During this period Kybartai was situated on the Russian (Lithuanian) side of the border with Germany (East Prussia). The small stream Liepona - its width was only 4 to 5 meters (about 13 to 16 feet) was the border between the Empires of Russia and Germany before World War I, and remained the border between Germany and the independent state of Lithuania, which was established after World War I (see the map of Lithuania below). Kibart did not exist before the construction of the railway from St.Petersburg to the German border, which occurred in about 1865. The site on which Kibart was built was a small village through which the main road to Germany passed. The army of Napoleon used that road during the invasion of Russia. The French soldiers who died in battle were buried in the sand hills about one kilometer from the road. On the left side of the road, near the border, there was a building which served as the stables for the post horses and it also as a station for changing the horses. On the river there was a wooden bridge and on both sides of it were situated the customs of Russia and Germany. A few farms existed along the right bank of the Liepona and one of them belonged to a farmer named Kybartas and hence the name of the town is derived from his name.
As most of the stations that were built along the railway at some distance from the towns and cities beside which it passed, also the railway station constructed in the Kibart was named Vershbelova (Virbalis in Lithuanian), after the name of the small town established in the eighteenth century and situated 4.5 kilometers away from this station's site. During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940) and until 1965, the station was called Virbalis. Eventually the name of the town was changed to Kybartai.
During the battle of retreat of the German Army in 1944, the luxurious terminal of the station was totally destroyed together with several residences of the town.
The size of the station was out of proportion to the size of Kybartai or Virbalis. It consisted of a large terminal with rooms for passengers, for customs, a luxury restaurant, a water tower, a power station as well as many rail tracks and workshops. In one corner of the station there was a long one story building, which, according to rumors, housed the train of the Russian Czars used for their trips abroad. Near the station there was a public garden called the "Railway Garden," with large trees, paths and benches. In the middle of this garden there was a raised platform with a balcony for an orchestra. At its foot there was a dance floor, which was turned into an ice skating rink in winter. There was also a small building with a primitive bowling alley. Wooden balls of different sizes were used.
Near the station some red brick buildings were built as residences for the railway workers and their families. Different craftsmen started to settle in the town and then shops and pubs opened.
Due to the construction of the Russian railway and its connection to the European network, a large portion of the Russian import and export trade passed through Kybartai. As a result there was a great need for customs clerks ("Expediters" as they were called then). Many offices were opened in Eydtkuhnen, the small town on the German side of the border, because there were no suitable buildings in Kybartai. Most of the "Expediters" were Jews who came from the border zones of Russia-Austria and Russia-Germany, and also from Poland. When the suitable conditions were created, these people started to settle in Kibart. The border attracted many other people who came to live in Kibart.
All of these people, including the railway workers, needed housing, food etc. So after some years, Kibart grew from a tiny village to a small town, which overtook the older nearby village of Virbalis in the number of its habitants and importance.
In 1897 there were in Kibart 1,182 habitants, Lithuanians, Germans and Russians and among them 533 Jews, or 45% of the population.
Five passenger trains passed through the station every day in both directions with hundreds of passengers and two cargo trains with hundreds of rail cars each in which timber, poultry, grain, leather, seeds etc. were exported from Russia to Germany and from Germany were imported machines, chemicals, paints, haberdashery and cloth. To facilitate this process, hundreds of customs clerks, railway and post workers were needed. Tens of the "Expediters" offices with hundreds of clerks and workers were occupied from the morning until the evening in checking and packing all those goods in the packing houses of the customs.
Because of the great importance of the Werzhbolowa station and its customs, the manager of the customs had to be highly educated and with the rank of a general.
The other high officials too, like the engineers and the chemists, required academic education. The required education grade was according to the grade of the position.
A very important position was that of the commander of the gendarmerie in the station. Because of the heavy traffic across the border and because often important people of the kingdom such as ministers, familiars of the king's family and even the Czar himself went through this station, it was important that the commander of the gendarmerie had to be an intelligent and reliable man. People in Kibart remembered the commander Myasoyedow, who was a loyal man and treated decently and equally all the people, regardless of their social or national status. Before World War I he was suspected of spying for Germany and was sentenced to hanging together with a local Jew named Freidberg. People gossiped that "the Jew was hanged only for balance."
The "Declarants" had a special and respected status. They were clerks in the "Expediters" offices who specialized in the Russian customs laws and knew how to assess the different goods to the proper paragraph in the law according to which the dues were collected. They also knew to associate with the high officials, to drink together, to play cards and a little "Chutzpah" also didn't harm. The salaries of the "Declarants" was not less then those of high officials and reached 150-250 Ruble a month except other incomes. For comparison: a qualified worker earned 25-60 Ruble a month and women workers in socks factories - 8-10 Ruble.
The first "Declarants" who arrived in Kibart came from the border zones between Russia and Germany and Russia-Austria and also from Poland. Most of them were Jews and experienced. Later young local men joined that profession who with "proper connections" managed to be accepted in an "Expediters" office. The "Declarant" profession was the ambition of many young men.
At the border passage there was a vigilant traffic from six in the morning until nine in the evening. There was also passport and customs inspection.
According to the commercial treaty between Russia and Germany, the habitants of the towns in the border zone like Kybartai, Werzhbolowa from the Russian side and Eydtkuhnen from the German side could cross the border with special certificates, buy different goods (up to a limited sum) and return with them to the other side. So Germans from Eydtkuhnen could buy food products in Kibart and cross the border without paying duty with 3.5 kg (8 lb.) of flour, 2.5 kg ( 5.5 lb.) of meat, eggs, butter, cheese, fruits and vegetables. As a result of this arrangement many shops that sold food products were opened by Jews beside the border. On Tuesdays and Fridays, when markets took place in Kibart, crowds of German women were waiting near the border before it opened in order to get to the market before the Kibart habitants.
In Eydtkuhnen the habitants of Kibart would buy cloth, haberdashery, shoes, imported fruits from the warm lands like citrus fruits, grapes, water melons etc., some for themselves and some to sell.
It's worthwhile to mention two other Jewish livings: smuggling of goods and "smuggling" of emigrants. The goods on which the duty was very high were passed over the river or through the border passage or by train and sold in Lithuania with great profit. Among those goods were silk cloth, silver and gold watches, different cutlery, etc.
More significant was the role of the smuggling emigrants. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century many Russian Jews who lived in the "Thum haMoshav" (the special zones were Jews were allowed to live) emigrated to the USA. In order to emigrate legally a passport was needed whose cost was excluding other expenses 25 Rubles, the price of half the ship ticket. Many people didn't have the money to pay such a sum or could not get a passport for different reasons, therefore they had to leave Russia illegally. As a result of this, groups of "smugglers" organized along the border who for 5, 6, or 10 Rubles would take the emigrants across the border. They had agents in many towns who would recruit the "clients." Such a group was also in Kibart, because the conditions there were suitable. The small river Liepona, whose width in some places was not more the 2-3 meters, was watched by the Russian Border Guard and for a bribe of half a Ruble per person to the soldier guarding the border and something to the sergeant who would arrange the guard and something more to the officer in duty, everything became arranged. There were years that every day tens of emigrants would arrive in the town. They were accommodated in private houses or in the villages in the surroundings and when suitable conditions was formed, they would be taken across the border. In Eydtkuhnen they would be collected and accommodated in special hostels or in the barracks of "The Hamburg-America Ship Company." There a doctor would check them for eye diseases or other infectious diseases and the healthy would be transferred by the travel agents through the ports Hamburg, Bremen, Roterdam and Antwerpen to America.
But everything not always went well. Because of unforeseen mishaps with the guards, the emigrants would be caught in the fields near the Liepona and be sent back crying by the "etap" to the places where from they came. The "etap" is a Russian word that means transfer of prisoners to their final destination through very much jails on the way. The prisoner would be kept in the jail until more prisoners would be gathered for transferring many to the next jail and so on and so on.
There were also cases in which the "smugglers" would extract fraudulently from the emigrant different things or would keep him in the hostel for more time then needed in order to extort more money from him. Sometimes they would keep in the hostel a young woman or a pretty young woman which the smuggler or one of his helpers found appealing. There were also cases of really murder. It is known about a trial that took place in Germany at the beginning of this century in which a smuggler was sentenced to death for robbing and murdering a Jewish emigrant and his helper sentenced to a long jail term.
Thousands of Jews who arrived to America with the help of these smugglers, remembered them with favor, in spite of the fact that they were not always treated properly.
With the improvement of the economic condition in town, its habitants started to concern themselves with culture and education. In 1910 were in Kibart about 5,000 habitants and among them about 1,000 Jews. The habitants were composed of different nationalities: Russians, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews and several Tartars. For Russians, Lithuanians and Poles with limited means a school consisting of two classes was opened. Wealthier people sent their children to the high schools in the bigger cities. The Germans in Kibart had an elementary school with Russian as the language of instruction and only the Evangelic faith was taught in German. The Jews had a school with a Jewish teacher for learning the Russian language. Additionally there were three "chadarim" with "melamdim" (teachers) who taught Hebrew, "Chumash" (Pentateuch) with "Rashi's" commentary and the Bible with the Yiddish explanation. In those "chadarim" the children learned from early in the morning until evening. Later a few "Improved Chadarim" were added that were more modern and in which several general subjects were taught.
The wealthier Jews and these who wanted to be associated with the intelligentsia and aristocracy sent their children, mainly the girls, to the German schools in Eydtkuhnen. Many Jewish girls studied there and after they became mothers they sent their daughters to the same schools. The German language was then the language of the aristocracy and even new people who came to the town, wanting not to be backward, began to "Germanize"' their Yiddish. The "Declarants," who were a subject of imitation, contributed much to the distribution of the German language. They really needed to use this language in their work at the "Expediters" offices. These who came from Poland with their Polish, didn't want to "lower" themselves to Yiddish and made great efforts to speak German. They came from assimilative circles and all their Judaism amounted to a visit in the synagogue on "Rosh Hashana" and "Yom Kippur" and in buying "Matzot" for "Pesach."
In 1880 the Jewish Community obtained permission to open a Jewish Elementary School, but without any help from the government. "The Association for Spreading Knowledge Among the Jews" supported it financially. The teacher in that school was H. Melamed.
In those years there were no needy people among the habitants of the town, nevertheless a charity existed, "Tsedaka Gedola," that helped passers by and strangers.
In four lists of donors "For the Hungry in Lithuania" in the years 1872 and 1874 many Kibart Jews are mentioned. The fund raisers in Kibart were: Jehoshua-David Fridman, the brothers Grodzensky, Avraham-Yitzchak Goldberg, Tzvi Shidarsky.
Despite the fact that most of the Jews in Kibart were not devout, there were in the town two places for praying (Klois), because of rivalry between two groups.
The Jews didn't have a cemetery in town and they would bury their dead in the nearby town Wershbolova. Only in 1912 a "Chevrah Kadisha" was established in Kibart and it bought or obtained a parcel for a cemetery outside the town. The initiator and the organizer of all this was Yitschak Shraga Chashman. And indeed the first tombstones at the Kibart cemetery were from 1912, as friends of the author Dov Shtern and Perets Kliatchko confirmed on their visit there at 1970.
The Catholics and the Lutherans also didn't have churches and cemeteries in Kybart. The Catholics would pray and bury their dead in Vershbelova. The Lutherans did the same, however they had the choice to pray in Eydtkuhnen. Only the Russians had a church and a cemetery in Kibart near the railway station.
In 1905 there were revolutionary events in Russia and their resonance reached Kibart too. In Verzhbelova there were a few hundred Jewish workers in the brush factories who were organized by the "Bund," (Jewish anti-Zionist Workers Organization), "Poalei Zion," (Zionist Workers Organization) etc. The Kibart revolutionaries got in touch with those from Verzhbelova and they acted together in bringing in illegal literature from abroad or smuggling out a political emigrant through the border, but their main activity was cultural. It expressed itself in organizing theater performances in Yiddish. The actors were amateurs and the shows took place in Kibart where a suitable hall and also a public of means existed. The plays were from Yakov Gordin, Shalom Aleichem, Perez Hirshbein, David Pinsky and others. The Kibart "aristocracy," who at first didn't attend these plays, got slowly became accustomed to them and even started to enjoy them.
Many Kibart Jews were mentioned in lists of donors for the "Settlement of Eretz-Israel" of the years 1898-1899. The fund raiser was A. Landman.
The Zionist activity in Kibart began before the third Zionist Congress in 1899. In summer of this year a gathering of the Zionist Organizations from the regions (Gubernia) of Lithuania: Kovno, Suvalk, Grodna and Vilna (Kybartai belonged to the Suvalk Gubernia) took place in Vilna. 71 delegates from 51 cities and towns of Lithuania and among them a delegate from Kibart came to this gathering. With the establishment of the "Jewish National Fund" (KKL), the local Zionist organizations began to actively collect for this fund. They distributed the KKL stamps and arranged parties whose income was dedicated for this fund. Many local organizations recorded themselves in "The Golden Book" of the fund as did wealthy people who recorded themselves or their relatives on the occasion of important events in the family. At this time the Blue-White Box of the Fund started to be placed in every Jewish home. The distribution of the KKL stamps to all Russia was organized Shimon Yechiel Goldberg from Kybart.
Kibart was apparently one of six towns in Lithuania that voted for the known Zionist activist J. Nisnbaum to be elected as a delegate to the ninth Zionist Congress.
In 1903 Dr. Herzl went to Moscow to meet the Russian Prime Minister Pleve and to explain to him the task of Zionism. On his way back to Vienna he passed through Kibart by train and when the train stopped in Eydtkuhnen, a group of Zionists waited there in order to congratulate him. There was also a photographer from Kibart who wanted to take a picture of Herzl together with the group, but Herzl didn't allow him to do so. At the same year, after the Sixth Zionist Congress, Herzl sent with the known Zionist activist Y. L. Goldberg from Vilna, 25 Rubles to the photographer from Kibart as a compensation for the loss which may have been caused to him.
The famous personalities from this period who were born in Kibart were the painters Yitzchak Levitan and Yakov Mesenblum.
Y.Levitan was born in 1861 and at young age moved with his parents to Moscow. He painted more then 1,000 pictures during his life time and was considered as one of the greatest landscape painters of Russia. Most of his pictures are in museums in Russia and a few of them in "The Israel Museum" in Jerusalem. He died in 1900 from Tuberculosis.
Y. Mesenblum was born in 1895 and died in 1933 in Kovno. He painted the Jewish milieu on the background of the Lithuanian landscape. His widow, the actress Karnovsky, collected his pictures together, but all were lost together with her in the destruction of the Kovno Ghetto.
Under the German Occupation
At the beginning of the year 1914 Kibart was already in a stable state. At the years before the war a few more exporters of poultry and cattle were added in the town, a Bank for mutual aid was established and a branch of the great Russian Bank "Azov-Don" was established in its modern new building.
By 1914 Kibart had a population of about 6,000 inhabitants, including about 1,000 Jews, who enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. All these cultural and economic achievements were destroyed all at once with the beginning of World War I. When the general mobilization was proclaimed in July 1914, many people began to leave the town. Most of Kybart's Russian officials and Jewish population left the town. The war started on a Sunday in August and on Saturday night the last train left the Vershbelova station. On the same night the bridge on the Liepona river was blown up.
In the town about 2,000 people left including about 200 Jews, especially the landlords and home owners. Before the first shot was heard, the remaining people in town started to plunder the property of the runaways and in many cases in order to cover the crime they set fire. So many buildings in the center of the town were burnt.
When fighting in the area began, the town changed hands a few times, and a great part of the town was destroyed.
In the spring of 1915, after the Russian Army under the command of General Renenkampf was defeated near the swamps of Mazuria, he retreated from Prussia and Kibart was occupied by the German army, who remained until the beginning of 1919, when it was handed over to independent Lithuania.
The name of the railway station was changed by the Germans into Wirballen and a command post was arranged in the town. The customs warehouses were filled up with munitions and other military equipment and new warehouses were built. The Germans also widened the set of the rails in the station.
During the German occupation some of its former inhabitants returned to Kybart. When in autumn 1915 the Russians evacuated Vilna, more refugees and also other people came to Kibart and began to adjust to the new conditions and look for new occupations, because the border no longer existed and there was no longer any need for the customs clerks as well as many other services. As a result, the economic situation deteriorated.
The years of economic prosperity
On February 16, 1918 the "Taryba," the elected council of Lithuanian personalities headed by Antanas Smetona, proclaimed on the establishment of the Lithuanian State. The Germans were still hoping that the "Ober-Ost" region, as they called the territories occupied in the Baltic area, would remain in their hands. Only under the leadership of the "Board of the workers and the sailors" who was established in Germany on November 9, 1918, the Germans began to evacuate Lithuania.
They sold then buildings and other facilities at half the price. In Kibart they removed all the wire fences from the town and destroyed several buildings they had built during their rule. At the end of 1919 all Lithuania was evacuated by the Germans.
At the railway station new signs were hung with the inscription Virbalis and it together with the customs became the greatest in Lithuania. The border between Germany and Lithuania was demarcated along the Liepona river and this small stream became again the border between two countries. The border was opened then and different merchandise was legally allowed to be import into Lithuania. The few "Expediters" that were in Eydtkuhnen started anew to be active. With the growth of the import into the needed for goods country, more and more expediters were added. In Lithuania everybody could be an Expediter, because the duty was charged according to the value of the goods and this simplified the process, so the profession of Declarants was not needed anymore.
Because of the great shortage of goods, Lithuania allowed importion of almost everything from Germany. At first the merchants, mostly Jewish, bought goods in nearby Eydtkuhnen. Later on, they traveled to Koenigsberg with suitcases and brought back merchandise by themselves. Then the merchants bought goods all over Germany and the importations increased and the Expediters had much work.
At this time Kibart became an important commercial center and merchants from all over the country started to come to Kybart. They wanted to obtain the goods immediately after the duties were paid and as the goods came out of the packing halls. So many merchants would gather in the town that the only hotel in town (it belonged to a Jewish family, Papir) rented beds by the hour and sometimes people even slept two to a bed.
The devaluation of the German Mark and corresponding the Ost Mark, that was still a legal currency in Lithuania, contributed to the development of the commerce. The goods rose in price from hour to hour and many Jews became rich in the process. In Kibart many shops opened and when the Mark became stable and Lithuania introduced its own currency, the Litas. Kibart had 50 textiles wholesalers, about 15 haberdashery shops, a few leather wholesalers, 5 private banks, 3 public banks, and a government bank, which was established in the building of the former "Azov-Don" bank. The majority of the merchants were Jews. There were also about 50 offices of customs commissioners (expediters) who employed many people. In these years Jews established factories and workshops in Kybart, such as: a factory for shoe wax and tin boxes, for knitting, for weaving, a few sewing workshops for shirts, a sawmill, a flour mill, a factory for oil extraction, two brick factories, and two tea packing workshops. The owners were: Bernshtein, Gamzu, Berniker, Jasven, Alperovich, Shemesh-Gefen, Kushnerzitzky, Ganz, Jurzditzky, Frishman, Frenkel, Kanievsky, Vizhansky, Rubin, Aizenstat and others.
There were in Kibart Jews who exported horses (Rachlin), poultry and fruit (Kovensky) and a workshop for processing and exporting of linen (Rezvin-Rozenberg).
During these years, when the economic prosperity arrived its peak, many three and four story buildings with all the conveniences were built in the center of the town (the houses of Seinensky, Shadchanovich, Kuritzky, Pliskin, Klotnitzky and others). There was then a great demand for flats and shops and all cellars and attics in the town were turned into warehouses. The signs and inscriptions of warehouses were left on many buildings in town for years after they did not exist anymore.
The Jewish "Folksbank" - a credit cooperation - opened a branch in Kibart when the currency was still the Ostmark. Because of the great inflation of the Mark the bank lost all its capital. After that the bank wanted to help the coachmen whose living decreased because of a bus that started to drive passengers from Kibart to Virbalis and back. The bank helped them to organize in a cooperative and lent them money to buy several buses. After the business went bad, the bank lost about 25,000 Lit and the cooperative members lost their investments.
In 1921 a branch of "The Jewish Central Bank" opened in Kibart in addition to the branch in Ponevezh and the center in Kovno. During the good times a few tens of clerks worked in this bank and it helped greatly the import and export issues. The activity of the Folksbank then decreased alot and it moved to Virbalis where only several tens of members left in it.
The great prosperity of Kibart ended, when in January 1923 Lithuania took over the port town of Memel (Klaipeda in Lithuanian) and its zone, situated by the Baltic Sea. The town and the zone belonged to Germany until World War I, after which, according to the Versailles Treaty, it was handed over to the rule of a French High Commissioner with a French garrison. The Lithuanian Government staged an "uprising" and annexed the city and its zone to its state. Its worthwhile to note, that from a geographic sense this zone integrates well in the Lithuanian state.
The Lithuanian Government was interested for political and also for economic reasons to directed a great part of imports and exports, for economic or political reasons, to the port of Memel (Klaipeda in Lithuanian). At the same time the main customs offices were transferred from Kibart to Kovno. As a result, most of the wholesalers and the customs clerks moved during several years to Kovno.
In an announcement (see Table 1) that was published on the first of January 1924 in the "Yiddishe Shtime" newspaper on behalf of the "Merchants Association" of Kybart, we can see that there were still 27 cloth and 15 haberdashery shops (including the pharmacy) in town, but most of them moved too after a short time to Kovno. They left behind only the signs on the empty shops and the inscriptions on the walls as a reminder of the great prosperity in the town. Then Kibart returned to its pre-boom days. and the living conditions were still quite comfortable.
In 1923 the population of Kibart was 6,300 inhabitants, among them 1,253 Jews. Living conditions were quite comfortable.
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