Lithuania rejects Israeli request for remains of Vilna Gaon
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Lithuania rejects Israeli request for remains of Vilna Gaon

Government adviser says famed 18th-century rabbi an ‘inseparable part’ of the history of Lithuania’s once thriving Jewish community

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania, on August 23, 2018. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania, on August 23, 2018. (AFP/Petras Malukas)

VILNIUS — Lithuania said Friday it has rejected a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move the remains of Vilna Gaon, a famed 18th-century rabbi, from Vilnius to Israel for reburial.

The issue was raised during talks between Netanyahu and his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Skvernelis’ national security advisor Arnoldas Pikzirnis told AFP.

“We received a kind request to consider whether the remains of Vilna Gaon could be relocated to Israel,” Pikzirnis said.

The request was denied, he said, because “Vilna Gaon is an inseparable part of Lithuania’s Jewish community and Lithuania history.”

Vilna Gaon (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Vilna Gaon (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jewish community leader Faina Kukliansky, who also attended the Jerusalem talks, told AFP that removing the rabbi’s remains from Vilnius was “out of the question.”

Kukliansky said the legacy of rabbi and scholar Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, known as Vilna Gaon, was a crucial part of the history of Lithuania’s once thriving Jewish community.

Netanyahu first privately raised the idea when he visited Vilnius in August, a government source and a Jewish community source who met him during the trip told AFP.

A spokesman for Netanyahu in Jerusalem did not immediately comment.

Amir Maimon, Israel’s ambassador to Vilnius, also declined to comment but did not explicitly deny that Netanyahu made the request.

Vilna Gaon spent most of his life in Vilnius, then a hub of Yiddish intellectual life known as the “Jerusalem of the North.”

He died in 1797 at the age of 77, and was buried in the Snipiskes cemetery in Vilnius.

The site of the synagogue today. The Vilna Gaon monument is at the right. (CC BY 2.5 Julius / Wikipedia)

His remains were moved to a new cemetery on the capital’s outskirts in the 1950s.

Before World War II, Lithuania’s vibrant Jewish community numbered around 200,000 people.

Over 90 percent of them perished between 1941-1944 during the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis and their local collaborators.

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