DOCUMENTS | 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
VILNIUS—Shortly before yesterday’s meeting in Vilnius of the Lithuanian prime minister’s Working Group (commission) on the fate of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramont in the Shnípishok district (today’s Snipiskes section of modern Vilnius), the commission’s members received the text of the rabbinic edict signed by four of the world’s greatest Lithuanian-tradition (Litvak, Litvish) heads of yeshivas around the world, making clear that no museum, memorial center or other functional building may ever be set up or operate on hallowed Jewish cemetery grounds.
Afterwards, the commission’s members, including those who had flown in from the United States, Israel and Britain, were wined and dined at elegant chancery events in the highest halls of Lithuanian government, in apparent hopes that the commission would go on to rubberstamp plans of the ultranationalist establishment and corrupt business interests alike to effectively destroy the cemetery by reconstructing a huge Soviet ruin in its center rather than lovingly restore the cemetery as a genuine treasure of Lithuania and the storied Litvak heritage. During these events, some members of the commission received an open letter from Rabbi Elchonon Baron, head of the Lithuanian-tradition Yeshiva Ahavas Torah Baranovich, based in Jerusalem, and himself a scion of Litvak royalty. His late father was the legendary Litvak head-of-yeshiva Rabbi Aryeh Leib Baron.
The text of Rabbi Elchonon Baron’s open letter follows.
Greetings to Chairman Arūnas and all members of the Prime Minister’s Working Group from near and far, those who know me and those who don’t yet. Welcome to our beloved Vilna/Vilnius, once the center of Jewish spiritual culture for centuries!
We are all witnessing a shocking upsurge in violent antisemitism around the globe, where suddenly truth has become falsehood and falsehood has become
truth. It is frightening to think that we have been there not so long ago.
As you are pondering the fate of the Piramont-Shnipishok cemetery and the lovely Soviet eyesore that brutally stands on a quarter of the cemetery, allow me to share one simple truth with you:
According to ancient inviolate Jewish law and tradition, a Jewish cemetery is a place where Jewish souls rest for eternity, regardless of any desecration perpetrated to the cemetery by evil people. To establish any purposeful usage for any part of the cemetery, whether built or not, is blatantly against Jewish law and tradition (as has been reiterated countless times by our sages, living and passed). This has not changed for thousands of years, and cannot be changed. The approximately 50,000 Jewish people buried there purchased their plots with the just expectation to rest in peace forever. These people no longer have mouths to state their case and complain when their rest is disturbed. Vile murderers made sure that there are no longer descendants in Vilna of these souls to take up their cause. It is unlawful, immoral and unethical to go against their rights, wishes, religion, law and tradition. No amount of governments, local Jews, restitution, real estate needs or any other interests can change this absolute truth.
There is no chance that anyone will be able to establish any purposeful use for the decrepit structure that still reminds all of us of past brutal regimes. Does anyone wonder why this grand structure, built to last for centuries by a powerful empire, had a shelf-life of about 20 years? What will actually happen is that any people who move to protect the right of the holy Jewish souls who lived and died in Vilna to rest in peace, the same Jews who established a large part of the Jewish culture as we know it today, will pray and help bring blessing to the lives of these righteous people, and at the same time they may work to exact revenge from those people who aim and attempt to disturb their rest. This simple fact appears in our sources and is well-known to anyone who has made a habit of desecrating Jewish cemeteries. For further reference to just one such example, you may look up the sorry story of what happened fifty years ago to the Russian village built atop Babi Yar in Ukraine.
It is up to all of you to choose if you want to be on the side of truth or the side of falsehood. It is obvious from current events that the time has come for each individual to make exactly that choice.
Thank you for reading one snippet of truth in a world swirling with falsehoods.
- Rabbi Elchonon Baron
- Head of Yeshiva Ahavas Torah Baranovich in Jerusalem
- Rabbinical Emissary to Lithuania