For centuries, the city of Vilna (today Vilnius) was the center of Jewish life in what was then known as Polish-Lithuania. By the turn of the 20th century, the Lithuanian capital boasted over 100 synagogues, an array of Jewish newspapers, and scores of other cultural and religious institutions. It played host to the famed Gaon of Vilna, one of Judaism’s spiritual giants, and also to the socialist Bund, the secular Jewish labor movement.
Today, after the Holocaust, little is left of that historic Jewish community, which once comprised half of Vilna’s population, but now constitutes less than 1 percent of it. One remaining vestige of the city’s illustrious past, however, is its old Jewish cemetery, in which “a galaxy of eminent European rabbinic scholars and authors” were buried, as one leading scholar put it. Yet compounding tragedy upon tragedy, the Lithuanian government, reportedly with European Union funding, is preparing to build a $25 million convention center on the site.
In response, an alliance of local Jews and preeminent Jewish historians has taken up the cause of saving the cemetery. They are currently gathering signatures internationally for a petition to pressure the Lithuanian government. It can be signed here. “For us, it is [about] plain and simple human rights which include the right of the deceased to lie in peace, and the honoring of grave-plot purchases in perpetuity as sacrosanct,” said Dr. Dovid Katz, who taught Yiddish Studies at Oxford from 1978-1996, served as professor of Judaic studies at the University of Vilnius from 1999-2010, and now teaches at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. “Then there is the slight issue of discrimination and anti-Semitism,” he added. “This fate would not be proposed for a more than 500-year-old Lithuanian cemetery in the nation’s capital.”