UK | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PETITION | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS | CPJCE
LONDON—Reliable sources in London reported this morning that solicitors are being instructed by a group of international clients whose ancestors lie buried in the old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt, in today’s Snipiskes district of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. For years, the Lithuanian government’s justification for planning to situate in the cemetery its new national convention project, confirmed on numerous occasions in writing, is the “permission of the CPJCE in London,” a group of renegade rabbis who have ignored the pleas of all other rabbinical groups, and all major Litvak (Lithuanian origin) rabbis internationally, to give “permission” for the convention center in the heart of the cemetery. When Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, the then chief rabbi of Lithuania dared speak up in opposition, in 2015, he was rapidly dismissed. In late 2016, Rabbis Kalev Krelin and Sholom-Ber Krinsky were among the first to sign the international petition (see also Rabbi Krinsky’s blog and DH section). Rabbi S. J. Feffer, author of dozens of learned books on the Gaon of Vilna, based in the city for a quarter century and head of its Litvak rabbinic authority, published a powerful ruling in 2017.
The new convention center, where revelers would cheer, sing, drink in bars and flush toilets surrounded by many thousands of still-extant graves on all four sides is planned to result from reconstruction of the Soviet-era ruin on the site plus a massive new annex. Works are scheduled to start in the coming days or weeks. Sources stress that legal action was decided on at a meeting in Switzerland last week as a last and now essential resort. For more on the CPJCE (“Committee for the Preservation [italics added] of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe”) see DH’s CPJCE section, and materials in Wikileaks, Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, and Defending History. Most recently, a shocking video was posted on Youtube by an Orthodox Jewish woman in New York.
There are major human rights and minorities issues involved. It is accepted on all sides that this would never be the fate of a five-hundred year old cemetery cherished by the Christian or Lithuanian nationalist majority. Among the Lithuanians who have valiantly stood up in a European spirit of equal rights and multicultural heritage are Prof. Andrius Kulikauskas and Julius Norwilla.
Some of the greatest Jewish scholars of the past five hundred years are still buried at the cemetery, though the stones were all pilfered during the Soviet period (they turn up regularly in the city). There have been various proposals to make a restored Old Vilna Jewish cemetery a major tourist site for Lithuania.
The situation is exacerbated by evidence that the CPJCE negotiates secret payments for their permissions and supervisions, effectively amounting, in the view of some critics, to alleged unethical and illegal sale of other people’s graves, duly paid for by thousands of families over half a millennium. The CPJCE is affiliated with the “Aaronite” branch of Satmar Hasidism. Its rival, the Zalmenite branch, has condemned the convention center project, in agreement with the major Lithuanian origin rabbis, an array of individual and institutional protests, and a current international petition, launched by a Vilnius Orthodox Jewish woman, Ruta Bloshtein, that is approaching the 44,000 signature mark.
Many of the groups opposing the defiling of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery have proposed restoration in the spirit of that in Frankfurt, Germany and other major European cities. A number of general visualizations have been provided of what could become a major asset to the international standing of Vilnius, in a sense the exact opposite of a convention center that people of conscience would for generations refuse to set foot in.
The following visualization (in three versions, English, Lithuanian, and Yiddish) was produced by Julius Norwilla.