The Torah Caucus Campaigns to Save Shnipishok Cemetery in Vilna
An Influential Address
By Shaul Shapiro
“Your efforts to return the Jewish cemetery in the Shnipishok neighborhood are praiseworthy.”
- US Congressman, Don Bacon, to the Lithuanian Prime Minister.
During his address to the Lithuanian Prime Minister, Congressman Bacon noted the importance of preserving the cemetery and returning it to the Jewish people. He acknowledged the efforts to preserve the cemetery by the Dirshu Delgation who visited the desecrated cemetery last winter during their Mission to Eastern Europe.
Congressman Bacon began his address to the Prime Minister of Lithuania, Ms. Ingrida Šimonytė, by saying, “As Co-chair of the House Baltic Caucus and the Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values, I wish to take advantage of this opportunity and thank you for all your efforts to return the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius to the Jewish people.
“From the fifteenth century, the Vilna Piramont Cemetery in the Shnipishok neighborhood was the burial place of many revered Rabbis. In 1949, the Soviets destroyed the cemetery, built a stadium on its holy soil, and later constructed a sports and entertainment center on the site.
“In Jewish tradition, the memory of the dead is sacred. Therefore, the desecration of the cemetery’s past and construction of buildings upon it is a mockery and disrespectful for those buried there. Your efforts to preserve the cemetery led to commemoration of the dead, and you helped overturn the terrible desecration. I would also like to thank the rabbis who served as emissaries for ensuring the preservation of this cemetery, as part of the delegation of rabbis headed by Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, President of the Dirshu organization.”
Dirshu Fights for Preservation of The Cemetery
As noted, a Dirshu delegation traveled to Eastern Europe to hold a protest last winter in the desecrated area of the Shnipishok Cemetery in Vilna. This took place on Erev Shabbos Parshas Yisro and sounded the cry of the Jewish people to save the cemetery.
In recent years, thanks to a broad international Jewish struggle, the Lithuanian government has changed its policy regarding preserving the heritage of the Jewish nation in the country, particularly thanks to the new Prime Minister. However, the sword wielded by the municipality and the local court has given freedom to entrepreneurs and those eager to earn profits. Lacking a conscience, they continue to endanger the rest of the dead, of the Torah greats and spiritual giants.
These entities are trying to destroy the cemetery to develop an infrastructure to expand the cultural building, with the plans already publicized, and a desecration of the area is still possible. However, the cry of the Jewish nation still echoes, and it was greatly reinforced during the Dirshu mission last winter: “All the Jews of the world are united,” it was explained to the Lithuanian government. “The cemetery belongs to the Jewish nation, and it was purchased at great cost as a permanent burial ground. No one is permitted to take it away and desecrate it.”
Gedolei Yisrael Speak Out
The main speech at the protest was delivered by the Av Beis Din of Bnei Brak, HaGaon HaRav Sariel Rosenberg, shlita, who spoke in Hebrew. HaGaon HaRav Reuven Ohana, shlita, chief rabbi of Marseille, spoke in French, and Rav Mordechai Neugroschel spoke in English, and expressed the objections of those participating in the gathering to the authorities and the local media.
Rav Rosenberg, who is extremely active and involved in the struggle to save the cemetery, cried: “The place on which we are standing is holy ground. Here lie tens of thousands of Jews of Vilna – the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Even when they moved the Vilna Gaon from this location, it remained sacred like the parchment of a Torah scroll. This place was taken from us by the evil Communist government, decades ago – here in the center a large stadium was built, and there is still a threat to destroy the site. We must save it for the honor of the deceased.”
Later, Rav Neugroschel spoke: “Rabbis and community leaders from all over Europe, the United States, Canada, and Israel have gathered here to express their outrage at the intent of the authorities to continue to steal this holy cemetery,” he began.
“Aside from the fact that in its time, the place was purchased at its full price by the Jews of the Vilna community and was registered legally as property of the community. Taxes, including strange taxes which were invented for this purpose were also paid. And in any event, any attempt to take control of the area cannot be considered legal and is certainly unjust. Harming the graves is like harming the living, as well as their descendants who feel it as a personal blow to themselves and to their loved ones. The only difference is that they, the deceased, cannot protest, and so we protest in their place.”
In the spirit of the call from the days of the Jewish struggle for freedom from the USSR – “Let my people go – let the Jews go!” declared Rav Neugroschel: “We are turning to the authorities with a cry of ‘Let my people live and let our dead rest in peace!!!’ – Let our fellow Jews live and let our dead rest in peace!”
Rav Ohana spoke in French and declared: “On behalf of the delegation of rabbis from around the world – from the United States, Canada, and Israel, from England, from France, from all of Europe, we go back to our roots. Vilna is the base and the source for all that we learn in yeshivah until this very day, and we are sorry to hear that the cemetery is in danger and ask the authorities to allow our dead to rest undisturbed. We thank the government and the Prime Minister for the new efforts to preserve the cemetery so that the rest of those buried there will not be disturbed, and the destruction and desecration of the cemetery will not continue.”
Israel’s Ambassador to Lithuania, Mr. Yosef Levi, also came and joined the event due to its importance. Likewise, approximately 150 Rabbonim signed a petition on Motzei Shabbos Parshas Yisro, calling on the Lithuanian government to take action.
Afterwards, the delegation sang a song together which arose like an echo from the soil. “Before our eyes let it be known among the nations, that You avenge the spilled blood of Your servants. Let the groans of the prisoners reach You; reprieve those condemned to death.”
Amidst cries and shouts, Kaddish was recited for the elevation of the souls of the Jews of Lithuania, by HaGaon HaRav Shimon Galai, shlita, whose cries from the heart made people tremble, pierced their hearts, and spread over the snow-covered expanses, with the sounds of “Amen, Yehei Shmei Rabba” echoing.
The local media widely covered the delegation’s arrival and reinforced its message and pleas in the name of the entire Jewish world, to act immediately to stop the destruction of the graves.