foot which I injured once. Dr. Rabinowitz was a doctor for all illnesses - a general physician - he would deliver babies, carry out surgery, and he was also a doctor of internal medicine, what is called a country doctor in America. Needless to say that he was a kind man who assisted the town's poor people and treated them free of charge.
In that same large yard stood a small house with an honorable neighbor, the famous gentile of the town who was the servant of the Rabinowitzes. He was a tall gentile, "a gentile and a half", a drunkard, whose main job it was to clean the yard and front of the large house. The gentile never let go of the large broom he held in his hand. This gentile came of a distinguished lineage. Everyone knew that he was a "potshotni promestavni grazdanin" - an honorable citizen by birth. This gentile did not go any further in life for he was a drunkard and had no relations with anyone; he lived on his own and was solitary. It was said about the gentile that he still had medals from the time of the Russian army, but no one had actually seen them.
All this happened in the days of the Czar, prior to World War I. Later on, when our family returned from Russia, after four years of World War I, the general picture in Yurburg had not changed. One of the sons lived at the Rabinowitz residence, an aristocratic Jew, who was also an important timber merchant, like his father, who did business with Germany. At the doctor's home there was another doctor already, not a member of the family. His name was Dr. Gerstein. A handsome man who was also the principal of the Hebrew gymnasium in our town.
Yosef Rabinowitz, the son, had a special carriage, on which one sat as on a horse, with the legs on both sides. In this carriage he would ride to his forests in the town's vicinity. He was married to one of the daughters of businessman Fein (the largest wholesaler in town according to the grocery shop), a great beauty
Opposite the home of the Rabinowitzes, at the Beth laBanim (Home of the Sons) was a coffee shop, where the young and idle youngsters of the town would go on Saturdays, to "kill" time. This was already in the early twenties. Usually they would come to this coffee house to play cards, look through the Russian newspaper "Ahu", a poor newspaper appearing in Lithuania. The youngsters broke away from their fathers' tradition. When a serious person would enter the coffee house they would steal away through the yard.
Down the road, further on, stood the home of Abramson, the photographer and typographer, which occupied a place of honor in one of the Rabinowitzes buildings. He was one of the two photographers in town, but he was the only typographer-printer.
As photographer he would determine the "pose", position of the head and hands of the person whose picture he was taking. After that he would decide when one had to "freeze", not to move or blink an eye, for photographing was an art. It would take a very long time to take a picture, until the "client" managed to attain eternity on the "negative". Mr. Abramson had a permanent exhibition of the pictures next to the door of his home and here the "photographies" could be seen. As a printer, he would mainly print the wedding invitations of the town's inhabitants.
Opposite the home of photographer and printer Abramson stood the house of Levitan, a respected citizen of the town, who was the owner of the "Apothekarski Magazin". In this "magazin" one could obtain cosmetics, as far as they were being used by the town's ladies. Usually iodine was purchased at the "magazin", alcohol, cotton wool and "Schlack Trapens", on Yom Kippur (Atonement Day) eve. To say the truth, there was another "Apothekarski Magazin" in the "Kovner Gass", the one belonging to Mr. Rikler.
Here we pass Rasain street, the "Rasainer Gass" and see the hotel of the Polish woman in the corner - the widow Bilman, who lived here with her two sons and daughter. Gentile visitors would stay here, preferring this hotel to the two Jewish ones.
Downstairs was the tavern with the large buffet. The few officials of the town council - the Head of Police and two policemen - would frequent the tavern. Rich farmers from the surrounding area would also come here on market day, to wet their throat and brush their tongue. The hotel owner and her sons did not look fondly upon the town's Jews. They were Polish - and anti-Semitism was in their blood. Nevertheless, when the Jewish actors would come to town, to perform Yiddish plays, they had to stay at the Polish woman's hotel, because of the large hall, where they could hold their rehearsals, the "Repetities".
The best Yiddish actors would come to Yurburg, they also performed in Kovna, the temporary capital. When they came to town it was a real celebration. The people in town loved theater. Middle-aged people still remembered the time when they themselves took part in the play " The Sacrifice of Isaac".
The actors of the "Kadish veHash" group performed the musical "Malkele Saladat" and "Komedies" with songs and dance. There were actors with a serious repertoire as well. When the actors were rehearsing for a musical they would ask the town's Kleizmer singers to join them - the Polish man with his violin, the one who played at the cinema and weddings, Mr. Fidler with the flute from the wedding band, who also had a fish store and who would lease fruit gardens in the summer, and the one with the big bass and another one. All of them together, in a joint effort, worked hard to produce the sweet melodies of "Malkele Saladat". The beautiful sounds could be heard from the windows of widow Bilman's hotel. A large crowd gathered outside and stood close to the windows, enjoying themselves tremendously. The theater!
Those were the happy moments provided by the theater. We were amateur actors ourselves in those days, and we performed plays for "Bikur Holim" (sick fund), "Mehabeh Esh" (fire fighters),"Gmilot Hesed" (charity). We didn't care on whose behalf we were performing, the main thing was to act and act! And the pretext helped. We performed the "Hasia Di Yetome", "Yankel Der Schmid", "Mirele Efrat", "Mashke Hazir", "Di Spanische Inquizitia" etc. We rehearsed for weeks, took down clothes from the attic, decorations etc and the good Fidler, the barber, would take care of our make-up - on condition we did not look in the mirror - so that we never knew what we really looked like after his make-up.
On the other side of the street, opposite the house at the corner of the Bilman hotel, stood the house of Aunt Friedel and Aunt Roche. Aunt Roche was a sick woman and she was supported by the goodhearted and generous Uncle Mendel. Uncle Mendel was an industrialist from Kovna. He was a partner in the chocolate and candy factory which had the Hebrew name "Kadima". My uncle was a wealthy man.
In the house where my aunt lived was "the bakery of Leah" (probably Leah Krelitz... the mother of many Krelitz's who immigrated to the US....note added by Joel Alpert) who would bake bread and challot, "beigelech and pletzelech" (challas, bagels and pretzels). The smell of her bakery was like a smell from heaven.Till today, when I pass a bakery, the wonderful smell of the bread calls to mind pleasant memories of "Leah's bakery", and then I nostalgically remember "Leah's bakery" in my little town. I remember that we used to bring the "hammin" (meat stew) to Leah's bakery, the "cholent" of Shabbath. And on Shabbath, after our fathers returned from the synagogue, we would gather at the bakery, boys and girls, and we would not wait until everybody was there in order to open the oven just once "so as not to let the cholent grow cold" . . . and we, the children, would run very fast with the cholent over the snow, on a winter day, to bring it to our home while it was still hot.
And here comes our home. The home of my parents. A wooden house, square and covered by a tin roof. This roof was the source of great financial efforts on our part. First of all we talked about the roof for months, for there was no money. However, we somehow managed to "scrape together" - "man hat zusammengekratzt" - money by loans and we covered the roof. We decided to use solid material, for once and for all, for a roof covered by wooden boards, called "Shindeln" in Yiddish, did not last very long; it would rot and let the rain through.
At our home was our store too, the grocery store. In Russian the shop was called "Kolonialaia Lavka", a store for colonial goods, perhaps because of the black pepper, the cinnamon, the tea and coffee, which were imported from colonial countries. Such a store was also called "Kalania Lavka" in town. Proceeds would depend on the farmers, who would come twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, to the municipal market. When they came they would fill our house with the smoke of "machorke", cheap tobacco from their pipes. The young farm girls would coquettishly look into our mirror, arranging themselves . . . The farmers would sit together for hours, inhaling the strong tobacco, which they grew themselves, and would spit onto the floor. We used to hear the word "sako-fa-sako"- all over again, which meant "he said" in Lithuanian - farmers' gossip.
These market days were a burden to my good and compassionate mother, but there was nothing we could do, for they were customers.
On the other side of the road was the large Lithuanian cooperative store, which looked upon our customers with envy. This store was opened in accordance with the new Lithuanian policy to take business away from the Jews. But my father had had connections with the farmers for tens of years, and therefore they preferred his store to that of the cooperative. In cold winter days the farmers found a place for their belongings in our warm home, a corner to have something to eat and meet friends. Our large yard, behind the house, was used for the farmers' horses and carriages. A farmer who would dare to be unfaithful to us and was seen shopping at the cooperative was simply told to "go away"! After such a market day my mother, blessed be her memory, would work very hard to clean the house and get rid of the smell of the "mechorka" and turn the house into a Jewish home again. (By the way, my father's name was "Abba", and that is why the farmers called him "Abakitis", and they called mother "Abakaine"). We never felt there was any hatred against us on the part of the gentiles. We had many friends among the farmers. And I remember that when World War I broke out and the Jews were deported from Lithuania, a rich farmer came to our house, with a large carriage with two horses and transported all our furniture and everything else in our home to his estate. When we returned from Russia to Yurburg in 1919 the farmer returned everything to us, and nothing was missing. The farmer's name was Yurgis Tamosheitis, blessed be his memory. Later on his sons became priests and officers in the Lithuanian army. Once he came to father and said furiously - a Jew called me "goy" (gentile) - should I be called a goy? He was very offended and kept saying 'I'?, "I"?! His sons, the priests and officers, would always come to our home when they were in town and express their feelings of friendship for our family.
At the corner of Kalishu street and "Daitsche Gass" - in the wooden house - was the town's post office. Before, during the reign of the Czar, this was the "Monopol", the place where the government booze was sold. That is why the bottle of booze was jokingly called "monopolka". I remember that on the eve of World War I a decree was issued by the Czar, to destroy all the booze at the "Monopol". Policemen stood there and broke hundreds of bottles of booze and threw the contents into the gutter. The gentiles in town looked sadly how this precious beverage was thrown into the gutters. They stood there muttering sadly " that is the war - what a tragedy!"
The Czarist regime was afraid the Cossaks, who were near the border, would "attack" the "monopol" and get drunk instead of "attacking" the enemy. And that is indeed what happened. When war broke out the Cossaks, who were in our vicinity, entered the shops in town and asked for sweets, tobacco, cigarettes, free of charge. Their requests were more like threats. My father, beloved be his memory, good-naturedly weighed candy for them and handed out cigarettes, to stress that not everything was licentious. Those were the defenders of "Mother Russia". These sturdy Cossaks, short men with a mane of hair, the splendid tschuperinot and the red stripes on their trousers and hats who inspired awe and fear in the Jews and in general.
In the days of the Lithuanian regime the town's post office took the place of the "Monopol" of the days of the Russians. Towards evening many towns people would go to the post office, as they had nothing else to do. This was called "picking up the mail". Even those who stood no chance of receiving any mail went there. It was a way of "killing" a few hours of boredom. The post office would be crowded and it was mainly a meeting place for the youngsters. The little window of the post office was still closed and in the meantime the latest news would be circulating about the world beyond the little town. Our town too was full of news - and when the little post office window opened only a tenth of the people would receive mail. Afterwards everyone would happily go home.
That is the end of the story which unfortunately was not completed
Bridge across the Imstra
From a Former Residents of Yurburg Association Conference
By Bat-Sheva Ayalon-Stok, Givat Brenner
What was the difference between our little town Yurburg and other towns? - Naturally we only remember the good things - could it be that we are nostalgic? When one reaches a certain age one tends to look back longingly.
Am I really nostalgic? Would I like to be back there? - Of course not, after all, that is why I emigrated to Israel.
My vision of Yurburg is that of a town of working people. Work was the essence of life. Some people were not so rich, others were richer, all of them worked. No one in Yurburg asked for charity, except for the beggars who came to town and stayed at the "hekdesh" (sanctum) behind the synagogue. There was concern for others- "the people of Israel take care of each other"- this lofty principle was carefully observed.
Yurburg was a town with a high cultural level. No home was without books. People did not live in large, luxurious homes, but in most of them there was a shelf with books on it, holy books and secular books. The Jews loved to look at a book; the children studied at the "heder" and graduated at least from primary school. Before compulsory education became the law of the land, the Jews of Yurburg themselves adopted the law of compulsory education.
The Lithuanian government set up a Lithuanian gymnasium in town. The Jews did not want to send their children to study there, and with great effort they set up their own Hebrew Gymnasium, where studies were held in Hebrew. Thanks to the nationalist-Hebrew education received by the students at the Hebrew Gymnasium, they were attracted to Zionism - and thus to aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.
There were also libraries in Yurburg, in Yiddish and Hebrew. Emanuel Koplov's mother fought for the establishment of the Hebrew library. There was a popular and simple culture in our town.
Our forefathers established a splendid synagogue in Yurburg, decorated with beautiful ornaments, and a pulprit and Elyahu's chair; this old furniture - how lovely it was! .
Where did our fathers find the means to set up all this, if not from their meager savings?
The Keren Kayemet box (the Blue Box) was to be found in each home next to the charity boxes of Rabbi Meir Ba'al Hanes and others. The students would empty the boxes, they would sell "Sheqalim" towards the Zionist Congress. The grown-ups participated in the elections to the Zionist Congress and considered this an important event for the Jewish people.
In general, Yurburg was a very well organized town, for example there were organizations such as the "Froien Verein" and women's organizations to assist the needy. Our mothers organized these associations; they also took care of brides, visited the sick etc.
The memories of my youth in Yurburg accompany me wherever I go. We are now going through a difficult period in Israel. In the daily press we read about murders, killings and robberies. It seems to me that there were no Jewish murderers or thieves in Yurburg ... I don't remember such a phenomenon.
That is what Yurburg was like. It is nice to remember our little town, where we grew up and which we loved with all our heart.
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