Giedrius Sakalauskas always thought there was something strange about the graffiti-sprayed, bunker-like structure in a leafy area outside Vilnius, Lithuania. Why build an electrical substation with granite blocks instead of regular bricks? When he examined the building more carefully this month, he made a chilling discovery: Dozens of stones had inscriptions in Hebrew or Yiddish. "I touched the stones and I realized that they're really gravestones," Sakalauskas says. He had a strong hunch about where they came from, and he was correct: Archaeologists confirmed this week that the electrical substation was built with tombstones pilfered from a Jewish cemetery. Sakalauskas believes they're from a cemetery that once sat across the street; it was demolished in the 1960s when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union.
More than 90% of Lithuania's prewar Jewish population of 240,000 was killed in WWII, and the few who survived found little sympathy when a Nazi occupation was replaced by a Soviet one in 1944. With Jewish life all but eradicated from Vilnius, Jewish cemeteries were seen as "easily accessible and free building material" during the Soviet era, says a historian at Vilnius University. Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius says he's already asked the utility companies that own the substation to find a way to move them to a "proper resting place." The discovery raises uncomfortable questions over how many other structures were built with recycled Jewish tombstones (one other was discovered in the 1990s, and two more are now being investigated) and why the issue is gaining attention only now, 25 years after Lithuania declared independence. (Read more Lithuania stories.)