“Balbirishok” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Lithuania)

54°32' / 23°53'

Translation of the “Balbirishok” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Josef Rosin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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the translations which were done by Shalom Bronstein for her private use.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.


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(Page 179)

Balbieriskis (Lith.)

Balbirishok (Yiddish), Balverzhishki (Russian)

A district city in the Province of Marijampole

Written by Josef Rosin

Translated by Shalom Bronstein

YearTotal PopulationJewsJews as percentage of Total Population
1843 1,153 (154 families) 
18612,4241,16748%
18972,04392545%
1921780560 (130 families)72%
1923 507 
1940 350 (est.) 

Located in Southwest Lithuania, on the left bank of the Neiman River, approximately 18 kilometers northwest of the railroad center of Alita (Alytus, cf.). The town developed adjacent to the large estate established there in the beginning of the 16th century. In 1520, it was awarded the privileges of a city. However, during Prussian rule (1795-1807) this status was withdrawn because of its small population. Between 1807-1815, it was included in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In 1815, after Napoleon's defeat, it became Russian territory and eventually was made part of Suvalk Province. Under Russian rule, Balbirishok developed into an important commercial center. At the end of the 19th century, when the rail line was laid to Alita and Pren (Prienai), those two towns grew at the expense of Balbirishok, whose importance declined. Between 1915-1918, during World War I, the German army occupied the town. During Lithuania's independence (1918-1940), Balbirishok was a sub-district city.

Balbirishok was one of the 246 settlements in Poland that had no restrictions on Jewish residents. It seems that Jews first settled there in the mid 17th century. At that time, they mostly lived in the surrounding villages. They were in the lumber and grain trade and some of the wealthy merchants among them routinely accompanied their merchandise to Germany on the ferries and barges that plied the Neiman.

In 1881, a pogrom was carried out against the Jews of the town. On a regular market day, on the eve of Yom Kippur, farmers raided the Jewish shops. They stole whatever they could carry, doused what was left with kerosene and set them on fire. Windows of houses were smashed, pillows and bedding ripped open and tossed about, and Jews were beaten. One person subsequently died of is injuries and more than 20 were seriously injured. The rioters broke into the synagogue and Beit Midrash [study hall] destroying anything they could. The town's Hevra Kadisha had nine members in 1881.

Previous to World War I, the local children were educated in the heder and in the Talmud Torah. There were some enlightened young people in the town who thirsted for knowledge. Through the organization Mifitzei Haskalah [Spreaders of Knowledge] in Russia, secular books were sent to them. A letter of gratitude, published in the Hebrew newspaper Hamelitz on January 2, 1883, and signed by Reuven Horowitz in the name of the town's young people, thanks the organization for sending six books.

In 1898, immediately after the First Zionist Congress, a campaign to raise funds to further Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael was carried out. An issue of Hamelitz of the same year contains a list of the names of those who contributed.

At the end of April 1915, the Jews of Balbirishok were expelled deep into Russia on orders of the Czar's army as it withdrew from the advancing Germans. At the end of the war, the Jews returned. In the fall of 1919, elections were conducted to select members of the governing council of the Jewish community as was mandated in the Law on Jewish Autonomy enacted by the government of Lithuania. Nine men were elected according to the following parties: General Zionists - 2; Young Zion - 2; Mizrahi - 2; non-affiliated - 2; Orthodox - 1. Tuvia Kohen-Zedek was elected chairman. According to the survey requested by the government's Ministry on Jewish Affairs on the sources of livelihood of the local Jewish community, 61 were in commerce, 24 were skilled craftsmen or artisans, and 5 in agriculture. The skilled craftsmen were divided as follows: 6 tailors, 3 carpenters, 3 blacksmiths, 2 oven builders, 2 glaziers, 2 shoemakers, 2 teamsters, 2 house painters, a hatmaker and a watchmaker. Among them, 8 worked in the surrounding villages. Among those engaged in agriculture, 2 maintained orchards, 2 grew grain & cereals, and one grew vegetables. Of those engaged in commerce, 32 had stores and 25 were peddlers. Eight of the peddlers had horses and 17 would carry the wares they sold from village to village by themselves. Fifty-four families had small farms adjacent to their homes and 56 families owned a cow.

Commerce in the city was nearly all in Jewish hands. In a survey conducted by the Lithuanian government in 1931, Balbirishok had 10 stores, 8 of them owned by Jews. In the same period, there were 13 light industry factories, 10 of them in Jewish hands. Jews also operated 2 bakeries, 2 flour- mills, the power station, the metal shop (locksmith), the brickyard, an alcohol distillery, a sawmill and a leather tannery.

A large number of Balbirishok's Jews were active Zionists. Every Zionist faction had its followers and most of the parties had branches in the town. Many participated in the elections held for the various Zionist Congresses. [A table listing election results for Congresses held in 1925, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933 and 1935 appears. The political parties listed are - Eretz Yisrael Workers - two groups identified by Hebrew initials, Tz"S & Tz"Tz; Revisionists; General Zionists - 2 lists, A and B; Statists and Mizrahi.] Zionist youth movements, including Betar [Revisionists], were also active.

Religious life revolved around the synagogue and Beit Midrash [study house]. Among the rabbis who served the community were R. Zvi Hirsh Kahana (author of Likutei Ratzba on the Torah and Five Megillot ), R. Efraim Gabai, R. Samuel Meir Asch (until 1884), R. Moses Samuel Horowitz, author of Y'dei Moshe [Hands of Moses], until 1894, R. Hayim Jeremiah Plensberg (from 1873), R. Eliezer Isaac Alghazi, Rabbi Baruch Grossbard, R. Eliyahu Fink, R. Hayim Halevi, who was the community's last rabbi and was martyred in the Holocaust. The usual charitable organizations operated in the community -- the Welfare Committee, Linat Hatzedek (housing support) among others.

Among the noted natives of Balbirishok were Rabbi Gabriel Feinberg, who served the Memel community until his death in 1905 and the physician, Dr. Isaac Feinberg. In 1939 when refugees fled the Suvalk area in face of the German army, Balbirishok absorbed 50 of them.

With the incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, the factories and most of the stores owned by Jews were nationalized. The supply of commodities was greatly reduced and prices skyrocketed. The middle class, mostly composed of Jews, suffered greatly and its standard of living continued to decline. All the Zionist parties and youth movements were disbanded and instruction in the Hebrew language was prohibited.

The German army entered Balbirishok on June 22, 1941 the same day they invaded Lithuania. With its arrival groups of Lithuanians, composed of students and local activists, organized to attack and abuse Jews. At first, they arrested all the males and held them in the local administration building. There, they were constantly beaten and tormented by the local guards. They would also be beaten as they were led to their forced labor assignments, and at every other opportunity, some would be murdered. On August 22, 1941, all the men, some 100 in number, and six women were force-marched to Pren (Prienai). It seems that all were murdered on August 27, 1941, (4 Elul, 5701), and buried in the northern part of Pren, on the left bank of the Neiman River. The remaining women and children, who numbered several hundred, were kept for a short while in Balbirishok and then transported to Marijampole. There, they were murdered with the Jews from that town and the surrounding areas on September 1, 1941, (9 Elul, 5701).

Bibliography:

Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem
Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem
YIVO - Lithuanian Communities' Collection: files 106-110, 1377, 1560.

Periodicals:

Di Yiddishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] - Kovno (1919) - Yiddish
Folksblatt [The People's Newspaper] - Kovno (1935) - Yiddish
Hamelitz [The Advocate] - St. Petersburg (1881) - Hebrew


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