Rabbi Shnayer Leiman
Rabbi Shnayer Leiman
Rabbi Shnayer Leiman

By Larry Gordon

The government of Lithuania, enjoying great distance from the spotlight of global daily news reporting, is on the verge of committing a serious affront to Jews worldwide and there is essentially nothing being done about it. After all, there is only so much news that can fit into our newspapers and even the large expanse of our 24-hour news cycle and round-the-clock cable news.

So the powers that be in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, once known to our ancestors as Vilna, are going about their determined business to bulldoze that city’s main Jewish cemetery, which dates back to the 1400s, and build a convention center on those grounds.

I attended a meeting on Sunday called by activist Rabbi Zev Friedman of Rambam Mesivta with one of the world’s foremost experts on the Jewish history of Lithuania, Rabbi Shnayer Leiman. The objective was to strategize about officially protesting this move to the Lithuanian government and preserving the dignity and the sanctity of a Jewish burial ground located on the Jewish-blood-soaked earth of this Eastern European capital city that served as a city of refuge as well as a cruel killing field.

It’s a sad and frustrating story, but it seems that the local government in Lithuania is planning to go about its plans as the website says that the new convention center will be built on the cemetery and open for business in 2018. It is up to all of us who now know about this looming tragedy to get involved and see to it that this construction does not take place.

Additionally sad is the fact that there is Jewish infighting and disagreement about who is the proper representative of the Vilnius Jewish community, and tens of millions of dollars are being bandied about and passed around so that communal leaders with power and influence are persuaded to look the other way and allow the construction to proceed.

The history of the country once referred to as Lita is rich in the prodigious Torah scholars and scholarship that emanated from its environs. During World War II, Lithuania was a haven for Jews and a place that the leading yeshivas of the world like Mir, Brisk, and others escaped to–beating the Nazi onslaught by a hairsbreadth.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zt’l
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zt’l

As profound as the Torah scholars it produced, like the Vilna Gaon and Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, amongst others, so was it a country whose citizens took it upon themselves to slaughter 95% of a population of 200,000 Jews who were indigenous to the country dating back hundreds of years.

The history books and the Internet provide staggering testament to the brutal fashion in which local Lithuanians wantonly and mercilessly murdered Jews in the early 1940s. The killing became a spectator sport with accounts of legions of parents hoisting children on their shoulders so that the youngsters could have a bird’s-eye view of the pitiless and inhuman murder of Jews in Vilna and surrounding towns.

And now the effort is in full gear to murder many of those victims of 70-plus years ago yet again.

The Vilna Gaon, zt’l
The Vilna Gaon, zt’l

According to Rabbi Leiman, this cemetery that is slated for destruction includes the remains of notable Torah personalities: the Chayei Adam, the Ger Tzedek, Reb Shlomo Zalman, and the parents and wife of the Vilna Gaon. The remains of the Gaon himself were moved to another Jewish cemetery in Lithuania some years ago when another construction project was scheduled to take place at another part of this main cemetery.

In terms of its position during the Holocaust, the status of Lithuania is a fascinating one. On the one hand, Lithuania was a country in a tug-of-war between Hitler and Stalin. It ended up with Stalin, with the Russian dictator deciding to offer the country a quasi-independence and autonomy that resulted in its being–for a brief period anyway–a safe haven for Jews. On the other hand, once the killing got under way and the murderous attacks targeted Jews throughout Europe, no people tortured and killed Jews with more zeal and more cruelty than the Lithuanians.

The project to dig up a large section of this Jewish cemetery and these hallowed grounds and build a convention center is not exactly a new one. Back in 1971, the Lithuanian government built a sports/exhibition center and stadium on a nearby property, and the project spilled over to and destroyed a small portion of the cemetery. When it became known that the plan was to expand and build once again, this time over a larger area of the cemetery, those dedicated to the preservation of Jewish burial grounds in Europe were concerned and initiated a meeting with the Lithuanian Consul-General in New York, Julius Pranevičius.

Reports of the meeting that took place in 2015 include encouraging words that while the building plans would go forward, the government offered assurances that the sanctity of the burial grounds would be taken into consideration. What do those words really mean?

To that end, and to find out for myself and our concerned readers, the other day I reached out to Mr. Pranevičius to find out what he has to say about the matter and to update us on what is going on. He suggested that we meet in person, and we are meeting this week, but after the deadline to get the substance of our meeting into this issue of the paper. I will, however, post the information attained from that meeting on both Facebook and 5TJT.com.

An additional aspect to all of this, as mentioned above, is the infighting and disagreements between secular and religious Jews in Vilnius. The government is apparently distributing some $40 million to Jewish groups in part as compensation for properties taken from the Jewish community in World War II and in an effort that these groups look the other way, so to speak, and allow the destruction of a large part of the main Jewish cemetery.

At odds are the old-time no-longer-observant Jews who still reside in Vilnius and the increasing-in-size more-observant religious community under the direction and guidance of the Chabad emissary in the city, Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky.

While this is a matter that is far and way out of sight, it is not out of mind.

Here is a letter from Rabbi Leiman from a few weeks ago that will fill you in on some more of the details of this matter.

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Dear Friend:

I don’t ordinarily get involved in signing petitions, but this is a matter that cries out for protest against the massive desecration that is about to take place. I’m sure you know that the Lithuanian government has announced plans to build a new convention center over the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilna. Although the Vilna Gaon’s remains were removed from the Old Jewish Cemetery, the remains of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews are still buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery.

These include the remains of some of the greatest rabbis, Jewish martyrs, and pious women through the centuries, including R’ Moshe Rivkes (d. 1671—2), author of the Be’er HaGolah on the Shulhan Arukh; R’ Zelmele (i.e., R’ Shlomo Zalman, d. 1788), brother of R’ Hayyim of Volozhin and favorite disciple of the Vilna Gaon; R’ Shmuel b’ R’ Avigdor (d. 1793), last Chief Rabbi of Vilna; R’ Avraham b’ Ha-Gra (d. 1809); the Ger Zedek of Vilna (d. 1749), whose remains were not removed from the Old Jewish Cemetery (despite claims otherwise); and Traina (date of death unknown), mother of the Vilna Gaon; Chanah, first wife of the Vilna Gaon (d. 1782); and Gitel, second wife of the Vilna Gaon, who apparently outlived the Gaon (precise date of death unknown). Virtually every Jew who died in Vilna before the year 1831 was, in fact, buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery.

The petition does not call for the Lithuanian government to cancel plans for building a new convention center (funded largely by the EU). It simply asks that it be built at a different location in Vilnius–which can easily be done.

A wonderful Vilna resident, Ruta Bloshtein, a shomer Shabbos woman who bakes challah for members of the Vilna kehillah every erev Shabbos, has taken upon herself the responsibility of spearheading this write-in campaign. She started some three weeks ago and has about 250 signatories so far. She needs at least 1,000 signatures; if she doesn’t get them it will be a chillul Hashem even beyond the destruction of the Jewish cemetery itself. It will be a signal to the Lithuanian government that Jews neither care nor count. If she gets 3,000 signatures, the political authorities will have little choice but to take the petition into account before making any hasty decision. She needs, and deserves, our help.

The two key rabbonim in Lithuania today, Rabbi Krelin (Chief Rabbi of Lithuania) and Rabbi Krinsky (head of Chabad) are among the first 250 signatories. It seems to me this is a case of meis mitzvah in more ways than one. Sefer Chasidim §261 (Margulies ed., p. 225) reads:

“You should love mitzvos that have similar status to that of an abandoned corpse that no one attends to (and whose burial is obligatory on whoever finds it). Should you see a mitzvah that is denigrated, or a portion of Torah that is neglected, make a point of [doing the mitzvah and] studying the Torah that is neglected.

“Should you see the members of your community studying the Order of Mo’ed and the order of Nashim, to the neglect of the other Orders, make sure that you study the Order of Kodoshim. Should you see that no one concerns himself with the study of the Talmudic tractate Mo’ed Katan, or the Talmudic chapter Mi Shemeso [the third chapter of tractate Berakhos], make sure that you study them.

“Your reward will be great, equal to that of all the others, for all these are samples of an ‘abandoned corpse’ whose burial is obligatory on the one who finds it.”

All one needs to do is to click on www.change.org/p/hon-dalia-grybauskaite-please-move-new-vilnius-convention-center-project-away-from-the-old-jewish-cemetery, fill out the electronic form, and electronically sign their name. Please forward to others, so that they too can participate in this mitzvah. It is not a time to stand idly by.

With prayers for the success
of our cause,

Shnayer Leiman

[Note: As of Wednesday, the petition had 38,120 supporters.]

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

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