- Created on Tuesday, 12 June 2012 14:41
A meeting between the community of the Dauniškis Gymnasium in Utena (known in Yiddish as Utyán) and one of the directors of the Matzeva (Maceva) organization stimulated the students and their teachers to volunteer work in their town. Established in 2011, Matzeva’s main goal is to preserve the remnants of the Litvak presence in Lithuania, these old Jewish cemeteries, for future generations. Even before Matzeva was established, initiator and current director Aleksandr Avramenko sought to enlist volunteers in different locations in Lithuania to photograph and maintain the Litvak heritage. Then and now the organization is calling on the public for help in recording and preserving the matzevas (ancient Hebrew for “gravestones,” modern Hebrew matsevót, Yiddish matséyves) in old Jewish cemeteries. Volunteers who responded to the call sacrificed their time and their own money and came with their small children during non-working hours. Some even sacrificed part of their annual vacations. The enthusiasts’ work of putting in order the cemeteries and photographing them is documented on the Matzeva website. The scope of activity is expanding and so Sergejus Kanovičius, one of Matzeva’s founders and one of its directors, approached the Dauniškis Gymnasium community in Utena this year, asking them to help take care of old Jewish cemeteries in the local area. Gymnasium students accompanied by vice principal Asta Skeirienė and teachers spent an entire week putting the Jewish cemetery in Šilinė Forest in order, attempting to erase the ravages of time from the headstones.
Matzeva deputy director Rūta Puišytė came from Vilnius to help the volunteers and Utena resident Gintautas Klinavičius, who joined in the project’s work earlier, helped organize the tasks and put the graves in order. Rūta and Gintautas said they were impressed by the enthusiasm the students showed and their desire to experience personally what being a volunteer means and how helping others feels.
A Little History
The Jews of Utena had two cemeteries, and it is thought that the old cemetery, located at what is now the end of Stoties street next to the Vilnius-Utena highway, was established by the first Jews to live here in the 16th century. When the Utena City United Manufacturing Base facilities were built here, the cemetery was completely destroyed and the gravestones were used in the construction of these buildings. Only one mound remains of the former cemetery, bearing a memorial plaque. The other Jewish cemetery in Utena area is in the Šilinė Forest, located on a small hill rather far from town, and occupying about 0.45 hectares. It was abandoned to the whims of fate during Soviet times and was often desecrated by gold-hunters. In 1994 the cemetery was renovated and a commemorative plaque with inscriptions in Yiddish and Lithuanian was erected.
Jews constituted the absolute majority of merchants as well as craftsmen in Utena. According to the Russian Empire’s census of 1897, 2,405 Jews lived in Utena then, and comprised 74% of the population of the town. This was also a time of rapid development for Utena. In 1899 the narrow-gauge railroad line from Panevėžys to Švenčionys was set up, cutting right across Utena’s main boulevard, later named J. Basanavičius street. Up until World War I, Utena was still just the seat of a rural district, and was only incorporated as a municipality relatively recently, in 1924. During the first modern period of Lithuanian independence, the Jewish community of Utena might not have been as well known as the Jewish communities in Užpaliai, Vyžuonos, Alanta and Anykščiai, but Jews of Utena were active participants in the economic and social life of Utena, with an emphasis on taking part in city government.
Once upon a time a large Jewish community prospered in Lithuania, one whose cultural traditions were cut short by the Holocaust. According to various figures, there were from 200 to 240 Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania before World War II. Most of them are abandoned and forgotten, and there are now buildings on many sites. Time ruthlessly erodes the last ancient gravestones and they are frequently the target of attacks by vandals. Although the majority are protected by the state, due to lack of funds and initiative, many Jewish graveyards are rather abandoned and are disappearing. As they disappear, so too does the memory of the people who once lived in our city and in our country.
Plans by Enthusiasts
The goal of the founders of Matzeva is to collect and publish on the internet all surviving material about old Jewish gravesites from before World War II. The plan is to photograph all surviving gravestones at all Lithuanian Jewish cemeteries and to translate still legible inscriptions, then to place everything on the website www.litvak-cemetery.info so that everyone who is interested can access the catalog of graves and lists of people buried.
Where possible, they plan to renovate and fix up gravesites with help from and in cooperation with local municipalities, to place memorial plaques where the cemeteries have disappeared, and to teach local communities about their Jewish neighbors who once lived there and to invite them to contribute in maintaining the graveyards.
The living are worthy of the respect they show to the living as well as the dead. Whether Matzeva’s goals are achieved or not will depend on more than just the authors of the idea, it will depend on every one of us. Private individuals, businesspeople and governmental and non-governmental organizations are invited to volunteer.
If you know someone is looking for the grave of their ancestors or family members, please tell them about the www.litvak-cemetery.info website and the links there to find cemeteries according to district.