Lithuania SIG #Lithuania Seirijai #lithuania

Kapochunas, Andrew <KapochunasA@...>

It was asked what might enhance a visit to Seirijai (the current spelling
of the town, which also has been called Serhai, Sereje, Seree, Serai and
Serhai [the "Sierijai" in the Schoenburgs' "Lithuanian Jewish Communities" appears to be a simple transposition error], two kilometers north of Lake Seirijus, itself crossed by the river Seira, in southern Lithuania, where a dialect called Dzukish (>from the common replacement of "d" with "dz") is spoken.

The highway south >from Kaunas, through Alytus, down to Seirijai is thick with trailers turning west at Seirijai to the Polish border crossing at
Lazdijai, but you'll be in what I think is the loveliest part of Lithuania, with many unspoiled lakes and streams, and riverbanks deserving of a lunch of bread, cheese and wine. You'll see hundred-year-old wooden farmhouses and fences -- not in an ethnographic museum, but in daily use by people who, more than anywhere else in Lithuania, adhere to traditional ways of farming, and celebrating weddings and funerals.

Seirijai's history began in the early 15th century as a royal estate carved
out of the Merkine forest, given, in 1523, by King Sigismund the Old to the
noble Sapieha family, which passed it on to the Radvilas family (now known
as Radziwill, of Kennedy family fame). The first Roman Catholic church was
built in 1537, and Evangelical Reformed and Lutheran churches followed in
1584 and 1598. The first synagogue was built in 1726. Princess Louise
Caroline Radvilas' marriage to Louis of Brandenburg in 1681 led to the
area's autonomous rule (within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) by
German princes until 1795. The partitioning of the Commonwealth resulted in
Seirijai's incorporation into Prussia until 1807. The division >from the
rest of Lithuania devastated the town, which lost half its population (2,820 in 1788).

In the early 19th century the area was part of nominally Polish lands
within the Russian Empire. The Schoenburgs say that Napoleon's army camped
there in 1812, and that a coat he left behind was sewn by local Jews into a
parochet for the synagogue's Holy Ark. In the middle of the 19th century
the area was within the Augustavo gubernija, and then the Suvalki gubernija. By 1902 the town's population had recovered to 3,250, which included some 400 Jewish families engaged primarily in trade, fishing the many nearby lakes and rivers, and farming. Owners of large estates included Yosef Grebarsky and Fruma Vezbotsky. A farm machine factory was owned by the Zvilings, and aliquor and beer distillery by Yitzhak-Zvi Slavetitzky and Moshe Finkel.

A serious fire burned half the town in 1912. Land "reforms" and preferential treatment for non-Jewish Lithuanians by independent Lithuania led to increased emigration (to the U.S. Mexico, South Africa and Palestine) and by 1921 the Jewish population was down to 1,050 (out of a total population of 1,884 in 1923), which further eroded to 800 just before the Holocaust. The town's population never recovered: 1,164 in 1959, only 1,095 in 1970.

Andrew Kapochunas

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