A Sign of Respect from Vilnius: Jewish Gravestones are Returned to the Territory of the Cemetery

20/10/2017

The municipality of the capital city made sure that Jewish gravestones that were used for construction during Soviet times are treated with proper respect: this week, all fragments of Jewish gravestones are transported to the territory of Olandų cemetery from historic Jewish Olandų and Šnipiškių cemeteries that were destroyed during Soviet times as well as from various locations in the capital city. More than 1,000 tonnes of gravestones that have been neglected for decades are transported to the territory of the old Jewish cemetery in Olandų street. All gravestone fragments will be analysed and evaluated and moved to respective memorials according to planned projects – old Jewish cemeteries in Olandų street and next to the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports.

“Contemporary Vilnius must properly evaluate, remember and respect the history of the city and its people. The return of a huge number of gravestones to historic and sacral locations shows the respect of Vilnius residents for the Jewish community and for remembering the dead.  Gravestones from the demolished transformer station and other objects found in the capital city that were built by the Soviets using Jewish gravestones have been already returned to the old Olandų cemetery. Our goal is to move all gravestones to their respective locations,” said Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of the capital city.

Until now, approximately 1,000 tonnes of Jewish gravestones that were destroyed and used for construction during Soviet times have been moved to the territory of UAB “Vilniaus žaluma”. The municipality of the capital city made sure that all of them were transported to the territory of the old Jewish cemetery in Olandų street and studied properly. A team of experts was formed for this purpose. The team, in cooperation with the representatives of the Community of Jews, will conduct historic heritage research. Having thoroughly analysed all gravestone fragments, the municipality of the capital city will prepare a project according to which important persons will be buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Olandų street and in Šnipiškės, next to the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports.

“After the cemetery in Užupis is put in order and proper respect is restored, it could become a unique point of attraction, one of the most visited locations in the capital, which is important not only to visitors, but also to local residents. An artful and poignant commemoration symbol would be created in an incredibly beautiful nature environment to turn the territory of the cemetery in Užupis into a cultural space that stirs up emotions and reminds in a deep and meaningful manner about the recent history of the country, which is worth being proud of,” said Viktorija Sideraitė Alon, an architect who cooperates with the municipality of the capital city in implementing the project of returning gravestones to historic cemeteries.

In summer and autumn of 2016, the Faculty of History of Vilnius University examined fragments of gravestones removed from various locations in Vilnius from a historical standpoint. Two thousand four hundred and seven fragments were analysed, and writing (mostly in Hebrew) was found on 324 of them. It was stated in the conclusions of the study that it is recommended that all fragments be stored and exhibited in an authentic environment, i.e. in the territory of Jewish cemeteries.

The Užupis cemetery in Vilnius operated from 1830 to 1963, Jews from Vilnius were buried there from the beginning of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. In 1961, Soviet authorities adopted a resolution to eliminate the Jewish cemetery in Užupis in two years, so gravestones were used as construction materials (stairs, load bearing walls, decoration of transformer station façades), frequently without even trying to properly remove the writing on them. After the cemetery was destroyed, the Jewish cemetery in Užupis turned into an abandoned area with random plants.

Last year, the municipality of the capital city organised 11 ha of the territory of the old Jewish cemetery in Olandų street: walkways and paths were created, information stands were installed, the forest was put in order, the landscape was formed and made suitable for visitors.

For the past two years, fragments of Jewish gravestones that were used in a disrespectful way have been consistently collected from various locations in the city. Gravestones with writing found in the city, which had been used by the Soviets for construction, were moved to the area near the old Jewish cemetery from T. Kosciuškos, Latvių, and Vytauto streets and the territory of the Western Bypass. Most locations where objects built from fragments of Jewish gravestones were detected have already been put in order – the gravestones have been removed, and in those locations when dismantling an object was not an option, the municipality, after consulting the Jewish community, installed information boards.

The municipality constantly works to move all fragments of Jewish gravestones to respectful cemetery locations and gradually, in cooperation with the Jewish community, to organise them.