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[Page 293]

Chapter 4

Religion, Culture and Community Life

 

Yurburg - a Jewish Community Distinguished by its Intellectual Life

By M. Simon, Tilsit

(Israelitisches Familienblatt, October 22, 1931)

Not far from the border between the Memel district and Lithuania, about 30 kilometers from the German city of Tilsit the former small Russian town of Yurburg (Georgenburg) is situated in a picturesque location on the banks of the Memel (Nieman) river. The Jewish community of about 2000 souls is distinguished by its lively intellectual life. Besides an elementary school, the community maintains a well equipped high school run according to modern educational principles. It is subject to supervision by the Lithuanian ministry of education from which it receives substantial support.

It is almost the sole remnant of the rights solemnly promised to the Jews of Lithuania ten years ago: An autonomous network of schools subsidized by the state. All the other rights and privileges were aimed at improving the economic and spiritual conditions of the Lithuanian Jews. The Jewish community councils that were to operate autonomously were appointed according to the old Russian pattern; the Rabbis were again appointed to administer the population registration, and once again, there is no nationwide Jewish council and no minister of Jewish affairs.

What remains is what already existed before: reminders of past good times, memorials to folk art and community life. In Yurburg, the Old Synagogue, a wooden structure, remains the main point of attraction for the Jewish traveler. No reliable data exist on the "age" of this house of prayer. Based on its architectural style and its location, it probably was built towards the end of the 18th century. The unique cupola above the dais in the center of the sanctuary and the Holy Ark deserve special mention.

The aged Rabbi Dimant serves as head of the community. He is famous far beyond the borders of Lithuania.

(Free translation by Joseph Valk, son of the late Matatyahu Valk, a native of Yurburg)


[Page 294]

Yurburg in "Questions and Answers" of Rabbinical Literature

By Pinchas Shachnovitz

Chapter 7 in the Rabbi of Lublin's "Questions and Answers" deals with the problem of an 'agunah' [a deserted wife] whose husband has disappeared and there is no proof that he died or was killed. Such a woman is forbidden by Jewish law to remarry.

When evidence was taken in Vilna in the year 5353 (1593), the book "Questions and Answers" reports, it was told that her husband was killed in the customs house of Jurberg - Yurburg - a town southeast of Memel and northwest of Kovno.

Following is the story on "hearing the evidence," which was written in the Yiddish language which then was in its infancy...

This shows that a Jewish community existed in Yurburg as early as in 1593.

... The third session of taking evidence, in the Rabbi of Lublin's Q&A; (chapter 7), also refers to an "agunah" [deserted wife], "the wife of Yehuda son of Cathriel, brother of Nathan, Kerpel," and mentions the evidence taken in Vilna in the year 5353, which is 1593 ("... as stated in said evidence taken in the Holy Community of Vilna on Tuesday, the 20th of Tamuz, 5393"). The agunah did not receive the "get" [divorce] very quickly, because four years later, in 5397 (1597) we learn more details about this case from evidence given by one Reuben son of Shmuel, who tells that he had heard about the deceased "at the customs house in Jurberg, which is none other than the Lithuanian town of Yurburg, southeast of Memel and northwest of Kovno: "And so, the evidence given on Monday, the 15th of Shvat, 5357 [1597], by the witness Reuben son of the late Shmuel [in his language, German] was: It is now three years when at the customs house at Jurberg T had heard from several non-Jews who blurted out that Feivel (Pavel) was killed (may God revenge his spilled blood); his own son-in-law told me several times that Feivel was killed at Jurberg and that is the place where he was killed."

(Edited by - Paz)


[Pages 295 - 296]

The Old Synagogue Tells its Story

By Pinchas Shachnovitz

Translated by Irene Emodi, Tel Aviv

There it stands, humbly, the old synagogue, shrouded in the glory of age - yet still standing upright, its head reaching to the sky.

Inside the empty space of the synagogue one can often hear the moaning of grief and a lamenting voice whispers "Where are they, my sons?" Not one of my sons, those I raised in dignity turns to me. Only mourners and orphans come to me each morning, saying a hasty prayer, they say "Kadish" and close the door behind them. All that remains of me is a locked garden. Rather die than live such a boring life.

I remember days gone by, when I was a crown of splendor and a magnificent mound to God, everyone turning to Him; My gates were wide open from morning to night . Talitot were worn and folded, tzitziot were dragged , bands wrapped around hairy and smooth arms, half bare, moving in space, each mouth mumbling and each tongue praying, each back swaying and all eyes lifted to heaven. The air filled with many voices, merging in wondrous harmony. I would have taken the echoes of these voices and the words in heart and mouth and sent them straight to the world above, the "household of heaven".

Whenever someone fell seriously ill in town, his family would immediately run to me, to my gates of mercy. Their weeping shook my walls, and I cried with them. . .

When one of the Jews in town died, the inhabitants would cry bitterly and I would shed a tear with them. On Simchat Torah I would be tipsy together will all the others; they danced in me and I in them; The echo of my beautiful ceiling answered them. The sorrow and joy of my sons were absorbed into my walls every day and every hour , for about two hundred years.

*

And now, after many years of being abandoned, my gates are wide open again. Many Jews come to me, young and old alike. The young ones are courageous, without a beard yet, but their eyes burn like torches. Many of them speak in the language of prayer. Once one of them took courage and climbed onto the pulpit from where the most honorable Rabbis addressed the people, and he spoke in a loud and courageous voice full of belief.

These were his words: "The best of our sons in the country of our fathers, who freed our fatherland and realized the hope of all of us, will never again offer their necks for slaughter. To those who hate us and persecute us we answer with courage, aliyah, defense and building of our country. Salvation lies not only in prayer. Gather every cent for the liberation of the country and it defense." That is what he said and the blue box was passed along , becoming heavier, filling up.

I stood there, wondering and murmuring: who brought those under my wings and gathered them here?- These youngsters seemed different to me from past visitors. I looked at them and saw fire burning in their eyes. Not a strange fire, but a holy fire. They yearn for human sacrifice, build a homeland and wait with open arms for other youngsters to join them. They make the desert bloom, gather in exiles, build a homeland. I am proud of these sons. I too would love to see one of these pioneers with my own eyes, conquer the land and defend it.

*

One clear morning the sun opened my doors and one of the pioneers who had come on a mission from "over there" entered. I looked at him and was thrilled; I received him as a grandfather receives his beloved grandson, who has come from a distant- near land. Only then did I understand the reason for my boredom: my space was too narrow to hold the flame of thousands of such eyes.

My son is my victory. At my advanced age I shall be satisfied with the old people who come to tell me of their sorrows, and the young ones I will accompany with my blessing and prayer from afar, so that they will build their homes in splendor, as they see fit. I was built as "a little temple" and they are building a "world temple" for centuries to come.

The old synagogue, from 1790, straightens its back and proudly lifts its head, facing the light coming from the East.

*

After many years a terrible tremor shocked the building, from bottom to ceiling, as if the synagogue cried and lamented silently, weeping about its destruction and the destruction of its community.

Yurburg, April 29, 1938


[Pages 297-305]

The Synagogue and the Community's Religious Life

by Zevulun Poran

Translated by Irene Emodi, Tel Aviv

The Bimah in the Old Synagogue of Yurburg

The Bimah in the Old Synagogue of Yurburg

 

The New Beth Hamidrash in the Center of the City

The New Beth Hamidrash in the Center of the Town

 

Elyahu's Chair in the Old Synagogue of Yurburg

Elyahu's Chair in the Old Synagogue of Yurburg

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