Svencionys Jewish Cemetery
Svencionys (Swentzian in Yiddish) is a city in eastern Lithuania, it is also the district capital for the Svencionys municipality. Historical records show that in 1765 there was already a Jewish community, comprising 462 Jews. The peak of the Jewish population was in 1880 when there were 4480 Jews, comprising 66% of the town’s population. On the eve of WWII, many Jewish refugees from Poland escaped to Lithuania, including to Svencionys. According to some documents there were over 6000 Jews in Svencionys in June 1941 .
The majority of the Jewish community made their living from shopkeeping, crafting, and agriculture. Many of them were involved in a variety of trades that catered to their needs and to the needs of the Christian population, whether in the town or the rural areas. They were the tailors and the blacksmiths, the shoemakers and the painters, the bakers and the glaziers, the porters and the wagon drivers, the millers and the forest workers.
The religious and spiritual life of Svencionys Jews concentrated around the shulhoyf, the courtyard of three synagogues in the very center of the city: the Old, the New, and the Tailors‘ Synagogue. The hasidic Jews had their own minyan in Svencionys. There were several yeshivas in the town, the most famous of them being founded by Rabbi Reines.
The Zionist movement in Svencionys was never particularly strong. One of the reasons for this stemmed from the Bund’s influence on the workers and the Jewish youth in the town. But the branch of religious Zionism, the “Mizrahi” movement, comes just from here.
On July 1, 1941, Svencionys was occupied by Nazi forces. Soon after that, the local Jews together with those brought from the surrounding areas were imprisoned into the ghetto. In September 1941, all the Jews were relocated to former Soviet military barracks near Svencioneliai. On 8 October 1941, all the Jews from the barracks were shot in a long pit that had been dug. The killings lasted several days. It is assumed that around 8000 Jews, men, women, and children were executed there.
Some famous Jewish figures come from Svencionys. Among them were: Isaac Jacob Reines, a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi and the founder of the Mizrachi Religious Zionist Movement, Arkadi Kremer, a Russian socialist leader known as the “Father of the Bund”, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and Yitzhak Arad, an Israeli historian, director of Yad Vashem from 1972 to 1993.
Svencionys Jewish cemetery, one of the oldest in Lithuania, dates to the 17th century. About 400 gravestones or their fragments remain in the cemetery. In 1941, the German occupation army used part of the tombstones in construction. Some of them were dismantled in 1993, and a monument of the former matzevot was erected in the cemetery. On May 20, 1942, 40 men of Svencionys were assassinated on the grounds of the cemetery. In 1994 the cemetery was registered into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. There is a memorial stone with an inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian: „The old Jewish cemetery. May their memory be eternal”.