Time to Fight for the Dead Jews of Vilna

Before the onset of World War II there were over 200,000 Jews who called Lithuania their home. In a few short years the Nazis and countless Lithuanian cohorts effectively murdered 95% of the Jewish men, women, and children in Lithuania.

Lithuania holds the record for having had the highest percentage of Jews  “eliminated” from any country in Europe. Despite attempts at whitewashing Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust, many eyewitness reports testify to the vicious, sadistic, and barbaric active participation of Lithuanian volunteers gleefully murdering their Jewish neighbors.

In blood-curdling testimony, one non-Jewish observer recounted how Lithuanians mercilessly bludgeoned and beat innocent Jews to death and kept hoses running to wash away the blood. When dead bodies had piled up sufficiently, a Lithuanian patriot climbed atop the corpses and played the Lithuanian National anthem to the cheers of the crowd.

Lithuanians also played an active role in mobile killing squads known as Einsatzgruppen. They forced Jews to dig large trenches and then machine-gunned them down into what would become large, mass graves.

Despite the fact that Lithuanians were actively involved in the murder of their own Jewish neighbors, the perpetrators, although known to the Lithuanian government, never faced criminal charges. One of the most notorious murderers was Aleksandras Lileikis, who oversaw the murder of 60,000 Jews in the forests of Ponary, on the outskirts of Vilna.  Lileikis, who was expelled from the United States, received a “hero’s welcome” upon his return to Lithuania and never stood trial.

In the post-World War II era, when Russia occupied Lithuania, the Communists destroyed all of the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery Vilna. In 1973, the Russians went so far as to build a sports complex in the middle of Vilna’s Jewish cemetery, desecrating countless bones in order to build the foundation.

Recently, the Lithuanian government nationalized the site and announced plans to build a convention center on the footprint of the Russian sports complex. Many Lithuanian Jews and rabbinic groups have decried this decision, considering it a sacrilege to have a convention center and “party rooms” built in the midst of hallowed grounds.

The government of Lithuania, concerned about the “anti-Semitic impression” created by their decision, rallied (and paid) some members of the existing Jewish community and a number of rabbis from London, who are ostensibly involved in “preserving” the dignity of Jewish cemeteries. These individuals “gave cover” to the Lithuanians, enabling them to plow forward with their plans.

In addition to what likely were financial incentives (it was reported that the group in London received $100,000 for “digging supervision fees”), those who assented were promised that no additional graves would be disturbed. They also point to the fact that the site has already been desecrated by the Russians and that all tombstones have been removed, despite the fact that thousands of bones remain interned beneath the ground.

A member of the group in London advised that while the group would have preferred to avoid building the conference center on the cemetery, they agreed to the planned construction because they thought it was “the best deal available.”

On Wednesday, February 15th, 2017, I, together with two student representatives from Rambam Mesivta, and Larry Gordon, a journalist and editor of The Five Towns Jewish Times, met with Mr. Julius Pranevicius, the Consul General of Lithuania in NY. Our group outlined the sordid history of Lithuanian anti-Semitism and conveyed the impression held by so many that anti-Semitism is part of Lithuanian “culture.”

The Consul General spoke of his government’s attempt to build bridges with the Jewish community. Our group advised him that the most effective way of doing that would be to publicly announce that the project was being canceled due to the sensitivities of the Jewish community. Additionally, we suggested that the tombstones which were removed by the Russians, be rebuilt and replaced based upon photographs which predated their removal.

We added that it would be most appropriate for the Lithuanian government to remove the sports complex and instead of building a convention center, construct a huge memorial which would pay tribute to the 200,000 Jews of Lithuania who were murdered by their own Lithuanian neighbors.

Toward the end of the meeting, the Consul General assured us that there were no plans to disturb any graves during the construction of the convention center.  Our group asked how that assurance could be relied upon, given the recent release of a document on December 29, 2016 which reveals that the plan is to expand an additional 35,520 square feet beyond the existing structure?

This website page, when translated from Lithuanian to English, states that “on the right side of the building is planned to build an extension which is scheduled to install an additional 500 seat conference hall. The building is plan to expand an area of 15,600 m² to 18,900 m² ( the equivalent of 35,520 ft.²)”

Assuming that the average space needed for a grave was 20 ft.², a 35,000 ft² addition has the potential to displace over 1700 graves!

On February 20th 2017, we received an email from supporters of the convention center, which unequivocally stated that “Lithuania has the right to do as they see fit with the property.”

It is important to speak out against Lithuania’s plan, urging them to let the dead “rest in peace,” and find an alternative site that can accommodate a wide array of convention attendees. We plan on contacting members of Congress to garner bipartisan support to speak out against Lithuania, in addition to contacting the American ambassador to Lithuania to weigh in on this issue.

To this end, a rally is being planned outside the offices of Lithuanian Mission to United Nations to shine a light on Lithuania’s planned desecration of the Jewish “remnants” of what once was a proud and vibrant community in Vilna.

Other groups have actively expressed their outrage to the proposed construction, and there are indications that the outcry against the desecration of the dead is making its way to the upper echelons of the Lithuanian government. As Lithuania appears to be taking public opinion into account, it is critical to keep up our efforts and let Lithuania know how offensive it is to build a convention center in the midst of the Jewish cemetery.

During the Holocaust, Lithuania did not respect Jewish lives. Now it is time for them to respect Jewish dead.

About the Author
Rabbi Zev Friedman is the Rosh Mesivta, Dean Of Rambam Mesivta for Boys and Shalhevet High School for Girls.