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The Jews of Birzh in the late nineteenth century

Tuvye, his parents, his siblings and his first three children were all born in Birzh, (Biržai in Lithuanian). Known for its beer and its white linen, Birzh was impoverished, with cobbled streets and wooden houses and few economic opportunities.  

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Cobbled street in Birzh with horse transport, 1930s


It was situated in Northern Lithuania, 70 kms from Ponevezh (now  Panevėžys) near the border with the Latvian provinces of the Russian Empire. Jews had settled there in the late 16th or early 17th centuries and by 1897 they formed 57% of the town’s population:  2,510  out of its  4,413 residents. Jews were part of the Birzh economic fabric and and traded in flax and timber. Others made their living from crafts, farming, light industry, and peddling. 

As was typical, Tuvye had many friends and relatives in nearby towns in north east Lithuania  and he mentions Kelem (now Kelme), Kupishok (now Kupiskis), Papilė, Rakeshik (now Rokiškis), Riga,  Shavel (now Šiauliai), Shimberg (now Skaistkalne), Slobodka (now Vilijampole),  Obeliai, Panemunė, Ponevez (now Panevėžys), Vitebsk, Zhaga (now Žagarė),  and Zudgala where the family was based.  Shimberg (20 km from Birzh)  Shimberg is where Taube and her family lived, and where Noah was born.

The wooden house in Jacobstat, in Latvia, in front of which  Taube’s sisters and nieces and nephews and others are sitting and standing in a 1922 photo would have been similar to the homes in Birzh. 

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Rubin cousins. This photograph was taken in 1922 in Jacobstat, Latvia.  Rear row:  Rella Kosseff (later Padowitz), Taibe Yankelson, David Yankelson, 2 unidentified girls.  Front row: Chaya Rubin Kosseff (Rella's mother) , Sarah Rubin Yankelson (Taibe, David, and Berel's mother), Sarah's husband Yankelson, Berel Yankelson.  Chaya and Sara were Neche's sisters, and their children were thus her nieces and nephews.

Young men were not allowed to leave Russia before they had finished military service.  During the course of these letters Tuvye’s brother-in-law, Menachem Mendel Morris and his brother, Shmuel Kretzmar completed their service and returned home, while his brother Wulf Kretzmar entered the army.  Tuvye wrote anxiously about the whereabouts of his brother-in-law Aaron Morris – he had not heard about him since he had gone into the army. 

There are many stories, often apocryphal, about Russian Jews emigrating to avoid conscription, or adopting surnames from families without sons or by self-mutilation. These letters show that the members of the Morris and Kretzmar families completed their military service before emigration. 

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