Kursenai Jewish Cemetery
Kursenai (Kurshan in Yiddish) is a town in the Zemaitija region of Lithuania. It lies 26 km. from the district administrative centre Siauliai (Shavl). The Jews first began to settle in Kursenai in the second part of the 18th century. They traded in grains, flax, timber and cattle. According to 1897 census data, there were 1542 Jews in Kursenai, which comprised 48% of the total urban population. During World War I Kurshan’s Jews had to leave their town, which was destroyed, including many Jewish houses. But even before the war, many of Kurshan’s Jews had emigrated to South Africa and America. After the war, only some of the exiled Jews returned. According to the first census performed by the new Lithuanian government, there were 841 Jews in Kurshan in 1923. During this period, local Jews made their living from trade and crafting. 91% of all of Kursenai’s businesses were Jewish owned. The Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank) played an important role in the economic life of the town. Kursenai’s Jewish artisans organized their own union and had a Gemiluth Hesed fund which was established and financed by membership fees and a donation from the Ezrah society. Its activities included courses for older members, where the Lithuanian language and arithmetic were taught. Jewish children of Kurshan were taught at a Hebrew elementary school of the Tarbut school. There was also a library with books in Hebrew and Yiddish. Many of Kursenai’s Jews belonged to the Zionist movement, and all Zionist parties were represented in the town. Sports activities were carried out in the local Maccabi branch. Religious life was concentrated in two new prayer houses built in 1921 to replace the beautiful synagogue that was destroyed during the war.
When war broke out between the Soviet Union and Germany in June 1941, many of Kursenai’s Jews tried to escape to Russia through Latvia, but only about 30 families succeeded. During the Nazi occupation, Jewish men were shot in July 1941 in a forest about 3 km from Kursenai. Jewish women and children were transported to Zagare and murdered together with Zagare’s Jews in August 1941. Only one man and one woman, who were hidden by Lithuanian peasants, lived to see the liberation.
The Jewish cemetery of Kursenai was established in 1752, the year when the first Jews settled in Kursenai and together with their right to settle they received permission for a Jewish Cemetery. The last person was buried here in 1941. After the total extermination of the local Jewish Community, the cemetery was abandoned and almost no gravestones have survived to present times: it is likely that they were used as building materials. Only 7 stone fragments are partially visible in the area of the cemetery today. In 1992 the cemetery was included into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. The area is unfenced, and its boundaries are not clear. There are some pine trees around the cemetery, and a small path leads towards the monument, informing in Yiddish and Lithuanian about the initial purpose of the territory.