by Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman
In the summer of 1935, the municipal authorities of Vilna under Polish rule, announced that a sports stadium would be constructed on the site of Vilna’s oldest Jewish cemetery.
At the time, the graves and tombstones of the immediate and extended family of the Gaon of Vilna, R. Abraham Danzig (famed author of the "Chayei Adam”), R. Moshe Rivkes (author of the "Be’er Hagolah") and hundreds of other Torah sages. In 1831, it reached capacity, but a multitude of graves were maintained by descendants up to the Nazi invasion of 1941.
Jewry, as well as the leading Torah authority of his generation, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, interceded to stop the construction of the sports palace on behalf of Vilna and worldwide Jewry.
He made it clear than no such desecration of a Jewish cemetery would be tolerated by the Jewish community. When the municipal authorities informed him that under the laws that applied at the time any cemetery not in use for one hundred years or more (the old Jewish cemetery was closed in 1831 due to lack of space) could be demolished by government decision, R. Chaim Ozer advised the authorities in no uncertain terms that Jewish law prohibits the desecration of any Jewish cemetery, whether or not presently in use.
Moreover, R. Chaim Ozer informed the authorities that the Jewish community would not comply in any way with the immoral demands of the municipal government. An attempt at a compromise was then made by the authorities; they were prepared to allow the section where the famous rabbis were buried to remain standing, so long as the Jewish community would agree to allow the government to demolish the remainder of the cemetery – where ordinary folk, i.e., men, women, and children were buried. R. Chaim Ozer ruled out any such compromise solution and, instead, engaged in a tireless, worldwide lobbying campaign, in an effort to persuade the government officials to rescind their decree.
When some rabbis in Palestine, sensing the gravity of the situation, issued a broadside calling for the grave of the Gaon of Vilna to be exhumed so that his remains could be transferred to the Holy Land, R. Chaim Ozer was livid.
R. Chaim Ozer explained that by acquiescing to the exhumation and transfer of renowned rabbis, one was in effect consigning the rest of the cemetery to mass destruction. Moreover, it sets a precedent for all governments in Europe – just transfer the famous rabbis out of the Jewish cemetery and the Jews will agree to abandon the remainder of the cemetery. The upshot of R. Chaim Ozer’s wisdom and intransigence was that under his watch, no sports stadium was constructed on the old Jewish cemetery.
R. Chaim Ozer died on August 9 [5 Av], 1940. Vilna, and arguably world Jewry, would never again have a leader who so deftly and gracefully combined within himself mastery of Torah, practical wisdom, and an unswerving commitment to the dissemination and protection of Jewish values. These actions were executed with profound and unstinting loyalty to his people, both living and deceased – under any and all circumstances.
Written by Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman who is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History and Literature in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, and also teaches at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University.
The Save Vilna project is an initiative to stop the Lithuanian government’s desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Vilna.