Serey (Seirijai)

Written by Joseph Rosin

English edited by Sarah and Mordekhai Kopfstein

I am obliged to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Alan Cooper from Potomac, Maryland USA (descendant of the Vazbutsky family) in providing me with important material on Serey.

Serey, founded in the sixteenth century near a farm of that name, is located in the south-eastern part of Lithuania, about 25 km south-west of the district centre Alytus, surrounded by many lakes. Later this farm was owned by the Polish noble family Radzivil, one of whose sons converted to become a Kalvinist and thus Serey became the center of Kalvinism in Lithuania at the end of the sixteenth century. At the end of the seventeenth century Serey received the rights of a town (The Magdeburg Rights) and later on many German artisans settled there.

Until 1795 Serey was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, 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 part of the state which lay on the left side of the Neman river (Nemunas), including Serey, was handed over to Prussia which ruled there during the years 1795-1807. During these years Serey declined because of its commercial and economic separation from other towns of Lithuania. In 1797 1,094 people residing in 215 houses lived in Serey.

After Napoleon defeated Prussia and according to the Tilzit agreement of July1807, Polish territories occupied by Prussia were transferred to what became known as the "The Great Dukedom of Warsaw", which was established at that time. The King of Sachsonia, Friedrich-August, was appointed Duke, and the Napoleonic code now 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 1807-1813, Serey belonged to the "Great Dukedom of Warsaw" and was part of the Bialystok district. The Napoleonic Codex was then introduced in this region, remaining in effect even during the Lithuanian period. In 1808 Serey had a population of 1,100 people.

In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, all of Lithuania was annexed to Russia, as a result of which Serey was included in the Augustowa Region (Gubernia), and in 1866 it became a part of the Suwalk Gubernia as a county centre. In 1827 there were already about 2,000 inhabitants in Serey and during this period market days and yearly fairs took place and commerce flourished.

During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940) Serey was also a county centre. The invasion of the German army in June 1941 caused the demolition of almost all the town.


Jewish Settlement until after World War I

The first Jews settled in Serey apparently at the beginning of the eighteenth century. They dealt in commerce, agriculture and fishing. Several Jews were owners of big farms (Garbarsky, Vazbutzky, Nun and Ziman), others traded with grains and made a good living. Many families maintained auxiliary farms near their houses, which they used to grow vegetables.

At the end of the nineteenth century, when a slowdown plagued the economy, many Jews emigrated abroad (England, USA etc.) In a list of Serey Jews who immigrated to America in 1869-70 there are eleven names (see Appendix 1).

In 1856 the total population of Serey was 2,138, of them 1,492 Jews. By 1897 there were 2,664 inhabitants in Serey, including 1,614 Jews.

Most of the houses were single family homes, built of wood with roofs of wooden shingles or straw, causing the inhabitants to live in constant fear of destruction by fire. Indeed in 1900 a big fire caused the decline of the local economy for many years, and in 1912 a big fire burnt down almost half the town.

Jewish children usually studied in a"Cheder", in a "Talmud-Torah" and in "Yeshivoth". In 1887, the "Talmud-Torah" under the supervision of the local Rabbi Yekhezkel Volpert, also taught arithmetic and Russian, in addition to the religious subjects. In 1873 professions were taught in the "Talmud-Torah" and 40 children would come after school hours to learn a craft, Yiddish also being a subject which was taught there. These two things were exceptional in Lithuania of those days. The building of the "Talmud-Torah" erected by the donation of the local philanthropist Markus Meretsky.

During this year a "Cheder Metukan" (Improved Cheder) in a specially bought building encircled by a garden, was founded. Fifty pupils, in the four rooms of the school under the instruction of four teachers, studied there and were taught, in addition to Bible and "Gemara", also arithmetic and Russian. The teachers were: J.J.Vishaysky, M.M.Ragolsky, Y.Seinensky.

Intellectually gifted youngsters, who did not have the possibility or the means to get secular books, received various books from the "Society for Spreading Knowledge among the Jews" in Russia. The Hebrew newspaper "HaMeilitz" dated Dec. 28, 1880, published in St. Petersburg, included a letter of gratitude to this society, signed by Asher-Tsvi Rabinson on behalf of the youngsters.

The "Khibath-Zion" movement started its activity in Serey in the eighties of the nineteenth century, but already in 1810 the name of Shaul son of Shimon from Serey was among the signatories of a letter from the Rabbis from Eretz-Yisrael to their brothers in Lithuania about donations for Eretz-Yisrael, and for Tsfat in particular.

In the old cemetery of Jerusalem there is a tombstone of a Serey Jew: Yehudah-Leib son of Meir HaCohen, 5644-1884.

The Rabbi of Serey, Yitskhak Aizik Volpert, participated as a Serey delegate in the regional conference of Russian Zionists which took place in Vilna in 1899. Serey Jews collected money for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael and on the eve of Yom Kipur 5653 (1893) they collected 50 Rubel, a considerable sum in relation to the number of Jews. The money was transferred to the center of "Khovevei Zion" in Odessa.

In lists of donors from Serey for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, as published in "HaMeilitz" of the years 1884, 1898, 1899 and 1902, the names of hundreds of Serey Jews are mentioned. The treasurers were Rabbi Yekhezkel Volpert, Yom-Tov Lipman Ziv, Dr.Kabaker, Sh.Z.Vazbutsky, Tsvi Simson and the teacher Refael Volpiansky. In the list of 1902 the names of 77 Serey Jews are mentioned (see Appendix 2), and in another list from 1909 the names of 47 Serey Jews appear (see Appendix 3).

The Old Synagogue

The Facade of the Synagogue

The Serey synagogue was built already in 1726. It was a wooden building (see picture) of a specific style and in it a beautiful "Aron Kodesh" (Holy Ark) made from mahogany wood with intricate artistic carvings of lions, deer, rams, grapes, "Shofars", "Etrogim", "Lulavim" and cherubs.

In the synagogue daily studies were maintained by the "Khevrah Shas" (Talmudic Society), "Khevrah Mishnah", "Ein Ya'akov" and the "Tehilim Society".

The community possessed "Pinkasim" (Notebooks) from several societies which dealt with studying "Torah", as from the middle of the nineteenth century.

The "Klois" was the praying house of the artisans and the poor.

All the community institutions were concentrated in the "Shulhoif" (the synagogue yard): The synagogue, the Klois, the bath, the Mikveh, the "Hakhnasat Orkhim" house (established by Markus Meretsky) and a well.

In a list of Jews paying membership fee to "Agudath Yisrael", the names of 34 Serey Jews are mentioned (see Appendix 4).

In 1891 the existing welfare societies were reinforced: "Lekhem Aniyim" (bread for the poor); "Hakhnasath Orkhim" (hospitality for passers by); "Malbish Arumim" (care for clothing the poor). In 1896 the "Linath HaTsedek" society, headed by Rabbi R.Y.Volpert, was established. This society sought to cover all expenses of doctors and medicines for the needy.

The Rabbis who served in Serey during this period were:

Khayim Shimshon Vasertsug - known as the Filipover, lived in Serey approx. between 1840-1850, died in 1865; Yosef Elkhanan HaLevi,1801-1877, in Serey from 1853 till his death; Gershon Rabinson, served from 1876, died in 1908 in Cleveland; Avraham Tsvi Pinkhas Eliashberg,1863-1943 in Jerusalem, in Serey 1901-1908, emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1929; Yekhezkel Volpert ,in Serey 1880-1900, died in 1910.

The "Gaon", Rabbi Eliyahu from Vilna, lived in Serey for one year, during Prussian rule in the house of Yisrael Berloiner (Berliner?) a rich man and a sholar. Here he completed his book "Adereth Eliyahu" and was friendly with the local "Tsadik" Khayim "Filipover".

There was a story in Serey that the street in which Rabbi Eliyahu resided was never touched by fire during his stay there, despite the many fires in the town. David Gordon, the editor of the first Hebrew weekly newspaper "HaMagid", lived in Serey for six years. This weekly was printed in Prussia (1856-1890) near the Russian border, because of problems with the Russian censor.

For the list of the reporters who wrote for the Hebrew periodicals "HaMelitz", "HaMagid" and "HaTsefirah" see Appendix 6.

Before World War 1 about 1,800 Jews lived in Serey. During the war, on the first of April 1915, the Russians exiled them to Russia.


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Compiled by Joseph Rosin

Updated by JA April 5, 2000

Copyright © 2000 Joseph Rosin