Earlier in the summer, more than a dozen tombstones at a Dundalk Jewish cemetery were vandalized, marked with anti-Semitic symbols. Such disregard for our sacred sites is not specific to Maryland; in recent years, graves all over the U.S. and around the world have been desecrated or defaced, including the recent placement of pig skulls on the grave of the daughter of Rav Nachman of Breslov.
The destruction of Jewish cemeteries was a common Nazi practice, with the frequent forcing of Jews to use tombstones to pave roads or build walls. Following the Holocaust, the Russian regime continued desecrating cemeteries, such as the 1971 building of a sports complex in the middle of a Vilna cemetery that was established in the 1400s and is the burial site for 50,000 Jews, including major gedolim and the family of the Vilna Gaon. That sports complex was abandoned in 2004, but that did not put an end to the cemetery issue because in 2015, Lithuania passed a law that allows them to build a conference center atop that cemetery.
This is where Chaya Fried, a Baltimore native, steps in. The daughter of the then-mashgiach of Ner Israel, Rav Dovid Kronglass, and his wife Baila, a teacher at Bais Yaakov for many years, Mrs. Fried was raised hearing stories of Europe’s Torah giants. She learned the kedusha of burial sites and the importance of maintaining Jewish graves, but the matter became much more personal when her husband, Dov, learned of the desecration in the Vilna cemetery his relatives are buried in. With the support from major Rabbis including Rav Chaim Kanievsky as well as leaders in the Young Israel/OU communities, the Frieds helped launched the Save Vilna project, a coalition that represents the concerns of individuals, 44 human rights organizations, and 15 Jewish organizations around the world working to preserve the Vilna cemetery.
Dov Fried notes, “For years, the Jewish international community has been working behind the scenes to protect the Vilna cemetery. The recent activities in Afghanistan show that the world will not do anything when major violations of human rights occur, and we must not wait for the cemetery destruction to continue. The Jewish community must join together to immediately secure the cemetery’s permanent protection and hopefully even restore it to a place of respect and dignity for the deceased in time to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-Lithuanian agreement.”
In October 2002, the United States signed an agreement with Lithuania that legally should protect the cemetery, which was supplemented in subsequent years by resolutions passed by the U.S. Congress, as well as other American and international laws to preserve religious, cultural, and heritage sites, including cemeteries. Unfortunately, as anti-Semitism increased around the world and trampled on human rights and religious practices, the cemetery became a target too. A newspaper even published architectural plans showing how serious Lithuania was about disregarding Jewish sacred sites, and violating the agreement and international laws. Then last week, the Lithuanian government announced a temporary (but not permanent) halt of the conference center. While some Jewish leaders expressed gratitude and hailed this as a triumph, they ignored two key factors: first, that the Lithuanian government announced the short-term halting of the conference center because of the financial impact of COVID, not out of respect to the living and deceased Jews; also, since the Lithuanian government has not repealed the 2015 resolution that allows for the desecration of the conference center, they can re-start construction plans at any time.
The Baltimore Jewish community has strong roots in Lithuania. Starting in the late 1800s, tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews immigrated to America and settled in Baltimore, establishing businesses, founding shuls, and creating Ner Israel. Not everyone was fortunate to be able to leave Lithuania that early and, ultimately, 97% of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered or fled from the Nazis. Their descendants in Baltimore, the U.S., and around the world are seeking to regain control of the cemetery and restore it to its former glory and according to halacha.
Chaya Fried added, “It’s disappointing that in 2021, the American government offered almost $1 million in grants to individuals and organizations in Lithuania for projects such as improving human rights and tolerance for vulnerable populations, as well as countering Holocaust distortion and denial, but their government seems to be retreating from its commitment to uphold the respect and dignity for my husband’s ancestors buried there.”
Senator Ben Cardin supported past efforts on this issue and hopefully will commit to the renewed efforts to save the cemetery, while Congressman Andy Harris has already committed to signing. The Baltimore Jewish community is urged to take 10 minutes to reach out to Maryland Senators Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, who both sit on the U.S. Senate Committee of Foreign Relations and have a powerful influence on this issue, as well as your representative in Congress, by visiting https://www.savevilna.org/congress.