VILNIUS—Polish scholar, author, film maker and Jewish heritage specialist Dr. Tomasz (Tomek) Wiśniewski is renowned as a world specialist on the culture and remnants of numerous erstwhile centers of East European Jewish life, most famously Białystok (in Poland, but in Jewish culture within the Litvak north of Jewish Eastern Europe). He was a delegate at last month’s Rothschild Foundation London (Hanadiv) conference on Jewish cemeteries, held here in Vilnius. Following the event, he issued a statement on his Facebook page concerning the fate of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery, known as Piramónt, in today’s Šnipiškės district. A slightly revised version was translated from Polish by Julius Norwilla and the translation approved by the author. It reads as follows:
9 November 2015
I recently attended an outstanding conference, held in Vilnius, Lithuania, on the topic of Jewish cemeteries. I am always happy to visit the city, in the region where my family comes from. In Ignalina, to the north, my mother was born and the area was home to a large part of my family. Nowadays Vilnius is in the Republic of Lithuania. I accept this fact, but the memory of my ancestors is something I hope to cultivate further.
While in Vilnius, I learned that on top of one of the most famous Jewish cemeteries in Europe, brutally destroyed above ground level by the Nazis and the Soviets, the Government intends to build the National Convention Center.
The question is over the great cemetery of Piramónt in the Šnipiškės district, where many famous Jewish scholars were buried. It is frankly a very ill-considered project that will result in perpetuating a global public image of Lithuania as xenophobic and hostile to minorities, not just Jews. I visit at least once a year and can testify how centuries old plaques and inscriptions in Polish are disappearing from public view on church walls far and wide.
Why this anxiety and impatience over the Jewish, Polish, Russian or German age-old heritage within the history of Lithuania and of the city Vilna/Wilno/Vílne/Vilnius? The city authorities, the nation’s government and the residents of Vilnius of today need to understand the simple truth that the magnificence of this city is due to its multicultural heritage.
In Bialystok, we have a similar case. The former rabbinical cemetery was in the 1950s land-filled with earth. The amazing decision to land-fill the cemetery was taken by M. Balasz in good faith as the only way to rescue the cemetery until the day when someone would come and dig it up. My film Central Park tells the story. After the film’s screening, the city authorities suspended the decision to develop the site. The outskirts of the cemetery are now marked with historical information boards.
There are many ways to solve controversial issues, but the worst are arbitrary and factually unilateral decisions (no matter how well dressed up as being consensual) that would bring measurable, and unnecessary, loss to Lithuania’s fine image around the world.
Dr. Tomasz Wiśniewski