Darbenai Jewish Cemetery
Darbenai (Dorbyan in Yiddish) is a small town in north-western Lithuania, 8 km from the Baltic Sea. Jews first settled in Darbenai in the 18th century. They made their living by trading with the villages in the surrounding areas: they bought and sold fish, flax, rags, and other things. Most of the families had a cowshed and a chicken coop, and some of them also had a small ancillary farm. According to the census of 1897, 1129 Jewish residents comprised 54.8% of the total population of the town. The Jewish population decreased significantly after World War I. Many Jews left their native town for Israel, the USA, South Africa and other places. On the eve of World War II only 550 Jews remained in Darbenai.
In the period between two world wars, local Jews elected their ruling committee. Most of its members were Zionists and Orthodox Jews. Religious life concentrated around the Beit Midrash and the “Kloiz”. The Jewish children of Darbenai received their education at the Talmud Torah or the Hebrew elementary school of the Tarbut network. The town had two libraries, one with Hebrew books and the other with Yiddish books. There was also a drama club.
When the Nazis entered Darbenai in June 1941 the Jewish men and the women were separated. On June 29th, the Jewish men were shot and buried at one of the pits near the flour mill. The Jewish women and children were held in the synagogue and they were killed piecemeal in different places and different dates. The last group of Darbenai women were murdered in the middle of September in the forest about 1 km from Darbenai. A few young Jewish women survived with the help of Lithuanians who hid them throughout the war.
Darbenai is the birthplace of the Zionist leader David Wolfson (1858 – 1914), who accompanied T. Hertzl on his travels. After Hertzl’s death, Wolfson was elected to be the president of the Zionist Federation.
It is believed that Darbenai Jewish cemetery was established at the end of the 18th century. According to the currently existing monuments, the oldest tombstone dates 1868. The cemetery was used until the Nazi occupation of Lithuania. The latest burials took place in September 1941 when some Jews were buried here after they died while being locked in Darbenai synagogue, where they were waiting for their fate. During the Nazi occupation, the cemetery also became site of a massacre: on June 26, 1941, Leiba Reizman, the organizer of the communist youth of Darbenai district, and his brother Israel Reizman were shot near the cemetery. On July 14-15, 9 more Jews were buried in the cemetery, of which 8 were shot in the cemetery itself and 1 outside of it. After the war, the cemetery stayed abandoned. In 1993 the cemetery was cleaned and a new metal gate was installed. In 1997 the cemetery was registered into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. In 2014 volunteers of the Christian-Jewish Cooperation Society (Germany) and the charity organization “Nojaus arka” (Lithuania) cut down old trees and cleaned tombstones.