Old Vilnius graveyards are falling down

Fot. BFL/Butautas Barauskas

Beautiful, natural setting on the dwarf pine covered hills allowed them to remain unchanged for decades. 19th century’s Vilnius graveyards – at Rossa, Bernardine, Paul and Peter at Antokol – are the town’s history register. Up to a century ago, they were closed for the burials, thanks to which they maintained their authenticity – the graveyards are very Polish in spirit and style, just as Vilnius is. However, they are slowly falling down – just as Vilnius – every year they become more and more contemporary and Lithuanian.

PAP Halina Jotkiełło from the Social Committee of the Care of Old Rossa says that Vilnius graveyards resemble Vilnius architecture and because of this they are just as our Old Town. At the first sight, Vilnius building seems to be chaotic, however, when you look deeper it turns out to have its own logic.

At the cemeteries, as in the town, there are areas which are taken care of and where renovated graves and marble monuments stand forever by narrow paths.
On the other hand, in the shading valley, broken tombstones covered with moss fill as with sadness and melancholy.

These graveyards are as the town’s history register, in which names of the most distinguished Vilnius citizens are written down. At one time, those people contributed to the town’s everyday life. At Rossa, at the bottom of his mother coffin lays Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s heart along with the bodies of his soldiers. Vilnius is also the place of rest of the poet Władysław Syrokomla, the architect Antoni Wiwulski, the historian and ideologist of Polish democracy Joachim Lelewel, the painters Franciszek Gucewicz i Franciszek Smuglewicz, the painters from the Rusieccy and the Śleńdzińscy families, Juliusz Słowacki’s father, Ferdynand Ruszczyc’s ancestors and Józef Zawadzki – librarian, printer and publisher, who was the first one to print Adam Mickiewicz’s poetry books. The list is a long one.

There are also the graves of the usual town citizens. Some of them are decorated with true art masterpieces. The most famous one is the Black Angel at Rossa, which rises to the sky breaking the chains of its earthly life. The author of this beautiful tombstone is Leopold Wasikowski and this made of bronze and labradorite monument is the best representative of the necropolis art. Recently, it has been renovated by Polish experts whose work has been funded by Polish Department of Culture.

Unfortunately, there is nobody to take care of the graves. In most part, the relatives of the dead laying at Vilnius graveyards either died during the War or were exported to Siberia, or left to Poland or to the West. In the mid of 20th century, Russian authorities closed the cemeteries in hope of ceasing their existence and with them the memory of the town’s past. As Audronė Vyšniauskienė from Ministry of Culture’s Department for Cultural Heritage notices “Paradocically, only thanks to that, do we now have authentic cemeteries, just the same as they were in the first half of the 20th century.”

But, the graves which are not taken care of, are falling down. Vyšniauskienė states that most of the tombstones are more than 100-year old. They are made of the poorest materials and are going to fall apart in a close future.

According to Halina Jotkiałło, Bernardine Cemetery, set in the old part of Vilnius, is in the best shape. 10 years ago, thanks to the agreement between Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom and Adam Mickiewicz Fundation for Polish-Lithuania Cooperation Support, about 150 graves were renovated.

The efforts of Social Committee for the Care of Old Rossa, which was created 25 years ago, as well as other Polish social associations led to renovation of almost 100 graves at the oldest necropolis in Vilnius. The money for the renovation came mostly from Poland. Presently, Old Rossa is one of the most interesting and most attractive necropolis visited by tourists, mostly from Poland.

The worst situation is at Antokol, cemetery set close to commonly known Peter and Paul’s Church – the pearl of Vilnius baroque. Its setting is far more beautiful than those of the other cemeteries and as Jotkiałło says “It is heart-breaking to watch how those wonderful tombstones, the Mejsztowicz’s ar Ogińscy princes’, are falling down.”

Officially, the burial at these graveyards is forbidden, however there is an exception – the relatives can be buried in the family tombs. In fact, there is a growing number of graves with Lithuanian inscriptions and the old Vilnius cemeteries, registering Polish history of the town, are gradually becoming more and more contemporary.

Source: http://zw.lt/wilno-wilenszczyzna/stare-wilenskie-cmentarze-popadaja-w-ruine/

Tłumaczenie by Aneta Gębska w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aneta Gębska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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