OPINION | 2023 “WORKING GROUP” ON VILNA CEMETERY | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | THE “CPJCE” LONDON GRAVE TRADERS | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS
by Julius Norwilla (Vilnius)
ear eminent members of the Prime Minister’s Working Group assembling this week in Vilnius to carry forth your deliberations on the future of the sacred Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Šnipiškės district of modern Vilnius, Yiddish Šnipiškės):
To introduce myself, I am a Kaunas-born former Protestant minister in Vilnius who has for years been active in projects in the field of Jewish culture, including preservation of mass graves and old Jewish cemeteries. Some years ago, I was honored to be invited to give a speech at the Israeli Embassy in Tel Aviv on the subject of the fate of the beloved old cemetery at Piramónt. I have also been studying Yiddish language and literature for years, and this semester am honored to be have been invited to commute each month to Białystok in Poland to teach a class in Yiddish. I invite you to look through some of my article on Jewish affairs and Jewish studies over the past years (available here in reverse chronological order).
First, to the foreign members of the Working Group: Welcome! If I can be of help to anyone during your stay in Vilnius, or show you some little-known Jewish gravesites in the region, and introduce you to some remarkable Jewish friends in town please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Yes, I am writing to you to appeal to you to resist the efforts of two powerful establishments. One of these is driven by the antisemitism that comes with any extreme East European nationalism: these folks do not want an actual old Jewish cemetery, no matter how beautifully the old stones and structures can be nobly rebuilt, anywhere near our capital city. The second is the commercial impetus, driven by corrupt builders, politicians, officials, community leaders and the like, who see a bonanza of many millions in renovating a Soviet ruin that needs to be demolished. Indeed, in a recent article I provide you with a list of Soviet architectural objects that were equally protected by “landmark” orders. Very recently, these landmarks were simply de-landmarked and demolished, or dismantled and moved far away from our beautiful capital city variously known as Vilnius, Vílne, Wilno, and Vilna.
Far from taking a position that is against my home country, Lithuania, I feel I am being the most loyal of citizens in pointing out that the Sports Palace was one part of a massive Soviet program to destroy the native culture and heritage of Lithuania. To use its full name, the Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace was built on the orders of Moscow – a huge building that dominates the city panorama, in the direct line of sight of Gediminas’s Hill. What is it, if not a despicable symbol of Soviet Russia in the vast effort to diminish and demolish Lithuanian statehood. Please see my article on this topic where I argue, in effect, that renovating the Soviet monstrosity in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery would be a post-Soviet manifestation of Soviet violence against the peoples and cultures of Lithuania.
Finally, the bottom line. No matter how many millions of our (taxpayers’) hard-earned money are sunk into the ugly Soviet building (known colloquially as the “Russian ski slope”), it will not help to disguise the crime of completing the humiliation of the many thousands of graves of Jewish citizens of Vilnius. Nor will it ever become a wholesome building for freedom-loving peoples of our twenty-first century.
We need to get rid of this structure as soon as possible. Do not miss this opportunity while we still have time. Your eminent Working Group has the opportunity to return the cemetery to the people from which it was stolen, people whose families purchased their plots in perpetuity, even if, obviously because of the Holocaust, they do not enjoy a critical mass of locally resident descendants who would be able to take up this cause in earnest. Let us restore justice and the spirit of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Let us contribute to the restoration of justice. Let us begin to recreate the many gravestones of great Jewish scholars for whom we have photographs and transcriptions going back generations. Let us restore the graves of old rather than perpetuate Russia’s dictatorial and occupational expansion into Lithuania.
You can make this happen. Thank you!