Restoration of the Jewish Cemetery in Yurburg (Jurbarkas)
My wife, Nancy Lefkowitz, and I, two long-time members of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston, traveled to western Lithuania in June 2007 to take part in an unusual project that resulted in the restoration of the Jewish cemetery of Yurburg (Jurbarkas in Lithuanian), the hometown of my maternal grandparents
This adventure had its genesis back in 2001 when, after visiting Yurburg with some cousins, we stopped in Vilnius (Vilna). There we were approached by Zalman Kaplan, a survivor from Yurburg, now living in Vilnius, with the request to help rebuild the decaying fence around the Yurburg cemetery. Miraculously, in contrast to most Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania, which sadly have been turned into parking lots, soccer fields, or, at best, empty fields nearly devoid of headstones, the stones having been carried off and used in construction, this Jewish Cemetery in Yurburg still had over 300 identifiable headstones.
We could not refuse such a request. My cousins and I decided to create a not-for-profit organization for raising funds to finance the building of the new fence. Thus, the “Friends of the Jewish Cemetery of Yurburg, Inc.” was founded in 2005, and in the fall of 2006, with the organizational help of the Jewish community of Kaunas (Kovno), a new entrance to the cemetery was erected. This was the first step in refurbishing the cemetery.
New entrance to the Yurburg Jewish Cemetery constructed in fall of 2006
The next development was completely unexpected. Unbeknownst to me, Dartmouth College Hillel runs a unique program called “Project Preservation” that brings Dartmouth students to Eastern Europe to work on Jewish cemeteries that are in varying states of disrepair. The program has been in place for the past five years.
Rabbi Edward Boraz of Dartmouth Hillel was searching the Internet for a cemetery for the 2007 project. After finding our Yurburg cemetery project, Rabbi Boraz contacted me. As a result of the extensive research that had been posted about the town of Yurburg, as well as the cemetery’s need for ongoing repair, Yurburg was an ideal site to meet the needs of the students and their project. In addition, my publication of the English translation of the Memorial Book of the Jewish Community of Yurburg, Lithuania, originally written in Hebrew, could serve as the textbook on the Yurburg Jewish community for the students participating in the project.
View of the Cemetery
In June 2007, Dartmouth Hillel brought 14 students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to carry out the hands-on labor to restore the cemetery. The Dartmouth students completed the work initiated by the “Friends of the Jewish Cemetery of Yurburg, Inc.” by erecting a new fence, over 700 feet in length, along the decaying pre-war fence around the perimeter of the cemetery. The students also dug up numerous headstones that had fallen over and been slowly covered over by earth and grass. Every headstone was photographed, and the wording on each is being translated and cataloged. A map of the tombstone locations will be drawn up in order to assist future visitors in locating their family members’ headstones. Once this work is completed, all of the material will be placed on the Internet at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~projpreservation/yurburg/
New fence alongside the pre-war fence
Something else was accomplished: a change in the relationship with the town. In May 2005, we had proposed to the town council in Yurburg the possible restoration of the Jewish cemetery, but our plan met with a rather cool reception. It seems that the council had heard other Americans promise to do work in the town but with poor follow up.
This past June, however, the response was remarkably different. A leader of the Dartmouth students, Evan Konwiser, visited Yurburg’s high school a few days before the other Dartmouth students arrived. There, the English teacher, Asta Akutaitiene, recruited about 10 high-school students for the cemetery project. These students worked alongside the Dartmouth students in erecting the fence and in digging up and cleaning the long-buried headstones. Upon seeing the American students working with the local students, the town authorities became cooperative and supportive.
We had felt that it would be very important to involve the townspeople for another reason. Once the Dartmouth students completed their work and left, it would rest with the town to assist in maintaining the improved condition of the cemetery, as there is no Jewish resident left in Yurburg to oversee the cemetery. (The 1,887 Jewish residents recorded in the 1923 census constituted 43% of the town population. During World War II, the Nazis and their Lithuanian helpers slaughtered 94% of the Jewish population in Lithuania.)
Two Lithuanian high school students erecting a section of the new fence
New entrance on left and new fence on right
While working at the cemetery, we encountered a mystery: there were newly re-painted inscriptions on some of the old headstones. Who was doing this, and why? We discovered that a 34-year-old local woman, Rita Vaiva, has been repainting the inscriptions for the past three years. She explained that growing up in the town as a young teenager, she would come out to the cemetery after school to read and contemplate because the cemetery and its grounds were quiet and beautiful. After a time, she wondered about the place. Who was buried here? What were these people’s lives about?
Eventually she decided to go to Vilnius to study Hebrew so that she could understand what the headstones said. (Rita even pointed out to us misspellings and malformed Hebrew letters!) After work, Rita goes to the cemetery to carry out her mission. Soft-spoken, sensitive, and committed, she told us her story and was happy to see others so interested in her adopted cemetery. The American group was moved by Rita’s story and by her ongoing devotion and dedication to this old, abandoned Jewish cemetery.
For more about Rita Vaiva read “Preserving the Past of the Jurbarkas Jews” from the Regional Lithuanian Weekly Newspaper “Sviesa (Light)” at http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/Yurburg/Rita.html
One of the highlights of the work in Yurburg for me came when I located the headstone and grave of my great-grandmother (in addition to the graves of several other relatives). My joy at this discovery and the history of those relatives, which I shared with the Dartmouth students, added meaning to their work. The headstones, they realized, belonged to actual families, and these families had histories. The Dartmouth students recognized that this journey to Yurburg and their work had resulted in a dream-come-true for me, and they were proud to share in it. In addition, the Jewish students among them understood that it was their heritage, too.
Just before we all left, I went over to my great-grandmother’s grave and, following Jewish tradition, placed a small stone on the headstone as a sign that I had paid my respects at her grave. Two of the Dartmouth students did likewise. I was deeply moved.
Joel Alpert and his cousin, Esther Sherman-Bejar, from Mexico, at the grave of their great-grandmother at the Yurburg Jewish Cemetery.
The now-restored cemetery will serve as a memorial to honor the Jews who lived and died in Yurburg when the town was vibrant and played an important role in enhancing and enriching Jewish culture. The bond that was made between the local high school students and the Dartmouth college students in their connection to the vanished Jewish community serves as a sign of hope for the future.