Klaipeda Jewish Cemetery
The exact period of the cemetery’s establishment is unknown. Given the oldest preserved matzevot dates to the late 19th century, it can be inferred the cemetery was already in use by then.
It is believed Jews first arrived in Klaipėda (formerly known as Memel) in the 15th century, although the Jewish settlement here was strictly limited and the situation changed only after the French Revolution granted equal rights to Jews of France. This revolutionary innovation spread to the countries conquered by Napoleon and reached Memel. The favourable situation of Memel as a large port which doesn’t freeze over in winter and a favourable turn of events led to a marked increase in the number of Jewish residents: from 45 people in 1813 to 1,214 people by 1880. The Jewish population continued to grow after the city became part of Lithuania and was rechristened Klaipėda. However, the veteran community of Memel Jews was strongly influenced by German culture and local Jews treated Lithuanian Jews with scorn.
The takeover of Memel by Lithuania strengthened Zionist influence in the city: the majority of Memel’s Jews became Zionists.
Jews in the city founded food businesses, lumber, textile, ship repair and holiday business enterprises.
There were 4 synagogues in Klaipedia, however none have survived until modern times.
Until the middle of the 19th century Jewish children studied with “Melamed”, but from the 1860’s the Jews started to send their children to public schools. In 1879 the chief Rabbi Yitzhak Ruelf established a school for poor children. The school building still exists, with a plaque on it, informing that – David Wolfson, the second president of International Zionism movement – studied here.
Among other famous Jews who lived and worked in Klaipeda was the father of the Musar movement Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (Lipkin).
By March of 1939 when Klaipeda was annexed by Germany, the Jews had left the city and moved to towns in the western part of Lithuania. Their fate was the same as the fate of the Jews of those Lithuanian towns where they had found the shelter. Only a few managed to survive those terrible times.
The only Jewish cemetery in Klaipėda first appeared on the city map in 1840 as a rather small area surrounded by hedgerows. It was the first religious institution established for Klaipėda’s Jews, where in 1823 the first Jewish dead were buried. In the course of time this cemetery was enlarged three times, however in the post-war period it was completely demolished: the territory was surrounded by residential houses and became a Soviet radio jamming station with antenna towers and an administrative office in the place where the ritualistic building had stood. The headstones were destroyed or used as construction material for building bases for the antennae. Following Lithuanian independence in 1991, the jamming station was closed down and the cemetery territory, about 13,000 m2, was fenced. Surviving fragments of about 30 memorial slabs were mortared together to form the commemorative wall. The administrative building of the radio jamming operation became the headquarters of the Klaipėda Jewish Community and there is a synagogue operating there. The alley of cedars was planted to honour the residents of Klaipėda district who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.