OPINION | PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION | USCPAHA (US COMMISSION FOR AMERICAN HERITAGE ABROAD) | CPJCE | ADMAS KODESH | PAPER TRAIL | CEMETERIES
VILNIUS—The Hon. Herbert Block, a prominent and popular personality known to New Yorkers from his days as the highly successful Jewish affairs liaison for the campaign and administration of New York City mayor David Dinkins years ago has emerged as a major force at the confluence of Jewish-Hasidic, American and Lithuanian-government politics on issues in Lithuanian-Jewish affairs. There are conflicting views about his myriad, and some would say conflict-of-interest laden, entanglements that include a Satmar group in Monroe, New York intent on fulfilling the wishes of Vilnius builders for a convention center and annex in the heart of the old Jewish cemetery of Vilnius (allegedly for the financial benefit of their London followers in the CPJCE), a US taxpayer funded agency that exists to preserve Jewish cemeteries (but has yet to issue a word of protest at the “convention center in the Jewish cemetery” project) and the Lithuanian government’s “Good Will Foundation” that allocates monies deriving from the religious properties of the annihilated Jewish communities of Lithuania.
To help Defending History readers follow the trail of commissions, positions and attempts by various powers to “manage the news” on these issues, we have added the new section: Lithuanian Adventures of the Hon. Herbert Block (AK, AZM, (LG)CJH, CPJCE, GWF, USCPAHA, SATMAR/MONROE, WJRO). The alphabet soup translates as: Admas Kodesh; American Zionist Movement; (Lithuanian Government) Commission for Jewish Heritage; (Lithuanian Government) Good Will Foundation; United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad; Court of the Satmar Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum in Monroe, New York; World Jewish Restitution Organization. As usual, readers might find it useful to scroll to the bottom of the section and then peruse in chronological order.
Some might find it somewhat of an irony that Mr. Block’s alleged conflicts of interest and years of games concerning an old Jewish cemetery on the other side of the world would make him a more painfully controversial figure than he ever was even in the rough-and-tumble of New York City politics.
In addition to his own manifold accomplishments, Mr. Block is known in Jewish circles as a direct descendant of the great Litvak rabbinic scholar Reb Chaim of Valózhin (also known as Chaim Valózhiner, 1749—1821). Chaim of Valózhin is buried in Valózhin (also known as Volózhin), in the province of Vilna, today in Belarus to the southeast. But let it not be forgotten that Chaim of Valózhin, like his illustrious brother Zélmale Valózhiner (Shlóyme-Zálmen [Shelomo-Zalman] of Volózhin, 1756–1782, himself buried in the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery) was the son of one Rabbi Isaac.
In other words, as a direct descendant of Rabbi Chaim of Valózhin, Mr. Block is ipso facto the direct descendant of Rabbi Chaim’s father, Rabbi Isaac, who is buried at the same Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt upon which Mr. Block now effectively sits in judgment, as the Lithuania specialist at the American government’s United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (USCPAHA).
In fact, photographs survive of the gravestone which can be readily reconstructed if the cemetery were to be restored and the convention center project moved to another venue, as requested by 39,000 international petition signatories (in addition to the unanimous rabbinic edicts issued by the greatest Litvak rabbis of our times). Moreover, scholars believe that this grave is just south of the Soviet-era derelict Sports Palace building. It is likely one of the graves that still survives, one that would rapidly be destroyed once the building works start, and that would in any case be shamefully desecrated by the conventions, celebrations, concerts and speeches, and by the bars and toilets planned for right above.
Whether it is “sheer coincidence” or the hand of “a Higher Power,” that one of the great Litvak personalities buried at Piramónt has a direct descendant who is the Lithuania specialist for the American government’s commission for the preservation of cemeteries abroad will of course be a matter for personal opinion. Mr. Block is due in Vilnius in late April in his various capacities (Good Will Foundation and USCPAHA included). Will he peradventure on this occasion find the strength and courage to issue a statement along the lines of (just a sample, he could phrase it much more powerfully):
“Speaking on my own behalf, and with no disrespect to the many views on all sides of this issue, I wish to express the purely personal hope and confidence that the Lithuanian government will do the right thing and move the national convention center project to another venue in the beautiful capital city, Vilnius, allowing for the restoration of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery where my own direct ancestor, Isaac (the father of Chaim and Shelomo-Zalman of Valózhin) lies buried. Thanks to photographs of his gravestone, that stone can be reconstructed down to the last letter, and find its place of honor and sanctity in the restored Jewish cemetery of Piramónt in the Šnipiškės district. But this is not just about me and my ancestors, it is about the many thousands of Jewish citizens of Vilnius who purchased cemetery land in perpetuity. And it is about the statute passed in 2014 by the United States Congress protecting, as a matter of human rights, minority cemeteries worldwide.”
Go on, Herb, go for it.