|Michael Levy, who traveled to
Panevezys the week before we did on a Federation Mission had the following
to say about his trip there:
late June, early July, I participated in a United Jewish Communities (UJC)
. As part of the so called
“roots” portion of the trip, I was accompanied by my own personal
guide and driver, to visit towns and villages of my choice.
One of the towns I chose was Panevezys – known by Jews as
Ponevezh. My maternal
grandfather came from there, and his wife, my grandmother came from a
small shtetle (village) close by.
had a fantastic Jewish presence over a few hundred years.
In 1941 there were 8,000 Jews representing 25% of the population.
They, together with approximately 5,000 Jews from the surrounding
area, were murdered in a 2 month period in forests 15 kilometers outside
the town. The massacre sites
also serve as the mass grave burial sites.
of Ponevezh was Jewish and what was left behind was grabbed by the locals,
such as houses, factories, shuls, schools and of course the famous
Ponevezh Yeshuva building, which is now a bakery.
Of special significance is the very large Jewish cemetery and what
became of it.
arrival in Ponevezh, I met the leader of the 75 person Jewish community
(out of a total population of 120,000).
His name is Gernady Kofman, and he came to Ponevezh 33 years ago
. He has an excellent
knowledge of the town and its history.
spent the day together and at one point he stopped at a large pleasant
park area approximately 1km from the city center.
It was criss-crossed with foot and bike paths, trees and grass.
explained that this park had been the Jewish
. In 1955 only a handful
of Jews remained from this once thriving community and the Soviets who
controlled the country at the time gave the community a 10 year notice
period after which the cemetery was to be bulldozed to be put to
“alternative use”. This
was a common practice on the part of the Soviets.
In 1965 – after the 10 year notice period – the cemetery was
flattened and converted into park land.
The graves of thousands of Jews of Ponevezh – many whom have
descendants in the
and other places – were no more.
the same time as the cemetery demolition, the town of Ponevezh built a new
and very glitzy art museum in a prime spot of what was to become a
revamped and attractive parkland in the downtown area ( not to be confused
with the area of the cemetery). The
general construction of the art museum is modern grey concrete and glass.
Contrasting with the concrete and glass, is a perimeter wall of
around 6 feet high and over 100 yards in length as well as a major outside
wall – alongside the main staircase, all made up of “tastefully”
cladded broken brown stone…
grave stones of the Jewish
have been put to use!!!
mentioned, over the last few years the Jewish community has grown to
around 75 people (out of a population of 120,000).
Although very small in numbers, they have, on the one hand, taken
it upon themselves to educate the population – specifically the school
children – about the history and what happened to the Jews, and on the
other hand they have started to assert themselves and have objected to the
fact that the gravestones form the decorative cladding of the art museum.
This education process is very positive in that the whole town is
learning about something that they either didn’t know about up to now,
or have conveniently ignored.
Jewish community – after much lobbying and pressuring – has been
granted the rights to establish a monument/memorial on the site of the
original cemetery. Furthermore,
the authorities have agreed to return the gravestones – to be used for
the monument. They are
actually going to breakdown the wall and truck every last one to the
former cemetery. The cost of
all of this has been born by the Jewish community - $30,000 is the
is hoped that Ponevezh decedents – wherever in the world – all of whom
would have had relatives buried in the cemetery and whose gravestones are
now on the wall of the art museum, would help to cover the cost. A
campaign to reach such people is underway.
is not where the story ends. In
addition to the gravestone/monument issue, there is the issue of the
former Jewish property, real estate and buildings that abound all over the
town. Specifically, the
Electrical Supply Company building is the former prominent “Choral Shul”
and the Jewish
(Gymnasium) is the Court House building.
The Jewish community is seeking their return as well.
That coupled with the issue of the gravestones has been cause for
Anti Semitic action. ...
Note 1 - When the masons cladded the wall with the stones, they turned
them inwards so that the inscriptions were not visible.
However – a few stones of the many thousands were in fact
reversed by mistake. Those
stones were removed and “given back” to the Jewish community out of
respect. They were not/could
not be replaced, so the gaps have simply been filled in with white