The True State of the Jewish Cemeteries in Vilnius. Part of a Proud Past Which Must Be Protected
In the international sphere there has been no respite regarding preservation of the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius (in the historical neighborhood of Piromont, now known as Šnipiškės): petitions are being circulated, the issue has even been raised in the United States Senate and there is the attempt being made to put a halt to plans to renovate the Palace of Sports building there. But are these disputes over the now-destroyed cemetery sufficiently well-founded?
The Soviet Era Destroyed the Šnipiškės Jewish Cemetery and Buried Its Memory
It’s important to look at the history of the Šnipiškės cemetery. The old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius established in 1592 or 1593 (although other sources say 1487) was for all intents and purposes closed in 1830, after which part of the cemetery was destroyed, with another part surviving to the end of World War II.
The Executive Committee of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic adopted a resolution on October 15, 1948, to close the old Jewish cemetery. At that time it had an area of just over three hectares, a quarter of the size of the Užupis Jewish cemetery on Olandų street in Vilnius.
The Šnipiškės cemetery was finally closed and most of the graves there destroyed in 1955 and 1956, when the decision was made to build a swimming pool in the middle of the cemetery territory. When the Palace of Sports was built in 1971 almost all still-existing graves there were destroyed.
The brutal destruction of cemeteries by the Russian Empire and the Soviets partially erased from the minds of Vilnius residents the sacred memory of the Šnipiškės cemetery, many believing it had been next to the Palace of Sports, and some played soccer in the territory of the destroyed cemetery, not suspecting it was even there. Thanks to the efforts of the Vilnius municipality, the United States Heritage Commission and the Lithuanian Jewish Community, there are now information stands there about the old Jewish cemetery.
During construction of the King Mindaugas bridge and reconstruction of Rinktinės and Olimpiečių streets in 2003, the remains of 700 people, remains which had been disturbed and placed there earlier during street building in the territory, were moved to the only working Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, the one on Sudervės road.
A Silent Reminder of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Forgotten Jewish Cemetery on Olandų Street
While the issues surrounding the Šnipiškės cemetery are being escalated non-stop in the media, another Jewish cemetery, also desecrated by the Soviets but not destroyed, is being forgotten completely: the Jewish cemetery on Olandų street in the Užupis neighborhood of Vilnius.
The Jewish community back in 1828 acquired land for a cemetery in Popinė in the hills overlooking Užupis (the territory belonged to the Russian Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Spirit before that), and established the New Užupis Jewish Cemetery (Yiddish Zarecher yidisher feld) where burials of Vilnius Jews began in 1830 and continued till 1940, for 110 years.
In 1937 the number of graves at the Užupis Jewish cemetery was counted at 70,000 (about the same number of Holocaust victims at Ponar), including many notable and famous Vilnius Jews from the early 1800s and the period of Lithuanian independence between the two world wars.
As noted above, the Executive Committee of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic adopted a resolution on October 15, 1948, to close down the Old Jewish Cemetery in Šnipiškės, and in 1950 the graves of the Vilna Gaon and family and of Count Potocki (Ger Tzedek) along with other graves of important people buried at the Šnipiškės cemetery, were moved to the Užupis Jewish cemetery.
To the right of the gate at the Užupis Jewish cemetery (where the Palace of Funerals now stands) was the most-honored burial site allocated for rabbis. Another part of the cemetery (now to the left of Kirkuto street) was subdivided into 8 sections reflecting the status of those interred. The affluent were buried in the most expensive paid plots, including the most notable figures in the Vilnius Jewish community, merchants, doctors, cultural figures, teachers, academics, philanthropists, publishers and others. The sections were divided by paths with trees lining both sides, and these alleys are still visible today. There were also unpaid burial plots for the poor, widows and orphans, and “brotherly graves” (Hebrew kivrei bnei ha’am) for the homeless and indigent. There were also old abandoned headstones, combined into a common wall, or columbarium.
The cemetery was expanded several times in the 18th and early 19th centuries by buying additional land from the monastery. In the end the cemetery had an area of about 11 to 12 hectares.
The cemetery was not damaged during World War II. Burials were conducted during World War II (the leaders of the underground resistance in the Vilnius ghetto were buried here) and even after the war, although the Executive Committee’s resolution of 1948 declared it closed. Destruction began in 1959. In 1961 the Soviet regime issued a resolution calling for the cemetery to be closed down because it was “poorly looked after,” and it was to be liquidated over the course of two years.
Around 1963 the graves of some famous people (rabbis and notable cultural and social figures) were removed to the third Jewish cemetery on Sudervės road, acquired by the Vilnius Jewish community back in 1914 in the understanding there wouldn’t be sufficient room for community members at the Užupis Jewish cemetery in the future. The grave of the Vilna Gaon was one such which was moved (after being reburied at the Užupis cemetery from 1950 to 1963), and along with his grave those of around ten famous Vilnius rabbis were also moved. The final resting place of the Vilna Gaon is now the working Jewish cemetery on Sudervės road in Vilnius.
In the period from 1963 to 1965 the cemetery’s headstones fell victim to unprecedented and violent Soviet anti-Semitism: the inscriptions were removed and they were used as material to make stairs, retaining walls, building foundations and so on.
When the Soviets dug out the trench for Kirkuto street through the middle of the cemetery, several more streets which formerly existed leading off from Kirkuto street and the Palace of Funerals, from 30 to 40 percent of the mortal remains in the cemetery were destroyed. Even so, the majority survived, although the headstones desecrated by the Soviets are no longer there to indicate their identities.
And so the question arises: why is there constant public furor at the international level concerning the non-extant Šnipiškės cemetery while the other Jewish cemetery, the Užupis Jewish cemetery on Olandų street, which is no less important and largely intact, where our forefathers, the grandparents and great-grandparents of vilner Jews now living in the world, is completely ignored?
All the most famous figures of yidish Vilne from the interwar period–business people, doctors, philanthropists, educators, cultural representatives and other members of the prolific Jewish community whose cultural legacy has taken firm root in both world Jewish history and the history of the Lithuanian state–are buried in Užupis.
Historian S. Gasparavičienė in a study conducted in 1992 in preparation for a project by J. Makariūnas to monumentalize the gate of the Jewish cemetery in Užupis, compared it to the Rasos cemetery in Vilnius; in terms of area and the importance of the people buried there in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Užupis Jewish cemetery is equivalent to the Rasos cemetery in Vilnius, the only different being Jews rather than Catholics are buried there.
Paying Tribute to Our Ancestors and Future Generations: Prospects for the Preservation of the Jewish Cemetery on Olandų Street
By the initiative of the Lithuanian Jewish Community and by order of the municipal enterprise Vilniuas planas, project proposals for preserving and commemorating the Užupis Jewish cemetery were prepared in 2018 resulting in the Arka project (the authors of the project are a creative group under the direction of architect Victoria Sideraitė-Alon).
Video presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTJsjl1yIVg
I. Guzenberg, G. Agranovskij “Vilnius. Po sledam Litovskovo Jerusalima” II leidimas, 2016.
S. Gasparavičienė. Istorinių tyrimų ataskaita (parengti J. Makariūno projektui), 1992.
V. Girininkienė “Vilniaus kapinės,” 2000
For more information, contact Monika Antanaitytė, chief of staff, Lithuanian Jewish Community: +37067240942