Vilkaviskis Cemetery Project 2007
By Ralph Salinger
Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin
Emeq Beth She'an, Israel
I had known for some time that several branches of my family had lived in Vilkaviskis, Lithuania, and in the surrounding towns for almost three centuries before the Holocaust. Last year I decided that it was time I saw these places for myself. To my joy, my eldest daughter, Rama, decided to accompany me. We went in August, 2006.
Vilkaviskis had been of interest to me since, some time earlier, I had obtained a copy of a beautifully hand-drawn map of the Jewish part of town. The artist, I learned later, was a Dvora Dolev who had grown up in Vilkaviskis and had drawn the map from memory some time after she had left the town in 1937. Its innocent charm captures the heart of all its viewers, recreating a world never to be seen again. Not only does it include a list of the town's landmarks but it also shows the location of the homes and the surnames of what must have been every Jewish family in town.
My mistake was to think that present-day Vilkaviskis bore some resemblance to Dvora's map. But almost the entire old town had been destroyed in the heavy fighting that had taken place there, and many of the streets were no longer to be found. I should have expected that, but I was disappointed, so much so that I felt the journey had been in vain. We went on to Berlin, where I found so much of my family's history so well documented that I made another mistake: I thought that there was little more to do in searching for my family's history.
Upon my return to Israel, I was haunted by the thought that nothing remained of Jewish life in Vilkaviskis, that, in fact, only the overgrown cemetery and Mr. Josef Rosen's excellent article in Jewish.Gen
remained as testimonials to what had been once been a significant Jewish presence there. That presence danced before my eyes whenever I looked at Dvora Dolev's map. Something, I thought, should be done. I decided to return to Vilkaviskis, this time to the town's past, to explore a world that has disappeared forever.
My first step was to see what information could be obtained from the Vilkaviskis Jewish Cemetery. Were there enough gravestones to justify another trip? Here I have to thank both Marcel Glaskie and Ron Katheryn, who contributed their knowledge. And I must acknowledge, as well, the permission to explore the question I received both from the leader of the Jewish community in Vilnius, Mr. Simon Gurevichius, and the Mayor of Vilkaviskis, Mr. Algirdas Bagusmskas, for the land once comprising Vilkaviskis' Jewish Cemetery is now the municipality's property. The cemetery of interest, known to the Jews as the "new" cemetery, was in use from 1875 to 1942; there is an incorrect sign designating it as the "old" cemetery, even though an older cemetery is nearby, of which nothing remains but a few weatherworn stones sticking out of the ground. Sometimes Gentile friends asked us where Jews are buried now. No Jews are left in towns like Vilkaviskis.
I floated the idea of another trip via the Litvak SIG noticeboard of JewishGen. Among the first replies was one from Carol Clapsaddle in Jerusalem, supportive and encouraging, and leading, eventually, to my acquaintance with Dr. Wayne Frankel of Bar Harbor, Maine. Wayne's family roots in Vilkaviskis were considerably more extensive than mine. With the help of members of his family, residing both in Israel and the U.S., Wayne collected some information about and photographs of the town, and made his appetite for more very clear. He also had a copy of Dvora's map, and as I had done for my Salingers, he had noted the locations of his Frankels' homes and places of business. He was eager to learn what, if anything, remained and what might be gleaned from the cemetery's extant gravestones. Eventually, to my delight, Wayne decided to join the expedition and became my partner.