On 30 November, 2017, the Ministry of Culture of Lithuania announced to the 31 member countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that they had succeeded in securing the funds requested by the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum for the preliminary preservation of the Vilnius Ghetto Library, demonstrating a commitment to preserving physical sites related to the Holocaust.

“These developments are a major success for the IHRA and especially for Lithuania. The government’s actions are preserving their own historical heritage,” said Kamile Rupeikaite, chair of IHRA’s international expert group on memorials and museums. “It is important for the IHRA to support these initiatives through the substantial foundational stages of physical preservation to ensuring the sites are turned into places of remembrance and learning. We preserve the sites for the victims and the survivors, but the opportunity to visit authentic sites also stimulates interest and learning among the public, providing a direct and tangible link with history and people in the past.” 

The history of the Vilnius Ghetto Library

The Vilnius Ghetto Library, known as Meficei Haskala, one of the three largest libraries in Vilnius before the war, served as an important cultural center for the ghetto – and was also a center of armed resistance. In the basement of the building, members of the United Partisan Organization constructed a soundproof room for testing weapons they had managed to smuggle in from outside. 3,000 ghetto residents survived the war. Remains of the library collection were distributed to other libraries in Vilnius. For five years, the building became the site of a small Jewish museum founded by survivors in 1944.

Since 2011, the building has been under the administration of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. On 22 March, 2017, the building was listed in the registry of cultural heritage of Lithuania. The funds secured by the Ministry of Culture from the State Investment fund will be used to stabilize the emergency condition of the building. There are plans for a Holocaust History and Vilnius Ghetto Memorial Museum to be housed in the building in the future, pending further financial support.

The IHRA's impact on site preservation throughout Europe: Safeguarding Lety u Pisku

The success in Lithuania follows a positive announcement from the Czech Government on the decision to remove a pig farm which currently stands on the site of a former Roma concentration camp at Lety u Pisku. Following high-level political meetings held by former IHRA Chair Mihnea Constantinescu, Czech Cabinet Ministers adopted an executive order mandating the Minister of Finance to transfer the funds needed for the purchase of the pig farm. The purchase is expected to go through in spring 2018.

The IHRA worked with the Czech government to encourage appropriate preservation of Lety. The IHRA sought to amplify the message of civil society organizations such as the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement and the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust and to elevate the case of Lety to the highest political level. The site at Lety will be administered by the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno. About 1,300 Roma were interned at Lety from August 1942 to May 1943, and around 330, including at least 241 children, died there after a typhus outbreak. Many inmates were later transferred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex where they were killed.

Uniting governments and experts to preserve sites

The IHRA has made the preservation of sites a key focus of its work for many years, regularly calling upon IHRA member countries to fulfil their obligations to mark, protect and research sites. The IHRA unites experts and governmental representatives to raise awareness of and promote policy related to the preservation of physical sites of historical importance.

“The IHRA identifies the most pressing cases of sites in need of preservation and promotes practicable actions to address them. The challenges around protection and preservation of sites is a challenge shared across our membership,” said the IHRA Chair, Ambassador Benno Baettig. "We work with member country governments to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust in their countries: offering a platform for dialogue and expertise to better support countries in preserving their past.”

The support of IHRA member countries for the preservation of historic sites, sources and artefacts was underscored by the adoption of the International Memorial Museums Charter in 2012, a document addressing the ethical considerations of memorial museums in how they portray victims of the Holocaust. Then in Bern this year, the IHRA membership also decided to set the theme of “Countering Holocaust Distortion and Safeguarding the Record” as its organizational focus for the next five years, further demonstrating its commitment to preserving historical sites.

The IHRA is the only intergovernmental organization which focuses solely on Holocaust-related issues. Accordingly, it provided a forum for IHRA’s experts – from 41 countries – to work together with the Lithuanian delegation, headed by Ambassador Darius Skusevicius of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Head of the Czech Delegation to the IHRA, Ambassador Antonin Hradilek, to ensure government intervention to preserve the cultural, educational and historical important sites.

The IHRA’s experts continue to offer their support to the relevant ministries on further sites of historical importance in connection with the Holocaust, including Komarom (Hungary), Jasenovac (Croatia) and Staro Samijste (Serbia). As well as continuing to support the situations at currently identified sites, the IHRA’s experts are planning a working definition of sites in need of protection or preservation.

Read more about IHRA efforts to preserve sites.

The Vilnius Ghetto Library building in 2016. Credit: Paulius Ra?i?nas