Zarasai Old Jewish Cemetery
Zarasai (Ezhereni in Yiddish) is a city in north-eastern Lithuania, surrounded by many lakes and rivers. Jewish settlement in Zarasai started at the beginning of the 19th century. About one-third of Zarasai Jews worked the land, the rest of them were tradesmen and craftsmen, dealt commercially with the Poles of the surrounding estates and also with Vilnius, Riga and Dvinsk. There were also many artisans, and some Zarasai Jews made their living from fishing in the nearby lakes. By 1897 the Jews were the majority in the town, numbering 3,348 people or 53% of the total population.
Zarasai had excellent Jewish institutions and societies. There was a Talmud Torah, a Hebrew elementary school, a library, a hospital and six prayer houses. Two synagogues survive to this day: one with a mural edifice was built in 1860 and known to locals as the great Beit Midrash and a wooden prayer house built later close to the mural synagogue, called the small Beit Midrash. Both buildings are being used as apartment housing today.
After the establishment of the independence of Lithuania in 1918, almost all Zionist parties and youth organizations were represented in Zarasai. Maccabi controlled local sports. However, the economic situation after 1918 deteriorated, because а majority of the town’s surrounding area was lost to Poland in the Polish-Lithuanian war, and the aftermath of that hurt the local economy. Two-thirds of Jews migrated to the bigger industrial cities and the Jewish Community significantly decreased in number.
When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941 Zarasai Jews were at first not concerned, thinking that they were far removed from the front. However, they did not escape the common destiny of all Lithuanian Jewry. The massacre of the Jewish people took place in late August 1941. After the war, the survivors of Zarasai and the surrounding towns erected a monument on the mass graves on which was written in Yiddish and Lithuanian: “At this place Hitler’s henchmen and their local collaborators brutally murdered 8000 Jews: children, women and men. May their memory remain sacred”.
Zarasai was the birthplace of the world-famous painter Yehuda Pen, who was born in 1854 and later established an art school in Vitebsk. This art school was the first artistic home for many famous artists at the beginning of their paths, one of them being a world-famous modern painter and graphic artist Marc Chagall.
The old cemetery was established in 1870 and was in use until the 1930’s. There are about 1000 tombstones and their fragments, including a dozen of ohels (tabernacles). They are in good condition with little vandalism, some of them are decorated with traditional Judaism symbols: candles, grapes, images of lions, doves, hands outstretched for a blessing. However there are also the gravestones that are completely overgrown in the woods. The cemetery was abandoned after World War II and it was only in 1993, that it was registered into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. Inside the cemetery, a monument was erected with the following inscription in Hebrew and Lithuanian – “The Old Jewish Cemetery. May their memory remain sacred”.