The long-simmering debate on what to do with the Old Šnipiškės Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius bubbled to the surface again this past month.
An online petition in December led to a series of articles against a multi-million dollar state project to reconstruct an abandoned Soviet-era sports palace on the site and convert it into a convention center. By January 24, the petition had received more than 36,600 signatures.
The Vilnius Jewish community responded with a lengthy statement spelling out why it supports the project and pointing out the complexity of the situation.
Founded in the 15th century, the cemetery was closed in 1830 and demolished by the communist authorities in the late 1940s. At the time, the grave of the Gaon of Vilna was moved to the cemetery currently used by the Jewish community, and installed in a large ohel.
The modernisitc Sports hall was built decades ago atop part of the cemetery. The cemetery site now is a grassy park-like area, with paved pathways going through it and the now-derelict Sports Hall in the middle. Part of the cemetery also lies beneath a roadway that runs along the bank of the Neris River.
Two monuments designate the area as the site of the Old Jewish Cemetery.
The Old Jewish Cemetery was not the only Jewish cemetery in Vilnius to be demolished under the Soviet regime. The vast Užupis Jewish cemetery, established in 1830 after the Old Jewish cemetery was closed, had as many as 70,000 of burials and the sprawling hillside site was the main Jewish burial ground until World War II. It was razed in the 1960s and essentially used as a quarry for building material.
In recent years, efforts have been undertaken to recover these stones.
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.
The process continues, and signage now marks the site, but there are still buildings in Vilnius where Jewish gravestones can be seen as part of construction or stairs.
(Note: this post replaces an earlier post that was lost due to a server glitch.)