Top Story of the Week: Much Ado about Nothing

Top Story of the Week: Much Ado about Nothing

This last of August, 2015, saw continued agitation over Lithuanian Government plans to restore an aging architectural monument built over a Jewish cemetery bulldozed by the Soviets in 1950. A delegation of Litvak ulta-Orthodox rabbis from Israel and America arrived in Vilnius to petition the government to halt any plans for the site and Israeli media continued to demonstrate a complete naïveté and immunity to the facts in the case in their reporting on the issue. The facts are:

There hasn’t been a cemetery operating at the site since the late 1800s, and the gravestones and monuments were bulldozed and removed in 1950. The Soviets, apparently out of a misplaced sense of cultural sensitivity, removed the human remains of the Vilna Gaon and reinterred them at the one working Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, in the Šeškinė neighborhood on the hill to the northwest of the historical neighborhood of Šnipiškės. Graves were certainly disturbed by Soviet construction in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the massive Palace of Sports was built. The site was grand Soviet architecture and almost all open ground was covered with flagstones at that point, as it still is. The remaining graves which were never disturbed by the building of the sports arena remain under the flagstones.

Nobody is building anything at the site. Nothing has been dug, and there is no plan to do any digging whatsoever. What is now happening is discussion between the Lithuanian Government, an investment bank and concerned parties including the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe over how best to renovate the existing structure without disturbing existing burials in any way. Not only is no one talking about digging anywhere within the territory of undisturbed graves, they’re not talking about an excavations under the existing structure either. The Government expects the project will be a loss-maker for at least a decade but feels it’s a matter of prudence and prestige to renovate what has been a traditional part of the Vilnius landscape for decades while at the same time paying due respect to the memory of the Jewish cemetery there. The investor has talked about concerns of moving heavy equipment over the flagstone area, so there is a real sensitivity to Jewish law and the dead and the living at play here, something which had been lacking at times in previous governments.

No new construction is planned or even being discussed except possibly for a new monument to honor the Jews buried there. There are two monuments in place already: a larger stone structure with inscriptions in multiple languages to the east of the grassy field in front of the flagstone area, and another metal plaque in multiple languages in front of that grassy area along the street which follows the course of the River Neris. Both monuments are aging and look somewhat neglected. The entire facility and grounds is falling into ruin. The alternative to the plan being discussed now is to allow the territory to become either a garbage dump or a place where youth and homeless people gather to drink, do drugs and paint graffiti. At this point the building itself is still in passable shape and is being maintained to some degree, but it is only a matter of time before people force their way in for whatever reason, and then it will be open to the weather and more molestation by trespassers.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community maintains the best way to honor the memory of the dead buried at the former Šnipiškės cemetery lies in working together with the Lithuanian Government and city officials to maintain a site for public use kept up with public funds. A garbage dump does not serve the memory of the many and great Jewish figures buried there.