Jewish gravestones that were used to build the steps to the main entrance to a hospital in Vilnius were removed last week and taken to the site of the vast Užupis Jewish cemetery where they once stood, joining thousands of other such fragments now stored there.
The dismantling of the main entry steps of the Antakalnyje Vilnius Clinical Hospital is the latest in a series of moves by city authorities to rescue Jewish gravestones that were uprooted under the Soviet regime and used in construction. The Užupis Jewish cemetery, which had tens of thousands of burials, was razed in the 1960s and essentially used as a quarry for building material. Thousands of gravestones and fragments have been recovered and returned to the cemetery site.
The case of the hospital steps was brought to public attention in September by Sergey Kanovich, the co-founder of the MACEVA NGO, which catalogues, documents and preserves Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. Kanovich posted photos of the steps on Facebook and tagged Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, saying, The “entrance to the clinic in Antakalnis is made by Soviets from the headstones of our ancestors. But it is we today who continue this disgrace.”
The recovery process began more than a decade ago, when gravestones that had been used to construct the grand stairway that led to the Trade Union headquarters were removed. Some of them — retaining the shape of how they were cut to be stairs — were used to construct a memorial at the Užupis cemetery.
This past June, work began to dismantle a transformer station that was built with Jewish gravestones, and in cooperation with Jewish Community of Lithuania, temporary informational signs were installed at sites where Jewish gravestones were used in construction, stating that buildings/constructions were built by matzevot. The Lithuanian Culture Minister designated the cemetery as a state protected heritage cultural object on August 6, 2016.
In cooperation with the municipality, a team of history students from the University of Vilnius is working to catalogue and document all the fragments. The team is led by Vilnius University Professor Jurgita Verbickienė, a representative of Department of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture of Lithuania Audronė Vyšniauskienė, and a PhD history student Rūta Anulytė, former Program Director at the MACEVA.
Ms. Anulyte told JHE that so far the team has inspected nearly 2,500 fragments. All are being stored in a parking lot, “situated in the heart of ruined cemetery.” Temporary signage installed at the site reads, in Lithuania and English: “Since August 23, 2016 at this territory of Vilnius Užupis Jewish cemetery, dismantled gravestones of various places of the City will be brought to the site. Worked carried out by The City Municipality of Vilnius”
Samuel Gruber has written an extensive post on his blog about the process of recovery of these stones, including photos of the new signage as well as the sites. In it, he raises questions about the future of the stones and fragments, as well as the process of recovery.
No decisions have been made about how to protect and present these pieces and the thousands of similar ones still embedded in the walls and pavements of Vilnius and surrounding areas. […] I am hopeful that Mayor Šimašius will continue the process, even though he will face some resistance from property owners. I suggest that all these gravestones be declared objects of cultural heritage and that their removal by the Soviets be recognized as both part of a process of ethnic cleansing and property theft. All identified stones should be legally recognized as stolen property and as with any other stolen property, every effort should be made to return them to their place and owner of origin. If this principle is fully recognized then financial arrangements can be more effectively discussed and arranged to assist present-day owners – who most often have nothing to do with the original theft and reuse.