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How I became lead plaintiff in a class-action suit to protect a Jewish cemetery

(By Itzik Pines)

Lead plaintiff Itzik Pines

As a direct descendent of the Vina Gaon, our connection to this lineage is extremely meaningful. This is true for me, as well as for my extended family which is significant.

A few years ago I met with Harav Dov Fried who disclosed to me the atrocious plans to develop a conference center on the old Vilnius cemetery in Shnipishok. The news was shocking. It felt like I had experienced a suffocating blow to my solar plexus, an injury that penetrated the depths of my heart.

Although I sensed I was powerless, I knew that I had to do something and take action to protect the graves of the tzadikim buried there. These were Torah scholars who had cemented the foundation for the Jewish values and teachings that we have today.

My enlistment to the frontline, to fight for those values close to our heart, to protect the holy souls who had passed on, was a fait accompli. However, I was perplexed how this could be achieved, as at that time it did not dawn on me, how much of a key role I could play.

In truth, I was moved by the thousands of Yidden who had perished in the Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust, men, women and children who were massacred in cruel circumstances. The absence of their souls, those who died al kiddush Hashem in the ensuing killings, meant that there was no one left to stand up and fight for the protection of the tzadikim buried in the Shnipishok cemetery. This Shnipishok cemetery was their pride. It was etched in the heart and blood of every Lithuanian Jew.

I heard and heeded their call for help, like a shofar blowing from the heavens. “Itzik, save the Bais Hakvaros of our ancestors, the family of the Gaon, the Chayei Adam, the Beer Hagola and thousands upon thousands of others.” In fact, there lies on that ground between 50,000 to 80,000 souls.

Those thoughts and that experience were my inspiration. I worked day and night to respond to their call. At the end of the day, b'siyata d'shmaya, I coordinated and ultimately secured over 200 claims with signatures, from descendants of those who had been interred in the cemetery.

There are of course many thousands more, awaiting their turn to make a claim, to be part of this great merit, to protect the rights of our ancestors, those who lie buried on holy ground.

Although I appreciate that I play this pinnacle role, I am also mindful that we are merely proxies for those communities which were erased during the Holocaust. We stand in their stead, fighting for the rights of our ancestors and the struggles that they took to the grave.

That is my experience of how I merited to become lead plaintiff, representing approximately 160 others, in the class action claim, aiming to prevent the development of the conference center and the desecration of the cemetery.

Photos: Yom tefilla and protest against the desecration of the Shnipishok cemetery.

In conclusion, I would like to share with you this personal story.

Last year we had an event in Vilna. It was a yom tefilla. I was scheduled to be a lead coordinator in the proceedings, a function which had attracted people from the four corners of the globe. Accordingly, it was anticipated that I would depart Israel Motze Shabbos to set up for the event, which was scheduled for Monday. That Erev Shabbos my father became critically ill, to the extent that the doctors gave him only a few hours to live. The family gathered in the hospital around his bed. He said viduy and we bid our final goodbyes.

He was weak but coherent and I conveyed to him that I obviously would not be going to Vilna. Suddenly his voice, which had been weak and quiet, became strong and loud. “No, you must go to Vilna,” he demanded. Shortly thereafter, to the amazement of the doctors, he stabilized. Miraculously, by Sunday morning, he was davening with his tallis and tefillin. By that time, I was on the plane journeying to Vilna.

Baruch Hashem, my father recently, (prior to the corona pandemic), danced at his grandchild's wedding.

May Hashem continue to attribute us with this zchus, help us win the court case and save this holy Beis Hakvaros. You can read more about the cemetery and the litigation, here.

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