On the Preservation of Lithuania’s Old Jewish Cemeteries


by Joseph Levinson


Joseph Levinson (Josifas Levinsonas) in Vilnius, 2013. Courtesy of the Levinson family.

On April 25th 2013 an event dedicated to the recording, maintenance and preservation of old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania was held at the Vilnius premises of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. It was organized by the NGO “Maceva” and chaired by one of the NGO’s founders and leading figures, himself a resident of Brussels.

The April 25th evening in Vilnius went “smoothly” until a veteran member of the Jewish Community politely pointed out that much of the work that the NGO was taking credit for and presented as a miracle dropped from the heavens had in fact been carried out many years earlier by the very Jewish Community in whose premises the event was held. There was a moment of shock  when the event’s chairman reacted by saying “There are different kinds of Jews!” instead of thanking the senior member of our community for his well-intentioned, polite and factual corrective remarks from the floor.

Joseph Levinson (Josifas Levinsonas) early 1990s

Early 1990s: Joseph Levinson spearheaded the Jewish community’s and museum’s work for the preservation and respectful marking of both old Jewish cemeteries and mass grave sites. Photo courtesy Jerusalem of Lithuania.

In the years immediately following the restoration of Lithuanian independence, we in the Lithuanian Jewish Community invested years in locating, describing, photographing and publishing data on the extant Jewish cemeteries.

And it was we who worked on the diplomatic and political fronts to persuade the government to fence in and protect these hallowed sites and mark each of them with a new commemorative stone monument. [PDF of 1990s typed list of cemeteries; illustrative fragmentPDF (incomplete) of the author’s 1992 paper on the topic published by the Jewish Museum]

This gross omission was frankly a sign of disrespect to Lithuanian Jews who were destined to survive the Holocaust and World War II and their hard work, carried out with no fanfare or web campaigns or honors or fundraising. The goal was to discover, document, clean up and put in order both old cemeteries and the hundreds of mass grave sites from the Holocaust era.

Much of the material we collected is still held by the Jewish museum and awaits the attention of serious researchers.  Those who continue the work of clean-up and maintenance today are to be congratulated for their hard work, and urged to become acquainted with the large corpus of data collected in the 1990s by the survivor generation that is held by the Jewish museum.

There is really no need for the leaders of this NGO to ignore, minimize or make light of the many years of work and achievement of members of the local Jewish community who paved the way in the field. The illustrious international members of the NGO’s board are cordially invited to become acquainted with the years of work on discovering, preserving and recording the old Jewish cemeteries of Lithuania completed long before this NGO started claiming to “have discovered America.”

fragment of Joseph Levinson's cemetery list for Lithuania

Uncredited by “Maceva”? Fragment of Joseph Levinson’s typed inventory of remaining Lithuanian Jewish cemeteries following years of travel, searches and diplomacy with local authorities throughout Lithuania. Courtesy of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania.

Editor’s notes:

Joseph Levinson (born in 1917) is former vice-chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, and former chairman of the community’s commission for the preservation of Jewish cemeteries and mass grave sites in Lithuania. His books include The Book of Sorrow (an inventory of two hundreds mass grave sites in Lithuania, Vilnius 1997) and Shoah: The Holocaust in Lithuania (Vilnius 2006). See also Defending History’s Joseph Levinson section.

In 2010 Joseph Levinson was honored for his life’s work at London’s Central Synagogue in a program including a large contingent of Litvaks from the UK, South Africa and further afield. The main speakers were (left to right in photo below): Rabbi Barry Marcus of the Central Synagogue; Israeli ambassador Ron Prossor; Joseph Levinson; Iain Duncan Smith, the UK’s Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Joseph Levinson in London 2010

Reports on the event and Levinson’s life’s work appeared in the Jewish Chronicle, Jerusalem of LithuaniaLondon Jewish News, and Defending History

This article was written by Joseph Levinson in Lithuanian, translated by his son Alex Levinson, edited by Defending History as are all submissions, and the final text approved by Joseph and Alex Levinson.

This entry was posted in Cemeteries and Mass Graves, Joseph Levinson, News & Views, Opinion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
Return to Top