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[Pages 351 -357]

Chapter 5

Youth and Their Activities in Yurburg

 

The "Maccabi" Federation in Yurburg

Translated by Irene Emodi, Tel Aviv

The name "Maccabi" brings up an association with the Maccabians, who valiantly fought against the Greek and won. According to our Fathers, the source of the name "Maccabi" is the combination of the first words of the verse - M C B I (Who is like You among the Gods)

Nevertheless, some - among them the historian Shimon Dubnov - claim that the correct spelling of the name is not "Maccabi" but "Makabi" which derives from the word Makevet (hammer). Over the centuries we did not find another use for the word "Maccabi" other than its reminder each year at Hanukkah.

Only in 1894 the name of a sports organization called "Maccabi", founded in Kushta (Constantinopel, Turkey) was registered.

However, at the first Zionist Congress -in Basel in 1897 - Dr. Max Nordau for the first time raised the issue of strengthening our people's body and said: "We need muscular Jews and not people of mind and spirit. . . . " And Dr. M. Bodenheimer, Dr. Herzel's friend and adviser, also demanded at this Congress to establish Jewish sports associations in order to train the youngsters and make them vigorous. Only after World War I sports clubs called "Maccabi" sprung up all over Europe and in the U.S.A. The first "Maccabi" association in Israel was established in Jaffo in 1906.

At the "Maccabi" council in Karlsbad (1921) the world organization of "Maccabi" was founded.

In 1932 the first sports Olympics took place - the "Maccabia " in Tel Aviv. The "Maccabia" takes place once every four years.

After World War I branches of "Maccabi" were established in Lithuania, while the largest of them was the Kovna branch. In 1932 "Maccabi Hatzair" (Young Maccabi) was founded as a Zionist-Pioneer movement.

"Maccabi" the pride of the Jews of Yurburg

The "Maccabi" branch in Yurburg was established in the early twenties and included almost all the local Jewish youngsters. The "Maccabi" club operated at the town center, in a large stone building. The large, paved yard also belonged exclusively to "Maccabi" and served as a meeting place, and a large part of the sports activities were held here in summer.

The "Maccabi" club was the essence and the center of Jewish power in Yurburg. As "Maccabi" was a national organization, without any political affiliations, all those who loved sports found a home there, without any connection to their personal outlook on life. The majority of the Yurburg Jews were "Maccabi" supporters, except for a small anti - Zionist group which set up its own sports club - Y.A.K. - Yiddischer Athletik Klub.

The Jews of Yurburg loved to watch the rows of young Maccabi members, dressed in white, march in the street with their national flag, blue and white. The onlookers who stood on the sidewalk and watched the march were filled with pride and applauded. The mothers may have shed tears of pride when they watched their sons, "the army of Israel", marching proudly along and singing the Zionist folksong:

Carry the flag and banner to Zion
The flag of the camp of Yehuda
On wheels or foot
Join the association!
Together we shall go, nay return
To the land of our Fathers,
To our beloved land
The cradle of our youth!

(I. Rosenboim/ Folksong)

The proud march encouraged the Jews who dwelt in the Diaspora among strangers. Each "Maccabi" march was a true feast in Yurburg - but how many national feasts do the Jews have? - And then there were the marches of the "Hebrew Scouts" - those in white and the others in green. The Jews created a sort of illusion and hope that this kind of life would go on for ever and ever.

Anyhow, sports created a new experience in town. Parents would come to the "Maccabi" hall to watch the gymnastics exercises and the use of the sports equipment, such as parallel bars, horizontal bars, spring-boards, reins, weights etc.

The "Maccabi" sports instructor was a Christian German, a true professional and an excellent coach at the sports equipment. He was past fifty, but those who saw him demonstrate at the equipment, his elasticity and agility had the impression that a young man was carrying out these complicated exercises.

The instructor studied the subject of sports in Germany, shaped the muscles of his body with continuous exercise and attained full control over his body and the equipment . . .

The "Maccabi" sportsmen also made steady progress. But the instructor demanded more; when the "Maccabi" sportsmen had problems with one exercise or another, he would cynically say: "You Jews eat Weissbrot (white bread) . . . you should eat "Schwartzbrot (black bread), for if you don't do so, you will not be real sportsmen.."

Perhaps the instructor did not like Jews, but his devotion and efforts to make his pupils strong and sporty were praiseworthy. True, the quality of food of some of the Jewish sportsmen was inferior, and that made it difficult to attain a high level of performance. And, said the instructor, exercise must be started at an early age, for it is hard to attain real achievement in sports at a riper age.

Nevertheless, after a period of sports exercise and intensive preparations - the "Maccabi" sportsmen would score success. Then they would put up a show for the public at large at the "Tel Aviv" park. If the show was a success and the public was satisfied with the sports achievements, the instructor too would praise his pupils. The event would begin and end with blessings and expressions of gratitude to the sportsmen and the instructor by the Chairman of "Maccabi", Berl (Dov) Levinberg, who contributed much to the sportsmen's success.

The Soccer Section at "Maccabi"

"Maccabi" had a special section - "the soccer section". There were a number of soccer teams at "Maccabi" who usually played among themselves, and sometimes also against the soccer teams of the Lithuanians. The "Maccabi" soccer players were not always successful, but there were victories. The "Maccabi" players also played against the soccer teams in the area, but their performance was mediocre. The "Maccabi" team was the best in its area.

"Maccabi" did not have a special soccer coach in Yurburg. Only in the summer months it was possible to obtain a "Maccabi" soccer player in Kovna (Epstein), who would be able to make some progress with the "Maccabi" soccer players in Yurburg. Soccer games were not yet as popular as they are today, nevertheless, many people would come to watch the games, Lithuanians as well as Jews.

There were some excellent players in the "Maccabi" team (A) in Yurburg, who were good at the level of Yurburg, but not yet good enough for the level of the Kovna or German teams.

We recall that one day a soccer game took place between "Maccabi" (A) and the German team of Semleninken, a small border town in the Memel region, 9 kms. from Yurburg. Although Yurburg's "Maccabi" team was confident in its ability to win, when they arrived at the field in Semleninken and saw the tall, strong German youngsters, their spirits fell. The Yurburg players tried hard to win the game, but were unable to do so. The Germans soon took over the field and scored a few goals. The "Maccabi" players gathered all their forces and tried their best, but they lost. When the "Maccabi" players went home tired and exhausted by the game they lost against the German team, they had to do some stock-taking. It was clear to "Maccabi" that the team (A) needed a good coach and good conditions for regular training. Now they understood the meaning of the word "muscular Jews", mentioned by Dr. Nordau at the Zionist Congress. Actually the ancient Greek and Romans already understood this when they coined the phrase "Mens sana in corpore sano " - a sane spirit in a healthy body.

Since the defeat in Semleninken the "Maccabi" soccer players increased their training, in order to be able to face future challenges, and particularly the battle against the Lithuanian soccer team (A) in Yurburg. The Lithuanians envied the "Maccabi" team for its success and always played against it in a very brutal manner, disregarding proper conduct and civilized sports manners.

A Sad Event at the Soccer Game

One day the Lithuanian mayor announced a reward would be given to the outstanding soccer team in Yurburg. Two teams were supposed to contend - the "Maccabi" team (A) and the Lithuanian team. The Lithuanians and the Jews were most interested in the game and many came to watch. Tensions rose high. The Lithuanians started the game with physical violence; they did not observe the rules, kicking and pushing all the time.

The Jews - on their part - tried to play a correct game. "Maccabi"s two outstanding players were Moshe Haselkovitz and Meirke Hess, both fast runners and very fit. Moshe Haselkovitz, a sturdy young man, very resourceful, proved to be full of tricks; he outwitted the Lithuanians each time and already in the first half of the game he "determined" the game at the Lithuanian goal.

The Lithuanian players became enraged and decided to attack Moshe physically in order to remove him from the game. And this is how they went about it: two Lithuanian players attacked Moshe, pushed him and threw him onto the ground and one of them - a hooligan - used the occasion to lay on top of Moshe and strangle him with his knee . . . all the efforts to revive Moshe were fruitless and he died there on the spot.. . .

The Jews in Yurburg were shocked by this tragic event, and so were all the Jews of Lithuania. The incident was widely covered in the Jewish press but hardly mentioned in the Lithuanian papers. A special public committee was set up in Kovna, which demanded a national investigation committee be set up-, but the government circles closed their ears and did nothing. The heads of the government sports bodies merely asked for an apology . . .

After a while the public committee set up a memorial monument (see below on page 352) on Moshe Haskelovitz's tomb at the Yurburg cemetery. The members of the public committee attended the funeral and tried to comfort the family and the Jews of Yurburg who were deeply shocked by the tragic event. It was a terrible blow to "Maccabi" in Yurburg, the family and the town's Jews. The funeral was over, but the Jewish community was deeply shocked and the tragic event left a deep scar in their hearts.

The "Maccabi" sports committee decided to go on playing soccer, in spite of the pain, and to improve the training of the team members, and prove to the "Goyim" (Non-Jews) that they were strong and had it in their power to implement the "Maccabi" slogan "Be strong and brave"!

Social-Cultural Activity at "Maccabi"

After the tragedy the "Maccabi" committee decided to increase the socio-cultural activity and cheer up the youngsters. The "Maccabi" cultural committee drew up a socio-cultural activity program. In the framework of this program "Maccabi" decided to hold "excursions" - i.e. sailing on the steamboats from Yurburg to Kovna. The "Maccabi" members in Yurburg met their friends in Kovna and hosted each other, usually on the Sabbath, in a friendly atmosphere. "Maccabi" in Kovna paid a return visit. When the guests - 500 to 600 in number - filled the streets of Yurburg, the whole town would take on a festive atmosphere full of youthful joy.

The guests and the hosts would walk in the parks of Yurburg, enjoying the beautiful scenery and the social encounter. These were good days for the Jews of Yurburg, and for a moment they forgot their problems and their worries.

In addition to the sports activity to "stretch the muscles", the "Maccabi" committee also took care to enhance the cultural and spiritual life of the sportsmen. Berl (Dov) Levinberg, the Chairman of the "Maccabi" committee, a diligent and resourceful man, did much to increase the socio-cultural activity among the branch members.

For this purpose he enlisted the help of teachers and public figures, active Zionists,

who spent time and money in order to further Jewish culture, Zionism and Eretz Yisrael among the "Maccabi" members. Eretz Yisrael was always the priority of "Maccabi" in Yurburg. Its members volunteered for Zionist activity, such as " distributing "Sheqalim" to Congress, activity on behalf of the funds etc. Often literature and cultural trials were held on cultural and moral issues. In the years of the Zionist Congresses propaganda meetings were held on Zionist subjects in the background of global politics, in order to update the "Maccabians" about what was going on in Eretz Yisrael and the possibilities of alyah, etc.

The "Maccabi" club was home to all of Yurburg, a sort of cultural and social center which united Zionists of all political streams.

"Maccabi" in Yurburg counted 300 active members in various branches of sports. There were many expenses and little income (membership tax and support of the assistance committee). Berl (Dov) Levinberg, Chairman of the Committee, was not an active sportsman, but he fully understood the importance of sports for the Yurburg youngsters and did all he could to obtain the necessary means to encourage sports and strengthen the Zionist-nationalist awareness among the "Maccabi" members.

"Maccabi" in the Last Days

In the thirties the situation of the Jews in Yurburg and in all of Lithuania worsened . The nationalistic policy of the Lithuanian government restricted the commercial activity of the Jews. Import and export business was totally banned. "Export Handel", of which Berl (Dov) Levinberg was the treasurer and executive manager, was liquidated and all the businessmen, big and small, were left without anything. Hitler came to power (1933) and installed fear in all the Jews, especially his neighbors in Lithuania. Economic development in the town came to a halt. Cultural institutions were closed down, the Hebrew Gymnasium among them. The youngsters felt an "earthquake" was approaching; the gates of Eretz Yisrael were closed.

Only few people managed to get out with a Certifikat. Many left for distant countries. Berl Levinberg emigrated to Canada, where he remained faithful to Zionism.

"Maccabi" remained active in Yurburg, under the guidance of Kizel and others. Activity slowed down in all the youth movements and also in the Zionist parties - till the bitter and violent day arrived. In the summer of 1941 the Yurburg community was destroyed.. . .

The survivors, wherever they are, will always remember the wonderful achievement of "Maccabi".

Members of the "Maccabi" Organization in Yurburg, 1925

 

Members of the committee of the Macabi Organization of Yurburg

Sitting from the right: Rafael Kizell, Berl Levinger, Avraham Altman.
Standing from the right: Yitzhak Rachza, Zvulun Petrikansky; Elyashuv, Miasnik, Yosef Gutman

 

The Maccabi Soccer Team in 1924

Moshe Haskelovitz - Second from the right in the first row
Top from left: Kizzel, Yossel Miejasnik, Arnstein, Moshe Haselkovitz, Moskovitz
Middle from left: Z. Poran, Zarnitsky(? was in Lithuanian Army), unknown
Bottom from left: Moskovitz (went to US), Hilka Flier, Unknown

Identification by Jack Cossid

 

Gravestone of Moshe Haslkovitz, who played soccer for Macabee (the brother of Bluma and Sheine)

From left: Moshe Krelitz, Yoska Miejsnik, Stone, Rochza, Rozansky, Frank, Fievel Chossid, Chana Migidovitz

Identification by Jack Cossid

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