Birzai, Lithuania (KHAIT, KRIGER)

Birzai, Lithuania


Jewish Population:
1900:  1,685 2,510 (57% of 2,510 population)

Family Members:
Charles Highstein, Grandfather
B 1899 Birzai; Emigrated 1906; M Jeanne Gouline; D 1944 New York

Itsyk David Khait, G GFather (father of Charles Highstein)
B 1831 Birzai; M Minukha Khait; D b1909

Minukha Khait, G GMother (mother of Charles Highstein)
B 1836 Birzai; M Itsyk David Khait; D b1887

Eliash Kriger, 3xG GFather (father of Zusman Kriger, GFather of Celia Khait)
B ~1820 Birzai; M Ester Kriger

Ester Kriger, 3xG GMothe (mother of Zusman Kriger, GMother of Celia Khait)
B 1824 Panevezys; M Eliash Kriger; D 1900 Birzai

Birzai 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.

The town's history is closely associated with the Radziwiłł family . Jerzy Radziwiłł was the first noble to settle in the town. Later, after his daughter, Barbara Radziwiłł married the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Sigismund II Augustus in 1547, the power and influence of the family grew immensely. The Radvila family established a Protestant church and school, and the city became a cultural center of the Protestant Reformation in Lithuania.

The local community of Lithuanian Jews, which settled in the Duchy of Biržai at the end of the 16th century, was influential, establishing an interest-free loan society, two major flour mills, and an international linen export business. The Islamic Lipka Tatars performed military, police, and postal duties for the Radziwill family.

During the Wars with Sweden, Biržai Castle was an important point of defence. In 1625, Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, attacked the castle with 8,000 soldiers and it was forced to surrender. The castle was left in ruins and was rebuilt, only to be burnt in 1655. In 1662-1669, it was rebuilt again in Renaissance style. On 9 March 1701, August II the Strong and Peter I of Russia (Peter the Great) signed a pact in the castle to unite their forces against Sweden. However, in 1704 the castle was completely destroyed and was left in ruins until its restoration in the 1990s.

The town's population suffered greatly due to wars and religious conflicts between the Protestants and Catholics. In the late 18th century, Biržai lost its city rights. The Radziwiłłs lost their wealth and influence, and Biržai was sold to the Tyszkiewicz family to cover debts in 1811. In 1849-1862, the Tyszkiewicz family built a neoclassic Astravas Manor palace across the lake from the site of the original castle.

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.

Most of the Birzai Jews were "mitnagdim", although there were also hassidic prayer-quorums and separate prayer houses. There were also two study-halls, a synagogue, two "klois" and a "shtibel".  Birzai was famous both as a torah center and a study center. It had a line of famous rabbis; the last rabbi was rabbi Jehuda Leib Bernstein who perished together with his community during the Holocaust.

In the town there was a yeshiva, a number of "hadarim", a religious school of the "Yavne" network with 40 pupils and a Hebrew "Tarbuth" school with 180 pupils. There were the usual charitable organizations an old age home, a polyclinic used also by the small towns of the neighborhood. Most of the Birzai Jews made a living from commerce, mainly in flax and wood. Others were artisans, agriculturists and peddlers. There were two weekly market days and two yearly fairs in the town.



  • Memorial / Monument the Astrava forest
  • The former synagogue
  • Jewish houses and buildings 
  • Old Jewish cemetery

I found this on JewishGen discussion site:

Subject: This week's Yizkor book excerpt on the JewishGen Facebook page
From: Bruce Drake <>
Date: Fri, 20 Jul 2018 13:03:57 +0000
X-Message-Number: 1

"Perhaps I was drawn to travel across Lithuania because like every city youth, 
I longed for the forest and distant borders, to go on a wagon and travel to a 
small shtetl," says the author of this chapter drawn from a larger collection 
of writings about that country. The young man who made this trip journeyed 
north from Vilna to Birzh [Birzai] near the Latvian border. The result was a 
wonderful travelogue worth reading in its entirety, but one short section I 
found particularly moving was when he witnessed a scene that repeated itself 
over and again amid the rising tide of those emigrating to other countries. 

It starts: "In Birzh, I saw houses emptied of men for the first time in my 
life. My mother's relative, Sara, the rabbi's wife, was a widow, and the 
husbands of her two daughters were across the ocean. Such a thick loneliness 
hung in the man-less houses."


Bruce Drake
Silver Spring, MD

Towns: Woynilow, Kovel