Friday, December 4, 2015

Lithuania: Israel Cohen on Vilnius's Uzupis Cemetery in the 1930s

Vilnius, Lithuania. Gates to the Uzupis Cemetery. Undated photo, courtesy of Municipality of Vilnius.

Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery monument. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Lithuania: Israel Cohen on Vilnius's Uzupis Cemetery in the 1930s
by Samuel D. Gruber

After writing the other day about the history and present state of the Uzupis Cemetery in Vilnius, I went back to Israel Cohen's essential handbook about the pre-Holocaust city: Vilna (Philadelphia; Jewish Publication society, 1943), to re-read his description.  It is so vivid, and contains so many interesting observations, that I thought it worth quoting in full:

"The modern cemetery, which was opened a hundred years ago, extends over a vast area, and is intersected with fine long avenues lined with trees. A multitude of tombstones faces evert direction. They are closely huddled together, with epitaphs in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. Some are adorned with framed photographs.  The inscriptions are not all of a conventional character, for the tombstone of a famous Marshallik (jester) bears the legend: “Stop and look! You are still a visitor; I am at home.” In the center of the cemetery is a large mortuary, with separate sections for men and women, whither the dead are brought for the last rites; for here all are buried on the day they die. On the opposite side of the avenue is an elevated platform, reached by a flight of steps, form where the funeral oration is delivered. The speaker stands before an iron lectern, flanked on either side by lamps in large glass shades, which are necessary in cases of burial after nightfall."

"Here may be seen the graves of the writers Lebensohn and Kalman Schulman, and of all the other luminaries who irradiated the firmament of Hebrew culture in the nineteenth century. Here too may be seen the graves of the victims of various riots and outrages. Nineteen members of the Bund, killed in the revolutionary rising of 1905, are laid to rest together, their sepulcher marked by a stone column from where a memorial address is delivered on every anniversary. The Jews killed by the Polish troopers in 1919 also lie together, some of the graves being marked pathetically “Unknown.” And over the tomb of the Yiddish writer, A. Weiter, who was shot in that outburst of lawlessness, is a striking piece of sculpture – an eagle with a broken pinion."

"Among the graves, before the city was retaken by the Russians, a stentorian voice could head every day offering up the prayer for the dead, and rending the air with heart-breaking grief in every note.  Scarcely has the sound died away when, form an opposite quarter, the same moving, piercing chant rose again, uttered with even more poignant anguish of spirit, as those seeking to give expression to the infinite tragedy of the Jewish people. These were the voices of poor cantors, unable to find a pittance among the living, and trying to earn twenty groschen a time from those visiting the graves of their dead." [Israel Cohen, Vilna (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1943), pp. 416-418.
Even with this description in hand the site presently seems incomprehensible. Where was the great mortuary? the steps? the platform for funeral orations?  And it will surprise many to hear about framed photos of the deceased and a sculpture of an eagle on a writer's tomb. We cannot generalize about the design, architecture and decoration of Jewish cemeteries.  I encourage all readers to look for and collect older descriptions of cemeteries in many languages. I'm sure the Yiddish sources are still rich and mostly unharvested. 

In another version of this same description, published in Cohen's Travels in Jewry (New York: E.P. Dutton, 193),pp. 151-152, which collects many of his early writings as a testimony to a lost world, he includes this closing paragraph about the cemetery which, of then preceeds his epilogue describing the fate of all of Vilna's Jews:
 "As we passed through the huge gates we were surrounded by a number of women, gaunt, blanched, almost fleshless---some with babies at their breast, whining bitterly for alms. Blessing poured upon my head in return for every mite I gave, and after I had been allowed to return to my carriage and wasdriven away I wondered how soon it would be before all those suffering souls would likewise be gathered unto their lasting peace."

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