Kaunas Jewish Cemetery
The exact period of the cemetery’s establishment is unknown. Given the oldest preserved tombstone dates to the early 20th century, it can be inferred it was already in use by then.
Some of the first Jews may have arrived in Kaunas (Pl. Kowno, Yid. קאָוונע) in the late 14th century as prisoners brought from Crimea by Vytautas the Great. In 1450, a Jew called Daniel leased the customs house in Kaunas. His children Ze’ev and Michael were wealthy merchants and enjoyed a privileged status. Jews were expelled from Kaunas in 1492 and from the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1495. The edict was revoked eight years later, however, only certain categories of Jews, chiefly appraisers and customs officials, were allowed to settle in Kaunas. In 1682, the ban was renewed by the Polish king John III Sobieski, and the suburb of Vilijampolė (Slobodka) became the centre of Jewish life. In the early 18th century, Jews were allowed to settle in Kaunas on the condition that they paid one-fifteenth of the city’s taxes. A court decision in 1753 demanded that the Jews be expelled, and the first pogrom took place in Kaunas in 1761. In 1783, the king August Poniatowski allowed Jews to settle in the city, but only in a limited area. An account of these events, the so-called Kowno Megillah, was read annually on Shushan Purim. After the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire. In 1797, Christian residents of the city petitioned the Russian Emperor Paul I to expel the Jews. The government, however, allowed the Jews to trade everywhere in the city. Bribes were needed to implement the decision in practice. In 1862, the Jews received permission to buy land for a cemetery in Kaunas itself. The Jewish population grew quickly in the second half of the 19th century and reached 25,448, or 36% of the total, in 1897, making Jews a relative majority in the city. The city became an important Jewish centre with numerous schools and an extensive social welfare system. Early Zionist organisations and the Bund were active in the late 19th century. In 1915, Jews were expelled by the retreating Russian army, but most of them returned after WWI. Vilijampolė (Slobodka) became a part of Kaunas in 1919. According to the first census of the Independent Lithuanian state in 1923, Kaunas – now the country’s capital – had a Jewish population of 25,044, or 45% of the total. The Jewish community had educational institutions from kindergartens to teachers’ seminaries, a hospital, several newspapers and magazines, two theatres, about 40 synagogues and yeshivot. Several Jewish financial institutions had headquarters in Kaunas. The economic crisis and growing anti-Semitism led to emigration to Palestine, South Africa and other countries. In 1939, Kaunas attracted Jewish refugees from German-controlled Klaipėda (Memel) and Poland. About 6,000 Jewish refugees were issued transit visas by Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas. Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. After the German invasion in 1941, 29,760 Jews were confined in the Kaunas ghetto, established in Slobodka. Over 13,000 of them were murdered by the end of 1941. The Ninth Fort of the Kaunas fortress became a place of mass murder. A relatively quiet period continued until September 1943, when the ghetto became the Kauen concentration camp under SS jurisdiction. In October 1943, 2,700 Jews were deported to camps in Estonia and to Auschwitz. On 27 March 1944, about 2,000 of the children and the elderly were killed. The entire Jewish ghetto police force was taken to the Ninth Fort on the same day. In July 1944, when 7,000–8,000 Jews remained in the ghetto and the work camps, deportations to Germany began. Every house in the ghetto was fire-bombed, killing about 1,500 Jews hiding in the bunkers. Only 90 escaped. Some 2,500 Kaunas Jews managed to survive in German camps, 500 more had joined the partisans or were saved by Lithuanians. In 1950, the synagogue and other Jewish institutions were closed by the Soviet authorities. In 1959, the Jewish population of Kaunas was 4,792, only 2.2% of the total. The cemetery in Slobodka was destroyed in 1963. In 1989, on the eve of a massive Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, the figure was 1,359. As of 2011, there were only 299 Jews in Kaunas.