Rokiskis Jewish Сemetery
Rokiskis is a city in northeastern Lithuania, comprising about 12 thousand residents. It is likely that Jews began to settle in Rokiskis at the end of the 18th century. The peak of the Jewish population in Rokiskis was on the eve of WWI, when about 3000 Jews comprising 78% of the town’s population lived there. Even before WWII it was still one of the biggest Jewish communities in Lithuania.
Most of the Jews made a living from small businesses and peddling. There were some prominent merchants who controlled the trade in linen, grain, and cattle. Others had wholesale businesses in metal goods, textiles, and agricultural machinery. Before WWI, the merchants imported their goods from Dvinsk (today Daugavpils, Latvia). During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940), the contact with Dvinsk stopped due to the new borders of the Baltic states. According to a government survey in 1931, there were 177 businesses in Rokiskis and 89 of them were Jewish owned (76%). But in the 1930s the economical situation of the Jewish business worsened due to the general decline and the growing competition from Lithuanian entrepreneurs, supported by the government. There was a wave of bankruptcies, and many Jewish families emigrated to South Africa and the U.S.A.
The majority of Jews in Rokiskis were Hasidic. Rokishok was one of the few places in Lithuania where there was a center for the Chabad school of Hasidism. Before the First World War, there were two rabbis in Rokiskis , one for the Hasidic and the other for the followers of Mitnagdim. In February 1931, many visitors came to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe who was then visiting the town. Close to the main street, there were three Synagogues: the yellow one was for the scholars, the green was for property owners, and the red, which was the biggest, for the common people. These colors were those of the national flag of Lithuania.
During the Holocaust, the Jews of Rokiskis and its environs were murdered in nearby woods just north of Bajorai village. The official German army report (the Jager Report) states that on August 15–16, 1941, a total of 3,207 Jews were murdered at this place.
One of the famous natives of Rokiskis is Yakov Smushkevich, who in 1939-1940 was the commander-in-chief of the Soviet Air Force, a hero of the Spanish Civil War (nicknamed General Douglas), Hero of the Soviet Union twice and the first Jew ever to be awarded this title.
It is likely that the Jewish cemetery was established as soon as the Jewish community had settled in Rokiskis in the 18th century. About 300 gravestones remain in the cemetery. There are some tabernacles, nicely decorated, in which the local Hasidic Jews used to bury members of their community. In September 2013 a new gate and fence were installed and a memorial stone was placed at the entrance to the cemetery. The monument carries historical facts about the Jewish community. On one of its sides together with the Menorah the sculptor Albertas Jasiunas has engraved a scripture in three languages Hebrew, Lithuanian and English: „Then shall the dust return to the earth, as it was; and the spirit shall returnun to the Lord who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7“.