The Town / Duchy of Biržai in Imperial Russia, birthplace of Wolf and Jennie Brin

birzai-WW I

Biržai-WW I Era


Biržai Today

The Duchy:

In the middle of the 17th century, the fully-formed Duchy of Biržai consisted of five domains:

1. Biržai (600 valaks): the town of Biržai, the manor and rural subdivisions, and 60 villages and folwarks (very large farms with a manor house owned by the Upper Nobility who were absentee landlords).

2. Papilys (more than 400 valaks, and 40 villages and folwarks).

3. Radviliškis of Nemunelis (around 250 valaks and 33 villages and folwarks).

4. Salamiestis (224 valaks, a township, rural subdivisions and a forest of around 119 valaks).

5. Salociai (around 150 valaks).

Wolf & Jenny in 1937

Wolf Brin  in 1937 with an unknown woman.


Wolf Brin with his daughter, Rose, and an unknown gentleman.


Photographed in the same location as the previous image, the young boy appears to be Celia Brin’s son, Norman Shapiro.

The town/Duchy of Biržai was originally located in the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, the homeland of Ashkenazic Jewry for 800 years. In the late 1700’s Biržai was annexed, along with many other provinces in Poland-Lithuania, by Imperial Russia. After World War I came to an end in 1918, the Duchy of Biržai was incorporated into modern country of Lithuania.

Wolf Brin’s forbears, as his surname indicates, may have originally come to Biržai from Brünn, the latter being a city within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Yiddish, the city of Brünn is called Brin ברין, in Czech it is Brno.


Location of Biržai, The town is called  בירז Birz or Birzh in Yiddish

Additional information on the Town/Duchy of Biržai:

The duchy’s first written mention dates to 1450. The construction of Biržai Castle began in 1586, and the town was granted Magdeburg Rights in 1589. In 1575, as preparation for the castle’s construction, a dam was built on the Agluona and Apaščia Rivers at their confluence, and the artificial Lake Širvėna, covering about 15 sq mi, was created. It is the oldest surviving artificial lake in Lithuania. 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 Radziwiłł 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 Radziwiłł family.

During the Wars with Sweden, Biržai Castle was an important point of defense. In 1625, Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, attacked the castle with 8000 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. In 1701, August II the Strong and Peter I of Russia 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.

Biržai ‘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.

Until 1795 Biržai was in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. In that year the Third Division of Poland-Lithuania by the superpowers of those times – Russia, Prussia and Austria – caused (what is now) Lithuania to become partly Russian and partly Prussian. The part which included Biržai fell under Czarist Russian rule, first from 1802 as part of the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 as part of Ponivezh district in the Kovno province.

In 1869, the town had about 2600 residents. Thirty years later (1899), the population grew to 4400 people. Biržai was almost completely burned down during World War II.

The Marriage Record of Wolf Brin and Jennie Schneider

Research by Debbie Ellerin

Wolf (Vulf Geshel Brin) and Jennie (Sheine Shnaider) were married in 1890 in Birzai:  Jennie’s father’s name was Leib Shnaider; Wolf’s father was Abram Brin:

JewishGen- BRIN

Unrest in the Duchy of Biržai, was most probably what caused Wolf and Jennie Brin and family to leave Birzai  for America.They appear in the Manifest for the ship Sorrento, which left Hamburg in Imperial Germany on June 20, 1892 sailing for Hoboken, NJ (New York Harbor):

0115. Rosenberg, Chaim M 63y Russia, Russian Bergen
0116. Rosenberg, Leo F 55y Russia, Russian Bergen
0117. Rosenberg, Moses M 17y Russia, Russian Bergen
0118. Dawinsky, Moses M 25y Russia, Russian Sclamillo
0119. Moschkowitz, Lipe F 21y Russia, Russian Sclamillo
0120. Moschkowitz, Chaie F 20y Russia, Russian Sclamillo
0121. Brim, Wolf M 27y Russia, Russian Birz
0122. Rosenberg, W. J. M 10y Russia, Russian Birz
0123. Brim, Chaie F 30y Russia, Russian Birz
0124. Brim, Lifre F 11m Russia, Russian Birz

Line 121: Wolf Brim =Wolf Brin

Line 123: Chaie Brim = Jennie Brin

Line 124: Lifre Brim = Wolf and Jennie’s  11-month old daughter (Celia).

Line 116: According to the 1910 US Census, Wolf’s mother-in-law Lea Rosenberg (i.e. Jennie’s mother) was living with the family. In the manifest, Lea Rosenberg is spelled Leo, but the record reports that this is a woman.

Line 115: Chaim Rosenberg was Jennie’s mother’s second husband.

Lines 117-118: Moses and W.J. Rosenberg are the children of Chaim Rosenberg.

Wolf & Jenny Brin & Co..jpg

Jennie and Wolf Brin with children and grandchildren. Back row l-r: daughters Sarah, Hanna, and Rose. Between Jennie & Wolf: Rose’s daughter Lucille. Front row: Rose’s son Bill, Sarah’s son Bruce, Celia’s son Norman (Celia had already died).

BRIN Additional40

Jennie with the same kids seen in the previous photo.

Wolf Brin’s Sisters

It has been confirmed by Debbie Ellerin, who did the outstanding research that resulted in the location of the town where Wolf Brin and his wife lived in Russia, that Wolf had two sisters in Cleveland:

“Not only was my great-grandmother a Brin, but another Brin girl married into the Ellerin family. I think she may have been a sibling of Wolf also.”

“The Ellerin family is from a region in Latvia called Courland. In the mid 1800’s they lived in a town called Jakobstat. By the late 1800’s they lived in Griva, which was a small town across the river from the bigger city of Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, the 2nd largest city in Latvia.) Griva is now a part of Daugavpils.”

“Also, about the Ellerin’s: they were also kosher butchers. Here I am talking about at least one generation before Wolf Brin, until one generation after. So, the family that Wolf’s sister married into was a family of Kosher butchers. My father’s uncles were in this business in Cleveland. My father’s parents moved out of the city and my father and his sister grew up on a farm outside of Cleveland – in an area with very few Jews. They later moved back to Cleveland where my father went to college and law school.”


  1. My grandmother, Cecelia Ellerin, Wife of Shmuel Levin, my grandfather, lived in Cleveland! Fanny Brin is also a relative!! Are we related??

    • Hello Jonathan- I am descendant of Ellerin family too, from Griva.
      I’ll be glad to chat.

  2. Hello , I think we are relatives from Griva.
    My name is Dmitry Shvartsman, we live in Sudbury, MA
    Please contact me

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