Birzh

This is my second visit to Birzai or Birzh, Lithuania, as it was called. My first was in June 2015

Birzai – My Photos from June 2015

Photos

Source: kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/birzai/Photos.html

May 2018

I met with Merunas Jukonis, the youth coordinator in the town. He and his dad, Vidmantas, have been very active in working in the field of Tolerance education, Holocaust commemoration and related projects. See report below: 

  

Report by Abel and Glenda Levitt, November 2015

While in Lithuania last week we spent a fascinating 4 days in Birzai, known to the Jews who lived there as Birzh.

On 8th August 1941 the 2400 Jews of the town were marched to the forest where they were all murdered, Men, Women and Children.

There exists in Birzai an ancient Karaite and Jewish cemetery. For years it remained neglected and uncared for.

And then a few years ago, the local teacher of History and Tolerance, Vidmantas Jukonis, together with his son Merunas, also a teacher of History, started a project of cleaning up the cemetery  ,  removing the overgrown grass and weeds, and cutting the trees.  They were joined by the local Reformed Lutheran Church where they are members ,and then by a Lutheran community in Germany who came to Birzai in the summer, camped outside the walls of the cemetery, and helped with the work. Later they made contact with SEFER, the well-known organization in Moscow specializing in Jewish Heritage,  Sefer conducted a big 3 year academic international project

The participants were:

1) Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization “SEFER” .Moscow                                 

2) Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences .Moscow                                     

3) Centre for the Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews . Vilnius                                   

4)Birzai Regional Museum “Sela” Birzai                                 

 5) Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority . Jerusalem

Professionals and Volunteers joined in the project and expertly cleaned the gravestones, identified the names, and mapped out the gravestones that were still there. The leader of the final group was Motl Gordon, a St. Petersburg Jew, who became religious a few years agofluent in Yiddish.  This final group was funded by the Birzai municipality (half) and by local sponsors, including the family of Sheftel Melamed, the last Jew in Birzai, who passed away on 31st August 2015. The Birzai district municipality also helped with materials, logistics and more.

The Birzai “Ausra” secondary school’s Tolerance Education Centre,  headed by Vidmantas Jukonis  provided volunteers , citizens of Birzai, who remembered Jews, arranged meetings for those people, and drove groups of students to meet them.

In Birzai on Friday afternoon an event was held to celebrate the completion of the project, and to launch the book that had been written about the project and its findings.

The book, 374 pages , in Russian, was published by SEFER  with the help of the  GENESIS Philanthropy Group and the UJA FEDERATION OF NEW YORK.

INSIDE OF FRONT COVER

There is little in English in the book. But from the table of contents (in English) it appears that there is much of interest. The book is written in the form of essays written by scholars involved in the project and tables recording the 1627 stones that were found in the cemetery, mostof them with names.

Glenda and I were given a copy. When I asked if we could buy some more, for family and friends with an interest in Birzai (Birzh) Motl Gordon told usthat they had distributed the few copies that they had brought for the event, but that he would enquire from Sefer in Moscowwhat the cost would be to buy.

It is hoped that a translation into English will be available via a PDF document on-line. Attached are photos of the front cover (1), the back cover (2), a photo on the inside front cover (5) and a photo on the inside back cover (6). This book is of great historic importance.

A rough check of the list of tombstones shows that the last two tombstones to be erected and that remain are those of Barukh Michaelson (he was the famous town photographer) who died on 13th July 1939, and Herce (Hirsch) Evin,  who died in 1940.  Michaelson’s tombstone was found buried during the work on the cemetery and restored.  It should be noted that after the Soviet occupation in June 1940 Jewish religious life came to a halt and it is probable that no further Jewish funerals and consecration of tombstones took place.  There was however a tombstone dated 1945. And the newer tombstones from the ’30’s were probably stolen and used in building as was the case throughout Lithuania.

 

Bennie Rabinowitz and The Birzh Torah

Torah

Source: kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/birzai/Torah.html

The Birzai KehilaLink

Home

Source: kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/birzai/Home.html

My Photos, May 2018

A short walk around town.  Old buildings in the former Jewish area.  

Merunas’s Lutheran Church
 
Soviet War Memorial
Merunas’s High school 

Lunch Time and enjoying kvass

 

Kvass 

Kvass – Wikipedia

Kvass is a traditional Slavic and Baltic beverage commonly made from rye bread ,[1] known in many Eastern European countries and especially in Ukraine and Russia as black bread. The colour of the bread used contributes to the colour of the resulting drink. It is classified as a non-alcoholic drink by Russian standards, as the alcohol content from fermentation is typically low (0.5–1.0%).[2][3] It may be flavoured with fruits such as strawberries and raisins, or with herbs such as mint.[4]

Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kvass

Sinkholes in Birzai

 

Biržai Regional Park 

Biržai Regional Park – Wikipedia

Biržai Regional Park covers 14,659 hectares (36,220 acres) in northern Lithuania near its border with Latvia. It was established in 1992 to preserve a distinctive karst landscape. About 20% of its area is covered by forest.

Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birzai_Regional_Park

 
More About Biržai 

Biržai – Wikipedia

Biržai ( pronunciation (help·info), known also by several alternative names) is a city in northern Lithuania. Biržai is famous for its reconstructed Biržai Castle manor, and the whole region is renowned for its many traditional-recipe beer breweries.

Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birzai

Commemoration in Lithuania

Five minute presentation at the conference organized by the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv at the Peres Centre in Jaffa, Tel Aviv

by Abel & Glenda Levitt

When we received an invitation to this conference and read that the first session was titled “What has been done in Lithuania regarding the commemoration of victims of the Holocaust?” I called the Lithuanian embassy to ask if we could have 5 or 6 minutes to describe our role, Glenda and Abel Levitt, in this important mission, Commemoration.

Since our first visit to Lithuania in 1998, to visit Plunge, the shtetl where my father had been born, from where he emigrated to South Africa in 1913, and where his mother, four brothers and sisters and their children were murdered in July 1941, we have visited many times, trying to go every year, sometimes more often.

In Plunge we met Yacovas Bunka, the then 75 year old sculptor who took us to the Kausenai forest to visit the mass graves where on two bloody days 1,800 Jews, men women and children were shot and thrown into the graves, and covered by mounds of earth.

We saw for the first time the memorial, erected in Soviet times. As we left the site with the giant wooden sculptures made by Bunka and his artist friends, the old man took my hand and asked if we could raise the money needed to cover the graves with stone, as he feared the encroaching foliage of the forest would overrun the mass graves.

This we did and our family around the world responded to our request. We also wanted to acknowledge the work of brave Lithuanians, farmers and priests, and ordinary people, who had saved their Jewish citizens. These heroes had been awarded the Life Saving Cross by Lithuania’s presidents. To these noble people we created the Alley of the Savers.


We had met via the internet an Israeli woman, Emma Karabelnik, born in Vilnius to parents who had lived in Plunge but who had managed to escape east to Russia days before the Germans arrived. Emma inspired by seeing the covered mass graves decided to make a contribution and so interviewed families and researched victims’ names to add to Bunka’s list of 700. Emma was interested in having these names somehow displayed. Shortly after our meeting Emma, we were in Plunge, a day before the old synagogue was to be demolished. We called Bunka’s son Eugenijus, and suggested to him that the bricks from the synagogue be saved and be used for building some sort of memorial, ideally at the mass grave.

And thus was born the Memorial Wall project, with 1,200 names of the 1,800 victims. The monument was unveiled in July 2011; 70 years after the murderous act had been perpetrated. Emmanuel Zingeris was present that day, as was Ronaldas Racinskas who is here today.

Speaker after speaker spoke of the need to build more memorials with names at the mass graves in Lithuania. Attending were government officials and ambassadors, and the representative of Yad Vashem. In my address, I too spoke of the importance of names, not only numbers, but names on memorials that would be the tombstones of the murdered Jews.

In May of 2011, two months before the unveiling we had visited Kedainiai and met the director of the museum, Rymantas Zirgulis.

We showed him a photo of the wall being built, his reaction was immediate, “how can I do something like this in my town ? ” he asked showing us the existing memorial.

And so it was that he built a monument at the mass graves, an impressive steel structure with the names cut out.
You have heard from Ronaldas about Tolerance Centres in Lithuania. We have been personally involved in the one at the Saules Gymnasium in Plunge.

Here we have established an annual Holocaust art competition, inviting schools from around Lithuania to participate. We would like to show you a few examples of the innovative artwork that the talented Lithuanian students have produced in the Ronald Harwood Art Competition.

“Oblivion”
By Albertas, Plunge

A Stain on History
By Bernadetta Plunge

Team project Birzai High School

Drawing by Karolina age 14

Panevezys

A Wall of Tears
By Christina Plunge

Glenda and I had been taken to the northern city of Birzai by Ronaldas’ deputy Ingrida Vilkiene, our first visit to the town where Glenda’s grandmother had been born. There we met the impressive couple Vidmantas Jukonis and his son Merunas who had been responsible for cleaning up the huge 500 year old Karaite and Jewish cemetery.

We were taken to the mass graves where on 8th August 1941, 2,300 Jews and 90 communist sympathizers were murdered in the forest of Pakamponys. By chance, 10 days later, in talking to a friend Bennie Rabinowitz in Cape Town South Africa, we mentioned our visit to Birzai. “Birzh” he called out, “the shtetl from where my grandfather emigrated to South Africa at the end of the 19th century”.

And so began the “Birzai/Birzh” project.

Here is the architect’s first plan for the monument with names that will be built at the mass graves and unveiled in August next year together with an acknowledgement of the Savers of Jews in Birzai.

This will be the 3rd such monument of names at the killing grounds in Lithuania. Not nearly enough you will all agree. The mass graves at Panerai where 100,000 people were murdered, 70,000 of them Jews, need a monument with names, not numbers. Lithuanian officials have said so. It is up to gatherings like this to push for tombstones to our people, with names, even if only some of the names are available, tombstones in the form of memorials such as we have shown you here today.

Abel and Glenda Levitt Kfar Sava , Israel

For the Plunge, Birzai & Kedainiai KehilaLinks, visit:

KehilaLinks

Birzai Report by Abel Levitt

Photograph (1)

Photograph (2)

Report by Abel Levitt, who with his wife Glenda, has just returned from Lithuania.

While in Lithuania last week we spent a fascinating 4 days in Birzai, known
to the Jews who lived there as Birzh.

On 8th August 1941 the 2400 Jews of the town were marched to the forest
where they were all murdered, Men, Women and Children.

There exists in Birzai an ancient Karaite and Jewish cemetery. For years it
remained neglected and uncared for.

And then a few years ago, the local teacher of History and Tolerance,
Vidmantas Jukonis, together with his son Merunas, also a teacher of History,
started a project of cleaning up the cemetery  ,  removing the overgrown
grass and weeds, and cutting the trees.  They were joined by the local
Reformed Lutheran Church where they are members ,and then by a Lutheran
community in Germany who came to Birzai in the summer, camped outside the walls of the cemetery, and helped with the work. Later they made contact with a group of Yiddish
speakers in Russia who joined in the project and expertly cleaned the gravestones, identified the names, and mapped out the gravestones that were still there.

The leader of this group was Motl Gordon, a St. Petersburg Jew, who became
religious a few years ago.

In Birzai on Friday afternoon an event was held to celebrate the completion
of the project, and to launch the book that had been written about the
project and its findings.

The book, 374 pages , in Russian, was published by SEFER  with the help of
the  GENESIS Philanthropy Group and the UJA FEDERATION OF NEW YORK.

Photograph (5)

INSIDE OF FRONT COVER

There is little in English in the book. But from the table of contents (in
English) it appears that there is much of interest. The book is written in
the form of essays written by scholars involved in the project and tables recording the 1627 stones that were found in the cemetery, mostof them with names.

Glenda and I were given a copy. When I asked if we could buy some more, for family and friends with an interest in Birzai (Birzh) Motl Gordon told usthat they had distributed the few copies that they had brought for the event, but that he would enquire from Sefer in Moscowwhat the cost would be to buy.

It is hoped that a translation into English will be available via a PDF document on-line.

Attached are photos of the front cover (1), the back cover (2), a photo on
the inside front cover (5) and a photo on the inside back cover (6).

This book is of great historic importance.

A rough check of the list of tombstones shows that the last two tombstones
to be erected and that remain are those of Barukh Michaelson (he was the
famous town photographer) who died on 13th July 1939, and Herce (Hirsch) Evin,  who died in 1940.  Michaelson’s tombstone was found buried during the work on the cemetery and restored.  It should be noted that after the Soviet occupation in

June 1940 Jewish religious life came to a halt and it is probable that no further Jewish funerals and consecration of tombstones took place.  And the newer tombstones from the ’30’s were probably stolen and used in building as was the case throughout Lithuania.

Correction: There is also a stone with the date of death 1945

Regards
Abel

Photograph (6)

INSIDE OF BACK COVER

The New Birzh Kehilalink

The Birzh ShtetLink has been upgraded to a KehilaLink

Birzh front.12.15 pm

Visit: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/birzai

Read:

  • the tribute to Joseph Rosin z”l by Joel Alpert
  • the report by Abel and Glenda Levitt on their recent visit
  • my photos from last month’s visit

I have four talks coming up:

Perth, Australia

Exploring our Roots

Beth Protea, Herzlia, Israel

Beit-Protea-Talk-Web

IAJGS International Jewish Genealogical Conference, Jerusalem, Israel

IMG_4545IMG_4518

Gitlin Library, Cape Town, South Africa

A TRAGIC ROMANCE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES  Eli copy

Limmud Oz Sydney has finished.

A most successful Festival of Jewish Ideas with 200 presenters over 2 ½ days.

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