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Balbieriskis (Balbirishok)
(Balbieriškis, Lithuania)

54°32' 23°53'

Balbieriskis (Balbirishok in Yiddish) is situated in southwestern Lithuania, on the west bank of the Nemunas River, about 18 km. (12 miles) north west of the railway station in Alite (Alytus). The town developed alongside an estate established by a noble Russian family at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Over the years the owners changed and in 1846 it became the property of the daughters of Graf Tishkevitz. Balbirishok received the rights of a town in 1520.

Balbirishok was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Kingdom until 1795, when the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, resulted in Lithuania becoming partly Russian and partly Prussian. The area of the state which lay on the west bank of the Neman River (Nemunas) was handed over to Prussia while the other area became a part of Russia. Thus Prussia ruled from 1795–1807 and the rights of the town were annulled because of its small population.

After Napoleon defeated Prussia and according to the Tilzit agreement of July 1807, Polish territories occupied by Prussia were transferred to what became known as the Great Dukedom of Warsaw, which was established at that time. The King Friedrich–August of Saxony was appointed duke, and the Napoleonic code became the constitution of the dukedom, according to which everybody was equal before the law, except for the Jews who were not granted any civil rights.

During the years 1807–1815 Balbirishok was included in the Great Dukedom of Warsaw. In 1815, after Napoleon was defeated in Russia, all Lithuania was annexed to the Russian Empire; this included Balbirishok (Balverzhishki in Russian,) which was in the Suwalk Province (Gubernia). Under Russian rule the town grew and became an important commercial center. Its merchants developed business connections with Leipzig and other towns in Germany, the main export item to that country being timber.

At the end of the nineteenth century, with the construction of the railway to Alite and Pren (Prienai), these two towns began to grow, to the detriment of Balbirishok.

During World War I Balbirishok was occupied by the Germans, who ruled it from 1915 until 1918. During the period of independent Lithuania (1918–1940), the town was the administrative center of the county.

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Jewish settlement until World War I

Balbirishok was one of the 246 towns in the Polish Kingdom where there were no restrictions on Jewish settlement. Probably most Jews moved to Balbirishok and its environs during the middle of the seventeenth century. They dealt in timber and grain. Wealthy Jewish tradesmen exported goods to Germany by rafts and barges on the Nieman (Nemunas) River.

In 1843 Balbirishok comprised 1,153 Jews (about 154 families), and by 1861 the total population had grown to 2,424 including 1,167 (48%) Jews.

 

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The old synagogue and the young Jew

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Building the new synagogue

 

A pogrom against Balbirishok Jews erupted in 1881. On a market day on the eve of Yom Kippur, peasants attacked Jewish shops, looted everything they could, before dousing the buildings with kerosene and setting them on fire. The windows of Jewish houses were shattered, pillows and cushions were torn open and the feathers dispersed, and Jews were savagely attacked. One died and twenty were badly injured. The rioters broke into the synagogue and the Beth Midrash, destroying everything. The local priest tried to help and rang the church bells, but to no avail. All this carnage occurred because a Jewish merchant apprehended a peasant who had not paid for goods in his shop!!

In the period before World War I, the Jewish children of Balbirishok were educated in Hadarim and Talmud–Torah. There were also young learned people thirsting for general knowledge, and the Propagators of Knowledge society in Russia sent them secular books. Reuven Hurvitz, representing Balbirishok youth, had a letter published in HaMelitz on January 2, 1883, in which he thanked the society for sending six books.

In 1881 the Hevrah Kadisha comprised nine clerks and superintendents: three were elected, the others being three Gabaim; a bookkeeper, a superintendent and a senior Shamash (beadle). There were two Jewish cemeteries, the old and the new, which were established early in the nineteenth century.

In 1898, just after the first Zionist congress, funds were raised for settlement in Eretz–Yisrael. HaMelitz of that year published a list of donors, and HaMelitz # 40 dated 1897 gave a list of eighteen donors from Balbirishok (see Appendix 1). From 1861 until 1933 there were 64 subscribers to rabbinic literature.

At the end of April 1915 Balbirishok Jews were exiled far into Russia by the retreating Russian army.

 

During Independent Lithuania (1918–1940)

After the war ended Balbirishok Jews returned to their town, which was then included in the Marijampole administrative district. Following the law of autonomies for minorities issued by the new Lithuanian government, the minister for Jewish affairs, Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections to community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In autumn 1919 the elections for the community committee

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of Balbirishok took place and nine members were elected: two General Zionists, two Tseirei Zion, two Mizrahi, two non–party men and one orthodox Jew. Tuviyah Cohen–Tsedek was elected chairman.

Those active in economic, social and cultural spheres were: Aharon–Yits'hak Charny (headmaster of the school), Aba Frank, Michael Chizikovsky, Rabbi Yits'hak Bernstein, Kalev Cohen–Tsedek, cantor Aryeh–David Berezovsky (member of the Mizrahi center), Eliezer Tatz, David Charny and Hanokh Cohen–Tsedek.

A survey, carried out by the committee at the request of the Ministry for Jewish Affairs revealed that sixty–one men made their living from commerce, twenty–four from crafts and five from agriculture. The artisans included six tailors, three carpenters, three blacksmiths, two oven builders, two glaziers, two shoemakers, two carters, two painters, a hatter and a watchmaker. Eight of them worked in villages. Among the agrarians, two cultivated plantations, two grew grain and one grew vegetables. In commerce thirty–two men were shop owners and twenty–five peddlers. Eight of the latter had horses and the others would walk from village to village with their goods. Fifty–four families had small farms near their homes and fifty–six families each owned a cow.

By 1921 the town had 780 residents, of them 560 (72%) Jews, comprising about 130 families.

Most of the town's trade was in Jewish hands. According to the government survey of 1931, Balbirishok had ten shops, eight of them Jewish–owned. There were also thirteen light industry enterprises, ten of them Jewish: two flour mills, two bakeries, a power station, a metal workshop, a brick factory, a spirit factory, a sawmill, a leather factory, a furniture workshop and a shoe workshop.

In 1937 twenty–one Jewish artisans made their living there: four butchers, three tailors, three dressmakers, three bakers, two shoemakers, two watchmakers, one barber, one painter, one photographer and one leather worker. There were two weekly market days and three annual fairs.

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The management of the Folksbank (1934)

 

The Folksbank played an important role in Jewish economic life of Balbirishok, having 100 members in 1929. Its director was Aharon–Yits'hak Charny and members of the management were David Charny, Michael Chizikovsky, Kalev Cohen–Tsedek and Aba Frank. By 1939 there were twenty–three telephone owners in the town, ten of them Jewish.

Due to the slump in economic activity and competition from Lithuanian consumer cooperatives, the standard of living of many Jews deteriorated and their numbers declined from about 200 families before World War I to about 100 before World War II. Many emigrated to Canada, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and South Africa. By 1939, 53 persons had emigrated to Eretz–Yisrael. Most remaining youths were unemployed.

Balbirishok Jewish children studied in the Hebrew school and some of its graduates continued their studies in the government gymnasium.

 

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The Hebrew elementary school

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Students of the Gymnasium

 

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During the 1920s a repertory group performed in town

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The repertory society 1921–1923
(Pictures courtesy of the Archives of The Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel)

 

The religious life of Balbirishok Jews centered mainly around the synagogue and the Beth Midrash. (For the list of rabbis who served here see Appendix 2). All of the customary welfare institutions in Jewish communities, such as Ezrah and Linath Hatsedek. were also active.

Among personalities born in Balbirishok were Rabbi Gavriel Fainberg (1825–1905) who officiated as rabbi of Memel until his death; doctor Yits'hak Fainberg (1822–?), who published many articles on medicine in German and Russian scientific journals and who established the famous Mapu Library in Kovno; Mordehai Rozenstein, a journalist, who later on lived in London and America and Reuven Hurvitz, a correspondent for HaMelitz.

Many Balbirishok Jews were Zionists. There were followers of all Zionist parties and most of these had branches in the town. Many participated in the elections for the Zionist congresses and the table below reveals the division of the votes for each party:

Con
No.
Year Shek Total Votes Labor Party
Z”S Z”Z
Rev. Gen. Zion. Gro. Miz.
14 1925 25
15 1927 30 26 6 4 10 4 2
16 1929 83 44 11 1 21 3 8
17 1931 52 39 14 1 19 2 3
18 1933 94 46 30 5 4 9
19 1935 119 72 1 2 25 19

Key: Cong No. = Congress Number, Tot Shek = Total Shkalim, Rev = Revisionists, Gen Zion = General Zionists, Gros = Grosmanists, Miz = Mizrakhi

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There were also several Zionist youth organizations: Gordonia, Maccabi and Betar.

World War II broke out with the German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, and its effects on Lithuanian Jews in general and Balbirishok Jews in particular were felt several months later.

In agreement with the Ribbentrop–Molotov treaty on the division of occupied Poland, the Russians occupied the Suwalk region, but after delineation of exact borders between Russia and Germany, this region fell into German hands. The retreating Russians allowed anyone who wanted to join them to move into their occupied territory, and indeed many young people left the area together with the Russians.

The Germans drove the remaining Jews out of their homes in Suwalk and its vicinity, robbed them of their possessions, and then directed them to the Lithuanian border, where they were left destitute. The Lithuanians refused to allow them to enter Lithuania and the Germans did not allow them to return. Thus they stayed in this swampy area in cold and rain for several weeks, until Jewish youths from the border villages smuggled them into Lithuania by various routes at great personal risk. Altogether about 2,400 refugees passed through the border or infiltrated on their own, and were then dispersed in the Suwalk region including Balbirishok which absorbed fifty refugees.

In June 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania and it became a Soviet Republic. Under the new rules, the majority of the factories and shops belonging to the Jews of Balbirishok were nationalized and commissars were appointed to manage them. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded and Hebrew educational institutions were closed.

The German army entered Balbirishok on the first day of its invasion of the Soviet Union, June 22nd, 1941. Immediately on the arrival of the German troops, a group of Lithuanians, local students and workers was organized to attack and mistreat Jews. Thus began the assault on and persecution of the Jews. Initially the Lithuanians detained all Jewish men and concentrated them in the house of the local committee where the guards forced them to do different types of labor both indoors and outdoors, all the while continuing the abuse and physical assault. On August 17th, 1941, all the men (about 100) and six women were led on foot to the town of Pren, where they were all shot, probably on August 22nd, 1941 (4th of Teveth 5701); they were buried in the north of Pren, on the west bank of the Neman River.

Several hundred women and children were kept in Balbirishok for some time and later transferred to Mariampol (Marijampole), where they were murdered together with local Jews and those of the surrounding towns and villages on September 1st, 1941 (9th of Elul 5701).

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The site of the mass grave and the monument in Pren (Prienai)

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The monument

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The mass grave and the monument in Mariampol near the barracks

The inscription on the monument in Yiddish and Lithuanian reads: “Here the blood of about 8000 Jewish children, women, men and of 1000 people of different nationalities, was spilled.
The Nazis and their local helpers cruelly murdered them all in September 1941.”

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A group of survivors from Mariampol and its surroundings near the monument

 

Sources:
Yad Vashem Archives: M–1/Q–1341/145
YIVO, New York, Collection of Lithuanian Communities, Files 106–110, 1377, 1560
HaMelitz, St.Petersburg, 11.10.1881; 1.11.1881; 2.1.1883
Di Yiddishe Shtime, Kovno, 18.8.1919
Folksblat, Kovno, 3.8.1935; 2.9.1935; 25.9.1935

Appendix 1

List of 18 donors from Balbirishok (From HaMelitz 1895–97)
(Jewishgen Organization–Databases, by Jeffrey Maynard)

Surname Given Name Comments Source Year
BLEICHMAN Malka   HaMelitz #40 1897
BLEICHMAN Tuvia husband of Sima Goldberg wed 4 Shevat HaMelitz #40 1897
BLOCH Note   HaMelitz #40 1897
GOLDBERG Avraham A   HaMelitz #40
GOLDBERG Eliahu   HaMelitz #40 1897
GOLDBERG Sender   HaMelitz #40 1897
GOLDBERG Sima wife of Tuvia Bleichman wed 4 Shevat HaMelitz #40 1897
GOLDBERG Tane   HaMelitz #40 1897
GOLDBERG Yeshiahu bridegroom HaMelitz #40 1897
GOLDBERG Yitzchok   HaMelitz #40 1897
KOTLER Shmuel   HaMelitz #208 1895
KOTLER Shmuel   HaMelitz #40 1897
LODNITZKI Tzvi   HaMelitz #40 1897
NADEL Shlomo   HaMelitz #40 1897
NAWIAZKI Moshe Ari   HaMelitz #40 1897
SALANSKI Zlate   HaMelitz #40 1897
WILNER Mordechai   HaMelitz #40 1897
WOZAWINSKI Menachem   HaMelitz #40 1897

 

Appendix 2

An incomplete list of Rabbis who officiated in Balbirishok

R' Ozer. died 1819
Tsevi–Hirsh, son of Avraham Kahana.
Shelomoh–Zalman Gordon, until 1858 (later in Mariampol), died 1872.
Efraim, son of Avraham Gabai.
Hayim–Yirmiyahu, son of Avraham Flensberg (1842–1914), in Balbirishok in 1873.
Shemuel–Meir, son of Yits'hak Ash, until 1884.
Eliezer–Yits'hak Algazi.
Barukh Grosbard.
Eliyahu Fink.
Hayim HaLevi Lev, the last rabbi, murdered in the Holocaust

 

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