Prior to the Holocaust, Vilna was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe, later known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. Dating back to the year 1400, Vilna became the home for numerous Jews. In the 1920’s, Jews made up 40% of the population. The community throve, the Jews were very successful in Talmudic research and built many cultural and religious institutions. The Gaon of Vilna, a Jewish spiritual leader, and the Socialist Bund, the head of the secular Jewish labor movement lived in Vilna.
Today, the Jews comprise less than 1% of the total population with the Jewish cemetery being one of the strongest pieces of evidence left of the city’s rich history. Many scholars, authors, and famous rabbis were buried at the cemetery. After the war, communists ruled Vilna and built a sporst arena on a quarter of the cemetery’s land. They did not consult with Jews or receive permission to build the arena, even though the land is owned by Jews. [According to the Jewish law, Jews can only be buried in a cemetery if the land is owned by Jews.]
Jewish graves were destroyed, and the remaining three quarters of the cemetery was left untouched. A few years later the arena was abandoned. In the 1990’s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became an independent country. The cemetery became property of the state. In 2006, the arena was declared as a heritage site and could not be dismantled by law. In 2015, Lithuania’s government revealed its intentions to build a new site on the cemetrey land, and did not restore the cemetery to the Jewish community.
The Lithuanian government announced its plans to build a $25 million convention center on Vilna’s Jewish cemetery land, which is to be funded by the European Union. Local Jews and scholars petitioned to stop the construction. They suggested to relocate the center away from the sacred land. Only a few weeks after it was published, the petition was signed by 40,000 supporters Jews and Christians alike, with the word still spreading.
Ruta Bloshtein, a Vilna resident who initiated the petition noted that this decision mocks the memory of Vilna’s historic Jewish community, saying: “Because of the Holocaust and the murder of around 99% of Vilna’s Jewry, the buried people, whose families paid honestly over centuries for their perpetual place of rest, have no local descendants to take up their cause”.
Dr. Shnayer Leiman is a veteran of Oxford, Harvard and Yale Universities, and directed a Jewish studies program that documents the Jewish history and heritage of Vilna’s Jewish cemetery. Leiman noted that the decision to construct the center not only erases the Jewish last testimony to the land, claiming that the larger issue is the international effect of accepting such a decision. If the government decides to destroy the remains of the Jewish cemetery, it will serve as evidence for the justification of erasing other Jewish cemeteries everywhere: “What’s at stake is really the future of all Jewish cemeteries in Europe in particular, or anywhere where the Jewish population dwindles and the government feels it can just walk on in and do whatever it wants.”
The petition can be signed here.
Image: Visit Lithuania
By: Yael Soffer