O P I N I O N
by Genrich Agranovski
Genrich Agranovski is co-author (with Irina Guzenberg) of Vilnius: Sites of Jewish Memory as well as other works on Jewish Vilna. This comment was translated from the Russian by Ludmila Makedonskaya. See also DH’s section on old Jewish cemeteries and mass graves.
At the beginning of the 1990s a commission tentatively called “Memorial” was founded at the Jewish Community of Lithuania. Its aims included collecting information about the mass murder and burial sites of the World war II period, Jewish cemeteries, as well as other issues connected with the memory of the perished. The commission was headed by Joseph Levinson. Being a member of the commission, I was in charge of collecting information on Jewish cemeteries in Vilnius. There had been two large Jewish cemeteries in Vilnius before the war: the “old one,” founded, according to Vilna Jewish lore, at the end of the fifteenth century and used till 1830, and Zarechenskoye [“beyond the river”; in Yiddish Zarétshe] (Antokolskoye), which was used from 1828 up to June 1941. The latter was the biggest in the city. According to the Jewish ethnographer Solomon Shik, seventy thousand people had been buried there by 1937. In Soviet times both cemeteries were destroyed and the gravestones were used for construction purposes.
The list of the buildings, where such gravestones (matséyves) with lettering had been found, was prepared by me for the community board. It included the following: stairs up the Tauro mountain; stairs to the Vingis park (from the road under the viaduct by the park); to the General Post Office (on Gedimino Avenue), to St. Peter and Paul’s Church, entrance to the Builders’ Palace, retaining walls near the school by Erfurto street in Lazdynai and various other places.
The list was sent to the mayor’s office and in 1993 most of those stairs were dismantled and the gravestones brought to a special storage place. The stones found during construction works later were also brought to that place. A great many of them were found during the reconstruction of Daukanto Square. On the slopes of the cemetery hills near Vasaro Street Jewish students organized a special subbotnik at the beginning of the 1990s and found a great many gravestones with lettering. Designed by an architect Janutis Makariunas, a magnificent monument made up of those stones was erected on the territory of the former Zarétshe cemetery in 2004.
At present (2014) the author is aware of only two major city buildings which contain gravestones with visible lettering. They are the stairs of the Calvinist (Reformed Evangelical) Church on Pylimo Street and a small set of stairs outside the Contemporary Arts Center at the corner of Vokiečių and Rūdninkų streets.
Nevertheless, in many streets of the city one can see plinths of buildings, staircases, retaining walls, even the toilet building (at the foot of Tauro Hill), made up of Jewish cemetery stones. There are especially a lot of them in the public garden by the monument to P. Tsvirka (Cvirka) in the Gedimino square that bears his name, and at the upper end of the city’s main boulevard including the monumental staircase to the National Mažvydas Library), in Jasinskio, Pamenkalnio, Pylimo, Basanavičiaus streets, and in the Lazdynai residential district.
Those edifices, built up at the end of the 1960s or beginning of the 1970s, remain eternal monuments to the hundreds of thousands of Jews, who lived in our city not that very long ago. As the poet Semyon Lipkin put it in his Vilnius Courtyard (1963), the stones tell me
They lived here.
Nobody need mourn them.