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Family story Part 1

a few years before the family departed
Zarasai 1864

From Zarasai to Asvieja.


Rivka, Leizer Zilibowitz's wife, was recognised to be as stubborn as a mule. Deaf to her always-worrying husband's pleas, she struggled to lift the heavy brown leather suitcase onto the already overloaded wagon. 


Her pretty appearance, friendly smile, and long, shiny black locks fooled admirers into thinking she was easygoing. She was tall and slender, eternally bent over a basin washing her mane or the coiffure of one of her daughters. Lea, 18, Fruma, 8, and Pessya 7. Her son, Baruch, also known as Barney, 16, forever trimming his, as yet non-visible moustache, took care of his looks.


The family was busy preparing for the journey to their new home in Asvieja.


"I beg you, my darling, to listen to me. Don't strain yourself. Remember your condition. That burden is too heavy for you; drop it and let one of the young men do it. We all know how strong you are. Why must you keep trying to prove it to us?"


He was right, but this portmanteau contained treasured memories—objects collected over twenty years of happiness in Zarasai. 

Zarasai recent view

The family and others bearing the same name settled there at the end of the 18th century. Long ago, they had all resided in a town with that name or one similar to it.


The rulers, the Russians, considered them Russians, not Lithuanians, and that's how they regarded them. As long as Russia ruled, the Zilibovitzs were safe, but the Lithuanians hated the Russians because they had tried to stamp out Lithuanian nationality and culture. 

Zarasai Lake

I imagine Leizer managing a hotel. Zarasai, with its beautiful setting by the Lake and picturesque surroundings, was a popular holiday resort for wealthy Russians. 

They were happy there and played an active role in the Jewish community. We don't have any record of antisemitism, and the prosperity that Jews brought to the town made them welcome citizens.


Leizer's friend, Avraham Kahan, envisioned the return of Lithuanian rule and did his best to persuade the family to move to his village by Lake Asvieja, which was only 150 km away. “Asvieja will always be Russian. One of these days, the Lithuanians will return to rule Zarasai. Don’t wait; it will be a disaster for you." 


His wife, Chatske, would be thrilled to have her good friend Rivka Zelibovitch as a neighbor. The only drawback was that there weren't many Jews living in Asvieja. There were only the Kahns and the Gomaroffs; now, the Zelibovitchs would be the third Jewish family.


Avram constantly extolled the virtues of the little village by the big expanse of water where they lived. he also added

"Sooner or later, the Jews of Zarasai, our beautiful town, will either leave or die and the hands of the Lithuanians.


His prophecy came true, as the census shows that by 1905, most of the 3000 Jews of Zarasai had left. 

Wooden synagogue of Zarasai

Their neighbours and friends begged the Ziliboviches to stay. 'What would they do without Leizer's voice in the Shul choir and Lea's expertise in baking cakes and caring for the children during Sabbath services?'


Leizer said to himself, "I need to think this over. Uprooting ourselves from Zarasai will be challenging, especially considering my wife's condition."


After several weeks of contemplation and discussion, he decided to move.


Lea, Leizer and Rivka’s 17-year-old daughter had grown into a tall, solidly built girl. She reassured her mother, "Don't be anxious. I'll help you, Mama." 


Baruch, her 15-year-old brother, had the typical teenager's outlook on life: "Why worry, Dad? Mom's tough: she'll handle it." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than thoughts of his sweetheart came to his mind. "She resembles Mother both are hardheaded women."


Her name was Ita Roche. She was the daughter of Leizer and Rivka's friends, Avram and Chatske Kahan of Asvieja. She was cute, blonde, and had blue eyes.


Baruch was a pragmatist, not one to offer unsolicited advice, living by the philosophy: "Let everyone act as they will and face the consequences of their actions and decisions."


"In Asvieja, I'll be near Rachel, and we'll meet whenever we want to." he thought with a smile. She had been his sweetheart since childhood, and the relationship grew stronger each time her family visited Zarasai.


Every year, she and her older sibling Synoska travelled to Zarasai with their folks to celebrate Passover with Leizer and Rivka Zelibowitch. They held hands under the table, giggling, thinking they were unnoticed. "Pass the unleavened bread," he would murmur, and she would respond by sticking out her tongue at him, stirring him into excitement.


They swam in the lake together, but Brother Synoska would always interfere. "Hey Barney, quit messing with my sister." Mothers and fathers exchanged knowing glances, silently predicting a wedding in the future.


Images of the adored articles in the valise surfaced in Rivka's thoughts: Lea's first party dress, long outgrown. Baruch's small, patent leather booties, as glossy as the day he flung them from his tiny feet, protesting that he'd never wear shoes.


"That was almost eighteen years ago, yet it felt like just yesterday." she thought to herself. Mementos of her two younger children also nestled safely within the suitcase, rendering the entire collection precious. These artefacts might be insignificant to anyone else, but to a devoted mother, they were priceless. 


Leah was thrilled about the move. It was exactly what she and Israel Gomaroff had dreamed about.


The two had long been considered a couple. Marriage was a foregone conclusion. She was only waiting for the family to get on their feet in the new venture. 


Her boyfriend was impatient to escape the cursed land of pogroms and hate.


Their relationship, like that of Baruch and Ita Roche, had developed at the Zelibovitch’s annual Passover table


The young man’s dream was focused on the pioneering country of South Africa. He poured over pictures of Cape Town and Table Mountain with his bride-to-be.


"You're a dreamer, Israel," said Leah; "I will help you realize your dreams, and we will start a family there.”


Lake Osewaya near Asvieja

The maiden sat by the water shimmering in the sunset, dreaming of the first time Israel kissed her. "Do I love him? Yes, I do. He is strong, handsome, capable, and loves me; That is all that matters." 


At last, the three-day wagon journey ended. The Zelibovitchs arrived in Asvieja as the sun was setting, creating a magical scene of the pine trees reflected in the lake's calm water.


They gasped, open-mouthed at the panorama. It was as if the inland sea was smiling at them. 


Route from Zarasai to Asveja

Leizer shouted in relief, "Well, here we are, let's get the stuff off these wagons.".


Asvieja resembled their old town, albeit smaller and less renowned. Leizer's decision to move was prudent. The family felt fortunate that the lord of the Manor had leased a modest parcel of land to them. Leizer, the carpenter, became Leizer, the farmer


Leizer regretted the absence of a vibrant Jewish congregation like the one he cherished in Zarasai. 


The new community lacked a leader for prayers and a Hebrew school. He'd have to invite a rabbi or a cantor to conduct services on the high holidays and a ritual slaughterer each week to ensure the availability of kosher meat.


Meir was the first Zelibovitch to be born in Asvieja. They brought the mohel from Zarasai to perform the circumcision.


Ita Roche, the Kahan's second daughter and Baruch were wed. The Kahans and the Zilibowiches, their hearts brimming with joy and anticipation, came together in the intimate embrace of the small synagogue of Asvieja.


Lea rejoiced to see her brother getting married. 


Ita Roche, dressed in white, stood nervously under the canopy, her father, Avraham, on the one side and her mother, Chatske, on the other. The guests waited for the groom's arrival, Barney, the man about town.

After slipping in the mud, the top hat purchased several months prior, sat on his head like a squashed tomato. However, nothing could spoil the joy of the occasion, and everyone laughed, including the ecstatic groom.


Barney's mate Leonid, a big fat goy dressed in short khaki pants and sandals, delved into his pockets and pulled out a golden ring. "Here it is. I found it. I found it."

Now, Barney, place it on my finger, not on that one, the index finger. Must you always joke?"


It slipped onto the correct finger. The groom wrapped his arms around his bride, stopping her jumps for joy, putting wet lips to hers, and stamping on the glass, a Jewish custom of placing the destroyed city of Jerusalem above their greatest happiness.


They were joined in wedlock. "Mazaltov, mazaltov," shouted everyone.


Leah married Gomaroff, and they set out for South Africa. Talking to friends on the ship bringing them across the ocean, he concluded that farming was difficult and that he could make a better living manufacturing useful objects for the many adventurers arriving in the sparsely inhabited country. 

On arrival, he gave his occupation as a shoemaker and immediately found a job. He didn't know much about shoemaking, furniture was closer to his training and experience. Eventually, he established a second-hand furniture business and later a bicycle shop.

The future looked bright. He thought of his brother-in-law, Barney, "how much he would love the beauty of Cape Town, and the place would appeal to his friend's artistic talents."

He and Lea begged the newly married couple left behind in Asvieja. "make the leap, Barney, for once in your life. Get out of that accursed country, there's no future for a Jew there. Haven't the Russians pushed you and your family around enough?" 

Barney hesitated; Ita Roche had given birth to a daughter they named Sarah. How could he risk taking them to a land where he felt unsure of the future? 

Barney was not the man to run off on adventures, certainly not saddled with a wife and child. He talked things over with his parents and the Kahns. Ita Roche's brother Synoska was settled in Argentina but was having difficulty making a living. 

Barney was not the man to run off on adventures, certainly not saddled with a wife and child. He talked things over with his parents and the Kahns. Ita Roche's brother Synoska was settled in Argentina but was having difficulty making a living. 

Lea was the most encouraging and described how she and Gomaroff were doing well. She had two daughters, and the business was thriving.

What finally helped Barney decide was that Ita Roche's cousins, who called themselves Schneier, would be travelling to South Africa, and he felt confident being with them. 

After a long journey to London, he set sail on the Dunvegan Castle with his cousins, the Schneier brothers. He arrived in Capet Town in December 1905, promising Ita Roche and baby Sarah that he would return to bring them to South Africa; failing that, he would return to continue living in Asvieja.

Barney and Lea's move was successful and started a new beginning for the Zilibowitz family. The Zilibowitz star rose higher and grew brighter every year until today. The name Zilibowitz echoes in the halls of medicine, business and science. 


Had they not migrated to South Africa, the name "Zilibowitz" would have disappeared from the annals of history. All the Zilibowitzs remaining in Zarasai perished in the holocaust. Leizer Rivka and baby Meir all perished in Asvieja. All that remains is a monument to the memory of the 650 Jews of Asvieja murdered by the Germans.










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