VILNIUS—A memo from the United States Embassy here in the Lithuanian capital, dated 27 May 2009, released by Wikileaks and in the public domain, expressed optimism about solution of the disputes that had arisen over desecration of Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery. The cemetery, known to generations of Vilna Jews as Piramónt, is within the Šnipiškės district (itself in Yiddish: Shnípishok).
The memo’s optimism seems completely in order from the American perspective, given that the two new buildings on the cemetery were a fait accompli, and that talk was about future development of areas outside the actual cemetery. In other words, the diplomat who authored the memo acted with integrity and, given what was known at the time, spoke with common sense. He could not have known that all the agreements in train were part of an elaborate ruse, the next phase of which, down the road, would be a twenty-five million dollar convention center, to “grow” out of the old Soviet sports arena, about which the State Department (among many others) had made a clear determination back in 2006: “The Sports Palace property indisputably rests in the middle of the former cemetery.”
The shocking aspects of the 2009 memo are shocking only with hindsight after the events of spring 2015. The 2009 memo refers to:
♦ the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) citing precisely the same group and some of the same named rabbis entertained in Vilnius in April 2015 by the prime minister of Lithuania and other high officials, in connection with the twenty-five million dollar convention center development (video; summary; photo).
♦ The memo makes reference to the need in 2009 for a $100,000 payment to the CPJCE rabbis for their friendly “rabbinical supervision during investigative digging and for future beautification of the site.” That inevitably raises the issue of what payments were or were not promised not in the 2009 context of “beautification” but in the 2015 context of a twenty-five million dollar convention center that would amount to a needless, self-inflicted blot on the future of Vilnius. Then there is the issue of transparency of the payments agreed or implied, all the more so when the positions of these rabbis, who have no Lithuanian heritage, are contradicted by virtually the entire Litvak rabbinic establishment internationally.
♦ It also makes reference to an implied need for secrecy, because “the CPJCE appears to be striving for maximum flexibility — to the point of accepting exploratory digging in or near the cemetery, a stance that would infuriate some other Jewish groups should they learn of it.” Of course it was not for the diplomat to note that such digging (even in the absence of building a convention center in the heart of a historic cemetery) contravenes Jewish law and is ipso facto shocking coming from a group of haredi rabbis whose job is to preserve Jewish burial grounds in post-Holocaust Europe.
Now, in 2015, it has become clear that rabbinic authorities internationally do not accept the judgment of the CPJCE. To date, spirited protests have been issued by (among others) Lithuania’s Chief Rabbi Chaim Burshtein; Rabbi Shmuel Jacob Feffer in Vilnius (co-editor of some 70 books by the Gaon of Vilna and president of the Vilna Gaon Center); the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada; the top Litvak heads of yeshivas in Israel, including Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, Rabbi Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz and Rabbi Tzvi Rotberg; the famed Vilna Gaon Synagogue in Tel Aviv. Others who have spoken out ethically include a prominent Holocaust survivor in Vilnius, a Protestant church leader, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Dr. Bernard Fryshman, who was instrumental in achieving the U.S. Congress’s 2014 passing of a law protecting foreign cemeteries of minorities as part of human rights and religious freedom.
This time around, in 2015, attention is rapidly being focused on the American government’s U.S. Commission for the Preservation of the American Heritage Abroad. It seems that a few of its members have been manipulated by Lithuanian government antics (with no ill intent on their own part, but resulting in the perceived need for clarification of positions now held). Some in the Commission’s circles have involvement with a new Lithuanian government financed “Heritage Commission” set up largely to cover for the convention center in the heart of the old Jewish cemetery. Two of the heritage commission’s members are also American Jewish members of the Lithuanian government’s controversial commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes that plays a major role in the East European “Double Genocide” movement. Another member is also part of the same rabbinic club entertained by the prime minister, a club that seems to do well from blessing convention centers on hallowed cemetery grounds and benefiting from contracts to then go on to provide rabbinic supervision for the project. Some members are also members of the commission that decides on the annual disbursement of grants under restitution (The Good Will Foundation). The complex web of commissions, committees, boards and useful foreigners keen on the glitter and honors of their paid-for trips, merits an outside independent investigation, given the business and financial interests pushing for the twenty-five million dollar convention center, which would “again” be the “last new building” on the cemetery — until the next time. That many of those millions are being applied for from the European Union makes such an investigation ever more timely.
A first question now is whether the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of the American Heritage Abroad will now rise to the occasion by simply issuing a polite statement calling firmly for the new twenty-five million dollars convention center project to be moved to another venue, away from the more-than-half-millennium old Vilna Jewish cemetery at Piramónt.