Panevezys Jewish Cemetery
Panevezys (Ponevezh in Yiddish) is the fifth largest city in Lithuania, located in the central northern region. Jews started to settle in Panevezys on the left bank of the river at the beginning of the 18th century. They developed trade and were engaged in skilled occupations and small industries. The Jews of Panevezys were among the first to become involved in banking in Lithuania. Panevezys developed rapidly at this time, and the number of Jews grew fast. In 1897, the Jewish population grew to 6627 Jewish residents which was 51% of the town. However, almost half of them were extremely poor. In those years, many Jews from Ponevezh emigrated to South Africa. Another decline in the Jewish population happened during World War I. Jews were exiled to the depths of Russia, and few of them later returned. After Telzh, Ponevezh was the first stronghold of the orthodox Jewry in Lithuania: its fame as a Torah Study Centre spread all over the world. In 1897 there was one main synagogue, 12 houses of prayer and tens of “Kloisim” in the town. Thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Rabinovich, a Yeshiva, one of the greatest in Lithuania, was established in 1908. His successor Rabbi Yosef-Shlomo Kahaneman, re-established it in Bnei Brak in 1944. Today it is considered one of the leading Litvish yeshivas in Israel. The original pre-war building of the Yeshiva still exists in the centre of modern Panevezys and is marked by a plaque. Jewish children at first were taught at Jewish study houses, but in 1863, a Jewish primary school for boys and a religious school for girls were opened and offered alternative studies. With the establishment of the Lithuanian state in 1918, there were three Jewish educational systems in Panevezys: the Hebrew-Zionist, the Hebrew-Religious and the Yiddishist. As in any large city, there was a small group of the so-called “intelligentsia” in Jewish Ponevezh, which were entirely Russian-assimilated. They had no interest in social or national affairs, although some of them were sympathetic to the Bund or Zionism, especially in its socialist variations.
During the Nazi occupation of Ponevezh Jews were forced into a ghetto established in the outskirts of the city. Between the 24th-26th of August 1941, the Germans and their Lithuanian accomplices began the annihilation of the community. Jews were taken to Pajuoste forest and were shot there in pits. After the war, during the Soviet rule, a monument on the mass graves was erected and upon it, a Star of David was placed. This symbol was only used rarely upon Lithuanian monuments from that era.
The Panevezys Jewish cemetery was opened in the 18th century and it later expanded twice.. Jewish burials ceased after World War II, because there were too few Jews left in the city and the cemetery was closed in 1955. In 1966, city officials liquidated the cemetery and created a city park on the site, with a fountain placed in the middle of the park. Headstones were used for construction in Panevezys, and were even incorporated into a decorative wall at the City Drama Theatre. In 1980, there were attempts to correct the damage done: the fountain was moved to Senvage river leaving an open pit in the cemetery. The newly recreated Panevezys Jewish Community commemorated the dead with a statue “The Grieving Jewish Mother,” unveiled in 2009. Today the territory is listed on the Lithuanian cultural heritage registry as a historical monument. In 2018, an information board was unveiled in the Jewish cemetery.