O P I N I ON
VILNIUS—The battle over the preservation of Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery at Piramónt (now part of the Šnipiškės [Yiddish: Shnípishok] district) has taken some bizarre turns.
In an article that appeared today in English in The Lithuania Tribune, city architects and officials excited by the prospects for the new convention and congress center planned for the heart of the cemetery, announced further plans for its rapid development. Proposals include “a hall for 3,000 people which could be flexibly converted into smaller spaces.” One of the plans cited explains that the center “should not be a venue exclusively for conferences, it should also host concerts and theatre performances. There are ideas to build an annex with a universal ‘black box’ suitable for various events, including circus shows.” Needless to say, there is no mention of any cemetery there, let alone having to ask any rabbis permission for any of this.
Also today, copies of last Friday’s Der Blatt arrived in Vilnius. The New York haredi paper is closely aligned with the minority branch of the Satmar hasidic movement (the “Aaronites”) that is aligned with the controversial London-based CPJCE (“Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe”) that has been accused of effectively “selling” parts of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe by giving its blessings for desecration on condition that it then gets paid for “supervising the project.” In fact, a Wikileaks cable from 2009 cited the group’s leadership as requiring $100,000 for supervision of some “beautification and exploratory digging” at the same Vilnius cemetery site. At the time, Litvaks around the world were reeling from the construction of two apartment houses on the cemetery, and the assumption was that no more would be built.
Until 2015 that is, when the same rabbis turned up in Vilnius and were feted by the nation’s prime minister who announced the London rabbis had agreed to a new convention center on the site of the old Soviet sports arena. None of the three Vilnius rabbis was even informed of the visit. A storm of international protest followed, during which individuals and organizations alike condemned plans that would entail congresses and conventions on top of many thousands of Jewish graves. Among the people of Vilnius who have spoken up against the project are a Holocaust survivor, a Jewish resident born after the war, a Protestant pastor, and a French urban planner. Rabbinic protests have come from Lithuania’s chief rabbi, from the leading Vilnius rabbinic scholar of the Gaon of Vilna, from descendants of the Gaon at the Vilna Gaon Synagogue in Tel Aviv, from the top Litvak heads of yeshiva in Israel, from the Asra Kadisha association that guards Jewish cemeteries’ dignity, and from the Central Rabbinical Congress in the United States. Also in the United States, Dr. Bernard Fryshman has penned a powerful article. He is one of the initiators of the 2014 American law that protects minority cemeteries internationally.
This week’s Blatt, however, contains a large article who headline reads “Prime Minister of Vilnius [sic] provides a legal document saying that the entire Vilna cemetery will be preserved according to the demands of Admas Kodesh — Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries.” The gems are too many to enumerated and need to be studied. The headline soberly uses the term “prime minister of Vilnius,” indicating the (unnamed) author’s sophistication. Within the article, the writer boasts that Rimantas Vaitkus, deputy minister for education and science (identified as “the top aide to Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius, may his glory be raised up”), has written a letter promising the government will adhere to agreements about the cemetery (no mention of the twenty-five million dollars convention center that is the heart of the new development plan). It further reports that “the letter was received by haredi Jewry with great ecstasy” (Yiddish: groys ekstáz).
The article also informs its readers that “the government of Lithuania has announced that they will not listen to (or do anything in connection with the cemetery with) other organizations, but will be in contract only with the CPJCE and ask about each and every thing.” Given that that is the organization that is seen to be permitting a convention center, and is vehemently opposed by all other authorities, and has in the past charged the property developers high fees for its blessings and/or supervision, it is clear that further reliance on this one group alone can cause Lithuania grave new damage that is wholly unnecessary, and that can be so easily avoided, by simply moving the convention center project away from the old Jewish cemetery, and to an alternative venue where it would be a pride to all the peoples of Lithuania.