Birzh, Lithuania


Birzh (Birzai), Lithuania

Written by Yosef Rosin

English edited by Sarah and Mordehai Kopfstein


Birzh - as it was called in Yiddish - (Birzai - in Lithuanian) is situated in the north-eastern part of Lithuania on the shores of the rivers Apascia (pronounced Apashcha) and Agluona and along Lake Siruinis, surrounded by bushy woods, not far from the Latvian border. Four islands exist in these rivers, on one of them a palace was built in the 16th century, where Napoleon rested during his march through Lithuania. Because of the town's spectacular landscape it attracted many vacationers. It is one of the oldest towns in Lithuania and was already mentioned in 1415 in some documents.

During the years 1492-1806 Birzh belonged to the family of a noblemen by the name of Radzivil (Radvila in Lithuanian). From time to time the town served as the official residence of the family and they invested financial resources in its development. Its location on one of the main roads from Vilna to Riga was an important factor in its development. During the rule of Prince Christopher Radzivil the 1st the town developed rapidly economically, especially after it was granted the Magdeburg Rights of a town in 1589. In 1609 Prince Christopher promulgated municipal laws, erected a building for the municipality and established several welfare institutions. Near the town a big fortress was built with a palace inside. As a result of the influence of the Radzivil family, Birz became the center of the Reformation in Lithuania. Every week two market days were held in Birzh.

In the 17th century Birzh suffered from the wars with Sweden, and during the Northern War the town was damaged again. At the beginning of the 18th century, after the Northern War and regional religious wars, Birzh lost its importance.

Until 1795 Birzh was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, when the third division of Poland by the three superpowers of those times - Russia, Prussia and Austria - caused Lithuania to become partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part of Lithuania which included Birzh fell under Czarist Russian rule, first from 1802 as part of the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 as part of Ponivezh district in the Kovno province.

At the beginning of Russian rule the Magdeburg Rights were taken away and Birzh became a regular small town. In 1806 the town was transferred to Graf Tishkevitz's family who kept it till the sixties of the19th century.

In 1812 Napoleon's army passed through the town on its way to Riga and Mikolas Tishkevitz organized a special battalion for its service.

During the Polish rebellions in 1831 and 1863, Birzh took an active part in the insurrection against the Russians and heavy fighting occurred in its surroundings, which caused an interruption in the economic development of the town.

In 1869 the town consisted of 536 houses (2 of stone) and 20 streets. At that time Birzh had 3 workshops for leather production and more than 40 shops, several hundreds of artisans, 3 flour mills, 3 doctors, and at the end of the century there was also a pharmacy. In 1883 a big fire ruined about 50 houses in town. In 1912 a printing press operated in Birzh.

According to the census of 1897, Birzh then had 4,413 residents - 1,255 Catolics, 581 Protestants and 2,510 (57%) Jews.

During WWI Birzh was occupied by the Germans who ruled there from 1915 till 1918. During the fighting over Birzh several tens of houses were ruined.

The Germans constructed a narrow gauge railway which connected Birzh to Shavli (Siauliai), which influenced the development of the town, but in 1918 a big fire caused the destruction of a great part of it and most of the Jewish community was ruined.

From December 1918 till May 1919 the town came under Bolshevik rule.

During Lithuanian rule there were two weekly market days - on Mondays and Thursdays - as well as two yearly fairs. A branch of the government bank and four private banks did business in the town.

Birzh was known for its "Music Box" (Katarinka) players, who in summer would travel all over Lithuania and return home for the "Great Holidays".

In 1934 the number of houses in town was 1,039 (of them 347 were constructed with solid materials) and its population rose to about 9,000.

Jewish Settlement till World War I

Jews began to settle in Birzh in the 16th or at the beginning of the 17th century. Tradition maintains that they came as a result of an invitation from Prince Christopher Radzivil (1547-1603) who wanted to promote local economic development. First a group of "Karaites" settled in Birzh and only later, in the middle of the century, also "Rabbinic" Jews settled there. The prince promised to protect them from their Christian neighbors, but in 1662 the Protestant liberal Prince Boguslav Radzivil, who was generally kind to Jews, submitted to the demands of the Catholic residents of the town and the Jews were expelled.

The "Karaite" community in Birzh was first mentioned in a letter of Khaham (Rabbi) Zerakh ben Nathan in 1625 in connection with a fire that harmed the town. It was a very poor community.

A list from 1669 shows that taxes paid by the Karaites were a third less than those paid in previous years, as a result of the decline in their economic situation. The Karaites lived in specific streets and had their own synagogue and cemetery. The Karaites, like the Jews, suffered from persecution by the rulers and their Christian neighbors. In the 18th century the presence of the Karaite community came to an end and their synagogue was passed on to the rabbinic Jews.

During the pogroms in Poland in 1648-49 and in Lithuania in 1656 Birzh also suffered and there are references to this effect in rabbinic literature at the time. During this period the Jews suffered very much from mistreatment by Polish estate owners.

In documents from the years 1663 and 1683, there is mention of Jews who came to settle in town and bought the right to do so. In 1683 the townsmen obtained an official resolution which prohibited Jews to settle in Birzh and to acquire property there, but it seems that the Jews managed to cancel this resolution later, and they settled in town and in the nearby settlements again. By the beginning of the 18th century a big and important Jewish community already existed in Birzh which had an officially recognized status. However even then they were not left in peace, suffering from mistreatment by government officials and from church heads, who managed in the years 1700 and 1711 to cancel the civil rights of the local Jews. On the 21st of April 1717 the whole community was deprived of its civil rights and was forced to pay a "Skull Tax" of 1,500 Rubels, in addition to the special tax of 350 Rubels which they had previously undertaken to pay to the Great Hetman of Lithuania.

On the other side of Lake Siruinis, about 2-3 km from the center of town, there was a big area of land called "Birzu Dvaras" (Birzh Estate), which had its own administration, its own law court and its own jail, and on which Jews lived for a hundred years or more. In the protocols of the court from the years 1620-1745 we find the names of many Jews who were sentenced in this court, mainly on charges of unpaid debts. (For the list of these names see Appendix 2).

During the years of autonomous organization for Jewish communities in Lithuania (Va'ad Medinath Lita, 1623-1764), Birzh was a district (Galil) center responsible for the communities of Posvol (Pasvalys), Salat (Salociai), Pumpian (Pumpenai) and Pokroi (Pakruojis). The Birzh community was mentioned in regulations in the "Pinkas Medinath Lita" from 1726 concerning a conference in Brisk, and in 1731 with regard to a conference in Telzh on the issue of tax collection.

At that time Birzh Jews tried to settle in Riga, then an important port on the Baltic sea, and the town council imposed a special tax, two Reichstaler, on Jews who came to live there. Prince Radzivil tried to cancel this discrimination, but the town council refused fearing that the cancellation of this special tax would encourage more Jews from Poland and Lithuania to come to Riga.

In 1766 there were 1040 Jews in Birzh.

From 1775 the existence of a synagogue in Birzh was mentioned.

A document concerning the Birzh district (Galil) dated 1673 tells about the rescue of a Jewish woman and her children from arrest, by payment of a penalty. It seems that they were arrested due to not having paid taxes or a debt to one of the estate owners. As a result of this episode, "Va'ad Medinath Lita" issued a regulation forbidding the borrowing of money from estate owners or priests unless carried out with the knowledge and agreement of the community, and that women and children should not be held responsible for the payment of a debt. Anyone not abiding by this regulation would face boycott and even be deported from the community, losing the right of residence in this town. The community would not accept any responsibility or obligation to help those who would take such a loan (even one penny).

During the second half of the 18th century, the Birzh community was in debt to the Radzivils and the church. The Galil Council authorized community heads to impose strict bans, even a boycott, on those who did not pay their yearly taxes, or who traveled to other communities or away from the the Birzh Galil for the High Holidays. It was customary to go to the big towns for the holidays, thus leaving the small ones without a Minyan. The strict orders included the prohibition of arranging a party, a wedding or a Brith-Milah without the knowledge of the community heads, in order to avoid lavishness and the envy of those of insufficient means (regulations of the third of Adar 5530-1770). In the regulations, arrangements for "Shekhitah" were determined in order to avoid difficulties among the "Shokhtim". Other regulations dealt with mourning, and even with the dress the bride may wear on her wedding day. All these regulations, administered by the Birzh Galil, were valid for many generations.

In the month of Adar in 1784, the Birzh community council decided to donate a specific sum for Eretz-Yisrael every year - "until Mashiah arrives" - to be collected by two different funds: one for Eretz-Yisrael (Ma'oth Eretz-Yisrael), the other for Jerusalem (Ma'oth Yerushalayim), with each fund having two supervisors (Gaba'im). First, the money was sent to Gaba'im in Vilna; five months later the va'ad decided to send the donations for Eretz-Yisrael to the Rabbi of Brisk and the money for Jerusalem was to be handed over to a "Meshulakh" (messengers who traveled throughout Jewish communities collecting money for institutions in Jerusalem).

In the old Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem there are at least three headstones of Birzh Jews: Mosheh Tsevi ben Aharon Melamed, who died in 1870; the Rabbi's wife Hayah Libe bath Paltiel, died in 1879; Tsevi ben Avraham, died in 1880.

The "Pinkas haKhevrah Kadisha" of Birzh 1804 shows regulations regarding supporting the poor, how to conduct accounts, and payment of hospitalization fees by the employer for his servants when patients were registered.

In 1847 there were 1685 Jews in Birzh. In July1893 a big fire caused fifty houses to burn down, the damage being estimated then at 50,000 Rubel.

During this period Birzh Jews made their living mainly from commerce, in particular trading with flax and timber. Others earned a living from crafts, farming, light industry and peddling. There were several workshops for weaving and knitting, where wool from England was processed for export, and the white linen made in Birzh was very famous.

In the years before World War I Jews from Birzh leased milk products from the neighboring farms. Others leased taverns and barrooms. The Jews had good relations with their neighbors, and even when pogroms were rampant in neighboring Russia, the Jews of Birzh and its surroundings did not suffer.

In 1908 local priests established a Polish cooperative which became a strong competitor to the Jewish shop owners. As a result, the small "Gemiluth Hesed" institutions, giving small loans without interest, united in order to improve help for Jewish shop owners.

The history of the rabbinate in Birzh is divided in two periods: during the first period there was one Rabbi only for Birzh, Keidan and Vizhun - Tsevi-Hirsh Hurvitz. The second period started in1713, when Birzh appointed its own Rabbi - Shalom Zak. Since then many famous rabbis have served in Birzh, mainly of the Zak family. For a partial list of the Rabbis who served in Birzh during all its history see Appendix 1. During WWI the Jewish community of Birzh was ruined. Many of the Jews emigrated or were exiled by the Russian army to Russia.

The Big Beth-Midrash


The "Klois" of the Shoemakers

The Beth-Midrash of the Shamashim

The Synagogue

The Prayer House of the Khasidim

The "Moshav Zekeinim" (House for the Aged)