Virbaln or Verzhbelov (Virbalis)
Written by Joseph Rosin
English edited by Fania Hilelson-Jivotovsky
Virbaln can be found on the main road stretching from Kovno (Kaunas) to East Prussia (now under Russian rule), about 90 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Kovno and 4.5 kilometers (3 miles) away from the (former) German border, and the railway station with the same name (now Kybartai) which is on the railway route from St. Petersburg to Berlin.
The town of Virbaln was founded in 1539-1540 at the initiative of the Queen Bona Sfortsa, the wife of King Zigmunt "The Old". The name was then Nova Volia. It is found in documents under this name until the eighteenth century, but in the sixteenth century it already had a second name, "Verbolov". In 1593 King Zigmunt Vaza granted it "The Privilege of a Town" (The Magdeburg Privilege). He also prohibited construction of synagogues and other non-Catholic praying houses in Virbaln. This "Privilege" was also observed in Virbaln during the Lithuanian rule. There was a municipality and a mayor.
Until 1795 Virbaln was included in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. The same year the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times - Russia, Prussia and Austria, divided Lithuania between Russia and Prussia. The part of the state that laid on the left side of the Neman river (Nemunas) including Virbaln was handed over to Prussia. During the Prussian rule (1795-1807) Virbaln was named Wirballen.
According to the Tilzit agreement of 1807, Polish lands occupied by Prussia were taken away and "The Great Dukedom of Warsaw" was established on those lands. The King of Sachsonia, Friedrich-August was appointed as the Duke. At the core of the Constitution of the Dukedom was the Napoleon Code, according to which everybody was equal before the law, however the Jews were not granted any civil rights.
During the years 1807-1813 Virbaln belonged to the "Great Dukedom of Warsaw" and was included in the Bialystok District. In 1813, after the defeat of Napoleon, whose retreating troops passed through the town, all of Lithuania was annexed to Russia, and Virbaln was included in the Augustowa Region (Gubernia). In 1866 Virbaln was included in the Suwalk Gubernia. The construction of the main road in 1829 from St. Petersburg to Warsaw stretching through Virbaln, spurred the growth of the town.
The town developed fast and served as a connecting terminal for transfer of goods from Russia to Western Europe.
During Russian rule (1813-1915) the town was renamed Verzhbelova boasting a grand railway terminal near the border with Prussia, built on the route from St.Petersburg to Berlin in the sixties of the nineteenth century. The new town developing around the station - Kybartai - grew fast and in a few years surpassed Virbaln.
The Market Place (1912)
Post Card supplied by Martin Miller
At the beginning of World War I Virbaln, burnt down in fires and was deserted by the majority of its population. In 1915 Germans occupied Virbaln and ruled in the area until 1919 followed by its handover to the Independent Lithuanian State.
The Jewish Settlement before World War I
Society and Economy
Apparently, Jews began to settle in Virbaln in the second half of the seventeenth century. In July 1669 an order of King Zigmunt the Third was issued prohibiting the Jews from building synagogues in Virbaln. Therefore the conclusion may be drawn that Jews lived in Virbaln as early as the period indicated above.
In the old Jewish cemetery there was a tombstone dating back to 1735, but it is known that in 1728-1729 there were Jewish leaseholders in Virbaln, as there is a record of complaints submitted to authorities against them at that time.
On the "Shavuoth" holiday in 1790 a Virbaln Jew Elazar was executed in a "Blood Libel." This happened during the rule of the cultured King Stanislaw Poniatowsky, who was against the verdict. Despite his effort, Elazar was executed. For many subsequent years his name would be mentioned on the day of his Yahrzeit.
The law of Tzar Alexander the First, prohibiting the Jews from living within 50 miles (Russian) of the western border of the state was in effect until 1862. However, according to the 1885 year census, 1,253 Jews, lived in Virbaln making up 50% of the total population. During the years 1876-1879, when the Jew Gringard was in charge of community affairs, a bathhouse was built in town and the cemetery was fenced in. Members of the community committee were J.Skudsky and L.Markel.
In the middle of the 1870s and, in particular, in the 1880s, many of Virbaln Jews migrated abroad, mainly to America, South Africa, England, Ireland etc. The main reason for the migration was widespread incitement of anti-Semitism in the area. In the winter of 1883 the notorious anti-Semite of those days, Lotostansky passed through the railway station of Virbalní promoting his books among the officials of the station. His books were full of abuse and insults directed against Judaism and Jews. Among other issues, he promoted the idea that Jews were undoubtedly using Christian blood for their religious needs, aiming to impress the officials with his musings. The Jewish educated elite of Virbaln raised money and bought 11 books by Prof. Chvolson who refuted all Lotostansky's allegations. The books were distributed among the officials who read them after obtaining of Lotostansky's books.
The same year "haMeilitz" accused the Russian priest of Virbaln of preaching belief in Lotostansky's words. When the article was brought before him, he realized that it was a plot and demanded to clear his name. The incident was described at the weekly periodical by Avraham Landman from Virbaln and it was approved by prominent personalities of the town, such as Yehuda-Leib Freidenberg, Moshe-Aharon Yakobi, Ya'akov-Aryeh Volpe, Shimon Frenkel, Yechezkel-Zvi Brode, Yisrael-Meir Volfovitz.
In 1886 there were 2,515 people in Virbaln, among them 1,253 Jews (50%).
Before World War I the economic situation of Virbaln Jews was quite stable. They made a living in commerce and agriculture. They grew vegetables, fruits and tobacco. Many of them earned a living by trading with Germany and providing different border services. As mentioned before, a considerable chunk of Russian imports and exports passed through the railway station of Werzhbelova. Many Jews earned a living using the privilege granted to citizens of Virbalní to cross the border to the German town Eydtkuhnen, permitting them to buy a limited amount of goods and bringing it to Russia without paying customs. Goods beyond the permitted quota were smuggled into Russia and sold for profit.
Another source of income was smuggling immigrants over the border to Germany. There were cases of fraudulent "smugglers" who would cheat the emigrants by taking away various items belonging to them. On other instances "the smugglers" would keep them in the hostel longer than necessary in order to extort more money. Sometimes the smugglers would set their eyes on a young woman or a nice girl in the hostel and would detain her longer than necessary. In 1896 a young woman was shot to death trying to cross the border illegally. All this aroused fury in the community against the "smugglers".
However, thousands of Jews who arrived in America with the help of these smugglers remembered them favorably, despite the fact that they had not always been treated fairly.
At the end of the nineteenth century the industry of brushes manufactured from pig bristles developed in Virbaln, and hundreds of Jewish workers were engaged in the trade. They organized into a powerful vocational union with a membership of about 100 people. In the years 1893-1897 following its induction, the "Bund" (the Jewish anti-Zionist Workers' Organization) organized big strikes in the area. The goal of the strikers was to improve the working conditions. Consequently, a part of the demands of the Jewish workers were met due to these strikes.
In 1897 there were 3,293 people in Virbaln, among them 1,219 Jews (37%)
Education and Culture
Before the middle of the 1880s Jewish children in Virbaln were educated in the "Cheder's" (Chadarim), the "Talmud-Torah's" and in the "Yeshiva's" (Yeshivoth). Only a few studied in the Russian high schools in the big towns. In 1887 an order was published by the government for all the "Melamdim" to get a Teaching License granted by the Inspector of Education of the Suwalk Gubernia.
The licensure set conditions for the "Cheder" to be like a state school and include the Russian language in the curriculum. In cases where the "Melamed" didn't know Russian, he would be obliged to find a certified teacher. If such a teacher could not be found, children, ages seven and older would have to study two hours every day in a Russian school.
Another condition was that all the teaching materials should have the stamp of the Governmental Censor. There were cases when Bible books published in Berlin or Vienna were found in some "Cheders" without the stamp of the Censor. As a result the "Melamed" would lose his Teaching License.
In these years Avraham-Eliyahu Sandler established a "Cheder Metukan" in Virbalní (Improved Cheder). Hebrew, Russian, a Bible course with commentaries and Mathematics were taught. Many of Virbaln Jews were the students of Mr. Sandler who taught school for almost forty years. His students knew Hebrew and the Bible perfectly. The Hebrew weekly newspaper published in St.Petersburg "Hameilitz" from April 1884 stated that even the women knew Hebrew. Esther Golda Goldberg and Beile Chaya Jakobi were mentioned as students who were cited as setting the best example.
One of the teachers of the school was the well-known commentator of the Bible Sh.L. Gordon (Shalag). Later, a couple by the name Chanah and Reuven Kaplan opened a modern "Cheder". There was another "Cheder" in Virbaln, namely that of Pinchas Pintchuk, and a "Talmud-Torah" for the children of the poor. In both the Sandler and the Kaplan Cheders, boys and girls studied together, which was a novelty in those days.
Its worthwhile mentioning that the Hebrew weekly "Hameilitz" published at least 31 articles dealing with life of the Virbaln's Jews from the years 1879-1900. Most often the correspondents were M.A.Shaudinishky and A.E.Sandler.
Religion and Welfare
In 1770 a "Beth Midrash" was built in Virbaln. Through the years it became too small for all the people who came to pray. In 1864 a Synagogue was built, but in 1880 the issue of seats was not settled, causing conflicts in Virbaln
On the last day of "Pesach" 5642 (1882) an argument broke out in the Synagogue on the subject of "Aliyoth laTorah" ending in pushes and Police intervention. Another building for prayers was built in 1870.
At the end of the nineteenth century Virbaln had a "Talmud-Torah", a "Cheap Kitchen" (from 1877) and a "Home for the Aged (from 1895). In 1907 "Aid Services for Immigrants" was established in Virbaln.
In the 1880s there were reports on Virbalní published in "haMeilitz" dealing with con artists who visited the town, trying to extort money from people under false pretenses.
There was a case of a young man who arrived to Virbaln, impressing people favorably. One of the residents was ready to make a match for his daughter. The Rabbi of Virbaln started to investigate the case, and found that the man had left a wife in Liverpool, married another wife in Raseiniai, then almost married a third woman in Virbaln. He was thrown out of the town in shame.
In 1879 two young people M.M.Mariampolsky and T.Yentelzon founded a group "Hachnasath-Orchim" to look after people who were passing through Virbaln on their way to Prussia. The same year a few highly respected people of Virbaln founded an association "Gemiluth Chasadim" which was mandated to lend money for a period of six month in exchange for silver, gold and copper items. This method was strongly criticized by the public as, in fact, only the rich had silver and gold to exchange for loans.
In 1888 Yehuda-Leib Segalovsky founded the association "Somech-Noflim" which gave out loans to the needy people in Virbalní in order to save them from hunger. The trustee of the association Shmuel-David Vishtinetzky was a prominent activist of the association. .
The same year Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer from Kovno purchased a farm near Virbaln for 75,000 Rubles, an enormous amount for those years- donated by the Lachman Brothers from Berlin. He appointed a manager of the farm who had to run the farm according to the Laws of the Torah. The goal of the farm's management was to resolve the economic problems of "The Kolel Prushim" (a Yeshiva of Pharisees) established in Kovno.
One of the personalities acting for the good of the community was Eliyahu Varshavsky, the grandson of the Gaon from Vilna (GARA), who lived most of his life in Virbaln making his living by painting houses. He was also a teacher of "Torah" and was the head of the "Chevrah-Kadisha". Welfare issues and activities of other institutions were dealt with according to his advice. He died at the age of 64 on the first day of Succoth 5646 (1886).
Jews from Virbaln immigrated to Eretz-Israel even before the period of "Chibath-Zion". In the old cemetery in Jerusalem at least 5 tombstones of Virbalní Jews can be found, their death and burials dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century. The Association of "Chovevei Zion" (Lovers of Zion) began to raise money for settlement in Eretz-Israel in 1884, but as early as 1880 a teacher Shlomsky collected 36 Rubles for the same goal. One of the ways to collect donations was by selling paintings of Moshe Montifiori. Another way was by selling "Aliyoth" in the synagogue. On the 1896 list of contributors for settlement in Eretz-Israel there were names of 13 Jews from Virbaln with Rabbi A.Lap topping the list. (See Appendix 1). The 1898 list carried the names of fundraisers Shaudinishky, pharmacist S.Vinsberg, Eliyahu Varshavsky and C.Z Dogilaitsky.
At the conference of "Chovevei-Zion" which took place in Vilna in 1889, the delegate from Virbaln was the local Rabbi David-Tevele Katzenelboigen.
Before the second Zionist Congress gathered in Warsaw in August 1898 a conference of the Zionists from Russia. Among the 160 delegates from 93 towns was also a delegate from Virbaln.
Before the third Zionist Congress a regional conference of the "Zionist Associations" from the Lithuanian "Gubernias" Kovno, Suwalk, Grodno and Vilna gathered in Vilna in the summer of 1899 represented by 71 from 51 towns. Rabbi Efraim Lap was a delegate from Virbaln.
Before the fourth Zionist Congress a conference of the "Zionist Associations" gathered in Vilna in 1900 with a total of 168 delegates, among them Rabbi Efraim Lap from Virbaln. At this conference he was elected as the Regional Deputy Representative of the Suwalk Gubernia. 200 "Shkalim" (membership cards of the Zionist organization) were sold in Virbaln for the fifth Zionist Congress between the July 1, 1901 and July 1, 1902.
The local "Zionist Association" distributed "Shkalim" and sold shares of the "Otsar Hityashvuth Hayehudim" (The Jewish Colonial Trust), raising funds for "Keren Kayemeth Leyisrael" (KKL) and collecting books for The National Library in Jerusalem. Among other things it was very active establishing the "Chadarim Metukanim" where education was pro-Zionist.
The educational and literary activity of Sh.L.Gordon and Ben Avigdor started in Virbaln. They married the two sisters of Shlomo Blumgarten - Yehoash (1872-1927), who was a well-known writer and poet. A native of Virbaln, he worked on the great project of translating the Bible into Yiddish.
During World War I the town burnt down and was deserted by the majority of its population.
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Compiled by Joseph Rosin
Updated by JA April 28, 1999 Copyright © 1999 Joseph Rosin