OPINION | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PETITION | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS | CEMETERIES
by Julius Norwilla
Delfi.lt, the major Lithuanian news portal, yesterday published an article by its correspondent Rūta Pukenė about the latest “activities” on the site of the five-century old Vilna Jewish cemetery at Piramónt, which houses the ruin of the old Soviet Sports Palace, surrounded by thousands of still extant graves, amid controversial plans to construct a national convention center using the Soviet building as its core. Many friends of Vilnius have argued forcefully that the city’s interests lie in preserving and restoring Lithuania’s oldest Jewish cemetery, where many rabbinic luminaries still lie buried, and for the convention center project to be moved to another venue in town.
The “news” revealed yesterday is that up to one hundred pilfered old Jewish gravestones stones have been brought from the grounds of the tree nursery “Vilniaus žaluma” which has been used as a storage depot for piles of these gravestones for 25 years). And now, some will be brought to the grounds of the old cemetery, at a time when there is an international uproar on the actual issue — the plan for the convention center.
From the photos and video materials offered with the Delfi.lt post one can see a few stones with readable Jewish characters. The author notes that some onlookers were upset with the lake of care and respect shown in the course of the transportation of these gravestones.
Related: Julius Norwilla’s speech at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv in May 2017 (in Lithuanian)
The post also reports that Martynas Užpelkis, a key staff member of the official Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) who holds the post of director of Jewish Heritage, offered assurances that the gravestones are being brought there to “erect a monument” for the cemetery. It seems from the article that Mr. Užpelkis is cited as somehow conveying the authentic and legitimate “Jewish” opinion on these issues, with no reference to the massive international outcry against the convention center project, including from the greatest Litvak rabbis internationally (now available in Lithuanian as part of DH’s new Lithuanian section on the subject).
But what kind of monument can it be? How does it fit with the current plans to restore the Soviet legacy of a major house of entertainment and joviality in the middle of the old Vila Jewish cemetery? To many around the world, and in Lithuania, it is obvious that ongoing plans of the reconstruction of the Soviet legacy to make a modern Congress Center, replete with entertainment facilities, is the ultimate desecration of the cemetery and the remains of thousands of Jewish citizens of Vilna going back to the late fifteenth century. An international petition launched by a Vilnius native and resident has garnered over 41,000 signatures to date (the text is also available in Lithuanian).
As a matter of fact, there are already two “monuments to the cemetery” on the site. There is no need for one more monument to serve as lame PR cover the planned moral, ethical, and symbolic devastation of the historic cemetery. The abandoned Sports Palace, the legacy of Soviet communist ideology and rule, should in the opinion of most be torn down, and the historical cemetery should be restored. A popular new Vilnius poster offers a first visualization of the reconstructed site with text in Lithuanian, English, and Yiddish.
The International Petition
To be sure, the citizens of our current-day Vilnius should be aware that thousands of buried people are still there. The Soviet eyesore known as the Sports Palace was built in 1965-1971, under Soviet communist ideology and its brutal rule, right in the middle of the old Jewish cemetery, showing zero respect for the city’s Jewish dead, and by extension, its Jewish legacy. Among the buried are a multitude of Jewish spiritual leaders and most distinguished scholars. It is self-apparent that because of the Holocaust, which left over 95% of Lithuanian Jews murdered, there are no local descendants, by and large, to take up the cause. Nevertheless a number of local Jewish citizens and groups have boldly spoken out for the cause of restoring the cemetery and moving the convention center to another venue where it can be enjoyed and respected by one and all.
Those who really love Vilnius will want to see on this site not a convention center but the restored magnificent Piramónt Jewish cemetery.