Birzai Jewish Cemetery
The history of the Jewish community in Birzai (Birzh in Yiddish)dates back to the 17th century. It is likely that they came by invitation from Prince Christopher Radzivil who wanted to promote local economic development. Originally, a group of Karaites settled in Birzai, and only later, in the middle of the century, did Rabbinic Jews settle there. In 1897, the year of the official census in the Russian Empire, there were 2510 Jewish residents out of 4413, 57% of the total population. In 1934 about 3000 local Jews made up 36% of the city residents.
Birzai’s Jews made their living mainly from commerce, in particular trading in flax and timber. Others earned a living from crafting, farming, light industry, and peddling. There were several workshops for weaving and knitting, where the wool from England was processed for export, and the white linen made in Birzai was very famous. According to the 1931 government survey, there were 99 businesses in Birzai, of which 77 were owned by Jews (78%).
Most of Birzai’s Jews were “Mithnagdim” who maintained two Beit Midrash, one Synagogue, and two Kloiz. There were also Hasidim who had their own prayer house and several Minyanim, among them one of “Habad” and another of “Po’alei Tsedek”. The most famous rabbi from Birzai was Elchonon Bunim Wasserman, a prominent rabbi and rosh yeshiva in prewar Europe. He was one of the closest students of Chofetz Chaim. In the interwar period, he served as head yeshiva in Baranovich. Another famous personality with roots in Birzai was Herbert Kretzmer, an English journalist and lyricist.
The German army entered Birzai on June 26, 1941, arriving from the north, from Latvia. The persecution of the Jews began immediately. The first victims were Rabbi Bernshtein and Doctor Levin. On July 26, 1941, all Jews were ordered to leave their houses and to move to the ghetto established in several shabby alleys around the synagogue. The final phase of the murder began on the 8th of August. The massacre lasted the whole day from 11 AM till 7 PM in the evening. 2400 Jewish men, women, and children were shot in two pits in the forest some two miles from the city center.
In 2019, a new Holocaust memorial was opened at Pakamponys Forest to mark the mass murder of the Jews of Birzai. The memorial forms a bridge across the water in the Astravas grove, the exact site of the death pits. The memorial bridge was designed by South African architect Dr. Joseph Rabie, whose great grandparents were from Birzai. It is made from sheets of metal that have etched into them 2400 Stars of David, small ones for children and larger ones for adults, and 522 names of identified victims.
The Jewish and Karaite Cemetery of Birzai was established at the beginning of the 17th century. There are 1627 tombstones mostly from the 19th and 20th century and many more unidentified graves. It is one of the largest and most studied Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. Jews from Biržai have been buried here since the establishment of the city. At the entrance to the cemetery, there is a monument in memory of the 30 Jews shot here at the very beginning of the occupation in 1941.