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[Page 661]

Virbaln (Verzhbolov)
(Virbalis, Lithuania)

54°38' 22°49'

Virbaln (Virbalis in Lithuanian) can be found on the main road stretching from Kovno (Kaunas) to East Prussia (now under Russian rule), about 90 km south–west from Kovno and 4.5 km of the (former) German border, and the railway station with the same name (now Kybartai) which is on the railway route from St.Petersburg to Berlin.

The town Virbaln was founded in 1539–1540 on the initiative of the Queen Bona Sfortsa, the wife of King Zigmunt “The Old”. The name was then Nova Volia. It is found in documents under this name until the 18th century, but in the 16th century it had a second name “Verbolov”. In 1593 King Zigmunt Vaza granted it “The Privileges of a Town” (The Magdeburg Privilege). He also prohibited construction of synagogues and other non–Catholic praying houses in Virbaln. This “Privilege” was observed in Virbaln during the Lithuanian rule. There was a municipality and a mayor.

Until 1795 Virbaln was included in the Polish–Lithuanian Kingdom. The same year the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times – Russia, Prussia and Austria, divided Lithuania between Russia and Prussia. The part of the state that sprawled on the left side of the Nieman river (Nemunas) including Virbaln was handed over to Prussia. During the Prussian rule (1795–1807) Virbaln was named Wirballen.

According to the Tilzit agreement of 1807, Polish lands occupied by Prussia were taken away and “The Great Dukedom of Warsaw” was established on them. The King of Saxony Friedrich–August was appointed as the Duke. At the core of the Constitution of the Dukedom was the Napoleonic Code, according to which everybody was equal before the law, however the Jews were not granted any civil rights.

During the years 1807–1813 Virbaln belonged to the “Great Dukedom of Warsaw” and was included in the Bialystok District. In 1813, after the defeat of Napoleon, who's retreating troops passed through the town, all of Lithuania was annexed to Russia, and Virbaln was included in the Augustowa Region (Gubernia). In 1866 Virbaln was included in the Suwalk Gubernia. The construction of the main road in 1829 from St. Petersburg to Warsaw stretching through Virbaln, spurred the growth of the town.

The town developed fast and served as a connecting terminal for transfer of goods from Russia to Western Europe. During Russian rule (1813–1915) the town was renamed Verzhbolova boasting a grand railway terminal near the border with Prussia, built on the route from St.Petersburg to Berlin in the 1860s. The new town developing around the station – Kybartai – grew fast and in a few years overtook Virbaln.

At the beginning of World War I Virbaln burnt down in fires and was deserted by the majority of its population. In 1915 Germans occupied Virbaln and ruled in the area until 1919 followed by its transfer to the Independent Lithuanian State.

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lit4_662.jpg
The Market Place, 1912
(Picture supplied by Martin Miller)

 

The Jewish Settlement before World War 1

Society and Economy

Apparently, Jews began to settle in Virbaln in the second half of the 17th century. In July 1669 an order of King Zigmunt the Third was issued prohibiting the Jews from building synagogues in Virbaln. Therefore a conclusion may be drawn that Jews lived in Virbaln as early as the period indicated above.

In the old Jewish cemetery there was a tombstone dating back to 1735, but it is known that in 1728–1729 there were Jewish leaseholders in Virbaln, as there is a record of complaints submitted to authorities against them at that time.

On the “Shavu'oth” holiday in 1790 a Virbaln Jew Elazar was executed in a “Blood Libel” against him. This happened during the rule of the cultured King Stanislaw Poniatowsky, who was against the verdict. Despite his effort, Elazar was executed. For many subsequent years his name would be mentioned on the day of “Mentioning of the Death” prayer .

The law of Czar Alexander the First, prohibiting the Jews from living within 50 miles (Russian) of the western border of the state was in effect until 1862. However, according to the 1885 year census, 1,253 Jews, lived in Virbaln making up 50% of the total population. During the years 1876–1879, when the Jew Gringard was in charge of community affairs, a bathhouse was built in town

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and the cemetery was fenced in. Members of the community committee were J.Skudsky and L.Markel.

In the middle of the 1870s and, in particular, in the 1880s, many of Virbaln Jews migrated abroad, mainly to America, South Africa, England, Ireland etc. The main reason for the migration was widespread incitement of anti–Semitism in the area. In the winter of 1883 the notorious anti–Semite of those days, Lotostansky passed through the railway station of Virbaln promoting his books among the officials of the station. His books were full of abuse and insults directed against Judaism and Jews. Among other issues, he promoted the idea that Jews were undoubtedly using Christian blood for their religious needs, aiming to impress the officials with his musings. The Jewish educated elite of Virbaln raised money and bought 11 books by Prof. Khvolson who refuted all Lotostansky's allegations. The books were distributed among the officials who read them after getting hold of Lotostansky's books.

The same year “haMeilitz” accused the Russian priest of Virbaln of preaching belief in Lotostansky's words. When the article was brought before him, he realized that it was a plot and demanded to clear his name. The incident was described at the weekly periodical by Avraham Landman from Virbaln and it was approved by prominent personalities of the town, such as Yehudah–Leib Freidenberg, Mosheh–Aharon Yakobi, Ya'akov–Aryeh Volpe, Shimon Frenkel, Yekhezkel–Tsevi Brode, Yisrael–Meir Volfovitz.

In 1886 there were 2,515 people in Virbaln, among them 1,253 Jews (50%).

Before World War I the economic situation of Virbaln Jews was quite stable. They made a living in commerce and agriculture. They grew vegetables, fruits and tobacco. Many of them earned a living by trading with Germany and providing different border services. As mentioned before, a considerable amount of Russian imports and exports passed through the railway station of Werzhbolova. Many Jews earned a living using the privilege granted to citizens of Virbaln to cross the border to the German town Eydtkuhnen, permitting them to buy a limited amount of goods and bringing it to Russia without paying customs. Goods beyond the permitted quota were smuggled into Russia and sold for profit.

Another source of income was smuggling immigrants over the border to Germany. There were cases of fraudulent “smugglers” who would cheat the emigrants by taking away various items belonging to them. On other instances “the smugglers” would keep them in the hostel longer than necessary in order to extort more money. Sometimes the smugglers would set their eyes on a young woman or a nice girl in the hostel and would detain her longer than necessary. In 1896 a young woman was shot to death trying to cross the border illegally. All this aroused fury in the community against the “smugglers”.

However, thousands of Jews who arrived in America with the help of these smugglers remembered them favorably, despite the fact that they had not always been treated fairly.

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At the end of the 19th century the industry of brushes manufactured from pig bristles developed in Virbaln, and hundreds of Jewish workers were engaged in the trade. They organized into a powerful vocational union with a membership of about 100 people. In the years 1893–1897 following its induction, the “Bund” (the Jewish anti–Zionist Workers' Organization) organized large strikes in the area. The goal of the strikers was to improve the working conditions. Consequently, a part of the demands of the Jewish workers were met due to these strikes.

In 1897 there were 3,293 people in Virbaln, among them 1,219 Jews (37%)

 

Education and Culture

Before the middle of the 1880s Jewish children in Virbaln were educated in the “Kheder's” (Khadarim), the “Talmud–Torah's” and in the “Yeshiva's” (Yeshivoth). Only a few studied in the Russian high schools in the big towns. In 1887 an order was published by the government for all the “Melamdim” to get a Teaching License granted by the Inspector of Education of the Suwalk Gubernia.

The licensure set conditions for the “Kheder” to be like a state school and include the Russian language in the curriculum. In cases where the “Melamed” didn't know Russian, he would be obliged to find a certified teacher. If such a teacher could not be found, children, ages seven and older would have to study two hours every day in a Russian school.

Another condition was that all the teaching materials should have the stamp of the Governmental Censor. There were cases when Bible books published in Berlin or Vienna were found in some “Kheders” without the stamp of the Censor. As a result the “Melamed” would lose his Teaching License.

In these years Avraham–Eliyahu Sandler established a “Kheder Metukan” in Virbaln (Improved Kheder). Hebrew, Russian, a Bible course with commentaries and Mathematics were taught. Many of Virbaln Jews were the students of Mr. Sandler who taught school for almost forty years. His students knew Hebrew and the Bible perfectly. The Hebrew weekly newspaper published in St.Petersburg “HaMeilitz” from April 1884 stated that even the women knew Hebrew. Esther Golda Goldberg and Beile Hayah Jakobi were mentioned as students who were cited as setting the best example.

One of the teachers of the school was the well–known commentator of the Bible Sh.L. Gordon (Shalag). Later, a couple by the name Hanah and Reuven Kaplan opened a modern “Kheder”. There was another “Kheder” in Virbaln, namely that of Pinkhas Pintchuk, and a “Talmud–Torah” for the children of the poor. In both the Sandler and the Kaplan Kheders, boys and girls studied together, which was a novelty in those days.

Its worthwhile mentioning that the Hebrew weekly “HaMeilitz” published at least 31 articles dealing with life of the Virbaln Jews from the years 1879–1900. Most often the correspondents were M.A.Shaudinishky and A.E.Sandler.

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Religion and Welfare

In 1770 a “Beth Midrash” was built in Virbaln. Through the years it became too small for all the people who came to pray. In 1864 a Synagogue was built, but in 1880 the issue of seats was not settled, causing conflicts in Virbaln

On the last day of “Pesakh” 5642 (1882) an argument broke out in the Synagogue on the subject of “Aliyoth laTorah” ending in clashes and police intervention. Another building for prayers was built in 1870.

At the end of the 19th century Virbaln had a “Talmud–Torah”, a “Cheap Kitchen” (from 1877) and a “Home for the Aged” (from 1895). In 1907 “Aid Services for Immigrants” was established in Virbaln.

In the 1880s there were reports on Virbaln published in “haMeilitz” dealing with con artists who visited the town, trying to extort money from people under false pretenses.

There was a case of a young man who arrived to Virbaln, impressing people favorably. One of the residents was ready to make a match for his daughter. The Rabbi of Virbaln started to investigate the case, and found that the man had left a wife in Liverpool, married another wife in Raseiniai, then almost married a third woman in Virbaln. He was thrown out of the town in shame.

In 1879 two young people M.M.Mariampolsky and T.Yentelzon founded a group “Hakhnasath–Orkhim” to look after people who were traveling through Virbaln on their way to Prussia. The same year a few highly respected people of Virbaln founded an association “Gemiluth Khasadim” which was mandated to lend money for a period of six month in exchange for silver, gold and copper items. This method was strongly criticized by the public as, in fact, only the rich had silver and gold to exchange for loans.

In 1888 Yehudah–Leib Segalovsky founded the association “Somekh–Noflim” which gave out loans to the needy people in Virbaln in order to save them from hunger. The trustee of the association Shemuel–David Vishtinetsky was a prominent activist of the association.

The same year Rabbi Yitshak Blazer from Kovno purchased a farm near Virbaln for 75,000 Rubles – an enormous amount for those years– donated by the Lakhman Brothers from Berlin. He appointed a manager of the farm who had to run the farm according to the Laws of the Torah. The goal of the farm's management was to resolve the economic problems of “The Kolel Prushim” (a Yeshivah of Pharisees) established in Kovno.

One of the personalities acting for the good of the community was Eliyahu Varshavsky, the grandson of the Gaon from Vilna (GARA), who lived most of his life in Virbaln making his living by painting houses. He was also a teacher of “Torah” and was the head of the “Khevrah–Kadisha”. Welfare issues and activities of other institutions were dealt with according to his advice. He died at the age of 64 on the first day of Succoth 5646 (1886).

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Zionist Activities

Jews from Virbaln immigrated to Eretz–Israel even before the period of “Khibath–Zion”. In the old cemetery in Jerusalem at least 5 tombstones of Virbaln Jews can be found: Yehudah ben Mosheh–Tsevi (child), died in 1873;

Meir–Avraham Sandler ben Yehezkel, 1874; Mosheh–Nahum ben Shaul, 1883; Barukh ben Avraham, 1890; Aharon ben Barukh, 1893.

The Association of “Khovevei Zion” (Fans of Zion) began to raise money for settlement in Eretz–Israel in 1884, but as early as 1880 a teacher Shlomsky collected 36 Rubles for the same goal. One of the ways to collect donations was by selling paintings of Moshe Montifiori. Another way was by selling “Aliyoth” in the synagogue. On the 1896 list of contributors for settlement in Eretz–Israel there were names of 13 Jews from Virbaln with Rabbi A.Lap topping the list. (See Appendix 1). The 1898 list carried the names of fundraisers Shaudinishky, pharmacist S.Vinsberg, Eliyahu Varshavsky and C.Z Dogilaitsky.

At the conference of “Khovevei–Zion” which took place in Vilna in 1889, the delegate from Virbaln was the local Rabbi David–Tevele Katsenelboigen.

Before the second Zionist Congress gathered in Warsaw in August 1898 a conference of the Zionists from Russia. Among the 160 delegates from 93 towns was also a delegate from Virbaln.

Before the third Zionist Congress a regional conference of the “Zionist Associations” from the Lithuanian “Gubernias” Kovno, Suwalk, Grodno and Vilna gathered in Vilna in the summer of 1899 represented by 71 from 51 towns. Rabbi Efraim Lap was a delegate from Virbaln.

Before the fourth Zionist Congress a conference of the “Zionist Associations” gathered in Vilna in 1900 with a total of 168 delegates, among them Rabbi Efraim Lap from Virbaln. At this conference he was elected as the Regional Deputy Representative of the Suwalk Gubernia. Before the fifth Zionist Congress between the July 1st, 1901 and July 1st, 1902, 200 “Shekalim” (membership cards of the Zionist organization) were sold in Virbaln

The local “Zionist Association” distributed “Shekalim” and sold shares of the “Otsar Hityashvuth Hayehudim” (The Jewish Colonial Trust), raising funds for “Keren Kayemeth Leyisrael” (KKL – Jewish National Fund) and collecting books for The National Library in Jerusalem. Among other things it was very active establishing the “Khadarim Metukanim” where education was pro–Zionist.

The educational and literary activity of Sh.L.Gordon and Ben Avigdor started in Virbaln. They married the two sisters of Shelomoh Blumgarten – Yeho'ash (1872–1927), who was a well–known writer and poet. A native of Virbaln, he worked on the great project of translating the Bible into Yiddish.

During World War I the town burnt down and was deserted by the majority of its population.

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During the Period of Independent Lithuania

Public and Economic Life

With the establishment of the Lithuanian State in 1918, Virbaln citizens began to return to their town. After the eviction of the German army at the beginning of 1919, life in Virbaln returned to normal. Virbaln was included in the Vilkovishk (Vilkaviskis) district.

According to the Autonomy Law Regarding Minorities in Lithuania, elections for the Jewish Community Committee in Virbaln took place. Eleven members were elected: 2 from the list of “Tseirei Zion”, 5 from “Mizrakhi”, 2 artisans and 2 independents. The Committee was active until the end of 1925 when the Autonomy law was annulled. During the years of its existence the Committee collected taxes as required by law, sometimes with the help of the Police, and was in charge of all areas of community life.

According to the first census conducted by the Lithuanian Government in 1923 there were 4,018 people in Virbaln, among them 1,233 Jews (31%). During this period Virbaln Jews made their living in commerce, craft, agriculture and industry. The border between Lithuania and Germany remained the same as during the Czar's rule. Likewise, it was an important factor of the life of Virbaln Jews. The export of poultry, geese and other agricultural products provided a living for many families in town. In addition the town had 5 Jewish grocery shops, 7 butchers, 6 bakeries, 3 shops for tools and iron products, 5 shoemakers, 4 tailors, 2 glaziers, 2 tinsmiths, 2 hairdressers, 2 tombstone builders, 2 watchmakers, 1 photographer and one tavern owned by Jews.

Many of Virbaln Jews made their living in agriculture. Several Jews were owners of big fields in the vicinity and during agricultural season they employed hundreds of workers. Most of them cultivated grain crops but there were others who grew cucumbers, beetroot and fruits. (Fridlender, Vladislavovsky, Skudsky, Hilenberg, Gringard, Berezdovsky, and others).

Agronomist Ya'akov Filipovsky was respected and praised as the greatest specialist in cultivating species of fruit trees and berries in Lithuania. His nursery in Virbaln supplied seeds to most of the gardeners in Lithuania. Gardeners from all over Lithuania would come to his show garden to advance their knowledge. He also grew seeds of cucumbers and beets for fodder.

Jews Zerko and Kamber built a power station in Virbaln which supplied the town with electricity. Jews also owned a flourmill (Miler), a sawmill (Lakovsky), a few oil factories (Kagansky and Ridlitzky), a metal casting plant (Zerko) and chicory production (Kapushevsky). There was a Jewish doctor (L.Kagansky), a Jewish dentist (Mrs. Pauzisky) and a Jewish pharmacy (Ziman) in Virbaln.

The brushes industry acted like before the war and employed hundreds of workers.

In 1937 there were fifty two Jewish artisans in Virbaln: 10 butchers, 7 bakers, 7 shoemakers, 5 hairdressers, 4 tailors, 4 watchmakers, 3 stitchers, 3 painters, 3

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tinsmiths, 2 hat makers, 2 cloth dyers, 2 photographers, 1 potter. In 1939 Virbaln had 41 telephone subscribers, among them 21 belonged to Jews (51%).

In the centre of economic life in Virbaln was the Jewish Folksbank with 320 members in 1927. In 1929 the number grew to 342.

There was also a branch of “The United Company for Financial Credit for Jewish Agrarians” in town.

Until 1934 there were 4 Jews in the Town Council among a total of 9 Council members (Leizer Kagansky, Joseph Pagramat, Mosheh Vishtinetsky, Volf Naishtot). However, only 3 Jews were elected (Kagansky, Vishtinetsky, Haimovitz) in the elections of 1934. For many years Virbaln had a Jewish Deputy Mayor.

The Volunteer Fire Brigade fulfilled an important role in town. Most of its members were Jews for many years working under the leadership of Gedalyah Abeloviz.

With the beginning of the Nazi rule in 1933 in Germany, trade with this country gradually diminished. Traffic through Kibart, the nearby border town decreased, and only a few Jews would pass through on their way to Eydtkuhnen – the German town on the other side of the border. This had a substantial influence on the economic situation, and many Jews left Virbaln, in particular the youth. Most of them moved to Kovno and a part immigrated abroad, or to Eretz–Yisrael.

 

Education

After the end of the War in 1918 children's education became an issue in Virbaln. A group of activists understood that the “Kheder Metukan” (Improved Kheder) no longer fulfilled the task of education under the new conditions. An idea was born to establish a Hebrew high school in town, preceded shortly by the founding of the first Hebrew high school of the Diaspora in Mariampol. It was clear to the initiators that a small community of only 1,200 people could not stand that heavy burden. They were faced with competition against schools in the nearby German towns, where Jewish children from Kibart were enrolled. Thus a decision was reached that the school would accept children from neighbouring towns, mainly Kibart, Vishtinetz and Naishtot–Shaki. Registration started at the 29th of Iyar 5679 (1919).

Until 1921 the school offered a program equivalent to half of high–school curriculum (pro gymnasium) but later it changed introducing a complete high school education. In 1929 the board of directors of the school acquired a two storey, red brick building on the main street, renovated and redesigned to suit the needs. Central heating was installed, a novelty in these days. The school had Physics and Nature Laboratories.

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lit4_669a.jpg
Announcement (in Hebrew) in the Jewish press in Lithuania regarding the commencement of studies in the Hebrew High–School in Virbalis on the October 26, 1919

 

Students came from all walks of life. Some arrived from schools in Russia; others were from German schools operating under the jurisdiction of German occupation and still others came from “Khadarim” and “Yeshivoth”. They were of different age groups and a varied elementary school background. Most of them did not have a proper knowledge of the Hebrew Language. There was no curriculum, textbooks or teaching materials.

 

lit4_669b.jpg
The end of the first school year at the Hebrew pro–Gymnasium in Virbaln
17 Elul 5679 (September 1919)

 

Owing largely to the efforts of Virbaln and Kibart Jews who acted to assure a budget for the school and to the devotion of the teachers' team and their director Dr. Ya'akov Robinson a splendid institution was established. Dr. Ya'akov Robinson who was a native of Serey (Seirijai) and a graduate from Warsaw Law School returned to Lithuania to accomplish this difficult pioneering task. A known lawyer and public servant, he became later the

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advisor to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry before World War II and later the legal adviser of the Israeli delegation to the UN.

1925 was the year of the first graduating class. Among its first teachers – Avraham Eliyahu Sandler, Mitkovsky, Masha Frenkel, Dudnik, Shilansky, Aharon Frank, Mosheh Frank, Fridman, Reizel Rozenblum (the daughter of A.E.Sandler), Geisinovitz (later known as Aba Akhimeir, one of the leaders of the Revisionist Party in Eretz–Yisrael), Sambursky, later professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ash–Bartana, subsequently a teacher of mathematics in the “Rehaviah” high school in Jerusalem. Reuven Kaplan was Secretary of the school throughout its existence.

In the middle of the twenties Director Dr. Robinson left the school, and Dr. Shnitzler was nominated as the incumbent. Later, Michael Bramson was appointed who was a tall, slender man, a former captain of the Lithuanian army, a strict disciplinarian, and thought to be among the best teachers of the Lithuanian language. During these years many teachers changed, among them the Bible teacher Mr. Salant who was popular with the students. He emigrated to Eretz–Israel and taught for many years at the Kibutz Ein–Harod. Nature was taught by Mr. Tzimbalist who subsequently immigrated to Eretz–Yisrael. The Lithuanian language teacher was Mr. Katz, while B.Shulgaser, an immensely popular amateur actor, taught English. His wife Mrs. Shohat–Shulgaser taught German. A strict disciplinarian, she appeared for her classes elegantly dressed and made up, which was unusual in those times. Mr. Kizel, a quiet and modest man, very popular with his students, taught Hebrew and literature in higher grades. Mr. Lifshitz was the teacher of drawing, but students holding the subject in low esteem, made him suffer. The teacher of mathematics was Tabakhovitz. and others included Averbukh and Jerushalmi.

In 1934 the government closed the high school, and a pro–gymnasium with four classes opened in place of the old school, with Tabakhovitz as director. A year later he was asked to take over the position of director of the Hebrew High School in Mariampol.

M.Bramson, the former director of the Virbalis High School, moved to Kovno where he subsequently founded the Jewish–Lithuanian High School.

The High School in Virbalis was closed because of low enrollment in the higher grades and a budget deficit. The pro–gymnasium was a private school and was administered by a special “Haskalah” Committee whose chairman was Michael Shadkhanovitz from Kibart. He often covered deficits with his own money. This school functioned until Lithuania became the Soviet Republic in the summer of 1940; It was then that the Hebrew Education Network, the pride of Lithuanian Jewry, was disbanded.

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lit4_671.jpg
The Eighth Graduating Class of Virbaln Hebrew High–School (1933?)

The Teachers are in the rectangles. At the first row above from right: Salant, M.Bramson, and Dr.Y. Rabinson, Averbukh
At the second row: –––, F.Shohat, Shulgaser, –––,Dr.A.Pozisky (?), ––– , Linde
At the third row: D.Katz, Sh.Kizel, A.E.Sandler, R.Kaplan, Lifshitz, and L.Lakovsky
In the rectangle below the building of the High–School

 

Elementary education for Jewish children was accessible through the Hebrew Kindergarten and the Hebrew school of the “Tarbuth” (Culture) Branch. There was also a governmental school where Yiddish was taught with no tuition fees required. A few dozen of poor children studied at the school.

 

Religion and Welfare

In Virbaln there were two big Synagogues and four or five “Kloisim” (small praying rooms). Many children on “Ben Zakai” fellowship studied “Gemara” in the evenings and “Agadah” (Fables) from Bialik and Ravnitzky “Sefer haAgadah” books before lunch on Saturdays. “Sha”s” (Mishnah) society was active in Virbaln as well.

The Rabbis of Virbaln were Yehudah Blumgard (from 1872), David–Tevele Katsenelboigen (1850–1931), Efraim Lap (1859–1926), also active in the “Zionist Association” and Yitshak Hirshovitz (1871–1941), the last Rabbi of Virbaln who was a member of the “Yavneh” centre (a chain of Religious–Zionist schools). He was murdered in the Holocaust.

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lit4_672.jpg
The remains of the Jewish cemetery in Virbaln (1995)

 

During World War I, when refugees flocked into town a relief committee was formed in Virbaln to help the absorption and settlement of a large number of refugees.

Among its welfare institutions Virbaln had “Bikur Kholim”, a Women Fellowship, “Gemiluth Khesed” established with the funds of Aba Vishtinetsky. In 1939 when refugees from Poland escaped to Lithuania, the National Committee, that was established for this purpose decided that Virbaln should absorb 100 refugees, and the community fulfilled that task.

 

Zionist Activity

Virbaln was known for its Zionist ambience. Many of its people spoke Hebrew acquired at the “Khadarim Metukanim” before the Hebrew High School was established. For many years Hebrew signs were displayed on Jewish stores, in spite of strict rules. The Hebrew elementary school and the Hebrew high school educated students promoting Aliyah to Eretz–Israel. Many graduates of that high school are presently residing in Israel.

The “HeKhalutz” movement can be traced back in Virbaln as early as 1919, when a group of Khalutsim (Pioneers) united under the name “Kheiruth” (Freedom). Having acquired training with Lithuanian peasants during a period of one–year (”Hakhsharah”) the group immigrated to Eretz–Israel.

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Another group “Akhvah” followed them. Many groups of “Khalutsim” got their training at the farm “Kibush” (Conquest) near Kibart and in other Lithuanian and Jewish farms in the vicinity (April, Shatenshtein, Rozenberg etc.) The Zionist circles in town and youth in particular ardently supported the training. In 1934 an urban Kibbutz of “HeKhaluts” was organized in the town itself.

A branch of “haShomer–haTsair” the first in Lithuania was established in Virbaln in 1921. There were about fifty members of different ages. A similar number of members could be found in the “Beitar” branch established some time later. There was also a branch of “Netsakh” (abbreviation of Zionist Pioneer Youth) in Virbaln.

 

lit4_673.jpg
“HaShomer HaTsa'ir” branch, 1924

 

Zionist ambience in town was evident in the elections to the first Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) in October 1922. 324 votes were cast for the Zionist list, 128 for “Akhduth” (Agudath–Israel) and 36 for the Democrats. The number of votes for the Zionist Congresses increased from 36 in 1927 (the 16th Congress) to 278 in 1935 (the 19th Congress). In the table below results of the elections for the Zionist Congresses 15th–19th (1927–1935) in Virbaln are presented.

Congress
Nr.
Year Total Shekalim Total Voter Labor Party
Z”S Z”Z
Revisionists General Zionists
A B
Grosmanists Mizrahi
14 1925
15 1927 60 36 4 5 14 13
16 1929 147 42 7 2 1 23 9
17 1931 81 63 22 4 6 26 5
18 1933 192 129 29 22 5 7
19 1935 300 278 206 5 27 7 33

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Among the prominent personalities of Virbaln we find Kalev Blumgard (1808–1897), Barukh ben Shemuel Vizhansky (died 1899); Feivel Gringard (died 1951 in Tel–Aviv). They were the first Zionists in town. Another couple Mordehai and Sarah Hilenberg educated their children in Hebrew and offered their house as a meeting place for all Zionists. Mordehai Hilenberg together with Ridlitzky and Pargamut were among the founders of the Hebrew High School in Virbaln.

Among the natives of Virbaln were Nekhemyah Volpiansky (1877–1937), a writer, a musician and a chess player; Tsevi–Hirsh Filipovsky (1816–1872), a mathematician and an editor, Gregory Sanders – the son of A.E.Sandler – who was the first reporter from Canada for the Jewish newspaper “Der Freind” published in St. Petersburg, Masha Benia (Benyakonsky), a known popular singer of Yiddish and Hebrew songs in USA, Dr. Mendel Sudarsky, who spent his youth in Virbaln, and was the steering power behind many cultural institutions in Lithuania. He was the chairman of the management of “Ort” in Lithuania and a member its world center as well as of the “OZE” and “HIAS”. He was the publisher and the editor of the Yiddish daily newspaper in Kovno “Folksblat”. In 1937 he and his family immigrated to America where he continued to work for the Yiddish periodicals “Tog”, “Forverts” and others. He was the publisher and editor of the two volumes of the book “Lite”, the great remembrance project dedicated to Lithuanian Jewry, published in 1951 in New York.

 

During World War II and Afterwards

It should be mentioned that Virbaln Jews provided help to refugees from the Suwalk region at the end of 1939, in spite of the fact that their own situation was continuously deteriorating. According to the agreement in the Ribbentrop–Molotov treaty the Russians occupied the Suwalk region, but after delineation of exact borders between Poland, Russia and Germany the Suwalk region fell into German hands. The retreating Russians allowed anyone who wanted to join them to move into the occupied territory, and indeed many young people left the area together with the Russians. The Germans kicked out the Jews remaining in Suwalk and the vicinity from their homes; they were robbed of their possessions, then directed to the Lithuanian border, and left in dire poverty. The Lithuanians did not allow them to enter Lithuania and the Germans did not allow them to go back. Thus they stayed in this swampy area in cold and rain for several weeks, until Jewish youth from the border villages in Lithuania smuggled them into Lithuania by different routes, with much risk to themselves. Altogether about 2,400 refugees passed through or infiltrated on their own, and were then dispersed in the Vilkavishk and Mariampol districts. In Virbaln alone 100 refugees were accommodated, among them tens of “Khalutsim” in the Jewish farms in the vicinity, who got a warm welcome and loyal assistance for which Lithuanian Jews were famous.

In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic. Following the new rules, the majority of the factories and shops

[Page 675]

belonging to the Jews of Virbaln were nationalized. All the Zionist parties and youth organizations were dismissed, and several of the activists were detained. The “Comsomol” (The Communist Youth Organization) started to mobilize the youth into its ranks.

Hebrew educational institutions were closed and towards the 1940/1941 school year, the main language of instruction at the Hebrew School was changed to Yiddish. The supply of goods decreased and, as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, was hit hard, and the standard of living dropped gradually. At the beginning of June seven families, the owners of nationalized factories and shops and Zionist activists were exiled deep into Russia. The others sat “on their suitcases” and awaited their turn.

Rumors added to the tension. It was feared that according to the Molotov–Ribbentrop treaty on the division of Poland, Lithuania would be divided as well, and Virbaln and surrounding areas would be handed over to Germany. This area was home to many Germans, who began to depart to Germany, adding to the tense atmosphere.

Before the war there were about 600 Jews in Virbaln.

At 5:30 in the morning on June 22nd, 1941, the German Army entered Virbaln encountering no resistance. All prisoners, including the prisoners of resistance to Soviet Rule, were immediately freed. These men started to organize local groups to take revenge on the Communists, and the Jews, and to help the Germans gain control and restore public life.

At the beginning the town was ruled by the military institutions, and no special measures were taken against the Jews. In a few days civil rule was restored. One of the first orders was to impose restrictions on Jews. They were forbidden to maintain any contacts with non–Jews, forced to wear yellow patches on their garments and had to hand over their radios. In addition, a curfew was imposed from 6 o'clock in the evening until 6 o'clock in the morning.

On the night of July 7th Lithuanian activists detained all the Jewish men who were 16 years of age and older, ordering them into a farm north of Virbaln and crowding them into a cellar. Women, children, the aged and the sick remained in their homes.

Between July 7th –July 10th the men were ordered out of the cellar to the fields, about two km north of the town. During the Soviet rule, anti–tank trenches were excavated, designed to stop the German invasion. These trenches were not deep enough, and the men were ordered to dig deeper.

On Thursday, July 10th, 1941 (the 15th of Tamuz 5701), the men were lined up in–groups of 15–20 people, with their backs towards the trenches. In this position they were shot. Prior to the shooting they were forced to undress and hand over their money and valuables. Most of the gunmen were Lithuanians.

After the murder of the men, the women, the aged and the children were forced into a Ghetto established on the almost empty streets where the repatriated Germans had once lived. The head of the Ghetto was the only dentist in town,

[Page 676]

Mrs. Sheine Pauzisky, who used to socialize with Lithuanians who were also her patients. She had connections in state and municipal institutions. A special food shop was opened in the Ghetto. The shopkeeper was a Lithuanian, an honest man, who made sure supplies for the Ghetto residents lasted.

Women and children from Kibart were brought to the same ghetto. (among them were the mother of the author Hayah, his 16–year–old sister Tekhiyah, his aunt Sarah Leibovitz and his 13 years old cousin Tziporah ).

All the young women and children aged 12–16 would take on different jobs in the town and the vicinity. A quasi–employment–bureau was established in the Ghetto where unemployed people would come to look for work, and the peasants of the surrounding areas would select women and teens for work. There were notorious and evil people among these employers who treated women and children very badly. However, there were also brave people who maintained contacts with Jews. There were some who hid 10 Jewish women when the murders began. Of these few, only Bela Mirbukh and her mother from Virbalis survived, hiding at the farm of a Lithuanian teacher for three years, near the town where Bela worked as an agricultural worker. Bela Rosenberg, the young daughter of nearby farm owners survived, hiding somewhere in the vicinity.

One night, at the end of July or at the beginning of August, all the older women, the sick and the unemployed were taken to the anti–tank trenches where they were shot and buried.

After this “action” the rulers promised that no more evil would happen to the Jews. The women were told that their husbands were working different jobs in the vicinity. All this time Lithuanians, acquaintances and strangers, would arrive to tell the women that they had seen their husbands who asked to deliver a message to their wives to send them money, valuables and clothes. The women responded positively because they trusted that that these messages were true, refusing to believe the women working outside who told them their men were murdered. Among the Lithuanian population rumors spread that the end of the Jews was close, but no one came to warn the Jews about the destiny awaiting them.

On the night of Thursday, September 11th, 1941 (the 19th of Elul 5701) Lithuanians arrived in carts and ordered all the women and children to the anti–tank trenches where they cruelly murdered all.

Of all the Jewish Community of Virbaln only three women hidden by Lithuanian families managed to survive.

Such was the tragic end of the thriving Jewish Community of Virbaln that existed more than 300 years.

In 1970 there were 1,489 people in Virbaln, and not one Jew.

The names of the Lithuanian murderers and a list of the names of the rescuers are saved in the archives of Yad Vashem.

In the 1960s a monument was built on the mass graves.

[Page 677]

lit4_677.jpg
The monument on the mass graves near Virbalis established in 1991

The inscription in Lithuanian and Yiddish on the tables says:
Here was spilled the blood of about 10,000 Jews (Men, Women and Children), Lithuanians, War prisoners of different nationalities, who were cruelly murdered by the Nazi murderers and their helpers in July and August 1941

(Among the victims there were the Author's Mother, sister, aunt and cousin)

[Page 678]

lit4_678a.jpg
In the Lithuanian plaque it is written
“…by the Nazi murderers and their local helpers…” In May 1987 the monument in memory of the communities of Kibart (Kybartai), Virbaln (Virbalis) and Pilvishok (Pilviskis) was unveiled at the cemetery in Holon

 

lit4_678b.jpg
The inscription (in Hebrew) says:
Monument in memory of the martyrs who perished in the Holocaust in Av–Elul 5701, July – August 1941 from the Communities of Pilvishky, Kibart, Virbaln Lithuania

[Page 679]

Bibliography:

Yad–Vashem Archives:. JM / 1825; M–9 / 12(6); M–33 / 987, 995; TR–10 / 1096
Koniukhovsky Collection 0–71, Files 154, 157, 158
Akhsanyah shel Torah (Report of the Hebrew High–School in Virbaln 1919–1921), (Hebrew) Berlin–Virbaln 1921
Yaffe Mosheh – The Hebrew Pro Gymnasium in Virbalis: Bemisholei haHinuch (In the paths of education) Kovno (Hebrew), 1937
Lite, New–York 1951, volume 1 & 2 (Yiddish)
The Jewish Encyclopedia, St. Petersburg 1908–1913, (Russian), Vol. 5, pages 507–8
YIVO, NY, Collection of the Jewish Communities in Lithuania, Files 387–401; 1587,1665; pages 17,716–18,740
Oral testimony by Virbaln natives Z.Vladislavovsky and L.Lakovsky
HaMeilitz (St. Petersburg) (Hebrew): 2.9.1879; 23.10.1880; 5.11.1880; 19.7.1881; 20.9.1881; 16.5.1882; 22.3.1883; 2.7.1883; 23.7.1883; 3.8.1883; 20.8.1883; 31.10.1883; 21.4.1884; 20.6.1884; 1.1.1886; 3.5.1886; 11.7.1886; 13.8.1886; 14.7.1886; 4.11.1886; 19.11.1886; 13.6.1887; 20.7.1887; 19.1.1888; 6.2.1888; 23.1.1889; 6.3.1900; 8.5.1900.
Dos Vort, Kovno (Yiddish): 10.11.1934
Folksblat, Kovno (Yiddish): 25.4.1939
Di Yiddishe Shtime (The Yiddish Voice) Kovno (Yiddish): 6.7.1922; 19.6.1931

Appendix 1

List of Donors from Virbaln for the Settlement of Eretz–Israel in 1896

Beilak Yitzhak
Dogilaitzky Zelig
Goldshtein Tsevi
Gordon Shemuel–Leib (Shala”g)
Gringold Yehezkel
Hokhenberg Mosheh–Idl
Kaplan Reuven
Lam Mosheh
Lap Efraim–Dov haKohen , Rabbi
Sandler Avraham–Eliyahu
Verzhbelovsky Avraham
Vishtinetzky Shemuel–David
Vizhansky Barukh

 

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