O P I N I O N / C E M E T E R I E S / P I R A M Ó N T / P A P E R T R A I L
by Dovid Katz
VILNIUS—This city’s dashing young new mayor, Remigijus Šimašius, elected last spring, has now added Yiddish to the previously bilingual (Lithuanian-English) signs, wrought of expensive metal in rounded-edged casement, in times of austerity for pensioners and others in town. These signs are being placed near Soviet-era edifices made of pilfered Jewish gravestones (matséyves) that are a blot on this charming East European capital. This is the latest model featured on the mayor’s office website:
The earlier, cheaper, metal-on-a-pole model was featured at an electricity hut found to made entirely of matséyves, a story that earlier this year made it into London’s Daily Mail.
The mayor’s use of the word barbarism might be, in isolation, appropriate to description and richly deserved condemnation of Soviet disdain for, and destruction of, cultures and religions of many sorts, in the course of its autocratic, dictatorial misrule. But here in Lithuania, where 96.4% of the Jewish population was butchered by the Nazis and their many willing local killers, that leaves the question of what word (ultrabarbarism?) the mayor would find most appropriate for the annihilation of one of Lithuania’s oldest and most prominent minorities, a genocide from which a few pitiful percent managed to survive thanks, as it so happens, to the Soviet peoples’ grand war effort against Hitler, in a part of the world where there were no British or American troops to fight the Nazis.
Taking the train of thought a stage further, in a time and place of the proliferation of Holocaust revisionism and downgrade via state-sponsored Double Genocide institutions like the Genocide Center, Genocide Museum and Red-Brown Commission, is the Soviet abuse of Jewish gravestones peradventure being itself further abused as a subtle political football in the ongoing semantic, political and geopolitical genocide wars? After all, you can’t get too much worse than barbarism in human language. As an irony, recall that it is precisely because of the genocide that the people buried in the pilfered cemeteries had (and have) no locally living descendants and relatives, by and large, who even in Soviet times might have forged a certain bulwark against such abuse of their families’ gravestones. Is it not all an elaborate dance in the game of Holocaust Obfuscation and Double Genocide?
Defending History columnist Julius Norwilla’s opinion piece last July was focused on the mayor’s first, modest, bilingual sign, before the metallurgy was upgraded and before the Yiddish language text on barbarism was added (compliments, incidentally, to the Yiddish translator for accurately conveying the full absurdity of the text, with no attempts to “fix things” leading to perhaps the most absurd-sounding Yiddish sentence of 2015). Norwilla, a former protestant pastor, brought up the question of marking the much more prominent matséyves that form the steps of the Reformed Evangelical Church in central Vilnius where worshippers have to step on stones with Jewish lettering to get to their services. Is this more barbaric abuse going to be marked smack in the middle of Pylimo Street, or would that be too politically incorrect for the mayor’s current campaign?
Norwilla also brought up (and provided photographs) of the shameful municipal depository where masses of Jewish gravestones still get piled up like so much junk by the municipality itself. Not barbaric for the mayor’s office? (Despite the failure of the recent Rothschild Foundation conference on Jewish cemeteries to take its participants to this site, or any that don’t count as government PR, knowledge of its existence continues to spread and the astute tourist is beginning to seek out the place. You can’t hide much that is out there on public space in the internet age.)
But incalculably more barbaric than the architectural use of gravestones of an annihilated people is a modern society whose state would finance shrines, street names, plaques and sundry other memorials that actually glorify the local participants in the genocide of that people. And that is sadly a big problem for Lithuania and its capital, Vilnius, over which Mayor Šimašius now presides. After he decided to remove the last Soviet vestiges (the monuments to Soviet soldiers on the Green Bridge), a group of intellectuals asked last summer for the removal of just one plaque that glorifies Holocaust collaborator Jonas Noreika (see the articles by Rimvydas Valatka, in Lithuanian; and in English, by Grant Arthur Gochin, Sergey Kanovich, and Evaldas Balčiūnas). Major media carried the view that the whole discussion must be a Russian plot to undermine the state. What it all led to was a pathetic new whitewash of the collaborator by the Genocide Center last week, followed by responses from Defending History and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jerusalem Post report, and and finally, in a stark about-face, a powerful statement from the current chairperson of the official Lithuanian Jewish Community. The small but vibrant Jewish Students Union even staged a protest at one of the Noreika worship sites. Its dynamic and widely admired chairperson, medical student Amit Belaite, told the media that it is incongruous for authorities to expect appreciable foreign Jewish investment, tourism, public diplomacy and partnerships in a naive hope that Litvak scions internationally are not clever enough to track what is happening locally.
Question: So is the mayor, so concerned with expensive trilingual inclusive-of-Yiddish signs at sites of pilfered Jewish gravestones, going to rise to the occasion and call for the removal of the street names, plaques and other public state-financed shrines to Nazi collaborators that do his great city continuing damage in its standing in the eyes of the world? Is he going to publicly call for the removal of shrines to these Nazi collaborators? And if he is thwarted by the humongous Double Genocide industry, what with its centers, museums and history institutes and departments, will he at least erect fancy trilingual signs condemning the barbarism (hyperbarbarism?) of state-sponsored glorification of Holocaust collaborators?
Expectations are in any case rising that the mayor will very soon publicly call for banning the annual neo-Nazi march through central Vilnius on Independence Day, March 11th. The neos can quite easily be moved to another place and venue, away from the capital’s center on the cherished day of independence where it sends the world the wrong message about the Lithuanian capital.
Last but not least is an act of antisemitic barbarism that would, if it is allowed to go ahead, spoil for generations to come Mayor Šimašius’s legacy. That is, of course, the plan for a twenty-five million dollar convention center in the middle of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery, that dates to the 1470s, if not earlier, and where thousands of the greatest Jewish scholars of the last millennium still lie buried, notwithstanding the Soviets’ pilfering of the above-ground gravestones. We, still in the world of the living are inclined, sometimes, to forget that the important part of a cemetery is what is beneath the ground and unseen, and in free societies, it is deemed sacrosanct land duly paid for by the families of the deceased over centuries as a purchase in perpetuity. This makes for a sharp contrast to the barbaric communist model that hands it all over to the state at the state’s whim, for concerts, conventions, circuses or whatever.
This is a convention center where people will cheer, clap, sing, drink in bars and flush toilets surrounded by Jewish graves on all four sides. In addition to dozens of Jewish protests, including all the world’s major Litvak rabbis, a Vilnius-based Protestant pastor and a Riga-based Latvian-American journalist have perhaps most poignantly summed it all up from Christian, and secular, points of view, respectively. The mayor sure wouldn’t support it if these graves were of medieval heroes of the Lithuanian nation. And he shouldn’t support it when they are of any of the peoples who made Vilnius what she is today. If anything, it is even more barbaric for being perpetrated not by autocratic czars or Soviets, but in a modern, democratic, free and proud member state of the European Union and NATO.
Last August, some of the world’s most famous Litvak rabbis led a delegation to the mayor’s office. They came, in effect, to beg him to simply move the convention center to another site. He told them he would think it over.
Now that his mind is on new trilingual signs blasting Soviet barbarism over abused Jewish gravestones, the time is ripe for his bold, courageous and principled reply to the rabbis who came humbly and uninvited to share their deepest concerns. He surely does not think that history will let him hide behind the acquiescence of one prominent local Jewish lawyer who specializes in citizenships for foreign applicants, particularly from South Africa (and who fired the nation’s chief rabbi after his statement on the cemetery’s fate). Nor will history let him hide behind the curious group of London hasidic (non-Litvak) rabbis who offered their blessings for the convention center and were received like princes by the prime minister himself. These rabbis were this year exposed as demanding payments in the past from property developers or the state for their “supervision” of cemetery desecration at the very same Vilnius site (see reports in the Jerusalem Post and JTA). This “convention center in the cemetery” can only help spoil the reputation, for generations to come, of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Observers far and wide have suggested the simplest and most elegant of solutions: Move the convention center project to any of a number of other sites in town (like the old Soviet Trades Union Palace on Tauro Hill), tear down the Soviet monstrosity on the cemetery, and make it a memorial park to which matséyves from all over Vilnius can be brought, and where many hundreds of inscriptions can be easily reconstructed from the copious records made over centuries of one of Europe’s greatest Jewish cemeteries. A beautiful and unique memorial park that would be a pride to the city and attract tourists for generations to come. Without disturbing a single grave down below. Without desecrating the site’s sanctity and the memory of its thousands of people there interred.
Mayor Šimašius, lavishly praised on these pages for his historic role in moving forward the successful project to name a city-center street for the magnificent Holocaust rescuer Ona Shimaite, now has a chance to go down in history as the mayor with the courage and conviction to put an end to the real moral barbarism that haunts his magnificent city. And what a magnificent opportunity it is.