Twelve Issues in the Preservation of Lithuania’s Material Jewish Heritage (2015)


Note: Inspired by a Lithuanian government announcement (reported also on Delfi) of a new state-sponsored commission on these issues, and on the eve of its first international meeting in early May 2015, this list, the opinion of DH’s editor (who has benefited from discussions with specialists and the Holocaust survivor community in Lithuania), is offered in the spirit of a contribution to the debate on what is now most urgent in this field — what is morally pressing and unpostponable, and, also, what is, in general, not currently being dealt with by existing agencies, NGOs, projects and individuals. A proposed “urgent” list is ipso facto not an omnibus listing of issues, or of specific projects that are doing good work in their own areas; it is a list of what is “acute” rather than what is “chronic.” For more information, please consult Samuel D. Gruber’s outstanding website. See also our lists of external and on-site resources (including our Agranovski and Levinson sections). Hopefully, a comprehensive listing of issues — including these — will soon appear on the new commission’s own site.


Several days before the commission’s first meeting of 6 May 2015, an international dispute erupted over plans to reconstruct a congress hall in the heart of the Old Jewish Cemetery site in Vilnius. As of today, the commission has made no public comment on that, or on the twelve issues below. The heritage commission’s press release. The government’s account of the maiden meeting. Samuel Gruber’s account of the new commission. A list of commission members. 

Media chronicle of the Vilnius cemetery debate and the commission’s own history

  1. Last vestiges of Jewish resistance. Rapid rescue from imminent disappearance of the last Jewish partisan fort in the forest, where in 1943-1944, around 99 of 101 partisans were Jews who escaped the Vilna Ghetto to join up with the anti-Nazi resistance. See also at: Samuel D. Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments; Michael T. Luongo in the Forward. Location on map.

  2. Relief from public humiliation of old Jewish gravestones. Dignified removal of Jewish gravestones from  publicly visible uses in Vilnius, e.g. front steps of the Reformed Evangelical Church on Pylimo Street [follow up JTA report; Pastor Norvila’s plea]; retaining walls around the Lazdiniai School  [follow-up in Times of Israel] and its vicinity; and numerous other locations on a list prepared by Mr. Genrich Agranovski. Removal of all such stones to a memorial site where they can play a role in commemoration and education.

  3. Town center commemoration. Need for a plaque or monument commemorating the erstwhile Jewish community and its fate in the center / town square of every shtetl in Lithuania (±259 at last count where shtetl is defined as a town with a sizable prewar Jewish percentage of the population), rather than only in the forest at the mass grave sites. One possibly successful pilot in northwestern Lithuania: The case of Žagarė (Zháger) in 2012. See (incomplete) list of Lithuanian Jewish shtétlakhAn obvious desideratum would be a minimum of one street name per town for a historic Jewish native of notable accomplishment.

  4. Center of Vilnius. Need for a permanent straightforward Holocaust memorial in the heart of Vilnius with the most basic information on Lithuanian Jewry and its destruction. The saga of the Shelly Pearson monument, and the need for its transfer from a locked courtyard to visible situation, can be a useful starting point for discussions. This is conceptually related to the urgent need for a major center-of-Vilnius Holocaust museum that would be free of state politics. See also comments by Hager and Katz.

  5. Relief from public honors for perpetrators. Removal of public memorials for Holocaust collaborators and perpetrators (monuments, plaques, squares, street names etc.) throughout the country. See many of the recent articles by Evaldas Balčiūnas (scroll to bottom to read “upwards” in chronological order). It would be an act of grand moral justice for replacements for these memorials to commemorate Rescuers.

  6. Relief from public antisemitic texts. Removal of antisemitic texts or images in the public domain (or their accompaniment by curatorial historical explanation), e.g. at Grūto parkas and the blood libel plaque at Bernardinai Church. It is noted with satisfaction that three antisemitic images were removed this year from the Genocide Museum following years of protest; hopefully these removals are permanent.

  7. Synagogues. Securing of old synagogue (and other historic Jewish) buildings in the provinces that are in danger of imminent collapse and destruction, and prevention of further heritage deals that entail “agreed destruction” of a synagogue structure (as occurred in Plungė / Plungyán). At the same time, caution must be exercised in pursuing costly proposals for expensive renovations in areas where there are, in the wake of genocide, no Jewish people to use the synagogue. A specialist committee would need to study a municipality’s past record and precise future plans for Jewish cultural, historical and Holocaust commemoration and study, in the town center, museum, street names, education, and various cultural programs.

  8. Cemeteries. It is important to monitor the territorial integrity of old Jewish cemeteries. It has happened, that during cleanup, restoration and fencing-in operations cemetery territory has been decreased and gravestones removed. Whether or not this has occurred, it is important to research and mark the original boundaries of each old cemetery, and to explore ways and means to recover stones recycled to other local uses. A national database of inscriptions and translations might result from excellent ongoing NGO projects in the field.

  9. Mass grave sites. Directions to all (±) 229 confirmed Jewish mass grave sites need to include series of amply-sized, clear, bilingual (Lithuanian and English) sign-postings starting on major intercity highways / arteries / junctions and leading through to actual sites. Unmarked sites to be signposted as they are confirmed.

  10. Names and lives. Beginnings of a policy discussion on public commemoration of individual local Holocaust victims. The outstanding pilot projects to name as many names as confirmable of the victims from Kėdainiai (Keydán) and Plungė (Plungyán) need to be extended to town centers nationwide. The in-town naming and memorializing of something of the lives of each of a town’s Holocaust victims — each a peaceful, innocent citizen and resident of those actual streets — brims with authentic local meaningfulness. Adaptation of the Central European stolperstein concept has a role to play.

  11. Local museums. Beginnings of a policy discussion to memorialize via permanent exhibits the pre-Holocaust local Jewish culture, literature, folklore, history and contributions of the Jewish minority, as well as the accurate local facts of the community’s destruction, in all state-sponsored local museums.

  12. Commemorating a pioneer of Lithuanian Jewish heritage preservation. The pioneer of Jewish cemetery and mass grave identification and preservation in the era of post-Soviet independent Lithuania, Joseph Levinson (1917-2015), passed away one month before the new commission’s first meeting. It therefore seems fitting that the commission find a way to honor his legacy and ensure that both his seminal books, in both English and Lithuanian, remain available also in central Vilnius bookshops and in educational programs locally and abroad. There is moreover concern about the long-term fate of a number of exhibitions he helped create, including a memorial to Jewish veterans of World War II and town-specific Holocaust exhibits. See Joseph Levinson Obituary and Website.

— Dovid Katz (Vilnius, May 2015)

This entry was posted in Commemorations for Destroyed Communities, Dovid Katz, Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, News & Views, Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in Šnipiškės / Shnípishok), Politics of Memory. Bookmark the permalink.
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