by R. K.
Translated by Max Chiat z'l In the original volume a photograph of a wooden synagogue is erroneously attributed to Shat (Seta), but rather is from Shukian (Saukenai): note by Ada Green, donor of this translation
Shat is a small village in Lithuania, near the larger town of Keidan, more or less in the center of Lithuania.
It is a very primitive village. No roads nor electricity. In the evening lamps are the only illumination to houses. Neither is there any railway access to the village.
There are about 90 Jewish families living in the village, which number is increased from time to time by people from the surrounding villages. In Shat it is difficult to find a committee to consist of a president or a governor, but at time even little kaisers are found.
The cultural functions are very limited, no theaters, nor cinemas, and no theater groups ever visit the village. However there is a small library of 500 books.
Their gemilas khesed (interest-free loan society) at one time had 28,000 lita (Lithuanian currency) in its coffers, which was of great help. But at a later time stage financial problems cropped up, which naturally affected the villagers.
Shat was a poor village with very few skilled artisans. A number of villagers owned horses and carts, but there was very little means to earn a decent living, and most people existed from hand to mouth. They also eked out a living from their dairy cows. But despite all the hardships and poverty, the people of Shat never lost their sense of humor, their determination and their togetherness.
Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz The Jewish community in Balbirishok is very old. The witnesses are the two large cemeteries, of which the newer one is 140 years old.
Balbirishok was once a rich trading town. Boats packed with a variety of goods would travel every day up and down the wide and deep waters of the Nieman. Many rich merchants in the shtetl made it even as far as the Leipzig Fair on only two axles [i.e. in a wagon]. Balbirishok was a trading center for many of the surrounding towns. Then with the arrival of a railway line and highways in the nearby towns of Alyta and Pren, all the commerce moved there.
Now great poverty reigns here. People wander around the shtetl without work and even the wisest sage cannot succeed in rescuing the majority of Jews here from what life brings. In the last three or four years, ten Jewish shops have closed in Balbirishok and those that remain are empty the entire week. There are very few artisans here and no one to help them, as there was before the war. Certain trades that once were monopolized by Jews are now free of Jews. In the shtetl there is not one Jewish blacksmith, brick mason, tinsmith or shoemaker. Consequently other trades have too many men. There are five bakers and four butchers. Three or four of them together slaughter one skinny animal. Meanwhile Lithuanian tailors, shoemakers, brickmasons, and carpenters in recent years have been springing up by the dozens.
The Balbirishok Jews have discovered a new business. They buy chickens at the market from the nearby towns and drive them to Kovno. The Balbirishkers call this new kind of businessman, with irony, Ministers of the Interior [a pun on inner for interior, and hinner, the plural of chickens in Yiddish]. They are also called vishtinenkes [chicken people]. No one can envy the living they earn.
The one thing that Balbirishok is not ashamed of compared to the surrounding towns is its factories. There is a distillery, leather factory, brick works, mill, furniture manufacturer, sawmill with a parquet factory, and also a small workshop, where mirrors are made, where the owner works on his own. All the industrial enterprises besides the furniture factory and one sawmill belong to Jews; however, they do not have a dominating role and do not play any part in the economics of the town. During the season there are seventy men working in all these enterprises, but of all those workers only three are Jews. The rest of the Jews have no real means of subsistence. Assistance from America used to be considerable, but is now reduced to a minimum.
During the summer about half a dozen Jews with orchards also trade in chickens. Since they are driving the chickens to Kovno they also take cases of apples or pears to sell at the Kovno market.
The Jewish folksbank has 100 members, of whom a dozen are Christians. The bank plays a large role in the shtetl's economy because there are hardly any Jews who don't need the bank's services.
The young people are barely employed. They wander around the streets with nothing to do and talk about politics. In the past a lot of young people left for Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay. Now the gates there are closed due to strict laws and the Great Depression. About 30 settlers left Balbirishok in the last 15 years for Palestine.
Cultural life here is abominable. The rich library with its eight hundred books is practically empty. The children who complete the Hebrew public school do not pursue further studies and forget the little that they learned.
by R. K.
Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein and Dr. Sonia Kovitz The shtetl Tsaikishok is located in Kovno district not far from the Dubisa River. It is very small. Tsaikishok has over 60 Jewish families who are mostly shopkeepers, traders, and artisans. During the summer many of the residents are busy in the orchards.
The economic situation in the town is not good. There is a folksbank in Tsaikishok that was the first one founded in Lithuania. It has over 60 members.
The relationship between Jews and Lithuanian is not bad. If the two Lithuanian shops in Tsaikishok participate in bloyeh markelakh [blue coupons, anti-Semitic tactic that discounted prices in Lithuanian shops in order to discourage shopping in Jewish shops], it is due not to anti-Semitism but simply to make a living.
As for cultural institutions, there is a Jewish public school. The Jewish library has over 500 Yiddish books and over 20 readers. There is no theater or movie house in Tsaikishok and no lecturers come here. The young people are mainly Zionists and belong to the Zionist Socialist party. Among the parents there many Zionists of various persuasions.
Busses go through Tsaikishok daily on their way to Kovno, Raseyn and back. They bring some life to the town. We see new people and are not cut off from the world. Because it is small, Tsaikishok is clean enough with attractive painted houses. We still do not have electrical service. In the middle of a summer day it is quiet and calm as if everything is sunk in sleep.
Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein and Dr. Sonia Kovitz Gelvan is located 20 kilometers from Vilkomir. It is an old shtetl. There are signs of its age in the cemetery. There are many old gravestones there. One of the gravestones from 5419 (1659) is still there. Not far from the shtetl is a meadow with gravestones scattered about, rubbed off through the generations. A Gelvaner informed me that there was once a cemetery there.
Not long ago Gelvan was considered a rich shtetl. All our business ties were with Vilna. Twice a week Jewish wagons would leave for Vilna with grain, eggs, poultry and the like, and would bring back merchandise for the shops. Shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths and other artisans were all Jewish. To have work done in the area one had to come to Jewish artisans. A few Jews earned money from the nearby landowners. Tenant farmers and brokers did business with the landowners and made a living. There were not many Jews in Gelvan who were poor. People lived quietly and happily. Now they are almost all shopkeepers and a few are village peddlers, but every one of them makes a living from relatives in America.
Before the war [WWI] Gelvan was a Jewish town with a population of about ninety Jewish families. Other than that there were about eight or nine families, laborers who made their living from the Jews. Now there are 70 Jewish families and more than 80 Christians families, with shops, two cooperatives, and a very rich Lithuanian folksbank. The Lithuanian are now the majority and soour shtetl is dying little by little.
From the earlier good times there is one thing left to us, that reminds one of a respected householder who has come down in the world and whose fine clothes hang loosely, too big for him. That is our besmedresh [synagogue], a very big one. Apparently the builders of the synagogue thought that Gelvan would one day be a large town and built the besmedresh accordingly. Now it is empty.
A brick bathhouse also remains from the good times. It is large and is heated only three times a year, as we cannot do more. It is too much of a luxury.
The relationship with the surrounding population at one time was very good, almost friendly. Now the intellectuals incite the population against Jews with invented stories. A short time ago there was a cooperative holiday and one of them went too far. He said in his speech that very soon all the Jews in Lithuania will be forced out and meanwhile demanded that no Christian should buy from Jewish shops.
The library of the Lovers of Knowledge has over 400 books, but the people of Gelvan are not great readers. The Zionist Socialists have a Garden of Edenthey are the only Zionist group here.
Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz Just twoscore years ago 100 Jewish families lived in Pushelat, and now there are no more than 45. A small number of them remained in Russia after being expelled from Lithuania at the time of the World War I, and many more, after returning to their former homes, emigrated to South Africa, Palestine, and America.
The majority of Jews in the shtetl are engaged in small business in shops, but the living they make from this is scant. A small number of Jews have taken up crafts or agriculture. The working families are divided up as follows: one shoemaker, one tailor, three butchers, two wagon drivers, one watchmaker, one milliner, two dressmakers, and five who farm either on their own or rented property.
Relations with the Christian community are so-so. The cultural situation, thanks to the young people in the area, is not bad. They have a library of 200 books, which include some of the most recent publications. In addition there is a public school, a small credit bank, gemilas khesed [interest-free loan society] and linat hatzedek [volunteers who care for the sick], all of which are on a high level of excellence. In our shtetl we have taken steps to establish a Hebrew public school, but the teacher speaks Yiddish with the children.
In the local group of firefighters there are both Jews and Christians, who cooperate in a variety of joint undertakings. Among these we have had for a few years a firemen's soccer team that is mixed (made up of Jews and non-Jews).
by B. N.
Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz Before the war [WWI], as older people tell the story, life in Vilyon was calm and peaceful. Today Vilyon is a town with eighty Jewish families, almost all of whom own their own house with a bit of land around it. But there is not enough land to make a living fromonly enough for raising some onions and radishes. Nevertheless Vilyon lives very well. If one has a little business, a little land, and above all a son in America, one can live like a prince. Of course it goes without saying that there are some people in Vilyon who do not have a brother or a beloved uncle in America or a garden or a business and they also live, but woe unto them.
Vilyon has a large number of artisans and unskilled laborers. They have a difficult life. There is no Jewish bank or gemilas khesed [interest-free loan society] in Vilyon.
The town has a large number of anti-Semites. The verslininkes [Lithuanian businessmen] distribute bloye markelakh [blue coupons, anti-Semitic tactic that discounted prices in Lithuanian shops in order to discourage shopping in Jewish shops] and make anti-Semitic proclamations. Yet among the poor peasants and the poor laborers there is no anti-Semitism.
There is a Jewish public school in the town and a Lithuanian public school with six grades. There are two Jewish study houses and one bathhouse, which this summer will be taken down and replaced with a new one.
Vilyon is divided into two parts, a mountain and a valley, and the residents are evenly divided between the two. The majority of the Jews live in the shtetl [in the valley?]. Vilyon has a church that was built by Vitautas the Great. Vilyon also has beautiful gedymin and pilies [Lithuanian: streets and roads].
In all, Vilyon is a town with great natural beauty, but the Vilyon Jews do not derive any pleasure from it. There is much unemployment, mainly among the young people. People wait for somethingthey want something and know that something must happen, so they wait: perhaps better times are coming.
The economic situation is bitter, but it is good that the Most High sent shchav [Russian: cabbage soup]. People eat shchav in the morning; for lunch, fleishik [meat] shchav; and in the evening, bread with milkhik [dairy] shchav. Mid-day, please have a cup of shchav! In the winter there is an abundance of crops and people dig up potatoes, carrots, and beets. They pickle cucumbers and tomatoes. And once in a while there is a hen or a goose and people have a little shmaltz [chicken fat]. Soon the winter ends and spring arrives with brand new shchav.
Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein and Dr. Sonia Kovitz Shavlyan is a shtetl in Shavl District and just when the town was greatly esteemed, it was removed and moved to a place forty kilometers away. The town is 18 kilometers from Radvilishok.
Of the surrounding towns, Tsitovyan [Tytuvenai] is important because of its pine forest where several families go to dachas [Russian: summer houses] during the summer. The rest of the cities and towns that are around are Shidleve [Siluva], Kelm [Kelme] and Shakot [Saukotas]. As in many other towns in Lithuania, Shavlyan has a round market place with houses built around it. In every house there is a shop, in some even two. Streets radiate out from the market place. One on the right goes to Radvilishok; the one on the left to Shavel and Tsitovyan, a third one go to Shidleve, Shakot and others. The first two are very important. Once a year the Shidlev Road is repaired, and that is before the large annual fair that the famous Lithuanian writer Zhemaite wrote about in A Journey to Shidleve. Thousands make a pilgrimage through Shavlyan and they all use the Shidlev Road.
In the middle of the market place there used to be a highly visible memorial to Aleksander II, who freed the peasants; it was removed in 1930. The memorial is ten meters high and has a long iron point at the top. It looks like a large Chanukah dreidel that from turning so much rubbed off its feet and sits on its bottom. On all four sides on stone tablets is engraved Tsariu Osvoboditeliu [Russian: To the Czar-Liberator]. At the highest point, hundreds of birds make their nests and the lowest part serves as a shelter for the peasants who come to the market to sell butter, eggs and other products. In 1930 the valdiba [Lithuanian: town council] decide to take the memorial down.
Today there are about 250 families living in Shavlyan, of which 50 are Jewish. It is difficult to establish when the Jewish community arrived. It is known that in 1766 when counting the population of the area, there were 331 Jews in Shavlyan.
In Jewish history Shavlyon is know for a blood libel that happened at the beginning of the 18th century. Until recently mothers told their children about Lipke der meshumed [the rogue], who in those unsettled times brought so much trouble to the local Jews, and also about the important people who came from Petersburg in order to settle the affair.
In 1921 after the expulsion to Russia, almost all the Jews returned to Shavlyan. Everything was quickly restored, some better, some worse, but everyone was happy. And prosperity lasted about ten years. Due to the great economic crisis in the country, the Jewish artisans and some of the shopkeepers have become truck farmers and orchard keepers. If one counts the three-four families who were involved in agriculture before the war [WWI] the main occupation in the town would be fruit farming. Second place goes to the retail shops.
Returning from Russia, the young people of that time became busy with cultural work. In a short time a library was created with 300 books. From time to time there would be lectures, discussions, evenings. The older people read a lot and there was evening a reading room in the town. These were people devoted to cultural work. Here I would like to honor the memory of Yokhved Schapiro-Luntz, who died young and was the soul of the young people at that time.
Now there is no sign left of all that. The library is closed all year because nobody has the inclination to read a book now. There is no Jewish public school in Shavlyan. Some of the Jewish children attend the Lithuanian school, but the majority of boys study in kheder under the supervision of the rabbi.
by L. B. E.
Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz
Several celebrities were born in our town. One of them is the famous revolutionary and martyr Hirsh Lekert, who was born and raised here. Several people in Anushishok remember well the lively, temperamental boy who at a young age moved to Vilna and whose shot [unsuccessful assassination attempt directed at the Governor of Vilna] later resounded like a thunderclap throughout Russia, especially in the Jewish Pale of Settlement.
A second celebrity of world renown, whose name is still remembered in Anushishok, is the late Mariampoler rabbi, the former Sejm [Polish Parliament] Deputy Rabbi Popl. Many people in Lithuania still remember his courageous stand in the Sejm concerning the proposed law to abolish capital punishment.
Before the Great War [WWI] about 80 or 90 Jewish families lived hereshopkeepers, merchants, and artisans. Because of the town's proximity to the Courland border, Jewish commerce was linked to Latvia. Artisans fulfilled orders from the Latvians and the demand was great. People lived out their lives in a characteristic, traditional way, but the young people were infected with radical ideas. Whoever felt confined at home strayed to Vilna, Dvinsk or Riga. They would come home for the High Holidays and bring with them new currents from the bigger towns. Many of the young people attracted to radical ideas were from well-to-do families, but their parents still allowed them to associate with the Stakhanovites and Socialists and to sing with them Brothers and Sisters in Labor and Need.
The picture after the war is very different. Many families did not return from Russia after the expulsion, and those who did come back were quickly disappointed by their old, abandoned homes. The partition of Lithuania from Latvia was fatal to the rebuilding of the town. The domestic farmers have no one to bring their produce to here, since they cannot go to the nearby regional capital to buy and sell the way they did before the partition.
Young people coming back after the war from the front and military service look around in despair. There are no prospects here and nowhere else to go. Only one small door is open: South Africa. Some tried to stick it out here and gave it their best effort, but then departed. Today a total of 25 Jewish families live here. They have opened a home for the aged, where the old people are maintained with American dollars and South African pounds. And the truth is, the people of Anushishok from Boston and New York, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, have strong feelings for their former homeand not only for their own loved ones but for the community institutions. Yet there is an outpouring of pain here. People wander around like ghosts and give the impression of doom, as if suffering their last punishment.
On summer evenings, in the ruins of the once important courtyard, we often have to endure the joyous sound of Lithuanian folk songs about a new life of happiness, labor and toilthe singers are Lithuanians newly enamoured of agriculture. Meanwhile just the faint sound of the trees from the cemetery is carried to our shtetl, while a rolling green field recently purchased [by a Lithuanian] secretly beckons. The Lithuanians will continue to prosper from year to year, while my shtetl will continue to decline.
by Daniel Riback
Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein and Dr. Sonia Kovitz Seven kilometers east of Lazdai [Lazdijai], on the road to Kalvarija, lies the tiny shtetl Rudamin. The town was built, about 200 years ago, by the famous Polish family of Princess Gawronski.
At first tailors and shoemakers settled here. A rabbi arrived later and made his living from an inn. They built a prayer house, They rented a place for the cemetery and began developing a Jewish life. The Gavronskis did not sell any land, only leased. Every five years the Jews renewed the lease agreements, paying the rent money promptly. Later the Gavronskis began to persecute the Jews, causing them trouble, made fun of their clothing, forbid them to use the water from the Rudaminelis River that flows through the town, invited the rabbi and complained to him about the Jews.
By the end of 18th century Rudamin had about fifty Jews. In 1899 one Jew bought the entire area. Then Rudamin began to flourish. True there was no rise in cultural life. Rudamin remained dark. But there were Jewish laborers in Rudamin. There were tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, shingle makers, roofers, harness-makers and the rest of them were peasants. Jewish peasants tilled the fruitful fields and their wives were in charge of the housekeeping and raising plants. In Rudamin lived a healthy, productive, independent Jewish element.
Today Rudamin is impoverished. There are about 15 Jews and 150 non-Jews. Today, half the Jews are shopkeepers and are doing tolerably well. The other half are peasants and are not doing well. Mother Nature has been cruel to her children. She does not give them a bountiful harvest, only just enough. A year ago several Rudaminer Jews left for Lazdai, some went to Kalvaria, others went further to other places. Now there is scarcely anything left of the Jewish community.
Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein Kul has a population of three hundred people of which around one hundred are Jewish. The relationship between the Jewish and Christians populations was until not long ago very good. The Jews and Christians would do favors for each other.
The Jewish population grew smaller very quickly. There are very few weddings and when we are lucky to have a wedding, the couple leaves Kul. The economic situation for Kul's Jews is miserable. There is only one Jewish artisan in Kul, a shoemaker.
The children study at the Lithuanian public school and the young boys study Hebrew in the afternoon. In the previous better years the Kul children traveled to Plungian to study at the Hebrew high school. Now the economics conditions are worse so that no Jews are able to send their child to study elsewhere.
The young people who belong to the Peretz library in Plungian eagerly read Yiddish books.
The town of Kul consists of one long street. Also they do not have any large expenses. Not the Kul Jews. The Jew has besides aid from a relative in a foreign country, a little bit of land or a garden. Almost every Jew has a foolish cow that gives milk and since he already has a cow, he also has clay pots in which to ferment the milk. Now there is something fermented in the house, there is cottage cheese and there is also something to flavor the plain fish. Potatoes they get from their gardens that they sow and harvest themselves so eating it all up is their due. It is bitter to buy clothing. They lay a patch on a patch. Happiness is that one does not have to pay any tax. And the patches are not the same color. So here they are among their own.
The Ponevezh rabbi and Sejm [Polish parliament] deputy Kahanaman is from Kul, and people hope that he can save them.
by A. Walt
Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein and Dr. Sonia Kovitz From Vilkomir a broad road, or as it is called here a gostinetz [from Russian for inn], leads to Ponevezh and further, as far as Riga. Wagon caravans once used this road to travel to Riga and came back loaded with grain and other merchandise. The many hotels and inns along the road served as rest spots.
There were a lot of small settlements on the road and they have become smaller and smaller. Now some of them are in ruins. They tell of a life that no longer exists, of the genuine shtetl way of life, of good-natured, hospitable and honest Jews with long beards. They tell of peddlers with huge packs on their backs whose feet walked over village roads, fields and meadows. They tell of tenant farmers with broad shoulders, who drove over the small estate roads to the town with wagons full of fresh milk. They tell of kheder boys who were brought from the surrounding settlements to the town, to the rabbis. They tell of the settlement Jews who would descend on the town their with wives and children for the High Holy Days.
Before the Great War of 1914, Tovian had several tens of families with all the community necessities. After the war emigration scattered the large majority of the town youth to every part of the world. Those who remained live with the hope that they will be able to leave this futile place.
The town becomes smaller and smaller every year. Every corner of the Jewish community is ruled by the fear over making a living, since Jewish means of livelihood have been taken over by the Christians. Houses are sold to non-Jews very cheaply. The only Jews remaining are those who cannot leave. The besmedresh [synagogue] is locked during the week and open only on the Sabbath with barely a minyan [quorum of ten men for public prayer]. The men sit near the oven between afternoon and evening prayers and have a chat about the past. A question is raised with a groan and remains unansweredwhat will happen to the besmedresh?
by Dr. Mendel Sudarski
Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross
The town of Vishtinetz was pretty and idyllic. One side of the town was bordered by a large lake that stretched for miles, from Lithuania deep into Germany. On the other side, Vishtinetz was bordered by small hills covered by a thick, almost inpenetrable forest. The hills, to our childish eyes, looked like tall mountains.
The lake was a good meeting place for the German and Lithuanian fishermen (mostly Jews) as well as providing the perfect opportunity, during the previous Czarist rule, to row illegal immigrants to Germany from the Russian side and to bring illegal literature from Germany into Russia.
Vishtinetz was once a town of substantial size with a large religious Jewish community of landowners. The famous gaon [sage] Rabbi Khayeml Filipover Brash was a resident of Vishtinetz and was well known for his charity and for his greatness equally as a Talmud scholar and as a mensch [a human being, in the highest sense].
Vishtinetz was one of the oldest settlements in Lithuania. Because of its proximity to the German border, it was obvious that Vishtinetz would become a center of small industry. There were a number of pig-hair factories and tanneries, which employed approximately 200 workers.
The brush-workers had a hard time then. They worked 16 or more hours a day, with the majority of them having their dinner brought to the factory and some of them staying there overnight, resting on a sack of pukh [down,i.e. the soft part of the pig-hair] and sleeping. Thursday, or as it was called, Green Thursday, they worked through the entire night to compensate for Friday, when they left early because of the approaching Shabbos. The work week began again Saturday evening, right after havdala [ceremony ending Shabbos].
And yet the brush-workers were the first to introduce a worldliness into the Jewish life of the shtetl and to revolutionize the masses. Regardless of how strange it may seem now, the first book that awakened the consciousness of the workers was Mendele [Moikher Sforim]'s story The Mare. The sole copy of The Mare was passed from one group to another in secret since it had been banned, after all, and anyone caught with it would be arrested. I remember to this day how they led away the brush-worker Tanakhke Bunes, an honest and guileless worker thirsting for knowledge, to Vilkovishk, the district capital, for just such a serious mistake. This was the first disturbing incident that led to changes in the idyllic life of Vishtinetz.
It was difficult and troublesome to reach Vishtinetz from the Russian side, although it was only 21 verst away from Verzhbalove. Twenty-one verst are about 15 American miles. To travel this distance, however, often took the better part of the day and sometimes part of the night as well. The road was partly sandy, strewn with rocks and, in many places, so muddy that sometimes Vishtinetz was cut off from the rest of the worldno coming, no goingunless you took a long detour through Germany in order to reach the station at Verzhbalove. The only connection with the surrounding area was Moyshe the Telegraph, a young, strong man and army veteran, always happy, always making a joke and meeting every difficult situation with a smile. He rode to the train station every day, regardless of the weather, to post the mail, to bring merchandise back, and to transport passengers back and forth. He was called Telegraph because neither cold nor mud stopped him.
As time passed, Vishtinetz, like many other small towns, shrank in size. A portion of the younger generation, having gotten a whiff of the malevolent wind that blew from the German side, gradually leftsome to South Africa and others to America where they established themselves in fine positions. Even Moyshe the Telegraph, in time, made his way to Canada where he died a couple of years ago. Several of the pig-hair factories (Itsele Sidorski's and Khaim Bertz's) relocated to Virbalin and Vilkovishk, and the tanneries closed. The large, beautiful synagogue became empty and nostalgia for its former worshippers enveloped the adjoining house of study.
Quiet and sad were the streets that had become overgrown with grass, and the hearty and resounding laughter of the children who had once played there so innocently was no longer heard. To make matters worse, Vishtinetz unexpectedly experienced a hellish fire at the end of a summer 49 years ago, which virtually decimated the greater portion of the town.
Every autumn, the Kaiser and his entire retinue arrived for the hunt. Here he could show off his prowess as a sharpshooter, that regardless of what target he aimed at, he would hit it. During this period of several weeks of free-spirited living at the expense of innocent animals, he would destroy a number of bears, hungry wolves and sometimes even lured a fox. But most importantly, he was an expert at frightened and shy deer. Afterwards, these dead animals were brought to Berlin with great ceremony and exhibited in the very center of the capital. The idiotic Germans hastened to gaze upon the slaughtered animals, which to them appeared to be such a wonder, and could not praise their Kaiser's skill highly enough.
Kaiser Wilhelm arrived in Vishtinetz for the hunt in the same year that the fire occurred. Learning that the pretty town located on the other side of the lake opposite his yacht had burned, his heart filled with pity, or maybe eagerness at seeing a burned-out Jewish town. One day he arrived in Vishtinetz with his retinue. It was Yom Kippur and there was no prior warning announcing his visit.
Wilhelm delighted in making such surprise visits and was well known for his sudden and unannounced appearances among the populace. Noticing the dead silence and the streets empty of people, he became downcastwhat should he do?
Even when the head of the town informed him of the important and holy Jewish holiday, he remained perplexed, for after all, a Kaiser is not just any ordinary person, and certainly not Wilhelm, who had been anointed by G-d. He sent a messenger to the Jews in the synagogue and politely requested that they go to the market place as he had something important to discuss with them.
The Jews, upon hearing of this developmenteven those in a talis [prayer shawl] or kitl [white garment worn onYom Kippur] and bootsrushed to the market place. The Kaiser exhibited his majestic patience and waited until the very last elderly man arrived from the synagogue.
Then Wilhelm dismounted his horse, and in a friendly manner greeted the Jewish representativethe teacher of the kazioner elementary school, Dovid Robinson (father of Drs. Yaakov and Nehemiah Robinson, both of whom are in New York), greeted everyone with good wishes for the new year, apologized for disturbing their prayers and imposing upon them with his summons.
The Kaiser offered fine words of consolation to the frightened people and substantial aid for reviving the town. He offered 10,000 marks (at that time equal to 4,000 rubles). Later he convinced his friend Czar Nikolai II to contribute a similar amount (5,000 rubles). In addition, he promised to intercede with the Czar to forego the tax on all necessary building materials obtained from Germany.
Dr. Rabinov, who spoke German fluently, greeted Wilhelm and thanked him heartily in the name of the Jewish community. Wishing the Jews an easy fast and great restoration after the fire, Wilhelm bade a friendly goodbye to the startled and surprised Jews.
Their fast was certainly an easier one, and happy and enthusiastic after the unexpected event that they could hardly comprehend, they went to Neilah [closing service on Yom Kippur], praying with even more fervor and fire than usual, calling out lshana haba birushalayim [next year in Jerusalem].
This event was described in all the Russian and German newspapers, and the Gemans lauded the Kaiser for his fine and humane act.
As I tell you this story, it seems to me to be the product of fantasy, a wild dream containing within itself the terrible wrongs which the Jews suffered at the hands of the barbaric Hitler gangs, sons of the German people, descendants of Wilhelm, but it is a fact, and a fact filled with such sorrow. Kaiser Wilhelm should serve as a model of high morale and good deeds and yet, what a far cry from that time, that not-so-long ago past to the dark Hitler times.
Yet even the royal intervention of Kaiser Wilhelm could not help, although he did keep all of his promises. Missing was the strength and energy of the youth; there was not the needed impetus to rebuild the entire town. The mood of impoverishment was felt even more strongly.
After the Great War barely a minyan [ten men required for public prayer] of Jews remained in Vishtinetz and the town reverted entirely to the rule of the Lithuanians and the Lithuanian-Germans.
Now there is no one there who, at the very least, will remind the German Hitler-murderers of the scandalous and law-breaking act of their late Kaiser Wilhelm II. Certainly, they have noone who will listen, who will take this unbelievable story of their former leaderKaiser Wilhelmas an example.
Different times, different birdsand instead of the former chanting and prayer-
murmuring birds, there are new wild, black crows in Vishtinetz as a result of the slaughter which the Nazis, together with the Lithuanian murderers, carried out against
the town of Vishtinetz and which piece by piece, destroyed the tattered and tortured Jewish community.
by Dr. Mendel Sudarski
Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross Our Jewish Lithuanian border towns found themselves, through two world wars, in an infernal fire that could only have been created in hell. The earliest and fiercest battles between the two strongest armies in Europethe German and the Russiantook place there, with fighting that lasted for months on this narrow strip of land. The first to fall victim were our Jewish towns. Especially horrible was the fate of our Jews in the towns on the East Prussian border during World War II, when Hitler's hordes, did not even wait for an encounter but suddenly attacked and murdered the peacefully unaware residents in the very first days of the occupation.
Verzhbalove was located at the center of all the little towns on the East Prussian border lying on a broad tract of land which stretched from Leningrad (formerly Petersburg) past Dvinsk, Vilna, and Kovno directly to Berlin.
Verzhbalove was, so to speak, the connecting point between eastern and western Europe and was recognized as a first-class border station through which the Czar's family often passed. Not only did high government officials pass through Verzhbalove, but also European merchants, manufacturers and learned men, as well as immigrants and political revolutionary activists with, you understand, falsified papers.
In speaking of Verzhbalove, we must mention, in the same breath, two more towns Kibart, which was two American miles from Verzhbalove, and the German border town of Eydkunen directly opposite. In a sense, they were like a spinal cord, as one could hardly separate each town from the next.
Practically half of the Verzhbalove populace interacted with that of Kibart and Eydkunen on an almost daily basis. It was there that business was conducted: the export of all kinds of goods to Russia, and later, Lithuania and Germany. Thousands of people were employed in this business, earning a fine living. Jewish-Russian and Lithuanian exporters and importers interacted with German buyers and sellers. And what didn't they export to Germany! Cattle, grain, flax, lumber, pig-hair, mushrooms, horses, crayfish, all kinds of fruitall shipped by train. Chickens were driven along the streets through the control-point. From early morning until late at night, the air was filled with the sounds of countless masses of geese, ducks, chickens and turkeys, urged on by hundreds of drivers to the Eydkunen goose-ramp so they could be transported further to Germany. Jews from neighboring towns, such as Vilkovishk, Pilvishok, Mariampole, Kalvariye and others, were also employed in this work. Millions of fowl were shipped to Germany through Virbalin at harvest-time and thousands of families in Lithuania enjoyed a prosperous income. In addition, there were two pig-hair factories in Virbalin that employed a couple hundred brush-workers. They also employed town residents, craftsmen and others. The Jews of Virbalin also earned a living through agriculture.
In addition, this small border export business supported hundreds of families. In accordance with a specific agreement, the residents of both sides of the border were permitted to import a certain quantity of products and finished goods for their own use from one country to the other duty-free. In this manner, a life-sustaining exchange of products and merchandise took place between the residents of Eydkunen on one side and Kibart and Virbalin on the other. The Germans, as well as the Jews and Lithuanians, were content and lived in peace. It would not have occurred to any of them that hatred of each other would soon develop.
Regardless of how strong the daily interaction was between these populations or how amicable the relationships were among these three towns, each remained different and individual unto itself, especially in the Jewish sense.
In a sense, it was a very effective comparison. In Eydkunen, a deep spirit of assimilation could be felt among the local Jews who viewed themselves as aristocrats, presumably because of the wealth they had accumulated at the expense of the poor Lithuanian Jews. They spoke German beautifully and sought to marry into the Eydkunen yekes [German Jews]. On the other hand, later in Kibart the unexpected installation of a tariff office, and the presence of exporters, brought in a spirit of Russification and just plain emptiness.
The result of this intermingling was the hanging of the wealthy Jew from Kibart, Freydberg, during World War I. He was on friendly terms with the gendarme-commander, Myasoyedov, who was accused of spying for Germany and sentenced to be hanged. The Czar's evil uncle, Nikolay Nikolayevitch, was eager to accuse a Jew and they accused Freydberg of being a co-conspirator, therefore, he too was executed.
Verzhbalove had become saturated with the new ideology and its new directions for a very long time, both in non-Jewish as well as Jewish life. The ethics teachings of the magid of Kelm were therefore of no help, because the smoke emanated from much more far-reaching and deep sources.
Should a Jew from Kibart wish to partake of a glass of beer or participate in a card game, he went to Eydkunen where he found what he wanted. If, however, he wished to hear a portion of mishna [foundation of the Talmud in Oral Law] or a page of gemora [the part of Talmud that deliberates on mishna] or even to spend an evening in a spiritual atmosphere, one of culture, Hebrew, Zionism, Bundism [bund: Yiddishist Zionist Socialist labor party] and other ideological pursuits, he had to go to Verzhbalove.
If Lithuania was, in the broadest sense of the word, the most Jewish land (except, of course, Eretz Yisroel), then Verzhbalove could be considered one of the most Jewish towns in Lithuania, because Verzhbalove was a town of Torah scholars, of maskilim [enlightened adherents of the haskalah movement], and of people who could speak and teach Hebrew. Verzhbalove had the reputation of a Hebrew town and as far back as 30-40 years ago, the children were spoken to in Hebrew.
The first elementary schools were formed in Verzhbalove. Their founder was my teacher, Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Sandler, a maskil with both a Jewish and worldly education, a writer on the staff of hamelitz and hatsfira [Hebrew newspapers], and an educator of several generations of students, many of whom are now in America. His son, Gregori Sandler, a renowned Zionist activist and social activist, now resides in Montreal, Canada.
Among those who lived in Verzhbalove, exerted their influence, and began their literary careers there, were Shmuel Leyb Gordon and Ben-Avigdor, both of whom married two sisters of Yehoash [pseudonym of writer Solomon Bloomgarten, 18701927, born in Verzhbalove]. It was perhaps natural that in this Yiddish-Hebrew environment someone such as Yehoash would grow up a dreamer who, even in his very young years, created songs about love and about the meaning of life and who later became the famous poet, writer and translator [into Yiddish] of the tanakh [acronym based on the initial letters in Hebrew for Torah, Prophets, Writings]. His father, R' Keylev bar Ayvushes Bloomgarten, well versed in Torah, worked day and night, as was the custom, studying the tannaim [early teachers of mishna]. His mother was a pious woman. Here, in the home of his parents, Yehoash was infused with the traditional Jewish spirit and gained inspiration for his later creations. They truly thought and wrote in Hebrew and dreamed of Zion. More than one young Verzhbalove boy carried with him songs and romance stories written in the holy language, but Yiddish was the spoken language. The Yiddish element strengthened when the workers' movement arose, with the bund [Yiddishist Zionist Socialist labor party] at its head. The hundreds of brush-workers who lived in town brought in a new trend and revolutionized the youth. Nevertheless, there remained enough dreamers, such as my second teacher, Reuven Kaplan, who continued the thread of the Hebrew maskil culture and of building their own world.
Among these dreamers were to be found those young boys and men with Zionist leanings, and foremost among them were the poet Fayvl Gringard, the enthusiastic visionary Zionist Zelik Sudarski, the imaginative and musical Nekhemiah Volpianski, the quiet dreamer Dovid Hilenberg, the student-guest Nisn Sudarski, and the kalter baheme-mentsh [indifferent simpleton] Aharon Shoydinishski.
I remember as if it were today, their meeting practically daily in the quiet evenings and dreamlike nights in a small, partially dark room, sipping glasses of tea that their girl friends served them with loving smiles. They spent hours in friendly talk and long discussions which lasted late into the night. It was there that they solved all the problems of the world, and most especially, the Jewish problems. Forgotten were the large political clubsthe world was no match for the tiny half-lit room in Yudl Grinberg's house.
After World War I, Kibart and Verzhbalove, following a short-lived renaissance, once again shrank. During the first years of national autonomy, they thought that a new era was approaching and Verzhbalove and Kibart, with energy and fervor, began to rebuild all that had been destroyed while under the long German occupation.
This impetus of rebuilding in Kibart slowly found its way to Kovno, especially during the years when Hitler rose to power in Germany. The attitude of the Germans towards their previously accepted Jewish friends changed for the worse, as described by Tuvye
Shereshevski (author's note: an important community activist who perished in the Kovno ghetto). In the folksblat [People's Newspaper]. Shereshevski wrote in 1937 of:
the dying gasps of a once rich and solidly established Jewish town. Today, in the building near the border where once there were 15 stores whose doors never were locked, one can see only the signs above the now locked doors. Today only two stores are open. From a third floor window can be seen, on the opposite side, the Russian district, quiet, dead quiet, just like the cemetery at the entrance to the town.As a town which contained several hundred Jewish families, Verzhbalove decided to create its own gymnazye [high school]. Its first director was Dr. Yaakov Robinzon.
And at this border proper, to the left of the highway, is the control-point and next to it stands the Lithuanian flag. All former activity has ceased here, no longer do the residents of both towns go back and forth. Even local Jewish children no longer attend German schools daily. Only two or three wagons a day deliver merchandise for all expeditors.
Through the windows of the control-point, the Lithuanian official peers out wearily towards the other side of the border and his German colleague responds with a phlegmatic look from the opposite side. Between them stands the wooden bridge. On its railings, a half-meter apart, hang forlorn emblems of both countries, Saint George on his horse on the east side and on the west, the Prussian eagle. Beneath, the Lipane River snakes its way through, separating both countries and encircling the east side of the town.
Among those rabbis who held a position of honor in Verzhbalove, mention must be made of Dovid Tevele Katzenelenboygn, who later became the head rabbi in Petersburg (now Leningrad). His successor, Rabbi Efrayim Lap, was one of the founders of a large group of talmidey khokh'mim [brilliant scholars].
For a short time the writer Leon Halperin lived in Kibart and Verzhbalove. He is now in Montivideo, Uruguay and is an important part of community life. He recently published a new work, Lost Souls. There were also a number of many-branched families who dominated the life of the Verzhbalove Jews, but almost all were related to each other, so that the entire town was like one big family,
Notwithstanding the smoke over Virbalin from the fire in Europe, according to the allegorical reference by the magid of Kelm, life there revolved in a patriarchal and traditional Jewish manner.
As in any family, all of its members are not always similar one to the other and so it was in Verzhbalove, where there were a number of interesting types, interesting exemplars and each one was unique.
Here comes Shmerl the porter, moving rapidly but assuredly, with quick footsteps, sturdily built, hard-muscled, giving the appearance of having been carved from stone. He has just now finished unloading and reloading heavy boxes of merchandise and he did all of this with a minimum of strain, and now he is going to the beysmedresh [synagogue] to recite his portion of mishnayes [lines from the mishna, part of the Talmud].
Now we see Feytshe's [husband] Yudl strolling along, a scholarly Jew with a well-developed high forehead, his hat set back on his head. Even during the coldest days of the year and the hottest summer months, he wears galoshes and a silk kerchief covering his face up to his ears. His wife, Feytshe, an eyshet khayil [woman of valor, from Proverbs 31:10-31, recited by a husband to his wife on Shabbos] has taken care of everything and freed him from any worries about earning a living, and he can live without cares.
Wandering dreamily through the quiet streets and outskirts of town, as if his thoughts are flying up to heaven, is Nekhemiah Volpianski. He has another name, but Nekhemiah by itself is just fine. He is a kol-boynik [jack-of-all-trades] Jew, with extensive knowledge about everything, blessed with many talentsmusic, technical know-how, painting, a writer of poetry and short storiesand a fine sense of humor. Overall, he has a mind rich with fantasy but that is as far as it goes, since he never brings his ideas to fruition. His is a life of unending dreams and dismal actuality, a constant struggle from living with his head in the clouds while eternally attached to the narrow space of his own small town, which he has not left for the last 50 years.
And suddenly, someone is running, distracted and out of breath, deep in thoughtit is R' Itsik the frum [traditionally observant]. Seldom does anyone address him by his proper second name, for as his name is so is he. He is a truly religious man with plenty to be concerned abouthe has a family of girls, keyn ayin hora [expression to ward off the evil eye]a large family, and money must be earned to take care of one's own, in this life as in the hereafter. Therefore he truly worries about everyone. So many poor, sick people, G-d forbid. Wherever there is a yeshiva student who needs a meal, a guest who needs a bed for the night and something to eat, a poor husband and wife, or simply a Jew in need, he treats them all with benevolence. This is how he performs mitsvos [good deeds in accordance with G-d's commandments], reciting as many brokhes [prayers] as possible, hundreds every day. He always keeps a bit of kikhl [cookie or baked goods] in his pocket and every now and then takes a little bite in order to fulfill the mitsva of blessing food, or he shows up at a friend's or neighbor's house at any time and says to himself Sit, Itsele. Drink a glass of tea, R' Itsele... and he is welcomed with a blessing.
Friday is his busiest day of the work week. Quite early, before candle-lighting, he runs to all the shops, asking the owners to close so that, G-d forbid, they should not desecrate Shabbos. And when everyone finally is sitting at their splendidly appointed Sabbath tables, one can see a harried R' Itsele running from house to house to make sure that anyone in need has a place to go for Shabbos.
In addition to all of this, he is a merchant, full of kindness and worldly-wise, with a money-changing office tucked into the pockets of his overcoat. He shoves his hands into those deep pockets and entire piles of silver coins, all kinds of small change and paper money appear, and the transaction is completed right on the spot. And yet he still finds enough time for studying a page of gemore or mishnayes and for communal worship with fervor, as well as for raising his son, R' Simkhe, to become a rabbi and a highly ethical person. R' Simkhe was the head of one of the Kovno yeshivas and perished in the Kovno ghetto.
But apparently, if life is not entirely without purpose, there is always a mixture which makes life clearer, more certain, andmost importantlymore natural, closer to reality. Virbalin was no exception.
Allegedly an underground world existed there too, but this underworld functioned during the time of Czarist oppression and it was both necessary and important. It was during the period in Czarist Russia when Jews and even non-Jews were not able to vote and had no rights, had to serve Nikolayke [ironically affectionate reference to Czar Nikolay II] for four or five years, and faced imprisonment for political transgressions.
Naturally, anyone who did not want to serve in the army or end up in prison escaped to the border towns, and more specifically, to Virbalin, seeking help from the smugglers of those who wished to emigrate. At that time the smugglers were really redeemers or deliverers, helping people escape from all kinds of trouble. Most certainly, those associated with the underworld also had dealings with the smugglersone of whom, Avrom Droyshin, the Jewish Cossack, was surrounded by unbelievable and fantastic legends.
Yet as a general rule, all the smugglers accomplished a purpose and many of the men who escaped will never forget them. Even now, with a prayer on their lips, they will mention those bold and brave young men, forgiving them for the transgression of demanding more money for helping them to cross the small strip of land that separated the large and unending Russia from the little town of Eydkunen. Probably many Americanspolitical activists as well as immigrantsowe them a debt of gratitude for their future and for their good life in free America.
Row 2: Yakov Verzhbolovski, Y. Zarko, Nekhemya Volpianski, B. Fridman, Kh. Y. Abelovitch, #6 unidentified, Khaim-Hirsh Sandler (Gregori Sandler's [son]), Zelik Sudarski; #9 unidentified, M. Sh. Verzhbolovski, #11 unidentified, Dovid Hilenberg, Fayvl Gringard, Mordekhay Matikov, Keylev Dogileyski
Row 3: #1-4 unidentified, M. Puzinski, Dovid Hilenberg, Mordekhay Levin, Aharon Shoydinishki, Avraham-Eliyahu Sandler, Hirshl-Zelik Dogileytski, #11 unidentified, the Russian teacher Ayvush Hilenberg, Yisrolke the Glazer, #14 unidentified
Row 2: #1-2 unidentified, M. A. Kheytovitch, Leyb Kaganski, Khana-Shifre's Motke, #6-7 unidentified, Khayim-Itsl's Velvel, Dovid Hilenberg, Sinenski, #11-12 unidentified, Zarko, Berl Vishtinetski, Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Sandler
Row 3: #1 unidentified, Sokalski, #3 unidentified, Asher Kheytovitch, #5-7 unidentified, Gitl Lap, Rokhl Sandler, Khaya Vistanetski, Rone Palnboym
Row 4: [#1-7?] unidentified, Golde Lurie, #8 unidentified, Puzinski, Vistanetski, Peshe-Rokhl Lap, Alte Fridlender, #13 unidentified, Libe Gringard, Batia Gringard
Row 5: the Aniksht gemora teacher Khaim-Hirsh Sandler, Yakov Verzhbolovski, Varshavski, Tsirl Matikov, Yehudis Verzhbolovski, #7 unidentified, Feyge-Leye Hilenberg, #9 unidentified, Feyge-Malkha Lutrin, Reyzl Lurie, Reyzl Vishtinetski, Beyle Vladislavovski, last unidentified
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