Regional Lithuanian Weekly Newspaper “Sviesa (Light).” August 18, 2007 Saturday #62 Page 5


Rita Vaiva is Preserving the Past of the Jurbarkas Jews


On the east side of Jurbarkas, on the slope of the hill on the Neman (Neiman) River, there is the old Jewish cemetery on occasion attracting a curious passerby.  However, none of the Jurbarkas residents would be able to understand what the Hebrew letters carved on the monuments would mean. That is why it is no wonder that this remote page in Jurbarkas history and this tranquil corner has never attracted more than a fleeting glance.


This year under the leadership of a rabbi, a group of Dartmouth college students from the United States have arrived to do some work here.  The students have constructed a metal fence and researched the cemetery, photographing the tombstones.  The material will be systematically organized and will be made available to all [on the Internet]. Part of the data gathered during this unusual expedition has been announced on the Internet already. There is one Jurbarkas woman who has been working in this cemetery for a few years on her own initiative.  This person is Rita Vaiva. In spite of the fact, that some of the Jurbarkas residents, having seen her picture, will state that this is not her real name, she wants to be introduced to the community as Rita Vaiva.


Since 2003, Rita Vaiva comes to the old Jewish Cemetery almost every day and works meticulously restoring the inscriptions on the monuments.  We can immediately reassure the more distrustful reader that Rita Vaiva, without any doubt, comes from a Lithuanian family and does not have any Jewish roots. 


“As I was growing up I liked to take a stroll on the shores of the Neiman River.  I would stop by the mysterious Jewish cemetery, - remembers Rita Vaiva.  The illegible inscriptions intrigued me. During my visits I unconsciously began to think that the centuries-old inscriptions carved in stone might remain unread forever because there are no more Jewish people in Jurbarkas, because they faced a tragic destiny, and there is no one who would take interest in that part of the cultural heritage of our town.  The memory of the Jurbarkas Jews who were shot, killed and buried in the mass burial place together with other members of the community is preserved, but the same cannot be said about the care and respect of the resting place of the Jews who lived in Jurbarkas in earlier times.  This cultural heritage and the memories of these people were all but lost with the passage of time due to lack of knowledge of the Hebrew language.”


We may ask why it was lost with “passage of time.” Rita Vaiva knows the answer. According to tradition, Jews consider that from the beginning of creation this is the year 5766. When you come to a place like that you get into a different time frame where the past is marked by a monument, while the town of Jurbarkas and the world outside the cemetery fence become a different reality, the one you can leave behind just by opening the cemetery gate.


According to Rita Vaiva, her childhood dream of being able to read the inscription on the monuments began to come true when she lived in Vilnius and came across an advertisement which announced that the Jewish organization “Sochnut” (The Jewish Agency) was organizing Hebrew language courses for Jews who were departing to Israel. The Lithuanian woman who started to attend the courses did not encounter any suspicion.  She also did not have to fill out any personal forms for departure to Israel. As her first teacher Chaia Aronovitch was disclosing the riches of the Hebrew language to her students, following an open and sincere conversation with the Lithuanian woman, she began to pay more attention to her.  



Rita Vaiva has almost completed the work on this monument

(Color version of black and white on the article)


According to Rita Vaiva the Hebrew language is not only ancient but also complex.  The letters are unusual, written from right-to-left; however one year of study led to some knowledge of the language.  This knowledge was still not sufficient. “I felt that my childhood dream was slowly coming true and I attended evening courses for another two years until I realized that the Hebrew language is no longer foreign to me.”


According to Rita when she returned to the old Jewish cemetery it was as if the monuments began to talk to her. “They said ‘Hello’ to me and began to tell me their stories” – this is how Rita Vaiva describes her visit to the cemetery. “This could have been my fate or just a fluke, however everything has a reason, and it was if someone took me by the hand and led me to that day.  The inscriptions had a spirit of another culture and told stories of not only one person but whole families and their relatives, and all this was expressed in just a few sentences, carved in moss-covered monuments, opening up in front of me.”


As if on its own, a thought was born to try and preserve all of that.


“People climb mountains, sail high seas and oceans, fly in the skies and jump in parachutes trying to learn about the world and no one is surprised, - says Rita Vaiva. I decided to devote part of my life and my leisure to the implementation of my dream – to preserve a small part of Jurbarkas past and not allow that past to melt away with the passage of time. In 2003, exclusively on my own initiative, I began the work and found profound meaning in it.”



Rita Vaiva restored inscriptions on the monuments stands out among the yet untouched stones of the cemetery

(Color version of black and white on the article)


The same way as one person is not like the other, one stone is different from the other. Monuments made in polished stone were for the richer people but many stone cutters would paint the inscriptions in different colors on treated stone – that was the Jewish tradition, and this trait can still be seen in Jurbarkas today.  The part of the cemetery that is devoid of shrubs and trees contains 500 monuments.  Quite a few of the monuments have fallen on the ground.  Others were buried under decades-old overgrowth.  Rita Vaiva said that the oldest and most valuable part of the cemetery is the part that is closest to the Neman River.  The further you go towards the southern part of the cemetery, the older are the engraved dates on the monuments, taking you back to the beginning of the 19th century and earlier times.  This part of the cemetery is covered with trees and shrubs.  It awaits its turn when it too will be joined to the part of the cemetery that is now visible and it too will be a witness to the Jurbarkas past.


Rita repainting the tombstone inscriptions

(Picture not used in the article)


It is not that easy to restore the old inscriptions.  Rita Vaiva has accumulated some knowledge and experience.   She carefully researched the inscriptions on the monuments.  She polished and washed the monuments with a small brush and scrubbed the overgrown stones with a knife. She consulted with restoration specialists and discovered that there was not much experience in working with painted stone. Rita Vaiva walks through uncharted territory, as she is hesitant to use aggressive chemical components without full knowledge of its success.  Only in the last couple of years she could speed up her work when construction workers suggested trying some known materials and test simple technologies.  However, until one monument is prepared for a renewal of its inscription she has to spend a month of her leisure time.  The inscriptions are renewed in acrylic paint, and to brighten up a line takes approximately one hour.   When the paint dries up she fixes it with an environmentally resistant lacquer.  That is how slowly the forgotten history of Jurbarkas is coming back, and this history stands out among yet untouched gray monuments that have until now not spoken.


Rita Vaiva states that the distinctive quality of a Jewish monument is in that it does not state the date of birth, only the date of death although there are a few exceptions, and one may come across these exceptions by looking at monuments dating back to later periods between the two wars. The text of the inscriptions is very tender and sensitive, directly or indirectly showing who built the monument and sometimes even who manufactured the stone. Monuments for children and teenagers were usually smaller and some did not carry an inscription.  Perhaps there was an inscription in paint at some point, but it has disappeared with elapsing times.


Joel Alpert, who arrived together with the students from the United States, stated that “this cemetery is one of the more unique undestroyed cemeteries, and it deserves exclusive attention”.  Rita Vaiva’s research and restoration work is very valuable. Joel Alpert compiled a book [translated from Hebrew and published] presenting the past of Jurbarkas Jews, and gathering a lot of historical evidence which tells about these residents of Jurbarkas.



Rita repainting the tombstone inscriptions

(Picture not used in the article)



“I wanted to meet Joel Alpert a long time ago, and it finally happened, - says Rita Vaiva - he knows so much about Jurbarkas past, and people who were close to him are buried in this cemetery. He provided me with answers I was seeking.  After the expedition of the Americans from Dartmouth College, I do not feel alone any longer. I feel part of a larger and stronger team, and my work is now recognized and valued. “


We hope that the personal initiative of a native Jurbarkas resident Rita Vaiva, whose purpose is to save the cultural heritage of the town, will gain more attention.


Vincas Krisciunas