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 Vilkavishk (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 "Mizrachi", 2 Artisans and 2 Independents. The Committee was active until the end of 1925 when the Autonomy 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 Tzar'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's 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, beet root 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.

Virbaln Jews by the name of Zerko and Kamber built a power station in Virbaln which supplied the town with electricity. Jews also owned a flour mill (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 employed hundreds of workers as before the war.

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 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.

Till 1934 there were 4 Jews in the Town Council among a total of 9 Council members (Leizer Kagansky, Joseph Pagramat, Moshe Vishtinetsky, Volf Neishtot). However, only 3 Jews were elected (Kagansky, Vishtinetsky, Chaimovitz) in the elections of 1934. For many years Virbalní 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 Gedalia 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-Israel.

 

Education

After the end of the War in 1918 children's education became an issue in Virbaln. A group of activists understood that the "Cheder Metukan" (Improved Cheder) 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 of 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 Neishtot- Shaki. Registration started at the 29th of Iyar 5679 (1919).

Announcement (in Hebrew) in the Jewish press in Lithuania regarding the commencement of studies in the Hebrew High-School in Virbalis on the September 26, 1919

Until 1921 the school offered a program equivalent to half of the 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 story, 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.

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 "Chadarim" 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.

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 Kibartai Jews who acted to assure a budget for the school and to the devotion of the teachers' team and their director Dr. Ya'akov Rabinson a splendid institution was established. Dr. Ya'akov Rabinson who was a native of Vishtinetz (Vistytis) and a graduate from Germany returned to Lithuania to accomplish this difficult pioneering task. A known lawyer and public servant, he became later the 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, Moshe Frank, Fridman, Reizel Rozenblum (the daughter of A.E.Sandler), Geisinovitz (later known as Aba Achimeir, one of the leaders of the Revisionist Party in Eretz- Israel), Sambursky, later professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ash-Bartana, subsequently a teacher of mathematics in the "Rechavia" high school in Jerusalem. Reuven Kaplan was Secretary of the school throughout its existence.

In the middle of the twenties Director Dr. Rabinson 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 Kibbutz Ein-Harod. Nature was taught by Mr. Tzimbalist who subsequently came to Eretz-Israel. 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 Tabachovitz. and others included Averbuch and Yerushalmi.

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, Averbuch.

At the second row: ---, F.Shochat, 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

In 1934 the government closed the high school, and a pro-gymnasium with four classes opened in place of the old school, with Tabachovitz 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 "Haskala" Committee whose chairman was Michael Shadchanovitz 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 dismissed.

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 "Agada" (Fables) from Bialik and Ravnitzky "Sefer ha'Agada" books before lunch on Saturdays. "Sha's" (Mishna) society was active in Virbaln as well.

The Rabbis of Virbaln were Yehuda Blumgard (from 1872), David-Tevele Katsenelboigen (1850-1931), Efraim Lap(1859-1926), also active in the "Zionist Association" and Yitschak 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.

 

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 Cholim", a Women Fellowship, "Gemiluth Chesed" 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 ambiance. Many of its people spoke Hebrew acquired at the "Chadarim Metukanim" before the Hebrew High School was established. For many years Hebrew signs were displayed on Jewish stores, despite 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 "Hechalutz" movement can be traced back in Virbaln as early as 1919, when a group of Chalutzim (Pioneers) united under the name "Cheiruth" (Freedom). Having acquired training with Lithuanian peasants during a period of one-year ("Hachshara" -preparation) the group immigrated to Eretz-Israel.

Another group "Achva" followed them. Many groups of "Chalutzim" 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 "Hechalutz" was organised 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 "Netzach" (abbreviation of Zionist Pioneer Youth) in Virbaln.

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 "Achduth" (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.

Congr. Number

Year

Total Shkalim

Total Voters

Labour Party

Z"S**----- Z"Z**

Revisionists

General Zionists

A -----------B

Grosman.

Mizrachi

14

1925

40

--

--

--

--

--

--

--

--

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

** Z"S means Zionist-Socialist, Z"Z means Zeirei Zion (Tseirei Zion).

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

Among the natives of Virbaln were Nechemia Volpiansky (1877-1937), a writer, a musician and a chess player; Zvi- 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 centre 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", "Forvertz" and others. He was the publisher and editor of the two volumes of the book "Lite", the great remembrance project dedicated to Lithuanian Jewry.

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Compiled by Joseph Rosin

Updated by JA March 2, 1999

Copyright © 1999 Joseph Rosin