Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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20 Tammuz 5765 - July 27, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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International Efforts to Prevent Destruction of Large Jewish Cemetery in Vilna

By Betzalel Kahn

What remains of the large Jewish cemetery in Vilna is being threatened with total destruction at the hands of private entrepreneurs planning to build one of Eastern Europe's largest commercial centers at the site. Gedolei olom and tens of thousands of Vilna Jews lie buried at the 500- year-old cemetery.

According to disturbing reports from the Lithuanian capital, one of the sections of the ancient cemetery has already been excavated to a depth of six meters and the destruction could continue in the other sections, where gedolei olom lie buried, including the Vilna Gaon's parents, sons, grandsons and dozens of his talmidim, some of Lithuania's leading rabbonim and tens of thousands of Lithuanian residents.

The cemetery is located on the banks of the Vilia River. As described by Dr. Shnayer Leiman (Jewish Action, Winter 5759), "the `old' Jewish cemetery (called `Shnipishok,' or Piramont) was north of the Jewish ghetto of Vilna and just north of the Vilia (or Neris) River. Generally thought to have been in use from 1487, it served as the main Jewish cemetery of Vilna until 1830. It had long since run out of burial space, and — as practiced elsewhere in Europe — parts of the cemetery were overlaid with extra layers of earth in order to accommodate the dead."

There are/were two other cemeteries in Vilna: the Zaretcha cemetery which from 1831 until 1943 served as Vilna's main Jewish cemetery. With over 70,000 graves in place just prior to the Second World War, it too ran out of space, and the Jewish community acquired a new cemetery, then called the "Dembovka," but now known as the Saltonishkiu cemetery. Inaugurated as a Jewish cemetery in the early 1940s, it is where the remains of the Vilna Gaon rest today.

Over 50 years ago the Vilna Gaon's remains were moved from their original grave in the Shnipishok cemetery to the Saltonishkiu cemetery, when the Soviets built a huge housing project over the Shnipishok cemetery. A few graves were also relocated along with the Gaon. Now the non-Jewish entrepreneurs behind the project plan to destroy the Saltonishkiu cemetery as well, along with the nearby Zaretcha cemetery where gedolei Torah of the previous generation lie buried, including HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz and thousands of other Jews. The cemeteries cover a vast area— several times the size of Jerusalem's Mount of Olives Cemetery—with a dense concentration of gravesites.

The excavation work at the cemetery already began as long as two years ago. According to local witnesses dozens of graves have already been opened making it impossible to locate even the holy bones. Further excavation work began three weeks ago.

International figures that took up the task of saving Vilna's ancient cemeteries, including US senators, are pursuing various ways of applying diplomatic pressure on the Lithuanian authorities to halt the work immediately and to restore the cemetery.

Lithuanian authorities deny outright that the area under excavation is a cemetery, claiming that the Russians destroyed all the graves decades ago. However various visitors to the site have found human skeletons cast on the open ground.

The authorities also claim that the Jewish community gave up its rights to the cemetery grounds.

In fact a private individual, apparently a Jew, is misleading the authorities and his activities have brought about the destruction already wrought as well as grave concerns of continued destruction of the ancient cemetery, which belongs to the entire Jewish world.


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