• February 14, 2022
  • 113

Scandalous digitalization of historic Vilnian graveyards

The local government of Vilnius finalized the first step in the digitalization of personal data from the Vilnian cemeteries. The permits for burial will now be issued online. Unfortunately, a few disastrous mistakes were not avoided.

On an interactive webpage zemelapiai.vplanas.lt/kapines you can get to know the borders, sections, and rows of the cemeteries and find the graves by names and surnames. Detailed pictures allow you to easily find a way to a chosen burial place.

The case of Paulina Szukeło

Dariusz Lewicki, a member of The Social Committee for the Upkeep of Stara Rossa, begin to look over the entries on the map with interest. Sadly, he concluded that the job has been done rather poorly.

-Last year, in December, an elderly lady came to me looking for the grave of Paulina Szukeło. She knew that Paulina Szukeło was buried at St. Peter and Paul’s cemetery in Antokol. She remembered that her friend who lived in another city for a long time, visited the grave in the 90s, when she came to Vilnius – tells Dariusz Lewicki.

In 2021, before the All-Souls Day, a woman decided to find the grave of her friend to honor her with a vigil light. She could not locate the grave because the name was not listed in an online database.

-And so, during the Christmas period, over a cup of coffee, we had dived into this and began to search. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find this person using her name and last name. We started to put in “Paulina Szukeło” in different variants – and then we found it! In the database, there was a name “Paulina Szukszto” which did not match the actual inscription on the tombstone. Paulina Szukeło has been buried in section 5 at St. Peter and Paul cemetery in Antokol – remarks the committee member.

A bottle of water was enough

At the start of this year, Dariusz Lewicki decided to conduct a short inquiry. He noticed that in section 5 there are 150 burial places – and that 47 of them are inaccurate.  That is 31% of all entries in the database.

-Some of the pictures in the database were of very poor quality, that is, the equipment that would provide a proper exposition in different lighting conditions and allow to catch the details was not used. What follows is the inability to properly read the names on the tombstones. In most of the cases, there was no attempt at improving the readability of the pictures with computer processing, using negative filtering, changing temperature, or white balance. Other simple methods were also not used, like matting the inscription with chalk, pouring water over it, and reading it from different angles with a flashlight illuminating or shadowing the name – lists the social worker.

Swarmed with mistakes

The electronic system of Vilnian cemeteries currently allows the visitors to check the borders, sectors, and rows of the cemeteries, but also the free and abandoned spaces. Vilnius City Council informs that over a half (121,6 ha) of Vilnian cemeteries have already been digitalized. The first part of the project took a year to complete. It cost 161 000 Euro.

Dariusz Lewicki doubts the use of the money. – The method of filling in the record cards is far from the established and widely applied rules of taking inventory of tombstones and cemeteries. All kinds of tombstone inscriptions should be entered in their original form. In worst cases, Lithuanian equivalents are to be used with original forms in parenthesis. I have got a feeling that the making of those records was assigned to the unqualified employees who lack in reading and writing – laments Lewicki.

On the other hand, the chairmen of The Social Committee for the Upkeep of Stara Rossa, Darius Żybort, point out that the digitalization of the cemetery was supposed to help people in finding the graves. Meanwhile, it turns out that the new system makes it harder for a lot of people to find the graves of their relatives because the Polish names in it have been lithuanized.

-People from Poland who have the graves of their close ones here, can’t find them. For example, Someone was looking for a grave of miss Szczygło. They put the name in the database and there are no results because it was recorded as Sciglo. Or the surname Czyż was recorded as Cviz. The makers of the system cut corners. I myself met people on the Bernardyński cemetery who were taking pictures with their tablets. When I asked what it was about, they said that they will put this data into the system and that it is about the digitalization of the cemetery- says Żybort.

He claims to not expect that they did those photos unprofessionally and unreadably. Some of the inscriptions are unreadable, the appropriate qualifications are necessary to do so. All that was required was to at least follow the advice of the monument conservators. The person who later inserted the data into the database had no clue whether those are Polish or Russian names. Even Lithuanian names were recorded incorrectly.

-We receive information from Poland that people can’t find the graves of their relatives in the database. People are concerned and digitalization made a lot of trouble. I received an email from a lady from Poland that four years ago, they were cleaning the family graves. And now, after the digitalization process, she can’t find this monument. She was simply scared that the monument no longer exists, that it was destroyed. And in fact, I tried finding those people in the system myself, but I couldn’t. The woman explained to me where the monument was, and I went there and took a picture of it to calm her down – relates the chairmen of The Social Committee for the Upkeep of Stara Rossa.

The violation of the right to commemorate the dead

We asked the European Foundation of Human Rights for a comment regarding digitalization. “EFHR hopes that the inaccuracies in the digitalization of the tombstones are caused by a human error or technical or software malfunctions and not an intentional act of the local government. In Lithuania, the honor and dignity (garbė ir orumas) of persons, including the dead, are protected by law, art. 21-21 of Lithuanian Constitution. Civil and Penal Code predicts the possibility of defending those rights and penalizing its breach. Art. 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which also speaks about it, states that: ‘Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.’ – we read in the EFHR response.

“In the case presented, we can assume that not only has the honor and dignity of the dead been violated through the distortion and improper spelling of the names and last names but the other laws too, including the right to name and last name, right to identity, to be properly identified, which is a part of the right to private life which the state has to respect. The rights of the family of the dead are no less important: they have the right to information where their relative was buried, and distortion of the last name is also a potential violation”- the foundation said in the statement.

The idea of inventorying all the city cemeteries in Vilnius spawned in the Department of City Management and Environmental Protection, which earlier optimized the process of applying for the burial permission, created the database of cemeteries and buildings, and introduced their registers.


Most common mistakes in the Vilnian cemetery database

Dariusz Lewicki, a member of The Social Committee for the Upkeep of Stara Rossa, does not hide that the most important problem is the cursory treatment of the names and surnames. He lists the problems noticed in a database:

No knowledge of the Polish language

 (Kazimiera z Kleczkowskich Wojtasińska (original inscription) – Vojtasiuskas Marimiera (in the database), Andrzej Trzepacz – Andrej Tilspar, Józef Marciniani – Josef Marcinionienė, Bolesław Marcinianin – Boleslav Marciniaurine, Krystyna Natalja Pankominówna – Kristina Pankominova. Here lays the body of Józefa Czyża […] and his wife Ewy Czyżowej – Czvza Jozefa (Čuž Josef), Czvzowe Ewy (Čuž Eva)).

No knowledge of the Lithuanian language

(Pilžys Jadwiga (original inscription) – Pilžis Jadviga (in the database), Sawicki Edward – Sawickas Edvard, Fryderyk Nausner – Nausner Frideryk).

Mistaken name

(Antonina Zabelska (original inscription) – Zavelska Mičeslava (in the database), Kazimiera Baczulowa – Barul Kazimier, Kazimiera Wojtasińska – Vojtasiuskas Marimiera, Bolesław Marcinianin (r. męski) – Mauciniaurine Boleslav, Józef Marciniani (r. męski) – Marcinionienė Josef).

No hard and soft consonants

(Boratynski, Wojtasinska, Sidzinski, Malyszczycki, Doboszynski, Swirszczewski, Osinski, Slizewska, Walaugo, Wladyslaw, Boleslaw, Stanislaw).

Lack of ó vowel

(Jozef, Piorko, Pankominowna).

Inaccurate surnames

(Kowszuk (original inscription) – Povšuk (in the database), Trzepacz – Tilspar, Wojtasińska – Vojtasiuskas, Marciniani – Mauciniauriene, Marcinionienė, Zdanowicz – Ždanovič, Małyszczycki – Malencilskij, Bohdziun – Bordiuk, Stachowska – Stachovskoja, Klukowska – Kmokovska, Zabelska – Zavelska, Kielczewska – Kolčevska, Świrszczewski – Cvirščevskij, Parejanowicz – Fartijanovič, Doboszyński – Dobotinskij, Budlewska – Budlovska, Dutkiewicz – Butkevič, Bartoszewicz – Bartasevič, Baczul – Bagur, Wałaugo – Vamjugo, Bratkowska – Glatkovska).

A -skij suffix added to polish last names, which can be found in some Russian last names.

(Osiński (original inscription) – Osinskij (in the database), Świrszczewski – Cvirščevskij, Małyszczycki – Malencilskij, Sidziński – Sidinskij, Maciejewski – Macijevskij, Kielczewski – Kelčevskij, Doboszyński – Dobotinskij, Rebkowski – Rabkovskij).

Names that were documented originally one time (Anna, Jan, Adam, Leon), and the other lithuanized (Elena, Kazimieras, Petronėlė) or russified (Petr, Andrej, Josef, Aleksandr, Gelena, Genrik, Baleslav, Kazimir).

The unknown original language of the name (Telesrom, Telecvor)

Translated by Maciej Nowocień within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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