Virbalis Jewish Cemetery
Virbalis (Virbaln in Yiddish) is a small town in south-western Lithuania. Jews settled in Virbalis in the middle of the 17th century. Due to the town’s location (close to the border with Germany), the economic situation of Virbalis’ Jews was always quite stable. They made a living in commerce and agriculture, however Jews also earned money by providing different border services, including smuggling immigrants over the border to Germany. However, due to widespread anti-Semitism in the area, many Jews emigrated abroad, mainly to the USA, South Africa, England and Ireland. Thus, the peak of the Jewish population in Virbalis occurred in 1885, when 1,253 Jews lived in the town, making up 50% of the town’s population. After this time the number of Jewish residents only decreased. Before the Holocaust, around 600 Jews lived in Virbalis.
Jewish children used to receive traditional Jewish education in local chadarim, and from 1887, at the improved cheder, where Hebrew, Russian, and Mathematics were also taught. After 1918, elementary education for children was accessible through the Hebrew Kindergarten and the Hebrew school of the “Tarbut” network. There was also a governmental school where Yiddish was taught with no tuition fees required. In Virbalis there were two large Synagogues and five “Kloisim”. Virbalis also had various welfare associations such as a Women’s Fellowship and “Aid Services for Immigrants”. At the centre of economic life, there was the Jewish Folksbank and a branch of “The United Company for Financial Credit for Jewish Agrarians”.
Virbalis was known for its Zionist ambience. Many local Jews spoke Hebrew acquired at the “Improved Cheder” before the Hebrew High School was established. For many years Hebrew signs were displayed on Jewish stores, despite strict rules. The “HaKhalutz” movement can be traced back in Virbalis as early as 1919. Others Zionistic organisations such as “haShomer–haTsair”, “Beitar” and “Netsakh” all had their branches in the town.
On June 22nd 1941, the German Army entered Virbalis encountering no resistance. During the next three months, the entire Jewish community of Virbalis was murdered in the anti-tank trenches in the meadows close to the town. Only three women hidden by Lithuanian families managed to survive. In the 1960’s, a monument was built on the mass graves.
Judging by the inscription on an ancient gravestone found in the cemetery, Jews began to bury their deceased at the current Virbalis Jewish Cemetery in the first part of the 18th century. It is also believed that this cemetery is located on the site of the previous Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery was in use until the outbreak of World War II in Lithuania. After the Holocaust, the cemetery was neglected and was gradually destroyed. In 2012, during the inspection at this cemetery, it was found that only a small part of the cemetery was still fenced, and that only one pillar of the former red-brick cemetery fence had survived. Many tombstones were found outside the fence. Among them, there were three tombstones in the shapes of volumetric houses, with Hebrew inscriptions on them. In 1993, the cemetery was registered into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. There is a memorial stone, written in Yiddish and Lithuanian: “The old Jewish cemetery. Sacred is the memory of the deceased”.