VILNIUS—More than five years after Defending History’s September 2013 article (“Where You Have to Step on Old Jewish Gravestones to go to Church”), almost four years after Julius Norwilla’s May 2015 impassioned plea (“A Protestant Pastor in Vilnius Speaks Out About Church Steps Still Made of Pilfered Jewish Gravestones”), and almost five since Genrich Agranovski’s 2014 survey (“The Stones Tell Me. After All, They Lived Here”) of Jewish gravestones pilfered for public space in Vilnius, the steps were finally removed last week in the face of mounting international pressure.
As has often been the case, Defending History plays the role of documenter, initiator, and catalyst for causes best seen through by local funded organizations and communities and those in positions of local power or influence. It is often the case that the cause is taken in Eastern Europe as “radical” or “extreme” at the start, and the real fight is in the battleground of ideas. Such simple gestures as returning gravestones to the cemeteries from which they were pilfered (all the more sensitive on ground zero of the Holocaust where these buried have no descendants to care for their graves), and not going to church each week over the stolen gravestones of dead Jews, go from perceived status of “radical” to the status of “simple common sense”, and are then picked up even by the state-sponsored official Jewish community at some point. In the saga of the stones, Latvian-American journalist Juris Kaža has often commented on the case on Facebook, asking, with a touch of irony, “why the pastor can’t just phone the nearest rabbi and together set up a couple of healthy guys with a van to have the stones returned by next Sunday.”
A similar progression was evident in the protest against the honoring of a major Holocaust collaborator, where the official Jewish community felt comfortable taking up the cause only years after it was brought to the world on the pages of Defending History back in 2012. All sides agree that diverse sources of pressure in a variety of progressions bring results with credit due to all who play a constructive role in pursuing just causes whose honorable solution accrues to the credit of all, not least modern democratic Lithuania.
According to Defending History editor Dovid Katz: “The day is not that far when the removal of street names honoring Holocaust collaborators and the construction of a sparkling new national convention center well away from the city’s old Jewish cemetery will likewise be universally seen as — simple common sense.”
In the case of the steps, the city’s main Reformed Evangelical Church, according to a high government source, who insists on remaining anonymous, the “real final thrust” came from a description of the church with the steps made of Jewish gravestones in last March’s New York Times report by Rod Nordland. The article noted that the church, “ecumenically related to the American Presbyterian denomination, has its main front steps formed of headstones from Jewish cemeteries, some with Hebrew inscriptions clearly visible. A church spokesman […] laid the blame for that on the Soviet authorities, who had seized the church and rebuilt it. He said the authorities hoped to eventually remove the headstones but were hampered because it was a registered historical place.” The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991.