OPINION | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PETITION | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS | CEMETERIES
by Sid Leiman
with photographs and input by Julius Norwilla
Not only the living turn to dust; the dead do so as well. So too the tombstones we erect in their memory. Some people merit having their tombstone stand for one generation; others merit having their tombstone stand for two generations. But in the end, it gradually sinks until it is swallowed up by the earth.
S. Y. Agnon, A City in Its Fullness
While true for much of the civilized world, Agnon’s words are hardly true for Vilnius, and certainly not regarding its Jewish tombstones. In Vilnius, Jewish tombstones have been pilfered, bulldozed, pulverized, and used freely for construction and for the paving of roads. For the most part, they have not been allowed to sink into the earth from old age. And while the desecration of Jewish tombstones in Vilnius was largely due to the Soviet repression of Jewish religion and culture during the period when Lithuania was under Soviet rule (1944 – 1991), sadly the desecration continues to this very day.
Last month, my colleague Julius Norwilla reported that some 1000 tombstones and tombstone fragments from the Jewish cemetery in Zaretcha (Yiddish Zarétshe, in today’s Užupis district) were dumped on the Old Jewish cemetery in Piramónt (in today’s Šnipiškės). The Zaretcha cemetery was in use from 1831 until 1941. Piramónt — The Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery — was in active use from the sixteenth century, and perhaps even earlier, until 1830, but various of its gravestones and houselets were lovingly restored and maintained by Vilna Jews right up to the Holocaust.
The Zaretcha Jewish cemetery and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Piramónt — two distinct and historically significant cemeteries — are still standing in Vilnius with thousands of burials underground, as proven by recent ground penetrating radar surveys. Denuded of most of their tombstones starting with the Nazi occupation of Vilnius in 1941-1944, and its aftermath, the two cemeteries per se have somehow miraculously survived.
Hundreds of tombstones (out of some 75,000 burials) from the Zaretcha cemetery were preserved until recently in the Žaluma Tree Nursery on the outskirts of Vilnius.
Here at the tree nursery, they were simply piled one atop the other.
The tombstones could easily have been restored to the cemetery they were stolen from, namely the Zaretcha Jewish cemetery.
Instead, they were unceremoniously dumped on the grounds of the Old Jewish cemetery in Piramónt, a little over a month ago, desecrating not only the tombstones themselves, but the graves of the persons they now cover, whose identities are not the same as the names on the tombstones. Only in Vilnius!
It’s no longer possible, at this late date, to describe in detail the names and lives of all the persons whose tombstones now rest in the wrong cemetery. But the tragic story of one of them, Abba Menachem Kremerman, begs to be told, and can serve as a model for the others.
Channah and Fishel-Leib Kremerman were married in Vilna in 1917, during the German occupation of Vilna in World War I. Channah, a native of Vilna, was born in a flat on Vilna’s famous Yídishe gas (today: Žydų). Fishel-Leib (Fishl-Leyb), born in Vilkomir (today: Ukmergė), was descended from a long line of distinguished Lithuanian rabbis. Fishel-Leib was a professional engraver and wood-carver, who often helped Channah (Kháne) in running her wholesale fabric business on Yátkever gas 13 (today: Antokolskio). The young married couple moved into an apartment, number 3, on Yátkever gas 15, where their four children would be born: Zipporah (Tsipéyre, 1919), Yaakov (Y,ankev, 1920), Yechezkel (Yekhézkl, 1921), and Abba-Menachem (Ábe-Menákhem, 1924). Sadly, Channah, Fishel-Leib, Zipporah, and Yaakov were killed (at Ponár and Klooga) by the Nazis and their local collaborators during the Holocaust. Only Yechezkel, a member of Vilna’s FPO (United Jewish Resistance Organization), survived the Holocaust. Abba-Menachem met his tragic death in Vilna, in 1939, even before the Holocaust broke out.
Abba-Menachem (affectionately called “Mendke” by family and friends), like his older brothers, was sent to the Ezra Elementary School in Vilna. It was a popular Nationalist-Zionist (Mizrachi) School whose curriculum combined religious and secular study, and where love of Torah, Zion, and Hebrew language was stressed.
He completed elementary school and was about to enroll in one of Vilna’s technical high schools in the Fall of 1939. Abba-Menachem was attending summer camp in 1939, when he learned that elections for the representatives to the 21st Zionist Congress (scheduled for August in Geneva) were about to take place in Vilna on Sunday, July 23. He insisted on participating in the political campaign, rushed home, and spent Sunday morning distributing leaflets on behalf of his Nationalist-Zionist cause. A heavy rain fell in the afternoon and he returned home to the Kremerman apartment on Yátkever gas. Some firewood was needed by the Kremermans, so Abba-Menachem went out to the yard where the family had constructed a makeshift shed, which also served as their Sukkah (súke) to store the firewood. It was adjacent to the sidewall of a nearby apartment house.
As he entered the shed, and in part due to the heavy rains, the sidewall collapsed, and the debris from the side wall — and a collapsed apartment above it — fell over the shed and buried him alive. Abba-Menachem’s father, hearing the explosive sounds of the collapsed sidewall and apartment, as well as the cries of his son, rushed to the shed, and pulled out his son from under the rubble. Taken to a nearby hospital, Abba-Menachem died the following morning, on Monday, July 24 (8 Av), 1939, 15 years old at the time. The funeral took place the next day on the Ninth of Av —Tishah be-Av (Tíshebov), a traditional day of mourning for all Jews. A huge crowd gathered in the courtyard of Vilna’s Great Synagogue, where the funeral procession began.
“His remains are buried in Zaretcha (Užupis), yet his tombstone was just now dumped on the Old Jewish Cemetery in Piramónt (Šnipiškės)”
The procession marched through the streets of Vilna, making its way to the Zaretcha Jewish cemetery, where Abba Menachem was buried just to the left of its Purification Hall (táyre-shtibl). In August of 1940, on the first anniversary of his Hebrew date of death (yórtsayt), the unveiling ceremony of his tombstone took place at the Zaretcha Jewish cemetery. A framed photograph of Abba-Menachem was embedded into the top of the tombstone.
The Holocaust followed and ultimately the Nazis were driven from Vilna by the Soviet Army on July 13, 1944. Yechezkel Kremerman, Abba-Menachem’s brother who was still in Vilna at the time, testifies:
“I went to the Zaretcha Jewish cemetery to revisit my brother’s grave. The tombstone was overturned and damaged. The photograph was missing from the tombstone. Apparently, the [Nazi] murderers desecrated the dead as well as the living. They must have thrown a grenade over it, or perhaps placed an explosive device under it.”
Kremerman paid 300 rubles and had the tombstone repaired and reset in its proper place. He visited his brother’s grave one last time just before leaving Vilna permanently in 1945.
But the story doesn’t end here. In 1963 or so, the Soviet authorities brought in bulldozers to plow up and destroy all the tombstones in the Zaretcha Jewish cemetery, among other Jewish cemeteries scattered throughout Lithuania. (We are forever indebted to the renowned Lithuanian photographer, Rimantas Dichavičius, whose photographs record the massive destruction that took place then in the Zaretcha Jewish cemetery. See “The Story of the Destruction of the Jewish Cemetery in Wilno,” at www.youtube.com for a sampling of those photographs.) Somehow Abba-Menachem’s tombstone managed to survive the onslaught, and together with several hundred other tombstones from the Zaretcha cemetery, made its way to the Žaluma Tree Nursery.
In November of 2017, Abba-Menachem’s tombstone was dumped on the Old Jewish Cemetery in Piramónt, allegedly to become part of a memorial to the Jews buried in that cemetery, as part of an apparent cover-up for the massive desecration planned by government and business interests via a national convention center right in its heart, despite pleas from around the world asking the Lithuanian government to consider moving the convention center project to another venue.
As indicated above, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Piramónt was closed in 1830. Abba-Menachem Kremerman was born almost one hundred years after is was closed to further new burials. He died in 1939 and was buried in the Zaretcha Jewish cemetery, the only functioning Jewish cemetery in Vilna in 1939.
His remains are buried in Zaretcha, yet his tombstone was dumped on the Old Jewish Cemetery in Piramónt! The same is true for virtually all the persons whose tombstones were dumped on the Old Jewish cemetery in Piramónt.
One need merely read the dates of death recorded on the tombstones themselves (e.g., 1914, 1931, 1932, and 1933); all of them are post 1830. Moreover, anyone even remotely familiar with the shape of tombstones and how they were cut, and with how letters were chiseled or inscribed on tombstones — before the invention of power tools and before the existence of precision machine-made stencils and templates — will recognize at a glance that the tombstone fragments dumped on the old Jewish cemetery in Piramónt are late, and have no place in a cemetery that was closed in 1830.
The sleight of hand of the government authorities is transparent. They announced plans to destroy the Old Jewish cemetery in Piramónt by building a Convention Center over it. Apparently, it mattered not that it is a historical site of profound significance, containing the graves of some of the greatest rabbinical authorities of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Indeed, it contains the graves of those very Jews who lived and died in Vilna prior to 1830 and made it the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
Apparently, it mattered not that this cemetery was owned by the Jewish community, and stolen from it and nationalized by Russian dominated Lithuania. Independent Lithuania has made no attempt to restore this historical site to its rightful owners. And, apparently, it mattered not that for Jews a cemetery is sacred space; no grave of man, woman, or child may be desecrated. Ultimately, due to such insensitivity on the part of Lithuania, a cry went up throughout the world which the Lithuanian authorities could no longer ignore.
So a decision was made to placate the Jews — the Lithuanian authorities announced that they were prepared to build a Jewish museum in the Convention Center. When that didn’t fly, they settled on constructing an appropriate memorial to the about-to-be destroyed Old Jewish cemetery somewhere in or around the new Convention Center. Apparently, an attempt was made to gather the tombstones that once graced the graves of those still buried underground in the Old Jewish Cemetery, in order to create an appropriate memorial. But those tombstones cannot be located; some have long since sunk into the ground, some disappeared into the streets that were paved with them, and others are embedded, mixed with human remains, in the construction projects they helped build. Only a handful still exist, not enough to even build a fence around a modest memorial.
What to do? Why, of course, the answer is simple. Dump 1000 Jewish tombstone fragments from a different Jewish cemetery into the Old Jewish cemetery. A tombstone is a tombstone. Who will ever notice the difference in today’s Vilnius?
The Lithuanian government authorities — who are always quick to assure us that they do nothing without the approval of the “official” state-sponsored “Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community” in Vilnius and without the approval of the rabbis who serve on London’s “Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe” — continue to make a mockery of all that is holy.
What should then be done with the Old Jewish cemetery in Piramónt? It should be preserved and restored. Let it forever be a testimonial to the vibrancy of Jewish life in Vilna. Two of Lithuania’s greatest photographers and artists, Juozapas Kamarauskas (d. 1946) and Jan Bulhak (d. 1950), were mesmerized by Vilna’s Jewish sites, and especially by the Old Jewish Cemetery in Piramónt. They left us with an abundance of photographs and sketches of the Old Jewish cemetery and its tombstones.
Jewish scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, residents of Vilna, recorded and published for posterity hundreds of epitaphs inscribed on the tombstones of the Old Jewish cemetery. We have maps of the Old Jewish cemetery that identify the precise locations of its graves. Let the Old Jewish cemetery and its graves be preserved with greenery and dignity, and with a proper gate around the cemetery. Let its tombstones be restored (on the basis of the photographs, sketches, and literary evidence) and returned to their proper place in the cemetery. What Vilnius doesn’t need is yet another destroyed Jewish site, with a meaningless memorial and plaque that reads: “Here resided the Old Jewish cemetery of Vilna.”
Regarding the Convention Center, there is ample room in Vilnius for its construction someplace other than smack in the center of historically, the single most important Jewish cemetery in Lithuania, and one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in all of Europe.
Lithuanian authorities would cover themselves with glory by adopting a change of venue for their planned new Convention Center. Indeed, it would be a humanitarian act recognized and praised by all free nations, and it would make clear to all the commitment of the Lithuanian authorities to respecting the rights of all citizens, including — and especially — ethnic minorities.