For centuries, the city of Vilna (today Vilnius) was the center of Jewish life in what was then known as Polish-Lithuania. By the turn of the 20th century, the Lithuanian capital boasted over 100 synagogues, an array of Jewish newspapers, and scores of other cultural and religious institutions. It played host to the famed Gaon of Vilna, one of Judaism’s spiritual giants, and also to the socialist Bund, the secular Jewish labor movement.
Today, after the Holocaust, little is left of that historic Jewish community, which once comprised half of Vilna’s population, but now constitutes less than 1 percent of it. One remaining vestige of the city’s illustrious past, however, is its old Jewish cemetery, in which “a galaxy of eminent European rabbinic scholars and authors” were buried, as one leading scholar put it. Yet compounding tragedy upon tragedy, the Lithuanian government, reportedly with European Union funding, is preparing to build a $25 million convention center on the site.
In response, an alliance of local Jews and preeminent Jewish historians has taken up the cause of saving the cemetery. They are currently gathering signatures internationally for a petition to pressure the Lithuanian government. It can be signed here. “For us, it is [about] plain and simple human rights which include the right of the deceased to lie in peace, and the honoring of grave-plot purchases in perpetuity as sacrosanct,” said Dr. Dovid Katz, who taught Yiddish Studies at Oxford from 1978-1996, served as professor of Judaic studies at the University of Vilnius from 1999-2010, and now teaches at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. “Then there is the slight issue of discrimination and anti-Semitism,” he added. “This fate would not be proposed for a more than 500-year-old Lithuanian cemetery in the nation’s capital.”
Vilna resident Ruta Bloshtein initiated the petition to stop the steamrolling of the cemetery grounds. In her introduction, she noted that this was not the first time a governing power had encroached upon the area: “During the Soviet Union’s misrule, the gravestones were all pilfered, and a sports arena was built in the middle of the cemetery, itself on a base mixed with human remains. Most of the graves on all four sides were left untouched, and many thousands are still buried there. It is sacred ground and should be restored as a cemetery and memorial park to which pilfered gravestones (which turn up all over the city) can be returned.”
“Because of the Holocaust and the murder of around 99% of Vilna’s Jewry, the buried people, whose families paid honestly over centuries for their perpetual place of rest, have no local descendants to take up their cause,” she continued. “The decision to mock the memory of Vilna Jewry with a convention center in the middle of the city’s medieval Jewish cemetery would be a grave error with unfortunate consequences, making for a blot on this city’s status for centuries to come. By contrast, moving the convention center project to another site and preserving with respect the old Jewish cemetery at Piramónt would bring great honor to modern democratic, EU member Lithuania.”
Many prominent local and regional rabbis, as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have raised their voices in protest. (After Chaim Burshtein, Lithuania’s own chief rabbi since 2004, came out publicly against the convention center, he was fired by the putative lay leader of the Jewish community, who is working with the government on the project.)
Another prominent scholar who has been working to preserve the Jewish cemetery is Dr. Shnayer Leiman, a veteran of Oxford, Harvard, and Yale, where he directed the Jewish studies program. Dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of Jewish history,” Leiman has been leading tours to Vilna and frequenting it for research for decades. He has carefully documented the Jewish history and heritage preserved in Vilna’s cemetery. “I know full well what’s been going on,” he told me. Over the weekend, he sent out an email to his many students and colleagues asking them to sign the protest petition. “This letter that I wrote on Friday was just my response to cries, personal messages that I got from people in Vilna telling me: we’re in total despair, no one helps us,” he said. “I decided that I can’t stand idly by anymore.”
American Jews, Leiman explained, should care about this plight for two reasons. “One, they should always be concerned about their fellow Jews,” he said. “So if there’s a Jewish community in Lithuania, in Vilna, that needs help, we should be concerned about their concerns.” Moreover, in this case, foreign outcry may be the only thing that will effect change. “Lithuania has a very strong government, it can take strong action,” said Leiman. “People who have picked up the ball, like Prof. Dovid Katz, have been ostracized, fired from their jobs. It’s politically charged and it’s not a place where anything’s going to happen unless there’s outside pressure.”
Second, Leiman continued, “there’s a much larger issue at stake here, and that is whether any government can at will destroy a Jewish cemetery. Once you allow this in Vilna—and there are those who allowed it—it’s going to happen everywhere. Every government’s going to say, ‘Well, not only did they do it, they got paid by the E.U. to do it!’ Anytime they want to, they can express the law of eminent domain and even destroy Jewish cemeteries. They’re not going to destroy a Christian cemetery, but Jewish cemeteries, why not? Who’s going to complain? So the stakes are very high. What’s at stake is really the future of all Jewish cemeteries in Europe in particular, or anywhere where the Jewish population dwindles and the government feels it can just walk in and do whatever it wants.”
“It shouldn’t happen; it shouldn’t be done.”
As of this publication, the petition to save the Vilna cemetery had 4,612 signatures.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.