The old Jewish cemetery in Shnipishok was the first Jewish cemetery established in Vilna. According to Vilna Jewish tradition, it was founded in 1487. Modern scholars, based on the research of Dr. Elmantas Meilus, date the founding of the cemetery to 1593, but admit that an earlier date for its founding cannot be ruled out. Meilus discovered a charter signed by Sigismund III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and dated March 29, 1629, that refers to an earlier charter approved in 1593 that grants to the Jews of Vilna the right “to keep a fenced land plot or a small cemetery to bury their dead, free of any duties, forever.” The cemetery, still standing today (but denuded of its tombstones), lies just north of the center of the city of Vilna, across the Neris (formerly: the Vilia) River, in the section of Vilna called Shnipishkes (Yiddish: Shnipishok). It is across the river from, and just opposite, one of Vilna’s most significant landmarks, Castle Hill with its Gediminas Tower. The cemetery was known as the Piramont cemetery, and also in Yiddish as der alter feld or der alter beys eylam. It was in use from the year it was founded until 1830, when – because it was filled to capacity – it was officially closed by the municipal authorities.
Every Jewish man, woman, and child who died in Vilna between the 16th century and 1830, was buried in this cemetery. Although burials were no longer permitted in the old Jewish cemetery, it became a pilgrimage site, and thousands of Jews visited annually the graves of their ancestors and of the many righteous heroes and rabbis buried there, especially the graves of the Ger Tzedek (Avraham ben Avraham, also known as Graf Potocki, d. 1749), the Gaon of Vilna (d. 1797), and the Chaye Adam (R. Abraham Danzig, d. 1820). Such visits took place even immediately after World War II, until Communist rule brought an end to Jewish religious and cultural life in Lithuania.
The cemetery, more of less rectangular in shape, is spread over a narrow portion of a sloped hill, the bottom of which almost borders on the Neris River. In the Communist period, a swimming pool and a Sports Hall (two separate buildings) were built over a significant portion of the old Jewish cemetery. The swimming pool has long since been dismantled, but the Sports Hall, no longer in use, still stands as an eyesore and as a desecration of the old Jewish cemetery. Thanks to archaeological excavation, cartographic evidence, and Israel Klausner’s detailed map and description of the old Jewish cemetery, Dr. Meilus was able to prove that the oldest section of the old Jewish cemetery was in the area of the swimming pool and Sports Hall built in the Soviet period.
Indeed the oldest dated tombstone in the old Jewish cemetery (available today only in photographs, old maps of the cemetery, and in history books), that of Rabbi Menachem Manes Chayes (1560-1636) – one of the earliest Chief Rabbis of Vilna – was precisely in this area. As the years passed, more and more graves were added in a northward direction, moving uphill from near the Neris River toward the very top of the hill at Piramont Road. See maps.
Throughout the many years of its use, the cemetery was administered by the Jewish burial society of Vilna. Rules and regulations were established regarding all aspects of the cemetery (e.g.,ownership of plots, burial services, prices for wooden or stone monuments). Jewish guards were appointed to secure the cemetery, and officials to administer its everyday activities. Even after the cemetery was officially closed in 1830, Jewish attendants were paid by the community to live in the cemetery, maintain its grounds, and protect it from vandalism. When in 1935, the Polish government decided to transform the old Jewish cemetery into a Sports Center, protests throughout the Jewish world led the Polish government to retract its plan. An often divided Jewish community in Vilna in the interwar period, consisting of religious Jews, secular Jews, Yiddishists, and Zionists was united in its determination not to allow this great cultural treasure to be destroyed.
The old Jewish cemetery survived the Nazi occupation, but after the war there were almost no Jews left to protect it. Indeed, the old Jewish cemetery survived the Communist period after a fashion (only its tombstones were stolen and/or destroyed). The questions that remains is: Will the old Jewish cemetery survive a democratic Lithuania?
Antisemitism in Lithuania is not a new phenomenon. The Begin-Sadat Center for strategic studies stated that it is a real problem and needs to be addressed.
Klausner's Manuscript on the history of the Old Jewish Cemetery (Loshon Kodesh and Lithuanian)