According to news reports, the Lithuanian government is utilizing money from the European Union to build a multi-million dollar conference center on the site. The Vilna cemetery, beyond being sacred ground that should command respect and reverence, is significant because it is several centuries old. According to noted historian Sidney Leiman, contains the remains of “some of the greatest rabbis, Jewish martyrs, and pious women through the centuries.”
Many prominent Jewish leaders have raised their voices in protest, even though some have faced repercussions. The Chief Rabbi of Lithuania was forced out of his position after he protested the decision.
This decision is extremely concerning and dismaying, as it disrespects history and shows a great disrespect for the social contract. Society, Edmund Burke said, is a contract, but it is not only a contract between those who are living. Rather, Burke stated, the contract binds those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born all together.
According to this understanding, every generation has responsibilities not only towards themselves, but also towards their progenitors and their descendants. A society that ignores its past, then, is no less irresponsible than one that ignores its future. Furthermore, since the societal contract binds the past, the present, and the future, any mistreatment of a society’s past is bound to harm its future as well. (Think, in this context, of Santayana’s famous quote, sometimes attributed to Burke as well: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.)
Per Burke, the destruction of a historical cemetery is a violation of the social contract that binds society itself. The desecration also wrongs the silent, helpless souls who chose it for their final resting place. They have no voice to raise in protest, but we, the living, do.
A resident of Vilna, Ruta Bloshtein, has started a petition asking the Lithuanian government to reconsider its decision.