Jonathan and Renˇe DorfanÕs Visit to Lithuania

June 26-29, 2005


Background:  Why and Where?


The earliest records of the Dorfan family date back to approximately 1735 with the birth of Yoel (Joel, Yovel) Dorfan in Birzai, Lithuania.  Birzai is known as Birzh in Yiddish. Every known living descendent can be traced back to the Dorfan antecedents in Birzai.  While there is sometimes confusion, the Dorfan family is distinct from the Dorfman family.


The main Dorfan emigration from Lithuania took place in the 1890Õs and early 1900Õs, primarily to South Africa and America, with a much smaller number going to Palestine and Belarus.  There were some surname changes during that period; Several Dorfans changed their name to Adelstein before leaving Lithuania, some of whom went to America and some of whom went to South Africa.  Another branch of the family emigrated to America where their name changed to Gorfine.  


There remain a large number of Dorfan descendants in South Africa.  Likewise in America, both from the original migration and also from much more recent migration (last 40 years) from South Africa, Belarus and Ukraine.  There is also a large group of Dorfan descendents in Israel, mostly from post 1960 emigration from South Africa.


It is hard to trace those Dorfans that did not emigrate before the first world war.  It seems that connections between the families that emigrated and those that stayed behind were either sparse or our generation was never told about them.  It is likely that some went east into Russia during and after the first world war.  Those that remained in Lithuania until the second world war were massacred in Lithuania, almost entirely in the last six months of 1941.  It is impossible to tell how many perished at that time, but there are many records of such deaths.


As one would expect, the Birzai Dorfans married into the Jewish communities of the towns that surrounded Birzai.  It often happened that the groom left his hometown to live in the hometown of his bride. Thus starting in the mid 1800Õs, Dorfan families started to show up in the birth, death and taxation records of the towns such as Pasvalys, Vaskai (then called Konstantinova), Vabalninkas which are 10- 20 miles from Birzai. 


We were fortunate to have a terrific guide for our trip, Regina Kopilevich (  Regina is Jewish, was born in Belarus and now resides in Vilnius.  Besides Russian and Lithuanian, she speaks excellent English and Hebrew.  She is very knowledgeable about the history of the Lithuanian Jews, about the individual shtetlach and is very willing to do personalized pre-research to augment a visit. 


Photographs of many of the sights mentioned below accompany this write-up.


All the towns mentioned in the write-up can be found on the map below except Vaskai. Vaskai is about 10Km due north east of Pasvalys.




The Trip; First stop Birzai. June 26th


We landed at Riga airport lunchtime June 26 and rented a car.  It is an easy 45 minute drive on A7 via Bauska to the Lithuanian border.  From there we traveled due south for about 20 minutes and east for 20 minutes to Birzai.





Driving from Northern border to Birzai


We checked into the Tyla Hotel, which is very pleasant (  We had a spacious suite.  The hotel has a restaurant and the proprietor speaks English. The cost was very reasonable and includes breakfast.  

 Approaching Birzai

Since it was still light and warm, we ventured into the main town. We drove around for a while and found several restaurants.  Finally we settled on what we later found out to be the townÕs best restaurant, Agaros, where we had a meat meal.  After dinner we explored the town.  We managed to find the old Jewish cemetery, but the mosquitoes drove us off. Sunset over BirzaiÕs large (man-made) lake, Lake Servina, was beautiful.


We stopped at a supermarket where we were, with RenˇeÕs persistence and hand-signaling skills, able to find and purchase mosquito repellent. 

Birzai. June 27th


Our guide, Regina, met us at about 10am.  She was accompanied by her driver and a Cape Town couple, Joy and Arnold Swiel, who were interested in seeing the same towns as we were. Renˇe and I being ex-Cape Townians, it was fun to hook up with Joy and Arnold.  


Arnold Swiel and Jonathan Dorfan


We began our day visiting Count RadzivilÕs castle which lies on the edge of Lake ServinaÉ..  Entrance to Count Radzivil castle

and then to the neighboring museum of Birzai.  We took a road out of the town and went to Count TishkevitchÕs castle on the other side of the Lake. The princely families of Radzivals and Tishkevitches were major rivals.  While at the Tishkevitch estate, Regina stopped an elderly man pushing a bicycle and engaged him in conversation.  He was about 80 years old, and hence he remembers back to the late 30Õs and early 40Õs.  He recounted the story (with Regina translating) of how the NaziÕs occupied Birzai and how the Jews were massacred.  Jonathan was able to capture much of the interview on his Palm 650Õs video camera.

Joy Swiel and Renee Dorfan

Traffic on the main street of Birzai

From there we went to have lunch with the one Birzai-born Jew who both survived the holocaust and who returned to Birzai.  His name is Mr. Melamed and he is 80 years young.  Regina translated for us from Lithuanian.  Arnold spoke with Mr. Melamed in Yiddish.  Mr. Melamed was 15 when the Nazis stormed into Birzai in July 1941.  He and several other young men were able to escape using one of their parentÕs cars.  He ended up in Russia and signed on with the army.  After the war ended, he returned to Birzai, married and has lived there ever since.  He has a married daughter who also lives in Birzai in one of the few modern homes.   He has no recall of the Dorfan or Swiel families (there were about 3000 Jews and 3000 non-Jews living in Birzai in 1941).  

 Street in the formerly Jewish neighborhood

After lunch we drove through what was the Jewish part of Birzai.  Mr. Melamed was able to show us the buildings (or sites) of former important Jewish landmarks.  There was the Big Beit Midrash, a former Kariate shul (which later became a Chasidic shul), the Beit Midrash of the Shmashim and a shoemakerÕs shul. 

 This building was one of four shules in Birzai

 Street corner in the formerly Jewish neighborhood

 Only evidence we could find of the jewish neighborhood

 Aparcia river which borders the Jewish neighborhood

More Aparcia river which borders the Jewish neighborhood

 and more

We then drove 3.5 Km outside of Birzai to the Astrava forest where there is a memorial to the 2400 Jews that are buried nearby in three mass graves.

 As one enters's the Birzai cemetery:  memorialization of the Nazi murder of the first 30 Jews


  Standing in the forest, knowing that so many Jews (amongst them many Dorfan descendants) died on that fateful, horrific day was numbing, eerie and heart-wrenching.

 Upon entering Birzai in June 1941, the Nazis immediately killed 30 Jews, amongst them the Rabbi and a doctor Avraham Levin who was married to Sora Dorfan , the daughter of Mendel Dorfan ( on daughter of doctor Avraham Levin and Sora nee Dorfan survived)


The following is taken from the JewsishGen website:

Ņ This pattern of rapid extermination was carried out systematically in every Lithuanian town that contained Jews.  So swift and efficient was the German occupation, that there was little or no time for the Jews to escape, and indeed very few did.   What made the extermination even more effective was the eager cooperation from many local Lithuanians.Ó

The following three paragraphs are taken from the Article on Birzh, Lithuania by Joseph Rosin which can be found on the Birzai JewishGen Shtetlinks page at

ŅThe German army entered Birzh on Thursday the 26th of June 1941, arriving from the north, from Latvia, and found the Lithuanian nationalists already organized, headed by a local lawyer. Persecution of the Jews began on the first day of German entry, the first victim being the doctor, Avraham-Zalman Levin1. On a pretext of being asked to visit a sick person, two Lithuanians took him out of his house and one of them shot and killed him. Motl Beder was shot trying to defend Rabbi Bernshtein, who was murdered because he dared to protect his community. The young doctor Aptakin tried to hide in a forest, but Lithuanian nationalists found and murdered him. Advocate Kirshon and his family found asylum with Lithuanians who were considered friends, but who handed the whole family over to the police to be murdered. The local "Shokhet" was tied with his beard to the tail of a horse and then towed through the streets till his death.

One month after the Germans entered Birzh, on the 26th of July 1941, all Jews were ordered to leave their houses and to move to a ghetto which had been established in several shabby alleys around the synagogue and the Beith Midrash. Jewish men continued to be arrested all the time, then taken to the Jewish cemetery and other places in the town or its vicinity, and shot.

On the 8th of August 1941 (15th of Av 5701) the final phase of the murder of Birzh Jews began. On this day men, women and children in groups of 100-200 persons were led to the Astrava forest about 3.5 km north of Birzh, about 1.5 km on the road to Paroveja. There, by the edges of the forest, two pits 20 and 30 meters in length and 2 meters wide had been prepared, having been dug previously by 500 Jewish men who were forced to do this work. The victims were ordered to remove their upper clothes and kneel near the pits, into which they were pushed and shot. Whoever still showed signs of life was shot again with a pistol. The massacre took place from 11 o'clock AM till 7 PM in the evening. A local Lithuanian "with a yellow beard" (Jonas Kairys) excelled in brutality during the massacre. The murderers divided the robbed Jewish property among themselves, only giving expensive items to the Germans, after which they returned to the town singing.Ó


The inscription in Yiddish: in this place the Hitlerist murderers and their local helpers on the 8.8.1941 murdered more than 2400 Jews-men, women children and about 90 Lithuanians

Birzai jewish elders.  Picture taken in ~ 1928.  Rabbi Yehudah-Leib Bernshteinis in the middle of the front row. To his right is Mendel Dorfan who, along  with many of his family, perished.


1.     Note added by Jonathan Dorfan:  Dr Avraham Levin was married to Sora Dorfan, the daughter of Mendel Dorfan, who was an elected city official in  Birzai  Jonathan Dorfan, Mr. Melamed and Arnold Swiel at the Birzai cemetery

Our final destination on June 27th was the Jewish cemetery in Birzai..  OneÕs initial response is one of distress at the terrible neglect and disrepair of the cemetery.  The grass (brush) is very tall and obscures many of the gravestones, some totally.  However, as Regina kept telling us, the Birzai cemetery is one of the largest and most intact (ie largely not desecrated) in Lithuania.

 Gravestones at the Birzai cemetery

 As one enters the cemetery, there is a memorial to the 30 Jews murdered in the early days of the Nazi occupation.  There are about 400 graves most of which have headstones standing.  There are a few graves where the stones have obviously been pillaged and there are quite a lot of headstones that lie fallen to the ground.  The cemetery appears to be laid out according to the different communitiesÉÉthere is a Karaite area, etc.  Some areas are gender mixed, others are gender separated.  The inscriptions are in general not easy to read; however Regina is very experienced with reading headstones and there were few that she could not fathom.  Regina and Jonathan spend about two hours systematically mapping out the southern part of the cemetery, about 100 headstones. 

:     Some of the stones are well preserved......  ...... some are less well preserved

Neighboring towns of Vabalninkas, Paneveyzh , Pasvalys and Vaskai: June 28th

Mass grave in the Astrava Forest, 3 km outside Birzai


 Another view of the gravesite: horrendous act in a place of beauty


We went exploring neighboring towns with Regina and the Swiels, towns that the Dorfan family has married into and then lived there. We started in Vabalninkas, where we visited the former site/building which was the shul.

 This was the shule in Vabalnincas.


  From there we drove to the town of Paneveyzh.  JonathanÕs paternal grandmother (Ella), her brother (Lazarre) and their parents came from Paneveyzh, as did the Navias family.  Paneveyzh was a major center of Jewish life and especially learning. We drove around the largish town, with Regina pointing out various sites around the city.

 As with most of the Lithuanian towns, there is little preserved or memorialized to remember the Jews. We visited the site of a famous shul, a factory district that was run by Jews, a yeshiva with a plaque calling out the years it was open.  This building was a Yeshiva

This building was a Yeshiva from 1918-1940


 The very large cemetery was totally desecrated and serves the town as a park. There is a commemorative plaque reminding people of its former use.

 This was once the Jewish cemetery in Panyeveyz.  It is now a city park

Plaque to commemorate the cemetery.

Jewish ghetto was here during July 1941

 Mr Malamed, Regina Kopilevich and Arnold Swiel in Astrava Forest.


We had a light lunch and the SwielÕs departed for Riga with ReginaÕs driver. Regina, Renˇe and Jonathan proceeded to Pasvalys (Posvol) and Vaskai.

 Entering Pasvalys

The Jewish cemeteries in both of these small towns have very few remaining graves, about 20-30 headstones each, some of which are fallen.  Each site has a commemorative stone and plaque and, unlike in Birzai, both areas are neat and well maintained (by whom we do not know).  Stone commemorating the Pasvalys Jewish cemetery


 There remain only a handful of stones in the Pasvalys cemetery

   In Pasvalys, we visited the building which was formerly the shul.

This was the shul in Pasvalys


Amongst the records Jonathan has obtained from the Lithuanian Archive is a record of the Itzek and Chana Dorfan family living on Gruzhanskaya Street in Konstantinova (now Vaskai).

  This street would have pointed in the direction of Gruzhans.  So we found a candidate street, which as Regina had expected, has since changed its name.  It is now called Vilniaus Street.  We stopped along the street to admire a beautiful old windmill (the mill of Baron Hass) that appears now to be used as a restaurant . Regina stopped a passing lady to enquire about a man she had heard of who is the Vaskai historian.  Regina disappeared into a neighboring house and emerged with an elderly gentleman with a walking stick.  His name is Anilionis Petras, he was born in 1930, is the village historian (and historian in general) and the former village physics teacher.   He lives with his sister and brother at 25 Vilniaus street, Vaskai, Lithuania.  Jonathan and Renee Dorfan with the Vaskai historian Anilionis Petras

 His phone number is 845139356.  Besides his native Lithuanian he speaks German.  He was able to read Hebrew and Arabic. He was quite a guy!  And he could tell us a lot about what life was like in the late 1930Õs and the early 40Õs.  He knew the Dorfan family.  He took us down to the corner of Vilniaus and Pasvalio streets to the holding that had belonged to the Dorfan family.  The holding is a corner lot at 1 Vilniaus street and 2 Pasvalio Street and comprises a large wooden house (now painted green), a beautiful old (historic) brick storehouse/barn, and another structure that looks like a place where animals would be kept. The plot is about 8000 sq feet. When Anilionis was a child, the family living there were Nachman and Ida (nee Trapido) Dorfan and their children.

The family home on the former Dorfan holding at the corner of Vilniaus and Pasvalio streets in Vaskai.

  Brick structure on the former Dorfan holding


 Anilionis said that NachmanÕs brother also lived with them. According to the family tree, Nachman was the youngest son of Itzek and Chana.  Records show that except for Movsha, NachmanÕs brothers went to South Africa.  So the brother staying with Nachman was likely Movsha.  According to Anilionis, the Trapido family were rich and influential.  Nachman and Ida Dorfan likewise were well to do and had an iron and hardware shop and sold farm equipment.  At the rear of the main house (see pictures) one sees the store with double doors.  The brick house was apparently used to store large equipment for sale.


Anilionis told us of other Jewish neighbors who lived on the streetÉnames like Kacas Abelis, Schenkman who was a shoemaker (had a daughter Chana Eta in 5th grade with Anilionis), Trapido who had a manufacturing store. Opposite the brick building at 2 Pasvalio Street was the shul.  Anilionis described it in great detail, including making a sketch of the wooden building with shingles. Anilionis spoke of how he played harmoniously with the Jewish children of his age.  He joked that non-Jewish children like himself were envious that the Jewish kids did not have to attend school on Shabbat.  There was a Jewish school with four elementary school grades. The rich families would then send their children to Jewish schools in Paneveyzh, the others would go to the local non-Jewish school. 


Anilionis told of the days of the occupation in mid 1941.  The Jewish women and children were killed in the forest of Gruzmeskis.  The older men were killed in the cemetery.  The strong men were forced to work at the railways and were killed later. The shul was destroyed in 1942.  There are records in the Holocaust museum of testimony from surviving relatives recording the deathÕs of members of the Dorfan family including Nachman, Ida and their children. 

The Vaskai  Jewish Cemetery

The visit to Vaskai was fascinating and very informative.   A church in Vaskai



Jonathan Dorfan and Regina Kopilevich with the Vaskai historian Anilionis Petras