Kaunas, Aleksotas Jewish Cemetery
Kaunas (Kovne in Yiddish) is the second largest city in Lithuania, located about 60 miles west of Vilnius, the capital. Jews started to settle in the outskirts of Kaunas in the 15th century. They were not allowed to live in the city, so the majority of them settled in Aleksotas across the river Nemunas and in Vilijampole (Slobodka) on the right bank of the Neris river. Jews only received formal permission to settle in Kaunas itself, in the 18th century. At that time the entire Jewish population of Kaunas was around 1000 Jews. In 1894 it had grown to 35,000 that comprised 54% of the whole population. The peak of the Jewish community of Kaunas, 40,000 Jewish residents, was before WWI. After WWII it had dropped to 4000 people and there are some 400 Jews living in Kaunas today.
During the period of the independent Republic of Lithuania, when Kaunas was the temporary capital, Jews made up much of the city’s commercial, artisan, and professional sectors. The law on Jewish autonomy in Lithuania was adopted. There were 9 Jewish members of the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament and there were Jewish members of the Lithuanian government. Kaunas was a center of Jewish learning, and the yeshiva in Slobodka was one of Europe’s most prestigious institutes of higher Jewish learning. Kaunas had a rich and varied Jewish culture. There were almost 100 Jewish organizations, 40 synagogues, many Jewish schools, 4 Hebrew high schools, a Jewish hospital, and scores of Jewish-owned businesses. It was also an important Zionist center.
The Germans entered Kaunas on June 25th 1941. The persecutions of the Jews started even prior to the arrival of the German administration. In August 1941, a Jewish ghetto was established in the Slobodka suburb. It contained over 30000 Jews. During 1941-1944 numerous Aktions took place in the former Tzarist Russian forts. In the biggest of them, the Ninth Fort, 50000 people were murdered, of which 30000 of them were Jews from Lithuania, Germany, France, and other countries.
Among the notable Jewish residents of Kaunas were: the Chief Rabbi of Kaunas, one of the greatest arbitrators of his generation, last Chief Rabbi of Lithuania; Aharon Barak, professor of law, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel; Avraham Mapu, the first Hebrew novelist, whose books greatly influenced the rise of the Zionist movement; Lea Goldberg, a prolific Hebrew-language poet, whose writings are considered classics of the Israeli literature; Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher and Hermann Minkowski, a mathematician and one of Einstein’s teachers.
Alexotas cemetery dates back to the 19th century. This very large, still-active cemetery is very well maintained and contains several thousand gravestones. Some stones have been moved from other cemeteries. Between WWII and 1991, locals carried off hundreds of stones for construction and some brick tombs were dismantled. The cemetery is adjacent to the former Soviet and now Lithuanian army barracks, across a single railroad track, and physically separated by a fence. After Lithuanian independence (1991) a symbolic tabernacle in memory of the Chief Rabbi of Kaunas, Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, and his son was built in the cemetery. Also buried here in 1943 was another chief rabbi of Kaunas, Dov-Ber Shapira