VILNIUS - It was the darling of Lithuania. “The cradle of Jewish culture,” as depicted by the Mayor of Vilnius, Mr. Remigijus Simasius at an auspicious occasion. It was an opportunity for the mayor to panhandle the importance he attached to the Jewish heritage of Vilnius.
On the surface, Mayor Remigijus Simasius appreciates that Jewish culture is somewhat intrinsic to Vilnius. Its origins date back hundred of years. It was once a thriving city of Torah scholars, Talmudic enthusiasts who walked with the words of Torah on their lips.
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, driven by poverty and pogroms, many Jews sought refuge in destinations such as South Africa. It offered the likes of businessman Samuel Marks, and families of Nobel prize winner Aron Klug, Sol Kerzer, Mendel Kaplan, Raymond Ackerman, Donald Gordon, Helen Suzman, Nadine Gordimer, Johnny Clegg, Ali Bacher, Sydney Nomis, Wilf Rosenberg, Shaun Tomson and Joel Stransky, new opportunities.
During World War II, virtually the entire Mir Yeshiva miraculously escaped Lithuania with the assistance of the Japanese consul in Kovna, Sempo Sugihara. See Escape to Shanghai
For many former Lithuanian’s, although tragedy, poverty and political turmoil had resulted in a relocation, they found solace in their Lithuanian ancestry. For that reason the Jewish community in South African, of which 90% trace their roots back to Lithuania, constitutes a close knit, warm and hospitable ensemble who epitomize Lithuanian Jewish culture at its best.
Surprisingly, the nostalgic memories of what was once Lithuania, have taken a turn. At the centre of this change, is a decision by the Lithuanian government, to construct a conference centre on the grounds of the old cemetery in Shnipishok, Vilnius.
The proposed construction is a clear desecration of the Jewish cemetery. An expert panel has determined that any building or use of the cemetery, outside the framework of its use as a cemetery, is illegal. An auspicious Jewish court, that of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz Z”L’s Beis Din has already ruled that construction and use of the conference centre is forbidden. The Honorable Court’s decision was also affirmed by leading halachic expert in Jewish Law, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. Additionally, legal experts point to the the plan’s violation of the Hague Convention and EU Charter of Human Rights.
The Shnipishok resting place for well over 50,000 Jews is over 500 years old and includes some of the luminaries of the Vilna Gaon’s family, the Chayei Adam, the Ber Hagaola and many others. See https://www.savevilna.org/the-project
Tragically, a dark cloud hangs over the once vibrant City of Vilnius, where Jewish lives and culture thrived. Prominent Rabbis from across the globe have rallied to intervene. An initiative spearheaded by the de facto guardian of the cemetery, Mr. Dov Fried (see savevilna.org), hopes to protect the cemetery and the threatening desecration.
“Is it not enough that the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews at Auschwitz?” Yehuda Goldstein, an American whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania, asks.
Many Jews in communities from across the globe are questioning, whether Vilnius will be yet another Auschwitz. This time with a slightly different twist: anti-semitism perpetrated beyond the grave.
Jewish Lives Matter