Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Av 5765 - August 31, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Can Anything Be Done to Save The Remnants of Vilna's Old Jewish Cemetery?

By Binyomin Rabinowitz

A Shocking Desecration and Its Aftermath

Vilna's old Jewish cemetery (Shnipishok), from which the Gaon's remains were moved several years ago, survived intact until recently, when the Lithuanians began working in the area and threatening to disturb the graves. Some of them were opened; their contents were removed under archaeologists' supervision and ignobly reinterred in sacks in a small plot in the new cemetery, with the cooperation of a party within the local Jewish community. While the Jewish world cries out against further desecration of the ancient graves, Mr. Yeshaya Epstein, a native of Vilna, also protests the disgrace of the reinterred bones. He demands that their new resting place at least be marked in a way that befits the memory of our righteous ancestors, among whom are holy geonim and tzaddikim.

Mr. Epstein: "The pictures he showed me were horrifying — shocking, dreadful! Whole skeletons and bones, some of them unquestionably belonging to towering Torah giants, past gedolim who lived in Vilna, the Yerushalayim of Lithuania. Now everything has been smashed and destroyed. The contents of hundreds of graves have been buried in mass graves in the new Vilna cemetery, in a tiny area. Nobody would even know that hundreds of Vilna's great and distinguished inhabitants are buried in that small place. Even after the deed was done and the old cemetery was almost completely destroyed, they haven't taken the trouble to leave some memorial to all those niftorim."

Though now well into his eighties, events in his birthplace tug powerfully at Mr. Epstein's heart and soul. His Tel Aviv home houses a huge collection of documents and pictures that he has amassed about the city whose atmosphere he breathes twenty-four hours a day. In recent years he has been spending more time there than in his home in Israel and even when he's here, Vilna remains the focus of his efforts and concerns.

Vilna Today

The city that occupies such a glorious position in the annals of the Diaspora is today a virtual Jewish wasteland. A majority of the Jews living there at the outbreak of the Second World War were obliterated. The antisemitic Lithuanians gladly welcomed the German invaders and actively participated in the slaughter of the Jews and the destruction of botei knesses and botei medrash. The handful of survivors who returned after the war were ruined by years of Communist rule. Today's tiny community numbers just several thousands and is frequently racked by dissension and strife.

In common with other places across Lithuania and the former Soviet Union, even after the collapse of Communism the authorities still hold the reins of power and make every effort to retain control of the Jewish communities. This shows itself in communal appointments and affects virtually every aspect of communal affairs. While religious issues are not usually directly affected, economic and organizational ones are completely controlled by the government but the intervention can be ignored as long as it is restricted to procedural and technical matters.

Not so when it leads to usurping Jewish property and land, and even worse, to realizing the ambitions of businessmen (among whom are many high-ranking members of governing circles) to build over Jewish cemeteries scattered across Europe, which are often located in what are today prime areas.

The ancient Vilna cemetery, Shnipishok, provides the classic example of this trend. Part of it was destroyed fifty years ago when a giant stadium was erected over the graves. The outcry that was raised at the time led the authorities to consent to some of the graves (among them those of the Gaon and the Ger Tzedek zt'l) being moved.

It remains unclear in many cases whether the contents of the graves themselves were transferred or just the headstones. A considerable number of other graves have disappeared without a trace beneath the stadium. A further, large area of the old cemetery, where the graves of hundreds of righteous souls remained unscathed, was incorporated into the lawns surrounding the stadium but above the ground there is no indication of their presence.

Some Background

The collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union's disintegration into numerous separate states brought tremendous economic growth to the region, as Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus and the three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia gradually integrated into the global economy.

The Baltic republics have undergone tremendous changes over the past century. A hundred years ago they belonged to the Russian Empire but gained their independence at the end of the First World War. Later, under the terms of the Ribbentrop- Molotov pact of 1940 between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, they were again ceded to Russia.

Exactly a year later they were overrun by Germany (which violated the pact) and towards the war's end they were retaken by Russia, which retained control of them thereafter.

With the collapse of the Soviet Empire fifteen years ago, the three republics worked together, each declaring its independence of Russia. The long years of instability and of Communist rule left their mark; the countries remained poor and underdeveloped.

Since gaining their independence the Baltic republics have gradually been moving closer to Western Europe. They were accepted as members of NATO last year and shortly thereafter, of the European Union. Their importance as business and economic centers has been growing in recent years and they are attracting increasing numbers of tourists — Vilna particularly and strikingly so.

What remains of Vilna's Shnipishok cemetery — a huge tract of land situated in the city center near the River Vilia — is prime property. All three Baltic republics are interested in seeing Lithuania's capital transformed into an international business and tourism center. Their wish to fuel the region's rapid economic growth is the underlying reason for the Lithuanian government's eagerness to proceed with the development.

Slowly, the full picture emerged. Backed by American, Swedish and German funding, the entire area of the cemetery was slated to become the site of a major building project — the TriCenter, representing the three Baltic states — that would include hotels, businesses, leisure facilities etc.

Obviously, there is no way that Vilna's tiny Jewish community can put up sufficient resistance to a huge project that has such strong governmental backing. They were anyway completely unaware of the supreme importance of preventing any further desecration of the cemetery. They are not to blame for this, not even the leaders, who are government appointees and subject to their authority.

One Man's Protest

Years ago, Yeshaya Epstein established the Public Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Holy Sites in Vilna and its Environs. When the plans to destroy the remains of the old cemetery became known in 1998, he began to protest them. Despite the persistence of his opposition and his close acquaintance with senior figures in the Lithuanian government and in the Vilna municipality, there was not much that he could do.

In Nisan 5758, Mr. Epstein sent a letter to HaRav Eliashiv and followed it up by visiting the rov to explain the situation in detail and to receive his guidelines for future policy. For the meeting he took Rav Shlomo Daichovsky, a member of the Committee's directorship and Deputy Minister Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, along with him. At the meeting HaRav Eliashiv was shocked to hear of the danger threatening the cemetery and urged every effort to be made to prevent its further desecration. He chose a delegation of three rabbonim to travel out to Vilna and to investigate matters closely.

The rabbonim chosen were: Rav Y. D. Wolpe, rov of Rishon Letziyon, Rav Y. Sheinin, rov of Ashdod and Rav Yaakov Rozha, rov of the Tel Aviv Chevra Kadisha and one of the leading authorities on issues involving cemeteries and niftorim.

HaRav Nissim Karelitz also sent a clear message to the rabbonim. In the opinion of the rabbinical body that deals with the issues pertaining to Jewish cemeteries in Europe, were permission to be given to remove graves from one cemetery, the consequences for all the other cemeteries in Europe would be catastrophic. Over the years, stubborn campaigns have been and are still being waged to prevent many Jewish cemeteries from being destroyed and even to have them renovated. The effect of capitulation in one instance would create a precedent that might spark an unstoppable trend.

Rav Nissim urged that an unrelenting campaign be undertaken to prevent the cemetery's destruction.

Vilna, 1998-5759

The delegation, accompanied by Mr. Epstein, traveled out straight after Succos 5759 and spent several days in Vilna. During their visit they inspected the old cemetery and met senior members of the Lithuanian government and the Vilna municipality, as well as the President of the Jewish community, Shimon Alperovitz.

We learned the following details about the visit from a report that was compiled immediately after the delegation's return. An initial meeting with the deputy mayor of Vilna and other city council members was followed with a more significant discussion with the President of Lithuania's assistant for Jewish affairs, Julius Shmulkastisch, which took place on the first of Marcheshvan.

When presented with the delegation's position that the cemetery must not be destroyed, the assistant countered with the argument that in Mr. Alperovitz's opinion, the cemetery ought to be emptied! Rav Wolpe mentioned that the previous evening he had received word that the President of Lithuania had undertaken that the cemetery would not be disturbed. The assistant replied that he had been present at the meetings that had taken place about the issue and that the President had made no such undertaking.

According to Shmulkastisch, "The President has no authority to postpone building that has been approved by the municipal authority." Theoretically, he said, the work could be stopped by the introduction of a special law into the Lithuanian parliament but given the concern over public opinion, such a step seemed utterly unlikely.

The next day a meeting was held with a Lithuanian attorney named Fishes, who has been working in his field for forty years and previously served as legal advisor to the Lithuanian parliament (the Sejm). Based on his own close contacts with government figures he established the following points, setting them out in his report:

1. According to Fishes, the site is currently owned by the Vilna Municipality and is the most valuable (undeveloped) site in the city.

2. There is no question that sooner or later a center for business and tourism will be built there.

3. Although the President is currently helping the Jewish community, things are gradually changing. Antisemitism is growing stronger and probably in the near future, nobody Jewish will be asked what to do with the Jewish cemetery.

4. Local newspaper surveys show that the popularity of any Lithuanian government member who assists Jews, gradually falls.

5. The authorities will always prefer selling the site to a Lithuanian than to a Jew, even if there is a tremendous difference in price, because they dearly want to erect the business and tourism center there.


During their stay in Vilna, the members of the delegations were contacted by a number of people involved with the issue of the cemetery. Rav Wolpe told me that in the course of the meetings that they held, he realized that the authorities are determined to implement the project and that they were expecting to receive the go ahead to transfer the graves.

"Of course there was no way that we agreed to allow any such thing. We informed them that upon returning home we'd present all the information that we'd received and that the decision on such matters rested solely with the Torah authorities, whose instructions are faithfully followed. We were sent by HaRav Eliashiv and his guidance would be the basis of our ruling."

The Man in the Middle

On a visit to the cemetery itself, the members of the delegation met Mr. Kaplan, an engineer whom the municipality also recognizes as an official representative of the Jewish community. He provided a comprehensive account of the cemetery's history.

"Within the Vilna community the old cemetery (Shnipishok) is reputed to be very old indeed — some say that the first burials were made in 1487. In the years 1952-3, the Soviet authorities erected a sports center over the cemetery. A large building was built over approximately a third of its area and it can be assumed that the deep digging that was carried out then destroyed ancient graves. Of the remaining two thirds, part has been paved over and part planted with gardens. The digging there was not to any depth and the graves, which are well below the ground, can be saved."

Mr. Kaplan also affirmed what the visitors had already heard from others. "The site is the most valuable land in Vilna and the municipality is very interested in building a center for tourism there because the many historical sites in the surrounding area draw large numbers of tourists."

According to Kaplan, the two main organizations that are pushing for the center to be built are the Sports Center and the Worker's Union, which in turn incorporate other bodies.

These organizations asked the municipality to investigate the graves and to establish whether they were Jewish, their exact location and whether the possibility existed of laying the center's foundations in between them. In 1997 the municipality sent an archaeological company to check the open land that was scheduled for building. Anthropologists were also present at the inspections. Kaplan was the emissary of both the municipality and the Jewish community to oversee the digging.

Experimental digs done at different spots yielded sixty- three skeletons, clearly showing that the entire area is full of graves. Kaplan photographed the finds and gave the pictures to Mr. Epstein together with a two-hundred-and- fifty-year old map of the cemetery that was in his possession, showing approximately a thousand graves. According to Kaplan, "Lithuanian law states that a cemetery that has not been used for a hundred and fifty years may be destroyed. The diggings requested by the Sports Center were thus not required by law and were merely a goodwill gesture on the part of the municipality. An ancient Catholic cemetery was recently destroyed in Vilna without any reinterment."

Later on Kaplan asserted, "The Jewish community agreed that the site be built upon, on condition that the graves be moved." His signature appears on that document as the authorized signatory of the Jewish community.

According to him, "The procedures leading to the start of work are already in motion and they cannot be stopped. Even if someone were to come along and offer to buy the site and maintain it, they wouldn't listen to him. At the moment, the main obstacle to starting is financial."

A Change of Tactics

The delegation members also studied the map that Yeshaya Epstein had toiled to obtain. The map, which as far as is known dates from two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, clearly shows graves underneath the entire stadium and surrounding area. Thanks to his connections in high circles, Epstein also managed to obtain photographs from Lithuania's leading archaeologist, a Mr. Jokobsis, that were taken at the 1997 trial diggings.

These pictures showed the evidence that the diggers had been seeking to confirm the claim that the graves were Jewish. As soon as the graves were opened, potsherds were visible lying over the eyes of the deceased, clear evidence of Jewish burial tradition. In one of the opened graves an earthenware jar was discovered between the legs of the deceased; its contents were apparently his Torah writings that he had requested be placed inside his grave. At the end of the trial, the archaeologists and their teams recovered the graves.

The trial was carried out secretly but once it was clear that there was a huge Jewish cemetery on the site and the authorities were no longer able to obscure the truth, they changed their strategy. They now sought to bring the local Jewish community into the picture and in particular its leaders. Their hope was that the community would remove the graves of their own volition with the financial arrangements being covered by the authorities.

One of the community's rabbis and its other leaders realized that giving official consent to the graves' being moved would provoke a mighty protest throughout the Jewish world. They therefore withheld it for years in the hope that the project would be cancelled or alternatively, that the preliminary work would give them time to plan their policy in accordance with developments.

Waiting and Watching

In the meantime, the delegation broke off its activities and everybody waited to see what would happen. Yeshaya Epstein kept a close watch on events in Vilna and in particular on the old cemetery. The local community kept pressuring for the graves to be moved to the new Jewish cemetery but this was counterbalanced by the intensive activities of rabbonim and communal workers from America and England to hold off the beginning of the building work. They assumed that this was still a long way off, especially as it depended on the construction of a big bridge over the River Vilia, which they were sure would take several years.

Mr. Epstein was less sanguine, knowing the parties involved as well as he did. He was convinced of their determination to move forward and on every visit to Vilna he monitored the progress of the bridge, which was a pretty clear indicator of the intentions of the developers and the government. For a while he also estimated that the beginning of the actual building was several years away, unless, as he hoped, some dramatic turn of events brought the entire project to a halt. He saw that there seemed to be no hurry in completing the bridge on the far side, apparently in order to avoid stirring up the issue of the cemetery.

However, all the predictions turned out to have been wrong. His worst fears, that he had been raising the alarm about for years, now materialized, to everyone's chagrin.

"In a few months they managed what we all the time thought would take a few years. The first thing they did was to open scores of graves, remove the bodies and bones and transfer them to the archaeologists' warehouses. That was all done secretly, without any rabbinical supervision and nobody knew it was happening."

A Shocking Discovery

"They worked for two-and-a-half months solid with bulldozers, excavating all the graves; archaeologists and anthropologists removed their contents. The graves and the progress of the work were documented on film. They found some graves that contained ten complete skeletons and others that only contained one," Mr. Epstein relates, deeply distressed at the diabolical piece of work.

"All the bones were thrown into boxes together and taken to a nearby site for sorting and examining. They were sorted and numbered most professionally — whole skulls separately, broken skulls separately, left legs, right legs, every bone in the skeleton, so that they could find out the precise number of bodies buried in the cemetery. Everything was photographed, sketched and measured. The total came to scores of skeletons.

"In the counting, no account was taken of odd bones that could form further skeletons when put together. There were many such bones, as well as many that were splintered by the bulldozers or broken as a result of the speed of the work. When the job was done, the anthropology department that was holding the bones asked the community to receive them and bury them wherever they saw fit."

Yeshaya Epstein came by all this information quite incidentally. On one of his visits to Vilna he met the Yaakov Gurin, manager of the new cemetery.

"He asked innocently whether I would be participating in the levaya for the burial of the bones. I asked him, `What bones are you talking about?' My questioning led him to direct me to Alperovitz, the head of the community."

Their meeting took place on Shabbos, when Alperovitz attended the tefillah at the beis haknesses. "I approached Mr. Alperovitz and asked him, `Where are these bones from — the Old Cemetery?'

"He told me, `No, they're not those. These are bones that were found on the river banks while the bridge was being built. There were divisions of soldiers there in Napoleon's time, who fled from Moscow. They were slaughtered and thrown into the river. Don't make a fuss about it. I promise you it's nothing to do with the Old Cemetery.'

"I asked, `Who is taking care of it?' and he replied, `Rabbi Krinsky, the Lubavitcher.' That was the end of our conversation.

"I approached Rabbi Krinsky and asked him who had allowed it and what he was basing himself on. His answer was, `I'm doing what Alperovitz asked me to do.' "

The entire Jewish community customarily visits the cemetery on Sundays, Epstein says. He expected that the bones would be buried then, when everyone was there and he hurried over to see what would happen. When he arrived and asked the workers when the levaya for the bones would be held he was told that it had already taken place — three days before — and that he hadn't been told because he wasn't wanted there.

"At that time, the centenary celebration of the beis haknesses was being held. Among the many visitors were several rabbonim of cities in Eretz Yisroel. I approached them and spoke to them. They told me that they'd also heard something but had been told that the remains in question were of non-Jews that the Jewish community was being forced to bury. Immediately afterwards, I contracted pneumonia and fell ill. It was difficult for me to return home. All this happened just before Rosh Hashanah 5764."

Back in Vilna

Mr. Epstein's illness kept him bed bound in his hotel room for some time. As soon as he was able, he returned to Eretz Yisroel to receive more professional and orderly treatment. When he had recovered somewhat he decided to resume and broaden his investigations. After an interval of several months he returned to Vilna.

"The first thing that I planned doing was checking the matter of the graves and the burial of the bones in the new cemetery and getting to the bottom of it. I managed to hold several meetings with the head of the anthropological team, a university professor and with the head archaeologist, who had dealt with the affair. Those meetings took place in my hotel. I checked into every detail and received accurate explanations and reports that had been written in Lithuanian for the government and translated into English.

"We went to the site, to the places where graves had been opened. They knew that they weren't the graves of soldiers or of Cossacks but of holy Yidden and that they had remained untouched for centuries. These were the men who had directed the entire operation and removed most of the graves from the area where, to the best of my knowledge, the Gaon had been buried — the holiest of all the old cemeteries. Other graves were still there, that had not been tampered with and everything must still be done to see that they remain in place."

His voice rising in pain at what has take place Mr. Epstein adds, "I have no words and no writing can convey the dimensions of what they have done in throwing large numbers of niftorim into a tiny mass grave, ten meters in size, in an out-of-the-way corner, near the fence. They didn't find a more respectable spot in the cemetery, which is virtually empty. This is a matter of the utmost seriousness. A monument must now be erected there so that some memorial remains to those hundreds of sublime and holy niftorim who were removed from their resting places and reburied in a shameful manner."

Epstein says that he has already approached an architect and a building company who are linked to the manager of the cemetery and asked them to prepare plans and an estimate for putting up a monument. He has also sought rabbinical advice on how it should be done, "so that future generations should know . . . it's too important an issue for the local community to take care of, after the terrible injustice that has been done there. A global committee should be formed to hold deliberations and decide how to go about putting up the monument."

Looking Ahead

In conversation with the members of the delegation that visited Vilna in 1998, all were in agreement on the need to continue the struggle to save the old cemetery where, according to everyone, many, many graves still remain, even if the exact number is unclear.

I held a long conversation with Rav Yaakov Rozha about the affair. He told me that before leaving for Vilna the delegation met the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel. In the course of his remarks the ambassador slipped in an oblique request that some solution be found for moving the graves. "In all the meetings we held in Vilna it was absolutely clear to us that the authorities are determined to see the project . . .through. They put it courteously but were most definite about it — come what may, they intend building even if the graves are not moved . . ."

They even started discussing how long it would take to empty the graves. "They asked us how long it would take because the winters are very cold and it couldn't be done then. They thought that we'd come to allow the emptying of the graves but we made it clear that we lacked the authority to do so . . . Sadly, they did what they intended . . .but we have no information about the situation there today, how many graves remain . . ."

Rav Sheinin noted that the authorities were willing to move the graves and were ready to discuss financing the operation but the rabbonim and activists who work to preserve Jewish cemeteries across Europe argued that cooperating with them in that direction would spell disaster for their work. "They argued, rightly, that all their struggles would come to naught if permission were to be given for the graves to be moved from the old cemetery. All over Europe, parties in governmental and business circles can build over the cemeteries, some of which are centrally located."

Speak Out!

Our protest must continue to resound: Leave the graves of our ancestors alone! The grave of the Chayei Odom may still be in the endangered area, or it may already have fallen victim to the bulldozer's teeth.

Yeshaya Epstein, devoted champion of the deceased of Vilna also continues his outcry: Don't leave our holy forbears buried shamefully at the cemetery's edge. After the desecration of their original graves, accord them reburial with the full honor that they deserve. Erect a fitting monument to them, to remind the world of what they suffered at the hands of the Lithuanian government and its accessories!

The Jewish world is ready to continue the struggle to prevent further desecration and damage to the graves and adds its voice to the call for a memorial to the desecrated bones of generations of holy Yidden who lived and died in Yerushalayim deLitta.

Vilna's Jewish Cemeteries

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.

Mission Accomplished

Rav Sheinin, whose fluent English made him the delegation's spokesman in Vilna, revealed that they had another matter to attend to while in Lithuania — the transferal of hundreds of sifrei Torah that had been collected over the years and stored in the cellars of the Lithuanian National Library, to Eretz Yisroel. Mr. Epstein received a special entry permit and the rabbonim visited the library and arranged for the seforim to be brought to Eretz Yisroel.

"This mission was a success. We received an undertaking from the Lithuanian President's assistant that the President would have a special law passed in parliament to sidestep the law that forbids the removal of antique items from the country. A week before the previous president ended his tenure, he passed the law. Most of the sifrei Torah were brought to Eretz Yisroel . . ."


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