OPINION | HUMAN RIGHTS | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH ISSUES | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO ‘CONVENTION CENTER IN THE CEMETERY’ PROJECT |INTERNATIONAL PETITION
Professor Vladislovas Mikučianis was the master architect of Vilnius who designed Lenin Square. He also led the commission which deemed that the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius had no historical or aesthetic value. And he wrote the review, in 1972, for “Statyba and Architektūra”, of the newly completed Vilnius Sports Palace, which desecrated the cemetery. We should credit him with a devastating but enduring conception of Vilnius that, like a python’s grip, we have yet to appreciate, and so are needing decades to escape. Lithuanian leaders are intent on repurposing the Sports Palace as a National Convention Center, desecrating the cemetery anew. What to do?
My mother said, “This could all be solved if a wealthy Jew simply purchased the cemetery.” Then I realized that from 2011 to 2023 the Good Will Foundation is receiving a total of 37 million euros from the Lithuanian government as symbolic compensation for the property losses of Lithuanian Jewish religious communities as a result of the Holocaust. Certainly, one million euros could be offered symbolically for the cemetery. My understanding, from reading the research by historians Elmantas Meilus and Vytautas Jogėla, is that Jews never actually owned the land, but rather made payments to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and also to the Carmelite monastery for the assurance that the cemetery would exist as such forever. We arrive at a solution that would “Make Lithuania Great Again”. Designate a national symbol of empathy and have Holocaust victims pay for it!
Where is a better place to have a national convention center? I suggest that a modern center is the perfect answer for the open question of what to do with Lukiškių Square. Historically, the square arose in 1860 as a huge marketplace. It became notorious as the site of public hangings by which Michail Murjavjov, “The Hangman”, suppressed the Rebellion of 1863. In Soviet days, it became Lenin Square, with the Soviet patriarch showing the way to the KGB headquarters. Our post-Soviet minds are still assuming that Lenin Square must become a Lithuanian National Square, just as the Soviet Sports Palace must become a National Convention Center.
The City of Vilnius is following the Soviet example by unthinkingly, thus paradoxically forcing a somber zone (cemetery) to be a lively zone (convention center), and forcing a lively zone (market place) to be a somber zone (memorial square). The problem with Lukiškių Square is that it is much too large for most purposes, and thus feels like a vast dead zone. Coincidentally, it is about the same size, 4 hectares = 10 acres as the Vilnius Jewish Cemetery. The Sports Palace is only half a hectare, roughly an acre. Thus there is ample room for a brand new convention center which could be two or three times larger, and have underground parking. Such a center would give life to the entire square and break it up into meaningful positive spaces which could present all aspects of Lithuanian past, present and future, including the rebellions of 1795, 1812, 1831, 1863, 1905, 1918, 1941, 1944-1953, 1972, 1988-1991. It would have plenty of room left over for a beach, an ice skating rink, a motorcycle rally and a Gay Pride parade. It would reflect the mature Lithuania which has so impressively foiled the coronavirus, at least for now. And it would make Lenin Square unimaginable. Instead, a lasting monument to Czarist and Soviet oppression could be the restoration of the cemetery walls whose shadows make the days of their misrule grow ever shorter.
Our group “Gerbkime kapines” rests for a few weeks of summer. But our calendar foresees monthly events at the Cemetery. At the end of August, we will have an exhibit which relates the Cemetery’s past and possible futures as they extend across the centuries. Ruta Bloshtein is thinking through an event for the Fast of Gedalia, September 21, which laments the assassination of a righteous governor of Judah. By analogy, we may perhaps memorialize the 13 righteous Lithuanian martyrs who Soviet troops killed on January 13, 1990, when they attacked the thousands of peaceful defenders of the Vilnius television tower. The wake for these martyrs was held at the Sports Palace, which is to say, in the Jewish cemetery, where thousands of dead Jews were victims of Soviet desecration. On October 9, we will commemorate the last day of the Vilna Gaon, who expired along with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and if I have my way, we will find actors to help us reimagine a procession from his home to the Cemetery, in a medieval spirit that juxtaposes the merry and the somber. In November, Arkadij Kurliandchik and Ilja Bereznickas are organizing our cartoon contest.
Such monthly events at the Cemetery make it a real place for us and for the City. We will be engaging the City and Turto Bankas to concede us room there for our exhibits and our activities. I expect that our team will also work together as investigative journalists, writing queries and letters to all manner of agencies in order to bring to light, who exactly is behind this crazy scheme of establishing a Convention Center in the middle of a Cemetery? Why are they doing that? Inquiring minds want to know!
Please write to Andrius Kulikauskas at email@example.com if you would like to help.