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-
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
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
lie buried, including HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz and
thousands of other Jews. The cemeteries cover a vast
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
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
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.