Following concerns raised by the Jewish community and an appeal by Lithuania’s Chief Rabbi, authorities in the northern town of Šiauliai are halting excavation of human remains at a Holocaust-era mass grave site that was discovered last week during road construction.
“The municipality of the city of Šiauliai affirms … no digging work will take place until the appropriate respect is guaranteed for the human remains of the people murdered and buried in the mass grave,” Martynas Šiurkus, the deputy director of the municipal administration of the city, told a press conference Wednesday.
The Baltic News Service reported that Šiurkus said the decision was made to show respect for “the customs and traditions of all ethnic groups.”
Lithuanian Jewish Community chair Faina Kukliansky welcomed the decision.
“In consideration of a request by the Jewish community, the government of the city of Šiauliai, Lithuania has shelved plans to move human remains discovered during road construction,” she said in a statement issued Thursday on the Lithuanian Jewish Community web site. “The Šiauliai municipality has given assurances no earth moving work will be performed until due respect is guaranteed for the mortal remains of the people murdered and buried in the mass grave.”
She added that the construction took place where it was known that a mass grave site probably existed, and it should have been expected that human remains would be found there.
I can’t say what sort of historical research was performed before construction work was begun. If it had been performed and a new location was discovered accidentally, that would be possible to understand, to forgive and to correct. Until now eight such sites were known. The issue of the Pročiūnai mass murder site was raised earlier and all of the material associated with that issue is preserved in primary sources at the Lithuanian Central State Archive, meaning it has been collected and is known. Although the location hasn’t been determined definitively, today we have all sorts of technology which we can use to determine where human remains are located without even disturbing the surface of the ground. It doesn’t matter whether those remains are of Jews or non-Jews.
She added, “The unexpected could have been avoided if there had been a more thorough examination. […] it is required by law: to inventory all cemeteries and mass murder sites by 2012 and legally register all such plots of land. The deadline for performing this work has been extended until 2016. The law just needs to be carried out and we will avoid terrible misunderstandings.”
And she stressed the cooperation between the Lithuanian authorities and Jewish community is resolving the issue, saying that “This episode demonstrates how the Government with the municipality of Šiauliai and the Cultural Heritage Department solves problems when they stand together and seek a solution. I am pleased to note no interference from abroad is needed.”
Kukliansky said she herself had invited Joe Shik, a representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, to visit the site. A representative from Lithuania’s Cultural Heritage Department also traveled to Šiauliai Wednesday.
On Tuesday the chief rabbi of Lithuania and Vilnius, Chaim Burshtein, has issued an appeal to halt the excavation.
“I refer to the humiliation of the excavation of the human remains of hundreds of people from the Holocaust-era mass-murder grave uncovered this week,” he wrote in a statement issued by his office and sent to municipal and other officials. “Please halt all disturbance and moving of these human remains.”
BNS had reported that a commission at the Šiauliai municipality had decided on Monday to excavate the site.
In his appeal Tuesday, Rabbi Burshtein called for an immediate halt to the road work, saying that the remains must not be disturbed.
In accordance with Halacha — Jewish Law — and indeed, common human values of all humankind, and the ethical standards of the European Union, the people murdered by the Nazis deserve to be left intact where they perished. The claim that the grave included non-Jewish people cannot in any way justify destruction of their grave.
I ask you to immediately halt the works underway to disturb and move the remains of these hundreds of victims of the Lithuanian Holocaust, and to preserve the grave precisely where it stands. Thank you.
Scholar Dovid Katz, who reprinted Burshtein’s statement on his web site devoted to Lithuanian Jewish issues, wrote that local and regional media had reported widely on the discovery of the mass grave and that some media had published “photos of skulls, bones and other remains from the mass grave being dismantled, sometimes including shoes and clothing.”