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. This was an opportunity for the mayor to panhandle the importance he attached to the Jewish heritage of Vilnius.

On the surface it appears that the City of Vilnius’ Mayor Remigijus Simasius, appreciates that Jewish culture is somewhat intrinsic to the capital. 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 however, driven by poverty and pogroms, many Jews sought refuge to destinations such as South Africa. Some established themselves as leaders in their fields. These included personalities such as Samuel Marks, Nobel prize winner Aron Klug, Sol Kerzner, Mendel Kaplan, Raymond Ackerman, Donald Gordon, Helen Suzman, Nadine Gordimer, Johnny Clegg, Ali Bacher, Sydney Nomis, Wilf Rosenberg, Shaun Tomson and Joel Stransky.

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 the stage, 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 Save Vilna online which reflects on the giants of the Jewish community who are buried there.

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, 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. This is Lithuania’s racist endeavor to erase the memory of prewar Jewish life.


David Sagorin

Jewish Lives Matter


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