Siauliai Jewish Cemetery
Siauliai (Shavl in Yiddish) is the largest city in north-western Lithuania. The first Jewish community was established in Siauliai in 1701 when the local authorities granted them permission to build a synagogue and purchase a piece of land for a cemetery. Until the middle of the 19th century, most of the Jews had sparse incomes made from petty trade, peddling, or carting. But after Tsar Alexander II took the throne in 1855, their economic situation improved: Siauliai became an important industrial centre, in which Jews built numerous plants processing flax, iron casting, beer, chocolate and other things. The most famous among them was Haim Frenkel (1857-1920), whose small hide-dressing plant within a few years became one of the largest in Russia. Great mercantile houses were established to deal in the export of the goods produced. Siauliai turned into a flourishing city, with 6900 Jewish residents comprising 43% of the total population by the end of the 19th century.
With the creation of the Independent Lithuanian State, Siauliai was the second-largest city in the state. Its Jewish community was the second largest in Lithuania. The city had elected a Jewish deputy mayor and the Jewish community supported numerous cultural and social institutions and organizations. Among these were Yavneh, a religious secondary school; a Hebrew secondary school as well as several Yiddish schools. There were 15 synagogues, a yeshiva, and two libraries. Most of the Jews of Siauliai belonged to the Zionist camp, but there were branches of Agudat Yisrael, Folkspartei, and a number of Jews also identified as communists. Among the natives of Siauliai was Viktor Brenner (1871-1024), a sculptor and engraver famous for being the designer of the United States Lincoln Center. Another famous person born in Siauliai was Dov Shilanski (1924-2010), an Israeli politician and Speaker of the Knesset.
During the first weeks of the Nazi occupation, about 10,000 of Siauliai’s Jews were shot in the nearby forests. The rest of the Jews were concentrated in two local ghettos. After the liquidation of the ghettos in July 1944, several thousand Jews were deported to the Stutthof concentration camp. No more than 500 Jews from pre-war Siauliai survived the war.
Founded around 1749, the cemetery was surrounded by a two-metre stone wall with gates that stood out for their expressive architecture. The caretaker’s house and the undertaker’s building used to stand alongside. Despite surviving the Nazi occupation, the Jewish Cemetery was razed by bulldozers in the Soviet era. The gravestones were used as building materials in the city centre and the surrounding area. A handful of local Jews who survived the war were forced to move the remains of their loved ones to the city’s public cemetery, in which there are three sections for Jews. The area of the former cemetery is today a park and only a few gravestones can be found at the southern end of the site. The memorial stone in Yiddish and Lithuanian informs visitors about the history of the park.