A Latvian-American Journalist in Riga Reflects on a Jewish Cemetery Saga in Vilnius

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by Juris Kaža

Riga based journalist Juris Kaža made the following observations in recent Facebook threads. They are collected here with the author’s permission.

This is incredible. So the Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania became Home Depot for the Soviet-era construction industry? We need some granite blocks? Yo, take the Goldbergas family plot, there are five headstones! By the way, the big stone for Rabbi Whatshisname would make a great plinth, have it dragged here, please. Can’t somebody undo this bizarre mess, gather the stones and make an appropriate memorial?

This is crazy. The Soviets ravage your cemetery after the Nazis kill your co-religionists and you get this for asking independent Lithuania to stop desecrating graves? They should do their best to restore the burial and memorial place and build their conference center elsewhere, not on the site already desecrated by the Soviets. WTF??

The Jewish Cemetery was ravaged by the Soviets. I assume not even the Nazis took the trouble to vandalize the entire place (they were dealing with living Jews). Wouldn’t it make sense to undo this, especially if it is a question of what to do with a Soviet derelict building? Tear the m****rf***er down and put up a memorial to all the folks whose gravestones were dragged off. Make it a place of religious and historical tourism for Jews and others from around the world. After all, the Vilna/Vilnius community is one of the oldest in this part of the world and the home of various important religious figures (the Gaon, etc).

There should be really, really good reasons (like huge historical distance and overriding current needs — We have to move these Viking graves or there will be no airport for city XYZ) and very clear protocols for doing it — holding a service of reinterment, etc, before you dig up or move any grave that filled in the last millennium or two.

There are some pretty clear guidelines for, to translate a term from Latvian criminal law — for “disturbing the peace of the deceased.” Old Iron-age Latvian warrior graves, Vikings, Egyptian pharaohs are sort of OK to dig up (respectfully, for archeological study). Some cemeteries have rules allowing additional burials on top of or beside graves that have not been cared for for a certain period of time, moving or erasing the earlier graves, but the area is still kept as a cemetery, it isn’t paved over as a McDonald’s parking lot. And speaking of parking lots, wasn’t a medieval British king found under one (his place of death was a bit unclear) and then reburied with all the honors for a monarch? If someone barged into a cemetery with construction during the Soviet era, the mistake should not be continued and expanded upon. There should be no archeological interest in 18th or 19th century graves, Jewish or otherwise, and when in comes to medieval graves — without going into some horror movie scenarios — I would not like to see victims of the Black Plague dragged from their graves.

Idon’t understand. You have Lithuania, a crucible for Yiddish-speaking Jewish culture and a vibrant Jewish community for centuries, with, as far as I know, fewer blemishes from pogroms and antisemitism than its neighbor to the East (much of the rest of the Russian empire). You have an independent post 1918 Lithuania, which seems to have done a fairly good job of ethno-religious relations despite the rise of some threatening movements and sentiments during the 1930s. These spill over into the atrocious horror of the Holocaust. The full, honest picture of the role of non-Jews in this is being pieced together — fine. Then in rolled the Soviets, pretty much an abomination to Lithuanians of all faiths. They were (if I am not mistaken), the first to build on top of old Jewish graves, something that can fully be put on their negative scorecard. And now — a possible golden opportunity to say — we can stop this, make a good gesture toward the Jewish community of Litvaks everywhere and to some standard of respect for the dead in general — and what happens??! This is so crazy. Tear the old place down, put up a memorial and build a convention center where you can host everything from scientific conferences to concerts where some third generation Jewish Lithuanian rock musician can perform without standing on what is left of his great great grandfather Shlomo’s (or Šlomas’s?) grave.



This entry was posted in Cemeteries and Mass Graves, Human Rights, Humor (Of Sorts), Juris Kaža, Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, News & Views, Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in Šnipiškės / Shnípishok), Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.
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