By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Binghamton’s daily newspaper, the Press & Sun-Bulletin, ran two articles at the end of 2022 (November 21 and December 12) by local historian Gerald Smith based on my 1989 history of the Jewish community of the Triple Cities, “Beyond the Catskills.” Although it’s been more than 30 years since I worked on that project, I harbored a hope of adding a supplement to that study. Now, with the appearance of Smith’s articles, I decided that this was the moment to look into what I felt was the missing piece to my work, an exploration of the history of a southern Lithuanian shtetl, Butrimonys, the ancestral home of several of Binghamton’s leading Jewish families, including the Koffmans, Rosefskys and Rozens among others.
In every respect, Butrimonys (Lithuanian and German), which has multiple variant spellings (e.g., Butrimants and Baltromants in Yiddish; Butrimantsi in Russian and Butrymance in Polish), was a typical shtetl (Yiddish, “little city,” village or town) in East Europe much like Professor Yaffa Eliach’s nearby hometown, Eišiškés (Lithuanian) or Eishishok (Yiddish), which she immortalized in the powerful “Tower of Faces” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Within the world of East European Jews, Lithuanian Jews are still known as Litvaks.
Located in Alytus County, Butrimonys is 35 miles southeast of Kaunas (Kovno) and 48 miles southwest of Vilnius (Vilna), the capital and largest city of Lithuania. At different times, Butrimonys was part of Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and twice (including today) an independent Lithuania, as well as part of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Butrimonys was decimated by Napoleon in 1812 during his advance into Russia but was quickly rebuilt. During both World War I and World War II, the German Army occupied Butrimonys.
Butrimonys was founded around 1400 by Lithuania’s Grand Duke Vytautas (1350-1430) on an East-West road linking Vilnius and Punia on the Nemunas River. It slowly emerged as an important hilltop market town with a well-known center whose municipal flag depicts the major crossroads converging in the town. Numerous ethnic groups, including Tatars and Jews, settled in the area. Butrimonys was first mentioned as a village in 1699 and as a town in 1720. Fires heavily damaged the town in 1787, 1835, twice in 1869 and again in 1904.
For much of its existence, the majority of the residents of Butrimonys were Jewish. In 1765, 282 Jews lived in the town. By the middle of the 18th century, they had established their own cemetery. In 1861, the town’s total population was 1,827. Seven years later (1868), the Jewish population was reported as 1,151 and, in 1897, 1,919 out of total of 2,394 residents were Jewish. Following years of immigration at the end of the 19th century and warfare beginning in 1914, the town’s population fell to 1,631 in 1921-1923, of whom 943 were Jewish. The current population is approximately 1,000 (not Jewish). While Alytus County is largely agricultural, the Jews of Butrimonys largely engaged in business, including the making of bagels.
Although tiny by any measure, Butrimonys had a complex culture typical of shtetl life. Lithuania itself was a major center of Jewish life for several hundred years distinguished by intense talmudic scholarship in the region’s numerous yeshivot. By the end of the 18th century, with the completion of the Partition of Poland, approximately 250,000 Jews lived in Lithuanian territory. In 1863, a Russian secondary school opened in the town. In 1864, a new building was constructed for the local yeshiva. Thirty-two years later in 1898, the town’s first Zionist organization was formed, which included both Orthodox Jews and Maskilim, secular proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment, headed by Eliezer Shtrashun, the town’s rabbi. A separate women’s organization, Daughters of Zion, was organized subsequently, as well as Zionist youth organizations and a sports club. In 1919, in the wake of Lithuanian independence, a Lithuanian primary school was opened in the town and, in 1920, a modern Jewish “Culture” school (Hebrew, “tarbut”) was also established there. Prior to the Holocaust, Butrimonys had three synagogues, at least two Jewish religious schools, various societies to aid indigent and convalescing Jews, a Jewish burial society and a Jewish cemetery with 550 tombstones, whose restoration commenced in 1997.
A number of famous Jews came from Butrimonys, including Rabbi Meir Simkha HaCohen (1843-1926), the son of a wealthy local merchant, Samson Kalonymus. Reflecting the rich and diverse Jewish culture of his hometown, HaCohen was both an anti-Chasidic scholar of the Talmud (Mitnagd) and of Moses Maimonides’ legal writings. HaCohen was a religious Zionist who opposed secular Jewish nationalism, but allowed rabbis to study secular subjects. He frequently clashed with the leading Mitnagdic rabbinic authority of the period, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (also known as Chafetz Chaim) (1838-1933).
A second leading Jewish son of Butrimonys was Henry Hurwitz (1886-1961), who emigrated from Butrimonys to Boston with his family in 1891. While a student at Harvard, he helped found the Harvard Menorah Society for the Study and Advancement of Jewish Culture in 1906. The Menorah Journal was widely recognized as an important intellectual venue for American Jews for most of the first half of the 20th century. Finally, in 1928, Hurwitz helped organize the Federation of Lithuanian Jews of America. Two other famous Jews originally from Butrimonys (there are many) who succeeded outside the Jewish world include Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), a leading Renaissance art historian who later converted out of Judaism, and his sister, Senda Berenson Abbot (1868-1954) of Smith College, the mother of women’s basketball. The family immigrated to America in 1875, settling in Boston.
According to Brandeis University scholar Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna, Jewish immigrants from Butrimonys organized a section in Boston’s famous Baker Street Cemetery under the name of Butrimantzy. A number of Butrimonys Jews found their way from Boston to Binghamton, NY, which by the end of the 19th century was well known for its cigar industry and its large, diverse and growing population of immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Jews. At the end of the 19th century, a number of Jews, religious and non-religious, from Butrimonys also immigrated to Israel.
In “Beyond the Catskills,” I reported, “In the wake of the assassination of Russia’s Czar Alexander II in 1881, the May Laws and government [sanctioned] pogroms, Jewish emigration from East Europe soared.” Eventually, more than two million Yiddish-speaking Jews came to America, including Jews from Butrimonys who settled in Binghamton. Following an 1890 pogrom, Jewish immigration from Butrimonys increased. According to written accounts and oral interviews provided by Dr. Israel J. Rosefsky and Marion Rosefsky Klionsky, the first member of their family originally from Butrimonys, Leibe (Louis) Rosefsky, arrived in the Parlor City in 1892. A chain migration followed, bringing other members of the Rosefsky family to Binghamton. One of Leibe’s brothers, Boruch (Barney), arranged to bring a young woman, Bluma (Bertha) Stasia, from Butrimonys. They married, moved to New England, then back to Binghamton and opened a small clothing store on Chenango Street. In a private conversation, Victor Rozen (1910-94) told me he was the last Jewish person from Butrimonys to come to Binghamton, arriving around 1925, just as the gates to America were closing due to highly restrictive immigration laws then adopted by the United States’ Congress.
Rabbi Jacob Hurwitz (1912-2003), who served Temple Israel in Binghamton and Vestal from 1948-82, told me that the Binghamton Jews from Butrimonys generally joined the Sons of Israel Congregation, the original name of Temple Israel, which was founded in 1885 and later built a new synagogue in 1899 on Water Street in downtown Binghamton, the first shul in the area. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Hurwitz also reported that there was palpable tension between Butrimonys Jews and other members of the Jewish community who came from other parts of Europe, often accusing the “Butrimontzers” of being ferd gnovim (Yiddish) or “horse thieves,” just like in the song “Tradition” in Fiddler: “it was a horse, it was a mule!” Remarkably, current online tourist information about Butrimonys acknowledges a long history of horse stealing in the town!
While the Binghamton Butrimontzers Americanized and began to enjoy various levels of economic success, the situation in Lithuania changed dramatically after World War I, when an independent Lithuania was established with a complex history of its own. Then on September 9, 1941, two years after the Nazi invasion of Poland and following weeks of increasing persecution and executions, Nazi death squads – Einsatzgruppen aided by Lithuanian collaborators – slaughtered the remaining Jewish community of Butrimonys. In a matter of hours, nearly the entire remaining Jewish population of the town, as well as that of nearby villages, 965 people, were machine-gunned to death. Only a handful of local Jews and a heartbreaking eyewitness account written in Yiddish by Khone Boyarski and his son, Avraham, survived the slaughter. Subsequently, the two memorialists were also murdered. More than 90 percent of all Lithuanian Jews perished during the Holocaust.
By the late 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, descendants of the shtetl, including members of the Rosefsky family, began to find their way back to their ancestral home and erected modest memorials to the slain Jews of Butrimonys. Today, those markers still stand in the southern farmlands of Lithuania. If you listen closely as I have tried to do, echoes of the once vibrant shtetl of Butrimonys can still be heard among their descendants in Binghamton, Boston and Jerusalem, and surely in other places, as well. And by the way, it was a horse!
Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., served as rabbi of Temple Beth El (Endicott, NY, 1986-90) and Temple Concord (Binghamton, NY, 1990-2001). During the same period, Sussman was an associate professor of history and Judaic studies at Binghamton University. Subsequently, he taught at Princeton, Rutgers and Hunter College. Today, Sussman is rabbi emeritus of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (Elkins Park, PA) and immediate past chairman of the Board of Governors of Gratz College (Melrose Park), where he is a professor of Jewish history, as well as the scholar-in-residence at Philadelphia’s Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center. Currently, Sussman is editing a second volume of his sermons and co-writing a book on “Jews, Law and the American Revolution.”
Thank yous and acknowledgments
Rabbi Lance Sussman and The Reporter would like to thank the following for their help in making this article possible: Krista Butvydas Bard, honorary consul general of the Republic of Lithuania to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Andrius Karlonas, the mayor of Butrimonys; Steven Koffman for his information on the origins of the Rosefsky family; Dr. Lara Lempert, director, Judaica Research Centre, National Library of Lithuania; Dr. Vilija Malinauskaite, CEO of Vilnius-based tour provider Travel Deli, which offers heritage travel fro Jews and Lithuanians; Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University; and Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel whose generous donation made this article possible.