Military cemetery opened in Vilnius

  • 2001-08-23
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - On Aug. 18, a renovated old military cemetery was reopened in Vilnius' Vingis Park. Most of the graves contain German nationals who died in the two world wars. Both German and Lithuanian soldiers spent three years rebuilding the cemetery, the biggest German military cemetery in the Baltic states.

The cemetery was destroyed by the Soviets after World War II, who built an amusement park over the dead soldiers. This was common practice at the time, and effective at taking people's minds off history.

The German and Austrian ambassadors and German and Lithuanian military officials took part in the reopening ceremony. Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas sent a letter of congratulations to the Germans who tidied up the area.

Brazauskas wrote, the last century was marked by two contradictory characteristics: an extraordinary period of rapid development in science and technology, and meaningless wars that claimed millions of lives.

About 1,300 German and 900 Austrian, Hungarian, Russian and Turkish soldiers are buried in the cemetery, all killed in World War I. Some 500 German soldiers killed during World War II are buried nearby.

Marija Mikneviciute, an architect with the Lithuanian Institute for Monument Restoration, was in charge of the reconstruction project. Huge stone crosses were built in the cemetery for the Catholics and Lutherans. Mikneviciute also designed monuments with Russian Orthodox crosses, Muslim crescents and the Jewish star.

The work was financed by the National Union for the Care of German Soldiers' Graves, which cares for German military cemeteries in 40 countries.

On Aug. 16, at a meeting in the German Embassy in Vilnius, Simonas Alperavicius, head of Lithuania's Jewish community, and Jeshaja Epstein, a member of the Jerusalem-based committee of Vilnius Jews' sacred sites, gave their special thanks to German Ambassador Detlof von Berg, for the monument to the Jewish soldiers in the cemetery.

"I enjoyed working with the Germans," Mikneviciute told The Baltic Times. "Bernd Fischer, the German soldiers' chief officer, was a typical German officer. He shouted at his soldiers in a manner typical only to Germans."

The National Union for the Care of German Soldiers' Graves awarded Mikneviciute with a medal.

She said she was especially happy that a huge stone lion built by the Germans' graves in 1917 was found during the cemetery's reconstruction work in May. The Soviets split this magnificent sculpture weighing several tons into pieces in 1947 and buried it nearby. Now the patched-up lion is in the cemetery once again.

Mikneviciute said that no Lithuanians are buried here.

"We respect and take care of cemeteries even of the bitterest enemies - we take care of Soviet soldiers' cemeteries, too," Sakalas Natkevicius, a historian with the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Service, said at the ceremony. "Death levels everybody. A dead soldier is not an enemy."