Old Jewish Cemetery in Lithuania Restored with the help of local townspeople
By Joel Alpert and Fania Hilelson Jivitovsky
Overview of the central section of Yurburg Jewish Cemetery
In 2001, a group of us - twelve descendants of Yurburg, went to visit Lithuania in search of our ancestral roots. While on a tour in the capital city of Vilnius, we arranged to meet a local Jewish survivor Zalman Kaplan who was born and raised in Yurburg. Kaplan shared with us his memories of the once vibrant Jewish Community in the old but forgotten Yurburg. He shed a tear remembering the tragic loss of his family and friends, and told us about life in his beloved native town that vanished in one day in August 1941. Not a trace of the Jewish Community was left in Yurburg, except for the old Jewish cemetery, hidden on a back road of a hill overlooking the Neman river. Aged stones gave in to the relentless passage of time, overtaken by grassy impenetrable weeds, the tranquility of the cemetery interrupted by voices of rowdy teenagers throwing around beer bottles. Some of the tombstones were gone altogether, stolen or reused by local construction workers. For Kaplan, then 80 years old, to restore this unique showcase of the Jewish Community, was a task of utmost importance, and he feared he would not live long enough to see the task completed. Zalman had escaped the Nazi invasion of Yurburg on June 22, 1941, at the start of the Nazi “Operation Barbarosa” to invade Russian territory. He pedaled his bicycle out of town barely escaping the advancing German troops behind him. He ultimately fought the Nazis in the 16th Lithuanian Brigade of the Red Army composed mostly of Jews. By the end of September 1941, the 1000 Jews who lived in Yurburg before the war were all gone, the majority of them murdered by the willing local Nazi collaborators in Lithuania.
Not a single Jewish person returned to Yurburg after the war, and the cemetery, standing alone and deserted in the hinterlands of Lithuania, became the only reminder of the hundreds of years of Jewish past. Albeit ironically, the tombstones, some of them still intact, served as proof of the vibrant Jewish life that once was. As is well known, many Jewish cemeteries in rural towns of Eastern Europe have been desecrated. Headstones have been removed and recycled in construction projects or roadways. Many Jewish cemeteries were redesigned into soccer fields or parking lots. Yet, this cemetery of Yurburg, in the western back roads of Lithuania with more than 300 identifiable headstones had miraculously survived. We could not refuse the urgent request to help Zalman accomplish his life’s goal.
First, we set up a not-for-profit organization and called it “Friends of the Yurburg Jewish Cemetery.” In 2005, we made a second trip to Yurburg. This time we requested a meeting with members of the Jurbarkas (the Lithuanian name of Yurburg) town council to discuss the restoration of the cemetery. Eight of us came into the meeting, When all was said and done, the town council promised to cooperate, but admitted they had no money to allocate to a cemetery, much less to the “Jewish cemetery” They told us that this was not the first time they were asked to help, yet, as they stated, “there was never any follow-up”. We sensed an implied “dare” in their words to actually follow through.
With the help of other family members and other descendants of Yurburg, the “Friends” raised $5000. With that money in hand, we contacted the small Jewish community of Kovno (Kaunas) and asked for their help to arrange construction of a new entrance gate to replicate the original one destroyed during the war. Motl Rosenberg, a son of a Yurburg survivor Dobba Rosenberg, who still lives in Lithuania, began to work on the design and construction of the new entrance together with the municipality of Jurbarkas.
The project became a true test for the “Friends”. Could we accomplish such a monumental task being so far away from the restoration project? As time would show, we could, indeed, and the entrance would be completed in November 2006.
Rejoicing at our first success, we embarked on another fund raising campaign to tackle the next task of rebuilding the fence around the cemetery, Zalman’s ultimate goal. We managed to raise another $15,000. Then, unexpectedly, help that might have been “b’shert” came our way.
We received an e-mail from Rabbi Edward Boraz of Dartmouth College Hillel in Hanover, New Hampshire who was looking for a site for his “Project Preservation, 2007”. The project was in its fourth year in which about 20 students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, travel to Eastern Europe, visit Auschwitz and spend a week restoring an old Jewish cemetery in a small town, once home for Jews before World War II. Rabbi Boraz inquired if he and his group could work on “the cemetery in Yurburg”. The “Friends” were elated and welcomed the offer. We hoped that, although the cemetery was under the jurisdiction of the town municipality, construction of the fence by American volunteers would be permitted.
In the summer of 2007, 18 Dartmouth college students along with Rabbi Edward Boraz, a faculty member of Dartmouth College, Joel Alpert and his spouse Nancy Lefkowitz of the “Friends” with one more resident of New Hampshire went to Yurburg for five days to work on the installation of a 300 meter-wrought iron fence constructed in Lithuania and designed by Dartmouth Hillel. The group was joined by eight English class students from the local Lithuanian High School who came together with their enthusiastic teacher Asta Akutaitiene to help with the construction project. The American and the Lithuanian students worked tirelessly to dig up and upright the overturned headstones covered in mold and layers of thick moss accumulated through many decades after the war. They dug holes, hauled sections of the fence and cement to the site to anchor the structures. Even members of the town council turned up to give a hand in the general clean up, removing trash and weeds into the trunks of their own private automobiles. It was a stunning and spectacular sight, and the spirit of comradeship was overwhelming.
Asta Akutaitiene (shovel in hand) with the Lithuanian high school students digging up a long forgotten headstone
This joint effort became one of the most important parts of our cemetery project. It was the first time the Lithuanian students had ever met any Jewish people. The Lithuanian students bonded with their Dartmouth counterparts, and both groups took pride in their mutual work. There was now a common ownership of the amazing project that restored a forgotten past.
We became convinced that if these Lithuanian students would ever hear an anti-Semitic remark they would not let it pass. These students knew – Jews are not like some of their friends might be telling them.
New entrance (left) constructed in 2006 by the “Friends of the Yurburg Jewish Cemetery” and the new fence (right) constructed in 2007 by Dartmouth College students
During their stay in Lithuania, the Dartmouth College Hillel group met two amazing young Lithuanian women, who helped with the project.
One of them was Ruta Puisyte, a young Lithuanina woman, a graduate of the Vilnius State University. She wrote her bachelor’s thesis on the “Murders in Jurbarkas” because she wanted to learn more about this hidden part of the Lithuanian history. She once asked her father about the old cemetery in Yurburg, close to the village where she grew up. He told her that “horrible things had happened there”, but would not go into greater detail. She wanted to know more. Today, she is an expert educator on the history of Jews in Lithuania and works as an Assistant Director of the Yiddish Institute of Lithuania.
Officially Lithuania takes no responsibility for the murder of its Jewish citizens during the Shoah, in spite of the fact that 95% of the Jews of Lithuania perished at the hands of Nazi collaborators. Anti-Semitic remarks are still heard in the country despite the fact that the Jewish community is very small, numbering only about 3500.
New fence with the old decaying Russian era fence behind it
The Darmouth College students also met Riva Vaiva, a local Lithuanian woman who had wanted to learn more about the mysterious inscriptions carved on Jewish tombstones in the Yurburg cemetery. As a high school student she would often come to the cemetery on a warm summer day to read in the shade of an old tree enjoying the tranquility of the peaceful setting. She began to wonder about this deserted corner of Yurburg and wanted to know about the people buried in this cemetery. She looked at the strange markings on the headstones. When she found out that these were Hebrew letters, she took a course in the Hebrew Language at the Vilnius University. Over the past years she has independently undertaken a tedious and artistic task to clean and re-inscribe the headstones in the cemetery, hoping to help preserve a page in the history of the Jewish community of Yurburg. Under her craftsmanship the tombstones now have colorful letters and the carvings are legible. Rita has taken on an added responsibility to ensure that the local authorities fulfill their legal obligations to preserve the cemetery by clearing the bush and tree overgrowth, cutting the grass and removing trash.
Rabbi Edward Boraz (left) translating headstones, with RiVa Vaiva on his right
Headstone of Leah Krelitz, great-grandmother of the author Joel Alpert, re-inscribed by RiVa Vaiva
Thanks to our efforts the Jewish community of Yurburg, tucked away in the western edge of Lithuania, will not be forgotten. In 2005, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in Berlin, the first such official memorial to the Shoah in the united Germany. In the Family Fates’ Room of the Information Centre located beneath the Memorial, there are 15 displays; among them is one about our Yurburg, featuring the Krelitz family. The display offers many photos, including the marvelous Wooden Synagogue of Yurburg. A video clip, restored from a film taken in 1927 reflects a day in the life of Yurburg in all its vitality which would be destroyed 14 years later.
The “Friends” are proud of their accomplishments in Yurburg, a small town that could have easily been forgotten. We are grateful that the Jewish Cemetery is being restored and cared for not only by the Jewish descendants but also by its local Lithuanian residents. We celebrate the mutual contributions of these two groups that will promote the healing of the wounds of a horrible past.
Zalman Kaplan, our landsman from Yurburg died shortly after the project was completed. It is through the synergy of the young local residents of Yurburg, and us, the descendants of the town working together with Rabbi Boraz and the Dartmouth College students that Zalman’s Kaplan’s life task was finally completed.
We hope our project will inspire others to contribute to the preservation of our Jewish past in the small towns of Eastern Europe.