At first I was reluctant to go - there were so many places and people I wanted to see in Vilnius, and time was short. But Sergey was persuasive, and I thus spent a day that was the most emotionally moving of any during my week in Lithuania, and which was also professionally intriguing, stimulating and uplifting - leaving me feeling positive and hopeful about the increased recognition about Jewish and Holocaust history in Lithuania and about the potential for protecting and presenting heritage and memorial sites with dignity, beauty and community outreach. The expansive concept, and the high degree of the planning work, and the technical and aesthetic quality of the monuments impressed me very much.
The October 9th ceremony, which included the participation of Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius marked progress so far. In the future there are plans to build a small museum next to the cemetery which will tell the story of the region's Jewish community and its fate. Amir Maimon, Israel’s first ambassador to Lithuania; Darius Degutis, Lithuania’s former ambassador to Israel and Mantvydas Bekešius, deputy Lithuanian foreign minister, attended the ceremony as well. I was surprised that the United States embassy did not send a representative. At the dedication, Kanovich said that “Murderers could not kill our memory. We are back because our memory is stronger than their bullets. And memory will always prevail.”
The restored cemetery, which is not far from a main road, is the most visible part of the project, but hardly the most important. for at least ten years visitors and genealogists had been visiting the site and transcribing visible gravestones, but though accessible the cemetery was not maintained. The condition of the large site was better than at many cemeteries in Lithuania, and at least its broken walls clearly defined its sacred space - which unlike in nearby Radviliškis, had not been encroached upon. Still, the wall was broken, parts of the site were overgrown, and the entire place was pervaded by an overwhelming sense of neglect. Since work began in earnest on the restoration a few years ago, more than 400 tombstones have been identified and more than 1,300 have been either restored or preserved. The decision was made to leave all standing stones as they were, to re-erect fallen stones to perpendicular, and to assemble fragments of matzevot into a monument (read more here).
Kvintas's monuments, which replace earlier mostly Soviet era markers, are tall and free standing and command the open plazas onto which they are placed. One can drive and park close to the two Liaudiškiai Forest sites. The third site requires a short hike through the woods. The monuments are stark and geometric and dark in color, but their appearance is softened with symbols, angled elements and penetration areas, so that light and sky and greenery are visible from every view.
Rural and forest roads have been repaired and in some cases entirely rebuilt to allow access, though most likely this will be difficult or impossible in winter months. The visitation season to mass grave memorials will mostly be from mid-spring through September as this includes the commemoration dates of Yom ha-Shoah, the August anniversary of the massacres themselves, and Lithuania's national Holocaust Remembrance Day on September 23rd. Most foreign visitors come in the summer when the days are long and the weather is best.
Organizers and local officials are not unaware of the broader effect of the restoration project. Indeed, consideration of the regional impact of the work was part of the planning process. They are confident that the cemetery, which is easily accessible from the main highway linking Panevėžys and Šiauliai, will become, especially after the creation of the museum, a stop for visitors interested in Lithuania’s cultural heritage and Jewish history.
According to Kanovich, “Our first and primary aim is to memorialize the lives and deaths of Šeduva Jews,” “But what happened here was no different from what happened throughout Lithuania—once home to more than 200,000 Litvaks, as the Jews of the historic Grand Duchy of Lithuania were called...It is time Lithuania rediscovered the rich past and culture of its Litvaks. It is time to comprehend Jewish heritage as more than a problem. It is an asset and an inseparable part of the history of Lithuania."
The Prime Minister seems to agree.At the dedication he remarked that the Šeduva monument "would inspire other towns and villages in the country to memorialize different ethnicities that used to and still do live in Lithuania."