Joniskelis Jewish Cemetery
Joniskis (Yanishok in Yiddish) is a city in northern Lithuania, 12 miles from the border with Latvia. Jews first settled in Joniskis at the end of the 18th century. In 1847, there were over 1000 Jewish residents in Joniskis. The peak of the Jewish population in Joniskis was in 1897, when around 2272 Jews comprised 48% of the whole population. Before WWII there were around 600 Jewish residents in the town.
Jews made their livelihood by trading crops, flax, horses, cattle, eggs, ducks, and their economic situation was good. In the second half of the 19th century, Joniskis became famous for its horse bazaars, which attracted merchants from as far afield as Russia. During the period of the Independent Lithuanian State, the Jews of Joniskis were engaged in commerce, labor, and light industry. Joniskis had merchants who exported flax, crops, cattle, and other things. Others made their living, among other professions, as buyers, wagoners, and packers in the villages in the surrounding areas. According to the 1931 Lithuanian government census, there were 82 shops in Joniskis, 68 of which (83%) owned by Jews.
In 1823 the Jewish community of Joniskis built a magnificent synagogue, the “White Shul“ which was used mostly in summer. In 1865, another synagogue, the “Red Shul“ used mostly in winter, was built alongside the first synagogue. This complex of the Synagogues is still used today for cultural purposes.
In 1920, the community committee established a Hebrew school, a kindergarten, and a library and there was also a lecture club and a drama club. Many of Joniskis’ Jews belonged to the Zionist camp. All of the Zionist parties were represented in the city, which also had a branch of “WIZO”. The Zionist Youth Organizations that were active in the city were: “HaShomer HaTzair”, “Dror”, “Beytar” and “Bnei-Akiva”. Sports activities were held by the “Maccabi” and “HaPoel” branches.
The German army entered Joniskis on June 24th 1941, two days after war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union. At the end of August 1941, around 500 Jews, men, women, and children were shot dead in the Vilkiausis forest some 2 miles outside Joniskis. 150 more Jews were transferred to Zagare and shot there, together with the local Jews.
Among the famous Jewish people born in Joniskis were Charles Segal, Jazz pianist and composer, and Laurence Harvey, a British actor and film director.
It is likely that the Jewish cemetery was established not long after the Jewish community had settled in Joniskis in the 18th century. About 400 gravestones or their fragments have remained in the cemetery, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. The cemetery was in use until the destruction of the Jewish community during the Holocaust. There are some tabernacles which were usually used for the local Hassidic Jews. There is a farm at the entrance to the cemetery. In 1993 the cemetery was registered into the Cultural Property Register of the Republic of Lithuania. There is a memorial stone with an inscription in Lithuanian, Hebrew, and English: “Ancient Jewish cemetery”.