OPINION | MEDIA WATCH | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PETITION
by Shnayer Leiman
Note: This follows on from our report where links are to be found to the articles that elicited the present discussion.
Anyone who would claim that Ruta Bloshtein, a citizen of Lithuania, born and raised in Vilnius, is anything less than a staunch supporter of what is ultimately best for Lithuania, is sorely mistaken. She is a courageous leader of the Vilnius Jewish community and seeks only truth and fairness in Lithuania’s treatment of its minority communities. An abomination took place in Vilnius when it was under Soviet domination. A Sports Palace was constructed over a historical Jewish cemetery, where for some 400 years, every Jew – man, woman, and child – who died in Vilnius was buried. These include the graves of the Gaon of Vilna’s entire family (parents, wives, and children); R. Abraham Danzig, author of a famous Jewish code of law still in use and studied widely, and his family; and hundreds of other distinguished rabbis, scholars, poets, and scientists.
When Lithuania regained its independence in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, it had every opportunity to rectify the abomination that was forced upon it by the Soviet Union. It could have returned the cemetery to its rightful owners, and allowed them to preserve it with proper dignity. This was the practice of many of the former nations that were members (much against their will) of the Soviet Union. Lithuania chose instead, and still chooses, to engage in an act of greed, desecration, and discrimination, denying the Jewish community the basic rights it claims that it provides for all other Lithuanian citizens. Not only has the Lithuanian government not returned the Jewish cemetery to its rightful owners, it has chosen instead to add insult to injury by constructing a new Convention Center and Concert Hall over the very heart of the Jewish cemetery (and it seems, to construct a large annex). Surely, no Lithuanian government would consider constructing a new Convention Center and Concert Hall over a historical Catholic or Russian Orthodox Christian cemetery.
Like a prophet of old, Ruta Bloshtein has reminded Lithuanians of the need to practice what they preach. Many thousands of voices have been raised throughout the world protesting this blatant act of desecration of a Jewish cemetery. We urge the Lithuanian government to engage in a change of venue, and construct the new Convention Center and Music Hall elsewhere in Vilnius. Let the Jewish cemetery be restored and remain a significant historical site for Lithuanians and Jews. By confirming the rights of minorities to maintain the sanctity of their holy sites, Lithuania will earn its place among the great democracies in Europe and throughout the world.
Professor Shnayer (Sid) Leiman is professor emeritus of Jewish history and literature at Brooklyn College. He currently teaches at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Oxford, as well as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.