Pumpenai Jewish Cemetery
Pumpenai (Pumpyan in Yiddish) is a village in the northeastern part of Lithuania, 15 miles north of Panevezys. Pumpenai was one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania. Before the Jews, a Karaite community existed in the village. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Rabbinic Jews settled in their place. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jews were in the majority in the town. According to the all-Russian census of 1897, the population was 1,480, of whom 1,017 were Jewish (69%).
In 1861 a fire destroyed most of the town’s houses and the synagogue. Seven Jews died in the fire. In 1881 the Jewish community acquired land near the old cemetery and fenced it. They bought building materials and erected a new synagogue on this site. They also renovated the bathhouse that still exists in the town.
Most Jews made their living by small trade, crafting, peddling, and agriculture. After the First War and the establishment of the independent Lithuanian state in 1918, the Jewish community in Pumpenai decreased. According to the first government census of 1923, there were 1,137 people resident in the town, only 372 of them were Jewish (33%). Many emigrated to America and South Africa.
Pumpenai served as a center for Torah study and was fortunate to appoint learned and well-known rabbis. Among them was Yehonathan Eliashberg (1850-1899), one of the first rabbis of his generation to publish articles in the newspaper, a fervent Hovevei Zion. Another Rabbi, Rabbi Hayim HaLevi Katz (1854-1932), was an excellent orator, preached Zionism and published many books on Judaism.
The Jewish children received their elementary education at the Hebrew school of the Tarbut school. Many local Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. Most of the youth had hopes of emigrating to Israel and some joined the training Kibbutz.
On June 22, 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union. Five days later the Germans entered Pumpenai. Within a few days, Lithuanian activists together with the police, headed by the local Council chairman, began to take the Jewish population for forced labor. On August 26, 1941, Pumpenai’s Jews were led to the Pajuoste forest, about 3 miles from Panevezys, and there beside the long pits all were shot to death. Several families were taken to Pasvalys and from there to Zadeikiai forest where they were murdered together with the Jews from the region.
The Jewish cemetery was established in the 18th century. There are hardly 30 gravestones remaining in it today. Before WWII, there was a stone fence. In the Soviet time, it was partly demolished due to the construction of a highway from Panevezys to Riga, laid in 1970 through the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was in use until the destruction of the Jewish community during the Holocaust. In 1993 the cemetery was registered into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. There is a memorial stone with an inscription in Hebrew and Lithuanian, which says: “May they rest in peace”