If you want to escape from traditional Jewish routes and discover the alternative side of Litvak heritage – Balbieriškis is an excellent choice. It might be that you will be the lone tourist in this small town, and you will have an opportunity to you can discover the town’s Jewish past without any distractions.
Jews settled in Balbieriškis at the beginning of the 18th century, when local dean Stanislaw Piotrowski, for the amount of 30 złotys, leased the local inn, as well as the rights to sell and produce alcohol. At that time, Balbieriškis was known for its weekly markets, a place where local traders would gather to sell their goods. It is known that as early as 1740, the Jewish community already had a synagogue. It is not surprising, as it is known that in the middle of the 18th-century community already had 500 members, and this growth continued into the 19th century, as in the 1850s about 1240 Jews lived in Balbieriškis, which consisted about 70 percent of the town’s total population.
Jewish businessmen from Balbieriškis were well known. Notkus Kaganas owned the largest leather factory in all Suvalkija region, while Jovelis Gurvičius had a distillery. What is unique is that the Jews of Balbieriškis, during the interwar years, engaged in farming, just as their Lithuanian neighbors. Their children, after graduating from Tarbur primary school, attended the same public school with Lithuanian kids. That shows that the relationship between the Jews and Lithuanians existed, and it testifies that Jews and Lithuanians had an opportunity to learn about each other.
On Vilnius street, about 20 shops from 25 belonged to the local Jews. Few buildings survived the fire of 1944, and now they remind us about the town’s Jewish past. Gotlibas and Zingeris shops were on Vilnius street, as well as Lyberis’ wool carder, Eižikas Leibovičius’ house, and photographers’ Chaja’s house.
Once in former S. Nėries street, two wooden synagogues stood and in 1937, the construction of the brick synagogue had started. Luckily, this synagogue survived, however, during the Soviet times, the building was heavily reconstructed and was used as a cultural house, agricultural office, savings bank, and now the former building of the synagogue is completely abandoned.
On the outskirts of the town, you can find the territory of the old Jewish cemetery. After World War 2, most macevas were taken from the cemetery and used as a building material, later this territory was used as a pasture for cows. In 1990, after Lithuania restored its independence, the cemetery was fenced and the memorial plaque was placed on the cemetery gates.
Historical Jewish Quarter in Prienai
Historical Jewish Quarter in Birštonas
Historical Jewish Quarter in Alytus
Synagogue of Alytus (Kauno str. 6, Alytus)