Tucson genealogist’s links to Yurburg, Lithuania, help spur memorial project

Tucsonan Joel Alpert, in white shirt, in the Israeli studio of sculptor, left, David Zundelovitch, with a model of the Yurburg memorial and, from far left, Alpert’s cousins Itzhak Zarnitsky and Benny Naividel, and architect Anna Zundelovitch.

Those entering Tucson’s Holocaust History Center or the Tucson Jewish Community Center will notice a black and white film portraying life in turn of the 20th century Eastern Europe. In fact, it depicts life in the small western Lithuanian town today known as Jurbarkas. The majority of the population before World War II was Jewish; the Jews called the town Yurburg. Now the town is preparing a new and unusual Holocaust memorial.

Over the course of three centuries, Jewish culture thrived in this Lithuanian town, according to the South African Jewish Report. 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 the town. They were among the first victims of the Nazis. Today there is not one Jew remaining in the town.

Tucson genealogist Joel Alpert, through his research, recognized Yurburg as his grandparents’ home. Discussing this information at a family reunion in 2001, one of Alpert’s distant cousins suggested a return trip to Yurburg, “to show them that we survived,” says Alpert.

On that journey with a dozen family members, Alpert was tracked down by a local descendent, Zalman Kaplan, who’d heard “through the Litvak grapevine” about their interest in the family’s heritage. Kaplan was a 16-year-old boy when the Nazis marched into town. He scurried out ahead of the captors, escaped, survived and now lives in the capital, Vilnius, about 110 miles west of the village. Kaplan took the group to the Yurburg cemetery and encouraged them to build a new gate.

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 local Jurbarkas residents united to create Friends of the Yurburg Cemetery to raise funds for a new, gated entrance that was erected in 2006. Dartmouth College Hillel chose 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. Local high school students assisted with that work.                       

It was the Lithuanian town’s Christian mayor, Skirmantas Mockevicius, who took things a step further, seeking to commemorate the town’s former vibrant Jewish community. “This is most unusual and it is the first such memorial that was instigated by the local Lithuanian community,” says Alpert.

In 2016, 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. His daughter Anna is the project architect. “The memorial will pay tribute to the Jewish families of the community in a non-traditional Holocaust memorial,” says Alpert.

“This memorial is not about the Holocaust and its victims,” says Anna. “The Second World War was the end of the Jewish community in this town, but we think that the legacy of more than 300 years of Jewish culture is at least as meaningful as its end.” In fact, the Jurbarkas municipality, now boasting a population of 10,483, even renamed the junction of Kauno and Kranto streets in the town center as Synagogue Square, site of the future memorial.

Alpert visited the sculptor Zundelovitch in his studio in Israel in May. Friends of the Yurburg Cemetery joined in the memorial fundraising effort, along with the Outset Contemporary Art Fund in Israel. Alpert notes that a third of the total $200,000 funding for the memorial was raised last year.

Granite blocks are cut and basalt pillars from the Ukraine have been delivered to the site, according to the mayor. The timeline for the memorial’s completion is October 2018. “Our concept consists of many symbolic solutions,” says Anna. The designers intend to include the 2,000 surnames of all Jewish families ever registered in Jurbarkas. “These names will be written in Yiddish and in English so descendants of this community can easily locate their own surname,” she explains. She believes this will offer “the best description of a community as a whole.

“Another symbol is the main axis that defines the composition — a thin line of black polished granite that crosses the whole square and points toward Jerusalem,” she says. Jerusalem is holy to Catholics as well as Jews, and most Lithuanians today are Catholic.

Alpert has unraveled some striking coincidences from the 1923 film of Yurburg now shown at the Tucson J and the Holocaust History Center. He will present these details in an April lecture at the Holocaust History Center, sharing a tale of how this near-destroyed film was rediscovered and the local ties it has revealed.

The Friends of the Yurburg Jewish Cemetery nonprofit also supports the Yurburg Synagogue Square Memorial. U.S. taxpayers may send tax-deductible donations, noting “Donation for the Yurburg Memorial,” to: Friends of the Yurburg Jewish Cemetery, c/o Joel Alpert, 7613 E. Via Los Arbustos, Tucson, Arizona, 85750.

For more details on the Yurburg Synagogue Square Memorial project, go to newartistscollegium.com/synagogue-square-memorial.