VILNIUS—The prestigious Weekly of Vilnius, which provides a digest and interpretation in English of news concerning Lithuania, especially for the diplomatic, governmental, business, academic, arts, cultural and international affairs communities, became the first publication, in its 5 February issue, to break the ostensible wall of silence in the Lithuanian media on the international petition by Vilnius native and resident Ruta Bloshtein. Her petition, concerning the fate of the old Jewish cemetery at Piramónt in the Šnipiškės (Shnípishok) district of Vilnius, the nation’s capital, has to date garnered close to 38,000 signatures, making it the largest Litvak effort since the Holocaust. The petition calls on Lithuania’s president, prime minister, chancellor, the mayor of Vilnius and the European Commission’s president to move the project of a new national convention center away from the old cemetery. It comes after years of local and international opposition to the project. The Weekly of Vilnius, edited by the widely admired Nehro Khalil, has been known on more than one occasion to breach walls of silence concerning “the second opinion” on an array of issues and topics.
In recent weeks, however, Lithuanian media and government institutions have begun to divulge the fears of massive corruption inherent in the project to “transform” the abandoned early 1970s vintage Soviet “Sports Palace” into a new national convention center for Lithuania. In short, experts know what new buildings cost to erect. But when a 34 million euro (!) price tag is attached to a conversion project, there is massive scope for unprecedented corruption, kickbacks, bribes, payoffs and insider dealing that thwarts the integrity of any supposed competitive tenders. Recent coverage on those aspects include bold pieces by anti-corruption champion MEP Antanas Guoga in Delfi.lt and its English language affiliate The Lithuania Tribune, a BNS report, a BNS article by Pranciškus Vaišvila, and a statement on the state’s Turto bankas website. For more coverage see DH’s paper trail page on the Piramónt saga.
What has not been mentioned in recent local coverage, however, is the scope of international opposition, including members of the Lithuanian Jewish community, who have not accepted the acquiescence of the titular local Jewish community’s official lay leader, the nation’s top EU passport lawyer in professional life. Her official position was recently posted on the official community’s website, but with no mention of opposition or the existence of a petition by one of the community’s own lifetime members. The group of London rabbis who are “permitting” the convention center and huge annex did not take note of the unanimous views of Lithuanian-origin and Litvak tradition rabbis who have condemned the project unreservedly. Moreover, the London group, the “Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe” (CPJCE) has been exposed for allegedly extracting large secretive payments for its “work” by Wikileaks, reported on in the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, and Defending History.
Ms. Bloshtein’s petition has elicited signatures or statements of all three current senior rabbis in Lithuania, Kalev Krelin, Sholom Ber Krinsky, and Samuel Jacob Feffer, as well as head of the Kaunas Religious Jewish Community Maushe Beirak. The previous chief rabbi of eleven years’ standing (2004-2015), Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, was publicly dismissed for having publicly accepted the unanimous view of Lithuanian-tradition rabbis internationally. The Jewish community’s leading secular Jewish culture personalities who have written essays on the topic include Milan Chersonski (for many years the editor of the official Jewish community’s quadrilingual newspaper, Jerusalem of Lithuania), Vilna-born Holocaust survivor Professor Pinchos Fridberg and Kaunas-born Professor Josif Parasonis.
This week’s Weekly of Vilnius coverage includes its coverage of “the possibility of overcharging for the reconstruction of the debilitated hall, rumors of EU funds being laundered, and the issue of building such entertainment hall on top of a Jewish cemetery while ignoring the fact that there is an ongoing petition that is being circulated and is being directed to: 1) the President of Lithuania, 2) the Mayor of Vilnius, 3) the President of the European Commission, 4) the Prime Minister of Lithuania and 5) the Chancellor of the Government of Lithuania, to move the project away.”
While the “Jewish” aspects of the scandal circle around the London-based (CPJCE) there are signs that the American-government, US taxpayer financed “US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad” (USCPAHA) has been unduly manipulated by the London group of rabbis and their American affiliate which has published numerous triumphant photographs of USCPAHA officials paying homage to this or that cemetery-trading business implicated grand-rabbi or to Lithuanian government representatives. Following the recent change in administration in Washington, and some critical reappointments on the last day of the outgoing administration, it is expected that the scandal’s center of gravity may rapidly shift to Washington DC.
The Piramónt saga has generated a considerable paper trail. Our editor’s views were summarized in a Times of Israel op-ed in 2015. The leading international scholar on the cemetery’s history, Professor S. Leiman of New York, published his views in a Seforim article the same year.