OPINION | PIRAMÓNT | PAPER TRAIL | OPPOSITION | CEMETERIES
I am inspired by the deep feelings which have been stirred amongst Litvaks regarding the fate of the Vilnius Sports Palace built on top of the Jewish cemetery. I wish for our state of Lithuania to do its utmost on behalf of Lithuanians to restore the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius as a symbol of our aspiration for the closest friendship between Lithuanians and Jews. I realized that it would be most helpful for me to present my thoughts in Lithuanian.
“From the top of Gediminas Castle, do we want to see and cherish, for hundreds of years to come, what the Communist Party Chief saw (the Sports Palace) or what the Grand Duke of Lithuania saw (the Jewish cemetery)?”
I am grateful that the influential online news magazine Veidas.lt promptly posted my long article. I first carry out an overview of the history of the cemetery and the Sports Palace. Then I present the choice as to what we will see from Gediminas Castle across the Neris river for hundreds of years to come. Finally, I clarify the main obstacle, which is that we Lithuanians don’t learn from history. What follows is an English synopsis of what I feel to be the larger points made in the longer Lithuanian article published in Veidas.
The history of the cemetery and the sport palace leads up to the Jewish community being corrupted and divided. The choice is whether, from the top of Gediminas castle, do we want to see and cherish, for hundreds of years to come, what the Communist Party Chief saw (the Sports Palace) or what the Grand Duke of Lithuania saw (the Jewish cemetery, which will then be close to 1,000 years old). There are all kinds of other places we could build the congress center, including Tuskulenas, the Soviet military graves in Antakalnis, the airport, the Upper Castle, etc. Some 20 million EUR is going to fix a failed structure and it would be cheaper to start new. Restoring the Jewish cemetery will be priceless in terms of public opinion if we ever should be occupied again.
The obstacle is that, unlike the Jews, we Lithuanians don’t learn from history.(An exception being Sąjūdis’s nonviolent resistance.) At current rates, with our population dropping from 3.7 million (1991) to 2.8 million (2016), Lithuanians may be gone in 100 years. Jews will remember Lithuania 1,000 years from now, every shtetl. We could learn from the Jews. Imagine if 50% of the residents in Vilnius and other cities and towns were Jewish. Imagine if we had more than 1 million Jews. Would anybody lack for work? Would pensions be smaller? Would Russia not fear us? and so on. But even 1,000 new Litvaks, even 100 new young Litvak immigrants would make a real difference that would have Europe take note and have us think anew about ourselves.
We don’t know our history, what our nation and our Catholic church did to the Jews during World War II. We are dragged down by the lie that Jews evoked our revenge. Revenge is indefensible, but furthermore we must never empathize with revenge. Revenge is disempathy. Empathy for disempathy simply repeats the disempathy.
We will be finished off by people like Genocide Center director Birutė Teresė Burauskaitė who do not give Lithuania the freedom to err. For the sake of Lithuania’s infallibility, she will jettison all of our national self-determination, all of those who spoke on behalf of us.
The Jews err, as we know from their Scriptures. Do we Lithuanians learn from our mistakes?
The 16th article of LAF’s program revoked hospitality towards Jews. Škirpa in 1951 tried to correct this by striking it out. This is not how to fix mistakes. First of all, the Jews were not guests. God did not promise Lithuania to us. Those who love our land are the šeimininkai, the lords, the masters, the heads of the household. Those who chase Lithuania’s children out are not the šeimininkai. Let us show by our behavior that we invite Jews to live with us again. For we ourselves suffer by disallowing dual citizenship just so that Jews wouldn’t come back and claim what our elders took from them.
Let’s be a free nation. Let’s think of something nice for the Jews to show that we love them. Something they aren’t asking for. For example, we could take all of those Lithuanians buried in the exclusive Petrašiūnai cemetery in Kaunas, those who have wronged Jews, and rebury them in a mass grave. We could get their families’ permission for that by explaining that, just as they would have died for their country, so likewise in purgatory they would gladly sacrifice their honors. They would truly be national heroes as our scapegoats. Or the families could think of something else and we would support them.
That would unburden us of many sins. For tens of thousands of Lithuanians profited from the killing of Jews, and thus helped finance it. And hundreds of thousands of snitches risked the lives of those who saved Jews.
Therefore I appreciate the opportunity to return this cemetery to Vilnius’s Jews, to distance ourselves from the wrongs of Russian czars and Soviet atheists, to regret our own nation’s sins. It is so simple.
One unexpected gift of empathy will overcome our disempathy.