LONDON—The following is an excerpt, relevant to issues today, from Preliminary Report on Legislation and Practice Relating to the Protection and Preservation of Jewish Burial Grounds. Lithuania. September 2008. It was issued by Lo Tishkach Foundation / European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative with the support of the Claims Conference and the Conference of European Rabbis. A PDF of the entire report is available here.
6.2 Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery, Vilnius
Recently, discussion of Lithuanian law as it pertains to the Jewish community has focused on restitution and on the construction works taking place at the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. The development works that were approved by the local municipality and were launched a few years ago led to the construction of the Mindaugas apartments at the site of the Šnipiškės cemetery, established in the 16th century and containing the bones of thousands of Jews buried there until the closure of the cemetery in the 19th century. These construction works provoked wide protests by Jewish organisations in Lithuania, Brussels and the United States in 2007 attempting to halt the desecration of this cemetery.
These international protests led the Lithuanian government to set up a commission which recommended the formation of a committee of experts to determine a future course of action. Prior to the formation of this working committee, the government promised that development work would be halted until the boundaries were determined, yet the construction work continued. The committee, including members of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPCJE), a representative of the Conference of European Rabbis, Jewish historians from Israel and the US and engineers and archaeologists from Israel and Lithuania, recommended that construction work be halted. Despite this, construction works continued. The developer claimed that he had met all the legal requirements and possessed a construction permit from the city to continue the development works [footnote: Rabbis Protest Construction on Jewish Cemetery, FSU Monitor, http://www.fsumonitor.com/stories/072707Lithuania.shtml , last accessed on 27 September 2008.]
On 25 September 2008, the US House of Representatives passed concurrent resolution No. 255 regarding the United States’ commitment to the preservation of religious and cultural sites and condemning instances where sites are desecrated. Although its wording seems to be outdated due to the finalisation of the construction works at the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery, it carries a strong message to the Lithuanian authorities, in particular:
‘(…) That Congress—
(1) expresses strong support for the work of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and for the European countries that continue to work to preserve sacred historical sites, despite ongoing challenges;
(2) expresses strong sentiments to the Government of Lithuania that the people of the United States believe the Jewish cemetery located in the Šnipiškės area of Vilnius, Lithuania, must not be further desecrated;
(3) declares that constructive bilateral relations between Lithuania and the United States are important to the governments, citizens, and shared agendas of both countries; and
(4) declares that if the Government of Lithuania fails to immediately stop construction and protect the Jewish cemetery located in the Šnipiškės area of Vilnius, Lithuania, it will jeopardize its important relationship with the United States and its standing in the international community.’ [footnote: Expressing the sense of Congress regarding the United States commitment to preservation of religious and cultural sites and condemning instances where sites are desecrated, HCON 255 IH, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=hc110-255 , last accessed on 24 September 2008.]
In the context of growing mistrust within the local and international Jewish community vis-à-vis the Lithuanian state authorities regarding the latter’s intent and legal efficacy to prevent the construction works, the government claimed it was seeking legal measures to halt the construction permit provided by the local municipality. International protests led the Lithuanian President, Valdas Adamkus, to conclude that the Šnipiškės cemetery case should be resolved as the controversy risked damaging Lithuania’s position and image in the international community. [footnote: ‘President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister discuss European Council’s agenda and construction works within possible boundaries of former Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškes’, President of the Republic of Lithuania, http://www.president.lt/en/news.full/8855 , last accessed on 24 September 2008.]
In June and July 2008, an Israeli company was contracted by the above-mentioned working group to carry out sub-surface sonar examination. The examination could not ascertain the precise location of the cemetery boundaries as the contractor was not permitted to enter the key areas i.e. the area of the Mindaugas buildings and the sports stadium located in the northern part of the cemetery. The large concrete plates covering the sports hall prevented the signals of the sub-sonar examination to penetrate underneath. Nevertheless, according to the Israeli contractor, enough evidence was gathered to conclude that the Mindaugas buildings were constructed on the site of the Jewish cemetery and that the anomalies registered across the surveyed area were most probably the graves. In order to complete the survey, further examinations would need to be carried out in the northern part of the area, the sports stadium and under the above-mentioned concrete plates. [Footnote: Šnipiškės Jewish Cemetery, Vilnius, Lithuania – Summary Report, Arieh Klein M.Sc. Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Consultant, 19 August 2008.]
In early September 2008, representatives of the Jewish community of Lithuania claimed that the owner of the northern part of the presumed cemetery had carried out excavation works removing human bones. [Footonote: Gurevichius, September 2008.] If true, the owner of the property may have violated Article 9(3) of the Law on Protection of Immovable Cultural Property, which specifies that the managers of the estate in Expressing the sense of Congress regarding the United States commitment to preservation of religious and cultural sites and condemning instances where sites are desecrated, HCON 255 IH, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=hc110-255 , last accessed on 24 September 2008.‘President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister discuss European Council’s agenda and construction works within possible boundaries of former Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės’, President of the Republic of Lithuania, http://www.president.lt/en/news.full/8855 , last accessed on 24 September 2008. Šnipiškės Jewish Cemetery, Vilnius, Lithuania – Summary Report, Arieh Klein M.Sc. Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Consultant, 19 August 2008. Gurevichius, September 2008 question are obliged to notify the municipality authorities of any ‘archaeological findings’ discovered during the development works (see point 5.4.2).
Meanwhile, in April 2008 the site of the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery (territory of 4.45 ha) was registered as a protected object of cultural heritage and the information on it can now be found in the Register of the Department of Cultural Heritage. [Footnote: Register of Cultural Heritage, http://kvr.kpd.lt/heritage/Pages/KVRDetail.aspx?lang=en&MC=3 812, last accessed on 24 September 2008.] However, the territory of the now legally protected Šnipiškės cemetery does not encompass the built-over cemetery by the Mindaugas apartments and the fenced-off northern part of the cemetery which the Israeli contractor was unable to examine. [Footnote: Gurevichius, September 2008.]
At the time the Israeli contractor was carrying out his sub-sonar survey, Lithuanian archaeologists excavated human bones in the vicinity of the Mindaugas buildings. The rabbinical authorities opposed further excavations. In early September 2008, the findings of the Lithuanian and Israeli researchers were provided to the Ministry of the Environment which claimed that the results found by the Israeli contractor were contradictory. On 23 September 2008, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, chairman of the working group, reiterated that the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery was listed as a legally protected site of cultural heritage and that the government of Lithuania should continue its dialogue with the international Jewish community in order to ascertain the boundaries of the cemetery. The Minister emphasized that the research work on the site of the cemetery was comprehensive and it represented the ‘good willingness of Lithuania to the international Jewish community in solving the issue of preserving the former Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės’. [Footnote: ‘Working group headed by the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs presents suggestion to the government on the former Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania.] However, this position does not confer any explicit obligation on the owner(s) of the areas that were not surveyed to provide the possibility for conducting such an examination. It might, therefore, be relevant to explore the possibility of a further examination. The inability of the Lithuanian state authorities to provide effective legal measures preventing further desecration of the cemetery by the development works has been seen as a lack of political willingness to protect the burial site. This argument is supported by the fact that only after years of international protests did the authorities agree to grant the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery official legal protection under the Law on the Protection of Immovable Cultural Heritage – at which point this instrument was not able to prevent the completed construction of the apartments on the site.
The Šnipiškės case also illustrates the difficulty of protecting cemeteries which do not already possess the status of cultural heritage sites. It has been explained above that the Law on the Protection of Immovable Cultural Heritage, No.I-733 provides legal protection only to those burial grounds that are declared and registered as cultural property in the Register of Cultural Heritage. Until April 2008, the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery did not appear on the Register. This was probably the legal ground upon which the government claimed it could not prevent development works. Taking the figure of around 160 cemeteries and mass graves registered as fully or initially protected, there are still some 40% of burial grounds that remain outside any legal protection if similar construction works were to be carried out as occurred in the case of the Šnipiškės cemetery. If the law remains unchanged, theoretically it would be recommended to have all burial grounds registered as cultural heritage sites. This possibility should be further researched especially since Article 8(4) of the Law provides that Lithuania’s ‘traditional communities’ should be entitled to prepare inventories of cultural immovable property which correspond to their activities. Clearly, in this respect, all burial grounds are of religious significance to the Jewish communities. The case of the Šnipiškės cemetery reveals another legal constraint pertaining to the practical protection of burial grounds. This refers to the opinions and surveys performed by the representatives of the Jewish communities and organisations that are listed as members of the ‘assessment councils’ (working groups) in accordance with Article 8(5) of the Law on the Protection of Immovable Property. Despite this provision, the final decision on the registration of the burial ground as a cultural heritage site rests with the state authorities (Article 10 of the Law). The Act does not contain any provision on the ability of the religious communities to appeal the decisions of the state or municipal authorities. This anomaly was illustrated by the refusal of the state authorities to recognise the findings of the survey performed by the Israeli contractor. No precise explanations on this decision were provided to the public. It could be presumed that the authorities were not inclined to accept anything less than archaeological material evidence.