Biržai Holocaust Memorial

See the new Holocaust memorial bridge that's been unveiled in Lithuania

Earlier this month a new Holocaust memorial was officially opened at Pakamponys Forest in Lithuania to mark the mass murder of Jews that took place there during World War II. Situated in the city of Biržai, the memorial forms a bridge across water in Astravas grove – the exact site of the death pits in which hundreds of Jewish men – who were forced to dig them – were buried, along with hundreds more women and children. In total, 2,400 Jews were murdered that day, shot to death by a handful of Nazi soldiers and local Lithuanian officers from 11am until 7pm. The massacre wiped out more than 90 percent of Biržai's Jewish population and then the gunmen torched the place, very nearly destroying Biržai in its entirety.

Around 60 descendants of those murdered travelled from South Africa, Israel, America, Canada and the UK to be at the unveiling of the memorial on Sunday 16 June. Proceedings began in Remembrance Garden in central Biržai, where a tree was planted by the descendants of local Lithuanian families who tried to help the Jews in 1941. Everyone then embarked on a two-mile walk that traced the last footsteps of the Biržai Jews from the ghetto to the site of the graves. Once there, a local school choir sang in Yiddish and Hebrew to honour the lives lost, there were speeches from Biržai’s Mayor Vitas Jareckas and others, and then the descendants carried out the unveiling.

The memorial bridge was designed by South African architect Dr Joseph Rabie, whose great grandparents were from Biržai. It's made from sheets of metal that have etched into them 522 names of the known victims, each accompanied by a Star of David – little ones for children and larger ones for adults. As more names come to light, they too will be added to the bridge.

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This project wouldn't have been possible without the help of initiators Abel and Glenda Levitt, a South African couple now based in Israel, and businessman, philanthropist and Biržai descendant Ben Rabinowitz. Plus two current Biržai locals, history teacher Vidmantas Jukonis and his son Merunas, who campaigned to clear (and continue to maintain) the old Jewish cemetery and were instrumental in helping arrange the memorial ceremony.

By Danielle Goldstein