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Why preserving the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery is so important

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

About 1,750 miles North-northeast of Jerusalem as the crow flies, lies a city Vilnius. Today it is the capital of Lithuania. This was once the heart of a vibrant Jewish community, birth place and burial ground of the Vilna Gaon, Chaya Odom and many other luminaries.

Today this once thriving Jewish location, is the center of a raging controversy. The Lithuanian government has earmarked the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, for an International Conference Center. Human rights and Jewish organizations have rallied to protest the proposed desecration. In violation of the Geneva Convention, the EU charter of Fundamental Rights and contrary to Jewish law.

No individuals are more qualified to speak about the unfolding saga, than Rabbi Elchonon Baron, (a descendant from an illustrious Lithuanian family), and Anat Knafo, Israeli activist, politician and former member of the Israeli Knesset.

Rabbi Baron begins, “The issue is, is that there's almost no Jewish community to speak of. Even though one would imagine that such a place with as much Jewish and culture and history as Lithuania would have Jews. The fact of the matter is that the Jewish community was decimated in the Holocaust, over 95% were annihilated.”

Protection of cemeteries has been the crown of Human Rights charters across the globe. Central to the protection of international values. Many people ask how do other countries besides Lithuania treat their Jewish cemeteries?

Anat Knafo responds. “Well, my family, I have relatives that are in Fes, in Morocco. For example the King of Morocco takes care of the cemetery there. For example, he pay's a family to live there. Each cemetery in Morocco has a family, a Moroccan family. A Muslim and Moroccan family who lives in the cemetery, taking care of the graves.”

Antisemitism today is on the rise. How is this playing out? How will this effect the desecration of the cemetery in Lithuania?

“Considering the dangerous precedent in France a few days ago,” says Rabbi Baron. “That the Supreme court said that if a person takes enough Cannabis then they can murder Jews, and get away with it.”

The Halimi case has sparked something in the French community and they are determined to put a stop to what is clearly rising antisemitism in France.

"This is a very, very dangerous situation. You're talking about France which is the number maybe fourth largest Jewish community in the world."

Rabbi Baron believes that despite assurances to the contrary, decisions which impact the broader Jewish community and cemetery are made unilaterally, absent from consultation with legitimate Jewish authorities.

"I find in the context of Lithuania, the key issue is that the local population and government, in particular the government, do not take into account at all, the Jewish position. They're always dealing with Jewish matters from their own perspective. We don't count. We don't exist. We have conversations. We talk about, you know this is the Jewish areas of the Jewish Holy sites and they say yeah, we're gonna make a memorial. But we didn't ask you to make a memorial? We don't want a memorial. This is a Holy site.

"Considering that Jewish people were there for a thousand years. I'm not going to discuss, you know who gave more. That's not the point. But Jews were in Lithuania for a thousand years and they were a major part of the country. Vilna was populated by over a third of Jewish people. A major part of Lithuania were Jews. And many important ideas and movements in jewellery come from Lithuania. And they're willing to think about the past but not willing to, to sit down with the Jews today and say, okay, it's your ancestors were here. What do you think about this?

Anat Knafo believes that the desecration of the Jewish cemetery can be resolved. "I think the problem comes from the head, like as you see, in Morocco, the King, has his own way to take care of things. To take care of our interests, even though we are not there anymore.

Knafo also believes that a stronger response is required from every Jew who is in a leadership position.

"I think it's something that Jewish people should not be able to go to sleep with, when things like this happen in the world. How can we remain silent?"

Rabbi Baron articulates how important Šnipiškės is from a Jewish perspective.

"What actually is at stake is one of the core values of Judaism. One of the fundamental values of Jewish faith is that a person has a soul, that the the soul remains and the belief in techiat ha-meitim.

"Because at the core of the Jewish people's respect for their cemeteries, is the respect for the Jewish souls that are buried there. This is a core tenet of Judaism. That is if a person does not believe in the immortality of the soul and life after death, he basically doesn't, subscribe to the Jewish faith. He may be Jewish by birth, but he doesn't believe in the Jewish faith. This concept is at the core of the Jewish Faith.

"I was thinking. I haven't done a study, but I would guess that there is no nation or people anywhere in the world that has cemeteries and graves of their forefathers, for thousands of years. We know the names and the places of tens of thousands of our forefathers dating back 4,000 years. This is unparalleled. There are other nations that have one grave or two graves. However, we have tens of thousands of graves from Kever Rachel, which up to today has I'm sure way over a million visitors a year. And Me'arat HaMakhpela in Hebron.

"In every place in Israel there are many thousands and all over the world. We have in every place, tombs of our ancestors. We keep the respect, the graves of our ancestors. This is a major part of Judaism. So if the Jewish people as a whole, ignore a foreign government, seizing a cemetery one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world. Which is between according to the records between 50,000 and 70,000 graves. Which makes it in the top ten Jewish cemeteries in the world. If I'm not mistaken. Not to mention the importance of the people that are there, because it was the only cemetery of the entire Vilna region for hundreds of years. If we say that it's okay, that it's just a piece of real estate and the government of Lithuania can turn it into a conference center, then we are basically pulling back and drawing the line and saying that everywhere in the world where Jews once lived, the cemeteries are real estate. And they're just an instrument of negotiatiation. That would mean that they are no longer Holy sites. They're are no longer part of Jewish heritage and history. The precedent over here is extremely dangerous for Jewish cemeteries all over the world."

Rabbi Baron is asked to comment on a proposal. "Would a memorial in place of the cemetery offer compensation for the Jewish graveyard? Is that something that would float?"

Rabbi Baron is clear cut and precise. "Its completely, its completely irrelevant. As in our first meeting with the fine Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel, over a year ago, Rabbi Sariel Rosenberg, the head of the Beth Din of Bnei Brak, which is arguably the most influential and important Beth Din in the world, and for sure Lithuania. He was asked that question. And he said, in no uncertain terms, he said that all the souls of everybody who is buried there, are still there. All the souls are there. Doing anything other than leaving them alone, at a place of prayer, is disturbing the souls. And those souls, when they are disturbed they won't allow rest for the people who disturbed them. And they, he even said, they could so to say, take revenge against the people who, who are disturbing their rest, because they need to rest in peace.

"But I'm saying the situation is so opposite, so extreme to what you have suggested, that you can just make a nice plaque. And that's it. It's not a question of memory. It's a question of living souls of Jewish people that bought their resting place for eternity. And they expected to lie there, undisturbed for eternity. This is not negotiable. Zero usage, zero, anything, it doesn't help. If you have the memorial, if you don't have the memorial. The entire place has to be returned to correct custodians of the Jewish people, there has to be a fence made. We can try to restore the graves, try to figure out all the destruction by the Nazi's and the Soviets, and it needs to become, once again, a place of Prayer. That is what a Jewish cemetery is. It's a place of prayer where the souls rest in peace.

The interviewer turns to Knafo. "Anat you've seen the benefits of tourism in Israel, like how it's actually benefited the country, and many places in Europe as well. What sort of potential would you see if the cemetery itself had to be made into a tourist site where Jewish communities from all over the world would come and visit the graves of these very Holy Torah scholars?"

Anta Knafo responds, "Well, if I can compare it to a community in Fez for example.

"That's in Morocco?"

"In Morocco, so if people would know that you can visit the grave or his family, his relatives I think it would increase tourism to this area for sure."

However, Rabbi Baron believes that the Lithuanian government has grossly under estimated the value, which Jewish tourists could contribute to the country, and that the potential lies undeveloped.

"I feel," says Rabbi Baron. "That the Lithuanian government completely does not understand this issue of the tourism and developing a Jewish Holy site. I have been to Europe to most major sites. I mean, I saw what the Czech government did with their Jewish sites and with their cemetery which is a tiny, it's less than a 10th of the size of Shnipishok. It has between one and I think, 2 million visitors a year. It's one of the top tourist sites in all of Europe. The cemetery just besides the whole ghetto there. And they, the Czech government, poured fortunes of money into restoring the ghetto, all the museums, all the old synagogues and the buildings. And it's now not one of the major Jewish tourist sites. It's one of the major tourist sites in Europe. It's the Old Prague Jewish cemetery.

"And then move from there to Ukraine and see where the Ukrainian government encourages the Jews to return to, to visit the grave sites of the Holy people at the Baal Shem Tov. Interpreters, mostly Americans, also Europeans, have by themselves come forward, made hotels in all these places. And they've turned them. When I was there, there was nothing. When the Soviet was crumbling, these places were sleepy ghost towns and they've now become major tourist magnets. But the Lithuanian government does not, they just don't seem to understand the significance of the potential over here."

Lithuania has ushered in a new government. A government consisting of three dynamic leaders. Forward thinking leadership, that is viewed as being progressive with a higher level of sensitivity to Jewish law and cultural considerations. A change from the staunch Soviet authoritarianism of the past.

"We are extremely hopeful," says Rabbi Baron. "For the first time, the three top positions are women. Younger, more West leaning, less nationalistic. Just like they decided to, to put a moratorium on the funding for this project, for 2021, we're hoping that it will lead to real meaningful dialogue."

At the heart of the debate is whether there exists any skeletal remains or graves beneath a Russian construct building known as the Sports Palace. The evidence shows that there does.

Powerhouse Human Rights Attorney, Evelina Dobrovoloska who filed an action to stop the desecration and who is today the country's Minister of Justice confirmed, "Even in the archives, in construction, in the official documents, it said that a lot of bones were used to construct this building, and you can find them in the cement of this building."

Rabbi Baron explains, "The Soviets constructed an edifice on a quarter of the cemetery, And now the lead developer in the proposal is claiming its no longer a cemetery because they built a building there. However, according to Jewish law, a cemetery, a grave site is Kadosh, is holy forever.

Anat Knano nods in approval and confirms. "Right!"

Says Rabbi Baron, "It doesn't matter what they did with it. So they made a mistake, okay, but at least don't continue to make a new mistake by making a conference center there."

It's a new day in Lithuania, a new generation that carries the badge of reconciliation. Whether that badge is worn, will depend on how the authorities make the next move.

Mr. Malcolm Hoenlein, Chairman of Conference of Jewish Presidents of Jewish Organizations makes a closing statement.

"We appeal to the government of Lithuania, a democratic government, a member of NATO a member of the EU that subscribes to these values and to the norms that we all cherish. To today, make the right decision. To stop the construction of a convention center on the cemetery. To accord those people, the lasting rest in peace they're entitled to. It will also be a reminder to those who perished on the shoah and the Holocaust that there is a new era, An era of respect, for the Jewish living and for the Jewish dead. So we ask that everyone join in appealing to the government of Lithuania that they will stand up at this moment, do the right thing. We know they can. We know they have, we hope they will do it now."

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