Lithuania: The Pakruojis Jewish Cemetery as an Example Where Historic Boundaries Have been Diminished
by Samuel D. Gruber
In addition to the many several Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania that I recently visited where there has been clear progress with boundary recognition, fencing, and site restoration, there are many cemeteries in the country (possibly most) where encroachment over the past seventy years has greatly reduced the recognized size of the full cemetery. Some of this can be seen at Radviliskis, about which I have already written.
Often making this matter worse - despite probable good intentions - is the fact that many of these places have fenced and protected areas which give the appearance that the cemeteries are safe and at least nominally protected and maintained. It is hard to date these fences. Some are seem to have been erected during the period of Communist rule and many may have been installed following Lithuanian independence in 1990, when a concerted effort was made to better mark mass graves and other Holocaust-related sites (see Yosf Levinson, The Book of Sorrow (Vilnius, 1997).
An earlier cemetery was located on the town-side bank of the Kruoja River, but this was totally destroyed by the Germans. The present-day cemetery, about a 1 1/12 kms northwest of town, was probably founded in the mid to late 19th century. The cemetery includes a simple wooden fence that encompasses only part of the plot which has bee estimated to be about 100 x 40 meters in size.
In many such places, the present visible and fenced remains of their Jewish cemeteries can only be very limited approximations of the cemeteries' former extent. When the fences at Pakruojis and elsewhere were erected around existing visible gravestones, these fences then denied recognition as protected sacred ground or for cultural heritage designation to all the area with graves but no visible stones. This practice, which is widely followed in many countries, arises from the mistaken belief that the value of a Jewish cemetery is in its gravestones, not in the dead bu tried underground. Respect and appreciation of the gravestones is an important recognition of the historical and artistic value of Jewish material culture, but recognition of the sacred character of Jewish burials is a recognition of a fundamental Jewish religious belief.
There is also a killing site and mass grave outside Pakruojis in the Morkakalmis Forest where approximately 400 Jews were murdered by Germans and Lithuania accomplices in July 1941.
A new fence will soon be needed in any case, and this could be the opportunity to correct this historic error. Presently, there is no signage or historical information on the site telling the history of the cemetery or the community and its fate. It is timely, too, since work is to begin soon on the restoration of the former wooden synagogue. When this is complete (it will serve as a children's library) more visitors will come to Pakruojis, and the cemetery would be well and accurately protected, and presented. One does not have to invest the resources as at Seduva, but the destroyed Jewish community of Pakruojis and its murdered members deserve something better. In the case of Pakruojis, the reduced boundaries of the cemetery can be easily remedied, since the land around the cemetery has not been developed. I am confident this will be done - though local officials may need encouragement and advice along the way.
At Kalvaria and elsewhere, this will be more difficult, and recovery of the original cemetery grounds could be a locally contentious issue. As I will discuss in future posts, the situation is more difficult when more substantial development and destruction has taken place on cemetery ground. Such is the well documented case at two historic cemeteries in Vilnius, but can almost certainly be found elsewhere through Lithuania, as it can in most other former Communist countries, and some western counties, too.