OPINION | CEMETERIES | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH AFFAIRS | LITHUANIA
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
I was taken aback by the news being informally reported. “They came and they fenced off a part of the Radviliškis (Radvíleshik, Radvílishok) Jewish cemetery for themselves,” people told me. This was a well-known Jewish shtetl before the Holocaust. Without further ado I went to check it. A house and big chunk of property with it, were fenced off and for sale, clearly within the cemetery perimeter (of course with gravestones long pilfered from that section, and buried people underneath undisturbed). My photos of all parts of the cemetery are here.
At one end of the cemetery, there’s a house and farm. Further on, there’s a garden and a wire fence behind it, then a levelled-out meadow, with some kind of holes in one corner and several dozen tombstones in another (I didn’t count, but the website of the Department of Cultural Heritage reports 72 tombstones). The whole territory, including the homestead and the farm, as well as the graveyard, is enclosed by a concrete cemetery fence. In the middle of the fence, a hole is cut out and brand new metal gates are installed. A power supply line goes through the cemetery. Electric poles stand on it.
I took a walk. Behind the monuments, I found several piles of rocks. I did not peel the moss off them. It may be that they are simple boulders, but they may also be tombstones removed from the flattened part or from the part that is now the garden and the yard of the homestead. Nowadays, it seems as if Radviliškis Jewish cemetery was small and did not operate for too long. Barry Mann writes that back in 1887 Radviliškis hadn’t had a Jewish cemetery yet and Rabbi of Radviliškis Ruvn-Yosef (Reuben Joseph) Gordon was buried in Šiauliai. On the other hand, he also writes that there were 676 Jews living in Radviliškis back in 1897.
I saw a well for drinking water dug out in deep in the cemetery. To tell the truth, it’s hard for me to imagine how brave the people who drink water from a well dug out smack in the middle of a cemetery must be. But would any of this even be happening if it were a majority-population cemetery in our country, not a Jewish cemetery of a population that has disappeared as the result of genocide?
But an even bigger surprise awaited me in the current legal plans for the year: well yes, there is a homestead with its wire fence included in them. I asked around — the cemetery fence was cut out and the new gates were recently installed because sometimes, a dog would run around the homestead and foreign Jews who’d come here from the other side of the world couldn’t get to the cemetery, because the only entryway went through the homestead.
The wire fence, dividing the cemetery into the zone for farming and the zone of the dead appeared not later than the fall of 2016. In my opinion, it’s a violation that changes the outlook of the cemetery which is, according to the Department of Cultural Heritage, a “preserved monument”. A couple of years have gone by since the fence’s construction and even the bureaucrats, famous for their procrastination, could have noticed that.
Who can now say how many dead are on the farming side of the new fence constructed within the Jewish cemetery of the shtetl Jews here called Radvíleshik?
The possibility of this baffled me. But then I rubbed my eyes and read the official plaque one more time: apparently, it’s truly the “Jewish cemetery of Radviliškis town (unique code of the object: 21786, status: object protected by the state)”, and even the eldership’s phone number is provided… That made me believe that it’s actually the reality… Perhaps farming on a Jewish cemetery is fine as long as officers of the Department of Culture Heritage, which is under the Ministry of Culture, keep their eye on it.
So perhaps everything’s fine with it. Nevertheless, it’s not clear which farm is being sold via phone number +3706 136-3945. It is also interesting that the last time the Department of Cultural Heritage changed the plans of the area was on February 5, 2018. It seems that they were preparing the farm for sale.
It is understandable that a mistake was made when privatizing the homestead during the first years of independence (people have lived there since Soviet times). But now three decades have passed and the state had so many chances to correct the mistake and end this vandalism and legal nihilism.
It is even stranger when one bears in mind how often Lithuanian and foreign elites travel to nearby Šeduva, only several kilometers away, and pose for the cameras in the model Jewish cemetery for photo-ops of glory and love for our nation’s Jewish heritage.