Saving the Cemetery of Vilna
The Snipiskes Jewish cemetery of Vilnius, Lithuania, is not only one of the last remaining traces of the city’s once-thriving Jewish community, but it’s also – according to Professor Shnayer Leiman, a professor at Brooklyn College and a visiting professor at Yeshiva University – the resting place for some of the most illustrious figures in Jewish history. Among them are Rabbi Moshe Rivkes (author of Be’er Ha-Golah), Rabbi Shmuel ben Rabbi Avigdor (the last Chief Rabbi of Vilna), and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (one of the most famous disciples of the Vilna Gaon). The grave of the Gaon of Vilna, one of the most renowned Jewish spiritual figures in history, was moved to another cemetery before the outbreak of WWII.
Vilnius, also called Vilna, was sometimes in the past referred to as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” While Vilna’s two Jewish cemeteries (Snipiskes and Uzupis) managed to survive the Nazi onslaught in WWII, they could not survive the anti-religious fanaticism of the Soviet regime. The Snipiskes cemetery was covered over by a now-abandoned sports palace, and the Uzupis cemetery, along with the Great Synagogue of Vilna, was destroyed outright. It is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies belonging to Vilna’s greatest Jewish leaders remain buried under the palace. In the words of Professor Leiman, “Virtually every Jew who died in Vilna before the year 1831 is, in fact, buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery.”
In 2015, even with the Soviets long gone, the Lithuanian government added insult to injury by announcing its plans to replace the sports stadium, which has already been desecrating sacred ground for decades, with a multimillion-dollar convention center. This contradicts their earlier promise in 2009 to leave the cemetery alone after the decommissioning of the stadium. For a country that claims to have overcome its Anti-Semitic past and to uphold the principles of democracy and tolerance as embodied in the EU charter, this action is simply outrageous.
Even more tragically, this controversy has sparked a rift within Lithuanian Jewry. The Chief Rabbi of Lithuania opposes the government’s plans, but Faina Kukliansky, the chair of the Jewish community, not only supports them but has gone as far as to replace the Chief Rabbi because of his opposition to the project. Additionally, a statement signed by 12 of the world’s leading Litvak authorities was issued in 2015 condemning the plans.
Now, however, the movement opposing the convention center has been reignited thanks to Vilna resident Ruta Bloshtein. Bloshtein started a petition on change.org earlier this month. In it, she passionately argues against the center’s construction, saying, “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. Instead, some greedy business interests, cooperating politicians, [A]nti-[S]emitic nationalists and ‘pliant Jewish figures’ have joined forces for a new National Convention Center to rise on the site, where thousands would revel, cheer, sing, drink at bars and use toilets surrounded by Jewish graves.”
Furthermore, Bloshtein notes that, “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. To make matters worse, the developers and the politicians have boasted that many millions in European Union ‘structural funds’ would be put toward the project (and European Commission leaders have thus far failed to take a clear moral stand on that). This fate would never befall a major Christian cemetery here in the 21st century.”
As of this writing, Bloshtein’s petition is well on track to succeed, having collected over 36,000 of the necessary 50,000 signatures it needs to be presented to the Lithuanian president, among other leading figures. Jews and even non-Jews around the world are calling on the EU and Lithuanian government to move the convention center and protect what is internationally recognized as a vital Jewish heritage site. You can join them by going to: https://www.change.org/p/hon-dalia-grybauskaite-please-move-new-vilnius-convention-center-project-away-from-the-old-jewish-cemetery or by searching for “Ruta Bloshtein” at change.org.