(JTA) — A memorial to the Jews of a small Lithuanian town is being constructed due to an Arizona genealogist.
Joel Alpert saw a black-and-white film portraying life at the turn of the 20th century in Yurburg, which today is known as Jurbarkas, during a visit to the Holocaust History Center in Tucson. Alpert recognized it as his grandparents’ hometown.
At a family reunion in 2001, a distant cousin of Alpert suggested a return trip to Yurburg “to show them that we survived,” the Arizona Jewish Post reported.
Records show more than 2,000 Jewish surnames listed in the town dating back to 1815. The Jewish population peaked at 7,000 at the end of the 19th century, with about 70 percent of the businesses owned by local Jews. By the late 1930s, only 2,000 Jews remained in Yurburg; they were among the first victims of the Nazis. There are no Jews left there, the newspaper reported, citing the South African Jewish Report.
A dozen family members made the trip and found a local descendant named Zalman Kaplan, who lives in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. He took the cousins to the Yurburg cemetery, which was in disrepair.
Through the family’s efforts, several organizations have worked to preserve the cemetery, according to the Post.
The U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad recognized the Jewish cemetery of Yurburg in 2006 as a site worthy of preservation. Descendants of Yurburg Jews and current Jurbarkas residents united to create Friends of the Yurburg Cemetery to raise funds for a new gated entrance that was erected in 2006. The Dartmouth College Hillel chose the Yurburg Cemetery for its ongoing Project Preservation, taking 21 Americans to Yurburg in 2007 to erect a fence and restore and catalogue gravestones, creating a cemetery map.
In 2016, the town’s Christian mayor, Skirmantas Mockevicius, contacted the Israeli ambassador to the Republic of Lithuania, Amir Maimon, to recommend a memorial to the Jewish community. Sculptor David Zundelovitch, a renowned Lithuanian immigrant to Israel, was commissioned to create the memorial on the site where the Yurburg Synagogue was once located.
The Jurbarkas municipality has renamed the junction of two streets in the town center as Synagogue Square, site of the future memorial.
Alpert told the Arizona Jewish Post that a third of the $200,000 funding for the memorial was raised last year. The memorial, which will contain the 2,000 surnames of all Jewish families ever registered in Jurbarkas written in Yiddish and English, is scheduled to be completed in October.