Zagare Old Jewish Cemetery
Zagare (Zhager in Yiddish) is a town situated at the northern border of Lithuania with Latvia. Zagare’s Jewish community was one of the oldest in Lithuania. Until the end of the 19th century, there were two separate settlements: Old Zagare and New Zagare, there were two separate Jewish communities in the town’s two sections. Each community had its own rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers, and separate cemeteries. In 1897, the year of the official census in the Russian Empire, there lived 5443 Jewish residents out of 9129 total, in both parts of the town, 60% of the total population. The old Zagare Jewish community numbered 1629 people.
Of the 210 houses in Old Zagare, 158 were Jewish-owned. The majority of the Jews made their living as craftsmen (mainly tailors and shoemakers), from agriculture (raising vegetables and cherries), and as retail merchants, for by this time wholesale markets had moved to New Zagare. Nearly 500 Jewish craftsmen resided in the city. Among the few structures built from stone were the synagogue, Beit Midrash, and bathhouse. The buildings have survived to this day.
The decade of 1880-1890 was marked by a major emigration from Zagare to South Africa and America. In 1887, the society of Rodfei Zedek Anshei Zagare (Zagare émigrés) was established in Philadelphia. By 1895 there was already a good-sized community of Zagare-born immigrants in Johannesburg, South Africa, who supported the Jews of their native town.
By June 25th, Zagare had already fallen to the German Army. In early July, all of Zagare’s Jews were rounded up into one neighborhood, designated as the ghetto. The day after Yom Kippur, October 2, 1941, all the prisoners of the ghetto together with the Jews from other settlements – men, women, and children – were taken to the Naryshkin Park, where nearby pits had already been prepared in advance. Here around 3000 Jews were shot to death and buried. At the beginning of the 1990s, a memorial stone was erected at the entrance to the Naryshkin Park, with inscriptions in Lithuanian, Yiddish, and Hebrew.
Many famous people were born in Zagare. Among them: Rabbi Israel Salanter, the father of the Musar movement in Orthodox Judaism; Isaak Kikoin a leading Soviet physicist and academician; Paul Mandelstamm an outstanding Art Nouveau architect, who worked mainly in Riga; Kalman Ze’ev Wissotzky, founder of Wissotzky Tea; Phoebus Levene an American biochemist who studied the structure and function of nucleic acids and DNA and Chatzkel Lemchen, a famous Lithuanian linguist.
The Jewish cemetery of Old Zagare was first mentioned in the records of 1748. This cemetery is in relatively good condition. The oldest of the remaining gravestones is dated to 1894. The cemetery was still in use until the destruction of the Jewish community during the Holocaust. 40 local Jews were shot dead in the cemetery in 1941 and there is a memorial plaque in Yiddish and Lithuanian. Nothing was built on the cemetery grounds in the Soviet time. There is a metal fence around the cemetery. In 1993 the cemetery was registered into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. According to Lithuanian law, it is marked by a memorial stone with an inscription in Lithuanian, Yiddish, and Hebrew: “The old Jewish cemetery. May their memory be eternal”.