OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PAPER TRAIL | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS | CEMETERIES
The following is a full translation of the radio debate on the fate of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the capital’s Snipiskes district), aired by LRT.lt radio as part of its People and Ideas series on 1 March and again on 5 March 2017 and available in the original Lithuanian on the station’s website. The debate was hosted by Audra Girijotė with the participants (in alphabetical order here): Renaldas Augustinavičius, Ruta Bloshtein, Faina Kukliansky, Andrius Kulikauskas, Shnayer Leiman, Remigijus Šimašius.
Note that this translation works from the Lithuanian voice-over on Professor Leiman’s originally English contribution, rather than from a separate tape of the full English interview with Professor Leiman used by the organizers (who put together the “debate” after separate interviews with the participants). This was decided upon in the spirit of trying to characterize, as best we can, the text and texture actually received by the Lithuanian language audience.
Žmonės ir idėjos
Audra Girijotė (as host): Greetings, this is Audra Girijotė. Today, we find ourselves in the heart of Vilnius—no, not on the Gediminas Castle Hill, which at the moment seems to be quite creepily decrepit, but not far from there, on the other side of the Neris, where we find an abandoned building, and under the crumbling tiles of the square surrounding it, under used paper coffee cups, empty cigarette packs, and other kinds of garbage exposed by spring, lie remains of people whose ideas keep Vilnius and Lithuania world-famous to this day.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): Good afternoon.
Audra Girijotė (as host): I meet mathematician and philosopher Andrius Kulikauskas here.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): But you were born in America?
Andrius Kulikauskas: I was born in California and my babysitter, the woman that would look after us when we were children, was Loreta Grikavičiūtė, and she would play in Los Angeles rock clubs, she would play very well. She wanted to sing Lithuanian music with her two sisters – there were three Grikavičius sisters – and I told her, but Loreta, we could write some Lithuanian rock songs. We felt a serious lack of these. So we wrote our first song Patinka patinka, then we released our music cassette with fourteen songs on it.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): Which year was that?
Andrius Kulikauskas: It was 1988. Also in 1988, in April, we released one of those songs, called Lietuva yra OK. “OK” means “occupied”, because the Draugas newspaper in Chicago would not allow to write “Lithuania”, and would always write “ok. Lithuania”, which means “occupied Lithuania”, because if you write just “Lithuania”, it means that you approve of this occupation. It was obligatory to emphasize the fact that Lithuania is occupied. We were indoctrinated like this, it was a bit funny. There is a song in America “Oklahoma is OK”, so, I said, “Lithuania is OK”.
Andrius Kulikauskas: So we, I… During the years of Sąjūdis I came here as an external student to study philosophy, because I’ve been creating philosophy my whole life, I want to know everything, and to to apply that knowledge positively… So I came and submitted that cassette to a competition, and we won the second place in the whole Lithuania for the best music cassette of the year. Virgis Stakėnas also won, but his cassette was named Patinka nepatinka and ours was Patinka patinka. Antis, of course, were the winners. So Antis invited us to the Palace of Sports in December…
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): We are standing by the palace right now.
Andrius Kulikauskas: Yeah. And they gave us a fifteen-minute spot to play there. There was Dainius and Vaidas there, some musicians, perhaps you remember “Saulės laikrodis”, Giedrius Kubilius, so they supported me when I went on stage. Kaušpėdas was very worried, he said Andrius, what are you going to say. Just don’t talk much, he said. I said, ok, I’ll just say that we wrote this song in April, when Sąjūdis had not been in existence yet, and Loreta and I had thought, what would the State Security say, if I were to blurt out, here in the Palace of Sports, that Lithuania is occupied. And Kaušpėdas said, don’t say State Security, say “the dark forces”. I said, you can censor me, but I will not censor myself. As you wish, he said, as you wish. And it went really well…
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): So you said it?
Andrius Kulikauskas: I said that Lithuania is occupied and I think I was the second person, after Terleckas, to say it in this palace.
Audra Girijotė (as host): At the end of the 80s, in Lithuania, Andrius Kulikauskas fell into the very center of change. After meeting the dissidents and taking the role of, according to himself, one of the five foreigners in Vilnius at the time, he became a translator for the dissidents and saw the process of Lithuania becoming independent with his own eyes. It is Andrius Kulikauskas’ second decade of residing in Lithuania; he teaches at the Department of Philosophy and Communication at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University and, just like in the 80s, does not censor himself when an opinion, however unpopular, must be expressed publicly. Later in the program, we will hear his approach at what is to be done with the Palace of Sports—where he participated in the historical Roko maršas, as well as congress of Sąjūdis—but now, let’s meet another new acquaintance.
Audra Girijotė (as host): It was 1996, Lithuania was not occupied anymore, and another person from America came to Lithuania for the first time.
Shnayer Leiman (speaks English): It begins in 1996, when I made my first visit to Vilnius.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Shnayer Leiman, professor of Jewish history and literature at Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University. He prepared well for his journey, read a lot, and right after the arrival he hurried to the Palace of Sports; not for a concert or a sports game, but to pay respects to the memory of the people buried here, in the oldest Jewish cemetery of Vilnius, otherwise known as Šnipiškės or Piramónt Cemetery.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: The old Jewish cemetery is a very important historical place for the Jews. It is an important historical place for the Lithuanians, too. Jewish oral tradition says that the cemetery had been functioning since 1487. Reliable sources assure us that burials started there at least in 1592. For a long time, it was the only Jewish cemetery in town. All the Vilnius Jews, who had lived and died here since the 15th or the 16th century, are buried there. Many, many famous rabbis and teachers are buried there. These are the rabbis that brought glory to Vilnius, Vilnius became the Lithuanian Jerusalem because of these rabbis and men of science who created the most important treatises, still studied around the world. In the last two decades I have been visiting Vilnius at least once a year. History interests me a lot. I love walking the streets of Krakow, Warsaw, Vilnius, any of the places where my ancestors once lived. I don’t do it on my own. I bring groups with me, usually in summer. We visit different cities in Eastern Europe and relive Jewish history. The feeling is wonderful. I love Vilnius. It is an exceptional city. Here, the ancient connects with the contemporary, I hope I can keep on visiting Vilnius every year. I feel special being in places where great people, like Vilna Gaon, are buried. In the Užupis cemetery, as well as walking the streets, I knew the names of the famous Jews, the famous maskilim who participated in the Jewish enlightenment movement. I knew where they lived, and if I didn’t know something, I would go the archives and find out. I found their homes. I relived the 18th, the 19th, and the 20th centuries.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Remains of the most famous Vilnius’ man of wisdom, Vilna Gaon, as well as those of six people buried alongside him, were removed from the old cemetery in the 40s and at the moment lie in the Saltoniškės cemetery. I asked professor Leiman, what impression he got in 1996 when he saw the cemetery of the great thinkers for the first time, and what about the way they look now: at the moment, one can find not only the street tiles or a field by the Palace of Sports, there is a memorial stone and a plaque with information by the river. Still, most of the people walk past this space without having an idea of what is beneath their feet.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: It saddened me. But I knew about it all beforehand, before coming. I collected books, photos, memories, I have a lot of photos of the old cemetery, a very large collection. Now, one can only see the Palace of Sports and a square there, but I bring my photo collection and, when I’m standing there, I see the old cemetery.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Says professor Leiman, researcher of Jewish literature and history.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: The government has come to agreement with the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) in London that the Palace of Sports will be renovated, because it is also an object of heritage, and the most important thing here is that the very renovation or reconstruction of the Palace of Sports is impossible without the project of eternizing the cemetery.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Renaldas Augustinavičius, Lithuanian Deputy Minister of Culture.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: So the homework is, basically, done, Vilnius municipality has prepared the pre-project proposals of eternizing the cemetery, and the government has prepared the pre-project proposals of adapting the Palace of Sports to become a congress center, and, in our opinion, so far it is the best solution in this situation, when there are two overlapping objects of heritage. As for the cemetery, the essential fact here is that, let’s say, the cemetery was closed in the early 19th century. In the mid-20th century, the Soviet government built the Palace of Sports there and started arranging sports activities. There are no tombstones left, the foundation depth of the Palace of Sports is about seven meters, and the probability that there are any remains or fragments of remains left is low. But, regarding the most serious risks and, say, everything else, a protocol agreement was signed in 2009 according to which any, even the most minimal modification of the Palace of Sports will be carried out with participation of an LJC representative, which in turn means that representatives of the rabbis will be there, too. What I am saying is that all the religious Jewish traditions will be observed to the maximal level.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Says Renaldas Augustinavičius, Deputy Minister of Culture who is also an archeologist and used to work in the Department of Cultural Heritage.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Spring melted the snow and uncovered garbage in the territory of the former cemetery, and the plans of the previous government to renovate the Palace of Sports and tidy up the cemetery as soon as possible faced obstacles created by corruption prevention institutions who uncovered possible violations in the public procurement procedure. The building has not seen a basketball match or a concert in a while. Thirteen years ago, Ūkio banko investicinė grupė bought the Palace of Sports. The plan was that the Palace of Sports will be replaced by a residential neighborhood. When it became clear that the building cannot be demolished, the buyers hoped to pay for its reconstruction from the European Union funds. After Ūkio bankas went bankrupt and the building was not sold in the following auction, the government bought the Palace of Sports in 2015. The plan was to renovate the building as soon as possible, reestablish it as a conference center, and rent it. After negotiations behind closed doors, companies Irdaiva, Pamario Restauratorius, and LitCon presented a project which would have cost more than 27 million euros. In December, the Public Procurement Office obliged the state company Turto Bankas to reconsider the reasoning behind the price of the reconstruction project. In February, Turto Bankas suspended the public procurement process. The bank’s press release states that they were informed by the Financial Crime Investigation Service that one of the members of the public procurement commission was also employed in one of the companies that participated in the bidding. In that very December, a petition, created by Vilnius inhabitant Rūta Bloshtein and demanding restoration of the cemetery and refusal of the idea of the congress center in the center of the cemetery, appeared on the internet.
Rūta Bloshtein: Why was it important to write this petition? First of all, we learned about the reconstruction, about these plans, completely unexpectedly, yeah. Somebody sent me a video material from the Delfi news, that the headline was already The Jews Bless the Construction. I think it was in 2015. So, it means that behind our backs, without asking the local Jews, without asking other local religious communities, Jewish communities, some plans were made, some agreements that allow the works to be renewed in a Jewish cemetery. We started writing protest letters, articles, opinion pieces, and they were published on Dovid Katz’s page Defending History. These were just some Jews, then twelve rabbis signed it, we even managed to raise some international voices of protest, but there was no reaction. Vilnius Jewish Community, or Lithuanian Jewish Community, whatever they are called, they showed no reaction to our articles. So we decided, we got an idea, to write a petition in order to reach more Jews who would express their opinions and attract more attention. We need help, we are so few that we’re not being heard. And this petition kind of got the publicity…
Audra Girijotė (as host): Since December, more than 38 thousand people have signed the petition.
Rūta Bloshtein: So what we demanded was to carry out these tasks: first of all, recall the reconstruction of the Palace of Sports, and we would also like to restore the Jewish cemetery there. Not to disturb the cemetery at all, according to the Jewish law, Jewish cemeteries must not be disturbed, it is a sacred space, there are left… The fact that all the tombstones are removed, the whole surface is destroyed, in several stages, starting with the Tsarist Russia in 1831, when they built engines there, and then the Palace of Sports was built right in the center of the cemetery, but the remains are still there, the bones are there, and this is a cemetery that must not be disturbed.
Audra Girijotė (as host): In Rūta Bloshtein’s opinion, establishing a conference and events center in the middle of the cemetery would send a message of further disrespect for the dead. What is to be done with a building that is in the middle of a cemetery and is deemed to be of importance to heritage, first of all because of the unique construction of its roof?
Rūta Bloshtein: I would like to propose something drastic: to demolish the Palace of Sports and restore, I repeat: restore the cemetery. As for restoring the cemetery, it is unique, first of all, of course, the oldest in Vilnius and the most important in Lithuania and one of the most important even in Europe, it is very beautiful, if you saw those tombstones with inscriptions, there are many exact copies of these inscriptions made, of around two or three hundred inscriptions. Everything can be rebuilt, and it is unique, just recently we talked with Vaitkevičius, who is an archeologist, that there is no other cemetery like that in Lithuania, no other cemetery that old, with pictures, with photos, we have no other cemetery so unique as this… We could establish a brilliant cemetery, where one could come and see, just like in Prague or Warsaw, where they also restored them, as far as I know. And as for the Palace of Sports… demolish it. Demolish the Palace of Sports.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Professor Shnayer Leiman, an active supporter of the petition, says that restoring the unique cemetery, in his opinion, would be of value to the culture of Lithuania in general.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: I can tell you my vision, I don’t know what other people think. In my opinion, the old cemetery could be restored at least in part. The building is an eyesore, nothing of any value happens there anymore, there is no reason why it should remain. Of course, there is no reason just to demolish the building and leave an empty field in the middle of Vilnius. That would be silly. Let me tell you that out of those 38 thousand people who signed the petition, a big part of them wrote or called me and said they would be happy to support the restoration of the old cemetery. Jews, and not only Jews, Christians, too, people from all around the world wrote me and suggested that the territory could be fenced, not by some ugly fence, but by a beautiful one that would emphasize the special status of the cemetery. We have these beautiful photos that show us what the cemetery looked like in the mid-19th and early 20th century. Helped by artists, sculptors, using contemporary technology we could easily restore a part of the tombstones just as they were. We could make paths, plant some plants, the place could be a tourist attraction. Believe me, thousands would come to see it. Thousands of people.
Audra Girijotė (as host): There are other examples of restored cemeteries in Lithuania. The old Jewish cemetery of Šeduva was restored recently. Artist Eduardas Jonušas restored Krikštai in Nida several decades ago. On a spot in Vilnius Vingis park, where an amusement park for children in the Soviet era used to be, a cemetery of soldiers fallen in the First and Second World Wars was restored.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: In Frankfurt am Main, the old Jewish cemetery is also at the heart of the city, by the river which, just like in Vilnius, flows through the city. After the Second World War, a question of the fate of this cemetery arose. It was bombed out, most of the graves were devastated, tombstones were shattered. Germans restored the cemetery. They were supported by UNESCO, as well as many other social groups that were happy to be a part of this project. Now it is one of Frankfurt’s most beautiful places. The old Jewish cemetery with restored tombstones, that is my vision. I really think it’s not only Jews that should care about it. Of course, we care a lot, because it’s a Jewish cemetery, but it is also a part of Lithuanian culture. If I was a citizen of Lithuania and knew that there is some main cemetery of, say, Karaites, who played a huge part in Lithuanian history, and if someone wanted to destroy this Karaite cemetery, I couldn’t sleep at night, because it would mean our common culture is being destroyed.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: I must express my regrets that the international community is somewhat misled…
Audra Girijotė (as host): Once again, Deputy Minister of Culture Renaldas Augustinavičius.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: And we think that this project should continue. This is our, Ministry of Culture’s, main stance.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): If, say, 50 thousand signatures get collected, will there be some official response?..
Renaldas Augustinavičius: Yes, yes. If we were to get this petition as an official document, we deal with petitions according to the official order of dealing with petitions, we would definitely provide an official response and, in my opinion, the response would sound exactly the same as what I am saying now.
Remigijus Šimašius: Of course we have to react to an opinion of Lithuanian citizens, as well as foreigners who have affective relations, affectively good and, perhaps, affectively tense relations with Lithuania, of course we need to react and discuss.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Šimašius.
Remigijus Šimašius: But of course, when thinking about how to use this territory, of course we must never forget that it’s the territory of a Jewish cemetery. According to the Jewish tradition, there is no such thing as a former cemetery, cemetery is forever, but it’s also a fact that in Tsarist times, a fort was built there, and now the Palace of Sports stands there, and the Palace cannot remain as it is now, it needs to be renovated one way or another. I took part in many discussions with the community representatives, and I can say very clearly that at least the community representatives have to support the project for it to carry on, that is, support of LJC, of people who live here and understand how to assess the circumstances of this situation, and, according to, say, common practice, it is CPJCE that investigates these questions, and CPJCE consists of the most authoritative rabbis. So I met them a couple of times, as well, of course there were tense questions that needed to be solved, but now, finally, both institutions have expressed their support to the proposed project. Of course, when work starts, there will be discussions, too, we will need to be attentive and respectful, and I think that authors of this petition should also be heard and involved in the informational field in order for them to know how it is all done nowadays, for now it seems like many opinions are based on old wounds and old understandings of how things are done, were done, when the Jewish opinion was simply ignored. Now, the situation is different and it has to be different, we must really respect all opinions.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Šimašius. Rūta Bloshtein, inhabitant of Vilnius who initiated the online petition, criticizes state institutions for only wanting to talk to the organizations that, according to her, are easily convinced, and for ignoring the critical voices. That is the reason, she says, why this petition appeared.
Rūta Bloshtein: There is one Avraham Pinter, member of that committee, who signed the petition, I don’t know why, perhaps something moral awoke in him, but he changed his opinion and signed the petition against the construction, against the renovation. And these rabbis, we know that back in 2009, when apartment buildings were being built on that ground, they participated, as well, and we all know that there were protest voices from around the world, too, and that the whole construction project was very controversial, completely non-kosher, but they somehow managed to build the apartments and there is nothing we can do now. And now the same committee is the first one to offer their services, to come here, we are not invited, other voices are not heard, only those of this same company: LJC and this European Committee of Jews, Committee for Preservation of Cemeteries, the exact same people who, we can see, have already discredited themselves back then.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: I think the chosen format is the most suitable and the most optimal, because it unites very religious persons, those who are less religious, and, well, secular people from the Jewish community. As well as CPJCE which automatically represents these religious norms, the Judaic tradition, it reflects our behavior with the remains, with the fragments of the remains, and with the very cemetery.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Once again, Deputy Minister of Culture Renaldas Augustinavičius.
Renaldas Augistinavičius: We don’t have a more ideal option for now and I don’t think we’ll have it later. People have a right to their own opinion, but before we approve a solution we have to come to agreement. I think we have come to this agreement. The agreement is respected by both sides, that is, we are not trying to negotiate with the Judaic tradition and at the same time there is a full understanding that the object of heritage, that is, the Palace of Sports, it is just like the Gediminas Castle, or the Cathedral, it has the same status as them, and they all have to be looked after and put in order. An object of heritage, when it, say, exists, lives its own life, to say it in other words, it is not problematic when it is adapted to social needs, that is, when some activity is happening inside, when it is exploited, and so on. Just that in this case we have this sensitive territory and we pay maximal attention to this fact.
Audra Girijotė (as host): The new government, as well as Vilnius municipality, are of opinion that the agreement has been reached. If one of the goals of this agreement is to show that Lithuania is sensitive when it comes to cultural heritage, then 38 thousand signatures under the petition and articles in foreign media, expressing astonishment at the fact that one can establish a conference center in the middle of a cemetery and talk about respect for the dead at the same time, destroy this image. Professor Shnayer Leiman.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: What we are asking for from the Lithuanian government is that it would continue its projects, build the conference center and continue doing everything that is economically necessary for the good of the country, but would choose a different spot for that, would not do it on this historically important spot.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: We are trying to come to a compromise between these two positions that satisfies both of them as much as possible. Not just satisfy their minimal demands, but satisfy both of them as much as possible.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Deputy Minister of Culture Renaldas Augustinavičius.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: Automatically, there are all kinds of worries and opinions, we really don’t want to shut ourselves in, we want to hear all the opinions, we are open to all opinions, but we think that first of all these opinions have to be constructive, directed at something, proposing something feasible, that is, they have to try and combine both positions.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): In this case, the proposal is not to build a conference center in the middle of a cemetery.
Renaldas Augustinavičius: At this moment, in Lithuania, objects of cultural heritage cannot be demolished neither according to the current legislation, nor according to the traditional law. So I don’t think a proposal to demolish cultural heritage is very constructive.
Rūta Bloshtein: The petition will exist for all the time to come, it is eternal, one can say, it is permanent.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Rūta Bloshtein.
Rūta Bloshtein: Even if they will, forgive me, God, build that palace, that conference center or something like that, the petition will exist, there will be more and more voices of protest, it will function as a permanent voice of conscience which will remind the cemetery desecrators of their deeds. If the plans change, the petition will be cancelled. So it’s a choice for Lithuania, I say.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: I would not even dream about the demolition of the Palace of Sports if I had no plan with what to replace it, what would bring glory and respect to the city of Vilnius and to the state of Lithuania. I have this vision, and believe me, all this energy that I invest in this petition and spreading the news about it, I would invest all this energy into creating something of which Vilnius and Lithuania could be proud, instead of ashamed.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Professor of Jewish literature and history at Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University Shnayer Leiman.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: Various ethnic groups used to live in Lithuania. At one point before the First World War, Jews comprised around half of all the inhabitants of Vilnius. When there are almost no signs of this lost world left, how can we destroy the cemetery that we could so easily restore according to the photos we have? The Great Synagogue is gone, another hundred houses of prayer where Jews used to pray are gone, but here we could preserve the memory, restore the cemetery that would let anyone who visits it feel that these people existed and they are part of Lithuanian history. I hope the people of Lithuania will understand and appreciate that.
Audra Girijotė (as host): I also asked the chairwoman of LJC Faina Kukliansky what she thinks about the international petition.
Faina Kukliansky: The position of LJC can be found on our website. One can find the schemes there, too. I think every person can form a just opinion from this information. LJC really sees it and always aims for its goals, that is, its goal is to preserve cemeteries all around Lithuania. We always try to explain to local municipalities, all the people, that Jews don’t have a concept of “former cemeteries”, there are only cemeteries. If we see any violations, we always intervene and try to stop the processes. Any other options are out of the question in our community. But here we are talking about a building in the Šnipiškės cemetery that was built during the Soviet times, in 1973. The building is not used anymore, it is abandoned. We, the Jewish community, are interested in this situation as far as peace of the people buried there is not disturbed. As you already know, wide discussions were carried out that ended in 2009 with an agreement between the Ministry of Culture, CPJCE, and LJC, on the boundaries of the cemetery, because the main arguments were about these boundaries. Practically all the disagreements that lingered for a long time over Lithuania were solved, so we are not taking up anything new, all we are asking from all the institutions, including the government, is that they would respect this agreement. Since we are not specialists in the practice of preserving cemeteries, we cooperate with CPJCE, which is recognized by a resolution of the EU, even though it’s a non-binding resolution, it is passed by the EU, and to this day we have no ground to doubt the competence of these rabbis. That is our position. LJC does not engage in building or rebuilding buildings in that territory, nor in any other activities, just, as any other Jewish community, tries to protect our rights, our traditions, by asking the institutions not to violate them.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): There is only one difference between the petition and the official position of LJC, if I understand it correctly, correct me if I’m wrong, that both your community and the people behind the petition want to preserve the peace of the cemetery, and the only difference is that building: they want no renovated building turned into a conference center. And your community is not against that, so they accuse you of being too humble and they say that what must be achieved is that that building would not be there anymore. And the very fact that it will be a conference center that will be rented to someone, according to the current agreement, for ten years and it will have to work commercially, to provide profit, events will be held there, that very building will disturb this peace.
Faina Kukliansky: Well, if we’re talking about the petition, I suggest you inspect it closely and see what information is spread around the petition, the photos that are published…
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): You mean the photos with tombstones that are not there anymore.
Faina Kukliansky: Yes. The petition is written in English and is read by foreigners who are native English speakers; by reading that petition, as well as articles published publicly, they may form an impression that there are tombstones in Šnipiškės cemetery at the moment, they may form an impression that these tombstones will be removed, broken, or something else will be done to them and then some new building will be built. Every time when people contact me personally or contact our community and we reply to them or send them photos and show them that the cemetery has not been there for ages and no one will build any new building, people, including those that signed this petition, are astonished. I want to emphasize that a big part of the emigrants left Lithuania around 1970, during Soviet times. They did not even know that there used to be a cemetery there. I get calls, even from my own close relatives, that express worry about the burial sites of their parents and grandparents, some even think about moving the bodies out of Lithuania, but everyone talks about the only cemetery operating today, in Saltoniškės, because they don’t even know about the existence of any other cemetery. So what it is is absolute disinformation that is spread through means of information. So I would approach that petition, well, I would approach that very petition in a very critical manner. Now, if we are talking about opinions, whether that building should stay or go, LJC has never expressed their love of that building and the fact of its existence, but it exists one way or another. I don’t know, perhaps my imagination is not wild enough for me to advise the government on what to do with that building.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): Authors of the petition say “demolish it”.
Faina Kukliansky: Some think it should be demolished, others think differently. LJC, the representative of which I am… I could not say that all the people have one or another opinion and I could also say that many people don’t really understand these religious norms as such, for example why cemeteries should not be disturbed, why it is so important, they haven’t delved deeply enough into these matters, and it might even be that the bigger part of them simply don’t care. On the other hand, LJC has never expressed a clear or categorical conviction on what is to be done with that building, whether it should be demolished or not, whether something new should be built, because we are not specialists in this field; that is why we delegated these Halakha-related problems of the Jewish law to rabbis, and only they can tell the government what is to be done with that building. Furthermore, it is not the only such place in Europe, nor the only such place in the world, various compromises can be found, reconstructions are carried out, I am not a specialist of these things and I, as an inhabitant of Lithuania, don’t have the right to command on what is to be done with this or that building. It is not the 15th or 16th century anymore and we are not fanatic enough, our beliefs are not sharp enough for us to walk around the government shaking our fists. There is common sense, there are the necessities of the city, and there are the necessities of the state, there is, for example, what is necessary to me as a Vilnius inhabitant, whether that looming monster of a building with graffiti on it, where antisocial elements live, is necessary, whether that building could be turned into something accessible and attractive without violating the Jewish law, it is not my business to solve these problems, it is none of our problems and none of our business. But I think it is very important to emphasize the very story that this petition portrays, that the story of what stands there today, when the cemetery was demolished, in what way the boundaries are marked, what kind of project is in plans, how the municipality will solve the problem of eternalizing the memory of the former cemetery, how beautiful it will be visually, all of these things have to be explained to people, because perhaps that is the reason why people write petitions of this kind and mislead other people by doing that… So I would not take this petition into account at all.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): It was signed by at least two rabbis from Vilnius, Krinsky and…
Faina Kukliansky: Krelin.
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): These are real people who live here and see the state of that cemetery at the moment: this fact does not allow to disregard this petition. Also, Professor Leiman, who does research on that cemetery, has visited Lithuania many times… As I understand it, if I understand it correctly, the very strength of this protest, because it is written where the cemetery is, it is also not written that there are tombstones there, it is only written that the graves are still there. Their concern is exactly that there, in the middle of a cemetery, a building will stand where events will take place. As you mentioned before, you don’t question this… In your opinion, how could these contradictions be solved? Disregarding the petition as invalid and misleading is not an option anymore, because it was signed by people who live here and who see the situation.
Faina Kukliansky: You’ve just mentioned three names. One of them does not live here at all, one of the rabbis you mentioned does not live here either and only comes to visit from time to time, he signed because he has his own aims, he signs any petition against the Jewish community. Several people signing the petition, ok, let’s say, ten, twenty people signing it does not mean much to me, because I know those people, I know who initiates such petitions and for what cause. You know, I am an honest person, and if it was an honest petition, we would communicate with these people in a completely different way. I know that there is a group of rabbis who live in New York and have a completely different opinion, but there are other groups that can make decisions; that is the reason why we choose the groups with which we communicate. I don’t know how it goes among rabbis, different rabbis live different lives, and I cannot say which one of them is right and which one is wrong, but the Lithuanian state and we communicate with a committee of rabbis that is responsible for the heritage of European Jews. I have no reason not to trust them. Petitions, you know, they do not always correlate with reality and with actual aims of some people. It is hard for me to form a single opinion about these people, it is hard for me to say why they think this way or that way; if it was an open discussion, where we could discuss, this problem would have a different solution, but now, responding to a petition, to some complaints that are supported, according to you, 38 thousand people, out of whom, it might be, not all of them know where Vilnius is, or some just see the pictures and don’t bother reading the text, or some others who did not research the problem enough… Moreover, I don’t know if there’s a mechanism to delete one’s signature after reading, say, our position. It is not only the petition, I know that there are articles written around the world where I am accused of destroying the cemetery, but I really have nothing to do with destroying it. I don’t know if any other organization cares about the heritage of Lithuanian Jews as much as our LJC does. Even though we are a non-governmental organization, although we are more of a cultural organization and we should dance and sing, and take care of completely different business, we do a great work here and I can say that we are successful at our job because there is an understanding and support, first of all coming from the Department of Cultural Heritage, and from the Ministry of Culture, and from municipalities. It is extremely important: us, what can we do on our own? We cannot manage two hundred cemeteries or two hundred mass graves by ourselves, it can only be done with help of other institutions, of municipalities and state institutions. So I want to say a “thank you” to them, and I will thank those that are sleeping at the moment and do nothing, too, perhaps they will wake up and will pay more attention to Jewish heritage, because there are no more Jews left, someone has to take care of this heritage. I understand, completely, that there are more Jewish emigrants in foreign countries than in Lithuania, I also understand that people worry, and I thank them for their worries, but here we could do open discussions whether this building of the Palace of Sports should stay or not, but I think that that building is in the list of cultural heritage objects, and as far as I remember, it is a unique building because of its architecture, the construction of its roof without pillars was a know-how in the former Soviet Union, just like the stage in Vingis park; thus, building is hard and demolishing is easy, demolition can always be carried out, but we need to think well before taking it up. People in Manhattan, Brighton Beach, or Dizengoff should think especially well if they are so well educated in Lithuanian heritage, as well as in Halakha, if they really know everything about that cemetery and if they have the right to express their opinion. Talk is cheap, so if I were in this place, I would think well and research the problem before signing the petition. Look at what’s happening with other cemeteries around Lithuania at the moment…
Audra Girijotė (as host): That was Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman of LJC. You are listening to Žmonės ir idėjos on LRT Klasika. Rūta Bloshtein, initiator of the petition that pleads for cancelling the plans of the reconstruction of the Palace of Sports and establishing a conference center in the middle of the old Šnipiškės cemetery, says that the decisions of what will happen in the territory of the cemetery should not be seen as final, and the decision making process should be more public and transparent.
Rūta Bloshtein: First of all, competent people should be invited to evaluate the situation, rabbis that are interested not in the amount of pay they can get and not in an easy agreement, but in doing everything according to the rules, the rules of Halakha. Everything has to be public, local Jews have to take part in these decisions instead of hearing about them from behind the closed door. Charity begins at home, right? So let Lithuanians imagine that their cemetery, where a great amount of heroes and dukes is buried…
Audra Girijotė (in conversation): Let’s say, Rasų cemetery?
Rūta Bloshtein: Yes, let’s say, this wonderful cemetery of Rasų, so beautiful, of course, now it has a road running in the middle of it, is that not painful? And now let’s imagine that we are building a conference center in the middle of it. Would Lithuanians agree with that?
Audra Girijotė (as host): Chairwoman of LJC Faina Kukliansky says that the overall situation of Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania is complicated.
Faina Kukliansky: In most towns, when I ask them where’s the cemetery, they say there isn’t one. And where did it use to be? Nobody knows. Let’s say, Alanta. There is a synagogue there, you can only get to the synagogue by walking through the yard of the good man who takes care of that synagogue. But when it comes to the cemetery, everybody has forgotten about it. Ask about it in any town where the cemetery has not survived, and no one will tell you where it was. Where it has not survived, it’s gone, there may be houses on it, pastures, we don’t know. This is the great tragedy of Lithuania. It is not only the people that perished, their remains perished as well, and that is why the Jewish community puts so much effort into preserving at least a tiny part of what is still there. Suddenly, everybody is so worried about a cemetery in Vilnius, a cemetery the location of which is known, the boundaries of which will be marked, the territory will be marked. I don’t have an opinion on whether that building should be or shouldn’t be demolished. In any case, I trust the rabbis that specialize in this field. The opinion of LJC is the opinion of these rabbis. And writing, signing, becoming offended without knowing the context… I think they should know the Lithuanian context and the state that cemeteries are in all around Lithuania. I would also like to say that only those who know all the facts have the right to opinion. I am sure that the authors of the petition don’t know about plans of the municipality to eternalize the cemetery, that tombstones from Olandų cemetery will be used in a memorial, as well as stones from Tauras Hill stairs, from all kinds of demolished buildings, perhaps even from Šnipiškės. All the stones that have been lying in warehouses for many years, perhaps 25 now—these stones will be displayed in one of the memorials. Other stones will be exhibited in Olandų cemetery.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: Those tombstones, if we are talking about the same ones, I have researched them, they are from Užupis cemetery. There were no new burials in the old Jewish cemetery after 1831. Tombstones in those times were different. They were hand-carved and hand-painted.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Professor Shnayer Leiman, researcher of the history of the old cemetery. In the debates about the cemetery, one can hear claims, that remains of famous rabbis and men of wisdom were moved to other cemeteries. According to the professor, it was only the remains of Vilna Gaon and six people buried next to him that were moved in the 1940s.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: Only seven graves were moved from the old cemetery to the new one. If we were to count how many Jews had lived in Vilnius from the 15th or, if you wish, the 16th century to 1831, it would be a lot. It is very important that the book History of the Old Cemetery, published by Shmuel Yosef Fin from Vilnius in the 19th century, has survived to this day. He lists more than four hundred famous people that are buried there. He published the carvings from their tombstones. More than four hundred! And this is not counting lots of women, children, and simple Jewish men who were neither famous rabbis nor scientists. Many of the famous people lie there, for example, Avraham Danzig, author of the famous treatise Chayei Adam (The Life of Man). Famous Moshe Rivkes also lies there, he is almost equal to Vilna Gaon, he is his predecessor. Moshe Rivkes wrote a commentary of the Jewish law that is being studied all around the world to this day. In every Yeshiva in the world, the Jews read the book of Moshe Rivkes. He was the rabbi of Vilnius, an important figure in the 17th century. His remains are still there, in the old cemetery.
Faina Kukliansky: My goal and the goal of our community is that these people, who were important inhabitants of Vilnius, various Jews, both rich and poor, but all Jews of Vilnius who were buried in that cemetery, that they would find peace, because according to our religion, desecrating the grave causes huge pain for the deceased. That is our first goal.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Chairwoman of LJC Faina Kukliansky.
Faina Kukliansky: The second goal is that the cemetery that was devastated would be eternalized together with the memory of the people who are buried there, and they have to be eternalized in a beautiful and respectful way. I can say that the projects that Vilnius municipality and the government present to us today are an expression of great respect to these dead people. It is a righteous commemoration. If rabbis say that a building purposed as a conference center is not suitable for this commemoration, that it disturbs peace, we will not argue with them.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Chairwoman of LJC Faina Kukliansky. In the Jewish cemetery, by the Palace of Sports, we talk with mathematician and philosopher Andrius Kulikauskas, who took part in a Roko maršas concert and a congress of Sąjūdis that happened here in the late 80s. According to him, the solution to this problem is easier if we see it from a perspective of upcoming two hundred years.
Andrius Kulikauskas: Yes, this place is full of memories, but the question that I raise is: in two hundred years’ time, some grandpa will have to tell his grandson what this building on the other side of the Neris is. Will he want to show this Soviet heritage, will he want to show a congress center funded by the EU, or will he want to show that, look, here is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. That this is where our heritage is preserved, because Jews were invited to come here by our dukes Vytautas and Gediminas, who understood Lithuania in very broad terms. And that we feel empathy for them, we know what they had to live through, and we want to see them in this holy ground forever. We only need to think for a moment, the Jerusalem of Lithuania means that this ground is holy, that here is this most holy Jerusalem of Lithuania. The holiness comes not from a fact that there are—or are not—some remains here, the holiness comes from our faith. Vilnius Lower Castle has been rebuilt, too, but what is more important is that we didn’t build an Akropolis on that ground. Just listen to this: 98 percent of our Jews are no more. There used to be more than 200 thousand in Lithuania, and now there are only around three thousand left. We need to stand up for the dead, to feel them, to say that we stand because no one else can, no one else can say what they would want. We need to listen very attentively to that handful of Jews who survived, not only to their chairwoman. One can often hear “they are fragmented, why can’t they come to agreement”. But we need to think twice: just because we acknowledge some leaders, it does not mean that they represent the whole body, we have to listen to everyone. We have to learn from them. One thing that we can learn is that they are very sensitive about cemeteries. For example, we allowed the Soviets to build a road through our Rasų cemetery. Maybe we feel pain because of that, maybe we don’t. But the fact that they are more sensitive about this than we are, it is a gift to us, so that we can become more sensitive, too. It is very important to come in good faith, to be empathetic.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Researcher of history of the old Jewish cemetery of Vilnius Shnayer Leiman from Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University is happy about the meeting between Litvaks and Lithuanian diplomats that happened last week in the United States.
Interpreter for Shnayer Leiman: They were very open and talkative, they made no promises. We did not expect promises, either. But an open call for further debates was given. Famous rabbis from Israel and the United States took part in this meeting with representatives of the Lithuanian government, famous leaders of the main Talmudic institutions which used to be in Lithuania but then moved to the United States and Israel: Slabodka Yeshiva, Ponevezh Yeshiva, Telshe Yeshiva. I am sure there will be more meetings like this. I will be very happy to meet everyone who wants to sit down and talk. As long as they’re serious about it.
Audra Girijotė (as host): Says professor Leiman. That’s it for today’s show, thank you for staying with us. This was Audra Girijotė, stay with LRT Klasika.
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