On 23 August, a new sign commemorating the Balbieriškis synagogue was unveiled in Balbieriškis (Prienai district).
On 23 August, the day of the Baltic Way Day in Lithuania and the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact by the two dictatorial regimes, an event was held in Balbieriškis to commemorate the synagogue and the large Jewish community that once lived in the town.
According to Paula Kuzmickienė, Chair of the Historical Remembrance Commission of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact changed not only the fate of Europe and Lithuania, but also the history of the small town of Balbieriškis.
In the middle of the 19th century, about 70% of the population of Balbieriškis was Jewish. As the teacher Rymantas Sidaravičius explains, a wooden synagogue was built in Balbieriškis around 1740, and a second wooden synagogue was built more than a hundred years later. The brick synagogue was built in 1937. Rymantas Sidaravičius, a teacher and public figure, told us that Lithuanians, including Rymantas’s father, built the building. The brick synagogue was used by the Jewish community between 1937 and 1941. At the beginning of the Nazi occupation, the entire Jewish community of Balbieriškis was murdered, some in Prienai and others in Marijampolė. During the Soviet era, the synagogue was converted into a kolkhoz office and later into a cultural centre. When Lithuania regained its independence, a local resident, Danguolė Launikonienė, bought the crumbling building, renovated it and turned it into a guesthouse. Reda Valančienė, a teacher at Balbieriškis Primary School and coordinator of the Tolerance Education Centre, who hosted the event, was pleased that Mrs Danguolė had allowed a sign commemorating the synagogue to be placed on her property.
Gabrielė Žaidytė, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Cultural Affairs, thanked the organisers and guests for attending and read a letter from Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, who had an important wish: “It is very important to foster an honest relationship with our history, even the painful and unpleasant one.
Foreign diplomats present at the unveiling ceremony – Hadas Wittenberg Silverstein, Israeli Ambassador to Lithuania, Tamir Waser, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy, Anja Luther, Head of the Cultural Section of the German Embassy in Lithuania – thanked the Balbieriškis Primary School Tolerance Education Centre for its respect for local history and the director of the Jakovas Bunka Foundation, Eugenijus Bunka, for the proposed initiative to commemorate the synagogue.
Faina Kukliansky, President of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, and Gercas Žakas, President of the Kaunas Jewish Community, who were also present at the event, also expressed their satisfaction and appreciation that a sign commemorating Jewish history had been erected in a small town. Alvydas Vaicekauskas, Mayor of Prienai, and Ingrida Vilkienė, Coordinator of Educational Programmes of the Secretariat of the International Commission, thanked the entire community of Balbieriskis for its activity and leadership in preserving historical memory.
Stasys Valančius, director of Balbieriškis Primary School, told the participants and guests that “we have placed the sign in such a way that it will be visible to everyone passing by on the street, both residents and guests. Because the sign represents an important part of the history of our town”.
The unveiling ceremony was attended not only by the local community, foreign diplomats residing in Lithuania, members of the Lithuanian Jewish community, politicians, and museum staff from the Prienai Regional Museum, but also by teachers from Tolerance Education Centres in other towns, such as Putinų and Adolfo Ramanausko-Vanago gymnasiums in Alytus, Ariogola, Kalvarija and Simnas gymnasiums in the Raseiniai region.
The event was organised by the Tolerance Education Centre of Balbieriškis Primary School in cooperation with its partners: the Secretariat of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania and the Jakovas Bunka Charity and Support Foundation.