Vilnius Court’s May 10th Verdict Illustrates “Insidious and Tragic” Destruction of East European Cemeteries via London’s CPJCE




VILNIUS—Readers are familiar with an English summary of the Vilnius District Court’s 10 May decision paving the way for a massive national convention center and annex to rise in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (Shnípishok, in today’s Šnipiškės district), surrounded by thousands of extant graves on all four sides. Moreover, the entire text of the Lithuanian original is posted for inspection.

Jump to verdict’s excerpts referencing the CPJCE (and AJC)

What may be lost from the summary, and to those unable to read Lithuanian or to access a translation, is the “insidious and tragic” — and in any case central — role played by London’s “CPJCE” (the Orwellian name is “Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe), whose “Aaronite-Satmar” rabbis have been caught on Wikileaks demanding large sums for their “supervisions” (and in effect, permissions) for effectively selling rights to old Jewish cemeteries on ground zero of the Holocaust. The effects of the genocide include the dearth of viable communities of descendants of the buried who would in the course of things guard the dignity of their ancestors’ burial places (see: 2009 Wikileaks cable confirming secret payments; 2015 reports by JTA and the Jerusalem Post; the “Serious Incident Report” to UK’s Charities Commission. See also last December’s “Day of Shame”). Incidentally, the opposing (“Zalmanite”) branch of Satmar hasidism has boldly condemned the desecration of the old Vilna cemetery in a statement signed by the grandrabbi himself.

From the infamous 2015 video to the present court decision, Defending History has been providing a detailed record of at least the publicly knowable aspects of the group’s shameful role in the Vilna scandal, scoffing and belittling the voices of virtually all Litvak (Lithuanian tradition) rabbis internationally (see DH’s section on the CPJCE (plus the classic video) on the broader Vilna cemetery dispute, and summary pages of the international opposition and more recent developments).

 It is true that many rabbis are afraid to “start up” with the CPJCE. Traditionally Orthodox scholars, rabbis and teachers in London have repeatedly told DH that the CPJCE are “a kind of mafia that mentally terrorizes the community by holding many purse strings.” Then they have made some powerful American friends too. A leader of the American Jewish Committee’s “foreign affairs division” who revels in repeated medals, awards and trinkets from the Lithuanian government has been known to tell officials that there is one group in London who can fix things for their development needs and has even drafted the AJC itself (!) into an unholy alliance with the London grave-sellers (the alliance is directly referred to in the court judgment, cited below). Some of the CPJCE’s antics sink into primitive black comedy, such as their contention that to the modern Republic of Lithuania, the old Jewish cemetery site is akin to the Statue of Liberty and the Tower of London. Their “successes” have been used to raise further millions from naive and unsuspecting donors over the years.

Nevertheless, there is a core of deeply honest rabbinical leaders  and scholars who have spoken out for the record, loud and clear.

In June of 2015, Rabbi Shmuel Jacob Feffer, the eminent Litvak rabbinic authority on the Gaon of Vilna, coeditor of many volumes of the Gaon’s collected works, resident in Vilnius for over a quarter century, issued his rabbinic edict. His office’s official English version appeared in 2017 It contains the language, “It is also public knowledge that there are local interests and organizations and [a] Jewish committee abroad, that came to visit and make agreements and compromises as if it were a business, and they publicly agree in a conspiracy of treachery, saying, in effect: Let us come and destroy the memory of the old cemetery, its holiness and its borders, and transfer stewardship to those who desire to do with it as they maliciously please.”

In August 2015, the last chief rabbi of Lithuania, Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, fired precisely over his heroic stance, wrote on these pages that “we must all heed the words of the great Litvak rabbis of our time and receive their words with respect. By contrast, the non-Litvak committee of rabbis ‘specially arranged’ by the head of the community does not have any authority in my eyes, nor in the eyes of any of the great Litvak rabbis in the United States, Israel or anywhere in the world.”” Since Rabbi Burshtein’s departure, there have been various visits and curious combinations, but the office of chief rabbi was discontinued for the first time since the Second World War. Another effect of the Vilnius Cemetery Saga.

In September 2015, the leading scholar of the cemetery’s history, Professor Shnayer Leiman, put it delicately in his now classic paper on the subject: “Distinguished rabbis the world over […], have raised their voices in unison against the construction of a Convention Center in the old Jewish cemetery, rendering the London opinion – at best – a minority one. These voices include the leading halakhic authorities in Israel and the United States, and the present heads of the great yeshivot that once graced Lithuania, which due to the Holocaust and Soviet repression had to resettle elsewhere.”

In June of 2016, Professor Bernard Fryshman, renowned inter alia for his role in enabling the US Congress to pass key legislation in 2014 protecting the rights of minority cemeteries internationally, remarked in a published article: “Most shocking is a statement signed by Rabbi Yeshaya Schlesinger and Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg of the CPJCE that: ‘Further to the meeting of the rabbinical board, we the undersigned confirm that with the government’s written acceptance of the above clarifications, the CPJCE approves and endorses the ‘Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sport conversion to Congress Center 2016 plan B and wish this venture every success.’ […] We will persist in trying to stop this project. But if chas veshalom it carries through, there is ample shame and lots of blame to be shared.” Incidentally, Prof. Fryshman has been the target of primitive invective by the American branch of the CPJCE, which calls itself, with analogous Orwellian tones, Admas Kodesh (“Holy Earth”); DH’s report in 2017.

Rights of the deceased of minorities to lie in peace are human rights. Would this be happening to a Christian Lithuanian cemetery of 500 years vintage, home to remains of the nation’s great scholars?

Early in 2020, he doyen of Lithuanian traditional rabbis internationally, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky of Bnei Brak, added his signature to the leading Litvak rabbinical court’s judgment of 14 Shevat 5780 (9 Feb. 2020) on the old Vilna Jewish cemetery (facsimile; reportEnglish translation authorized by the rabbinica court). The rabbinic court’s judgment includes the following text: “The law is clear that if the graves were disinterred, G-d forbid, the place may not be reused for any purpose […]. Family members […] purchase the burial plot for the deceased at the full price as a permanent purchase […].  The place of the graves does not belong to the community nor is a public area, but is the private property of the deceased and their descendants […]. Community bodies do not have the right to sell it, and if they do so the sale is ultra vires and invalid […]. It is not their property, and the descendants of those buried in this cemetery may take legal proceedings to ensure that no use be made of the place […]. Furthermore, even if the renovation is done under supervisinon, it is clear that such a large building needs periodic infrastructure works […]  It is still consecrated ground, and is also a place that has been stolen from the deceased  and their heirs […]. Certainly, should the area be turned into a place of entertainment, it would be a desecration of its sanctity.”

In September of 2020, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, wrote a formal letter to Lithuania’s then “Yiddish speaking culture minister,” Dr. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, containing the following text: “The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) does not have the authority to, G-d forbid, approve the continued desecration of the cemetery through any further digging, exploration and development – either on or around the cemetery site. On behalf of the Conference of European Rabbis, I want to clarify that the CPJCE lost the authority to liaise with the Lithuanian Government on this vital issue because they did not respond to a summons of the Rabbinical Court, and subsequently do not represent the voice of European Jewry. Let me also be clear that the Conference of European Rabbis no longer maintains a formal affiliation with the group. We therefore urge the Lithuanian Government to cease all communications with the CPJCE and to continue to liaise with the Conference of European Rabbis and other leading Jewish organizations on issues relating to European Jewry.” It is not clear what (if anything) Dr. Kvietkauskas, a major Lithuanian scholar in his own right, replied, and he will surely want to clear up the record moving forward and for the record of history.

But perhaps, in our age of video, the most unforgettable image is of the current spiritual leader of international efforts to save the old Vilna Jewish cemetery, Rabbi Elchonon Baron, who led a group of major Lithuanian rabbis in a friendly meeting with Lithuania’s ambassador to Israel in January of 2020, uttering the words (When the ambassador began to harp on about the glories of the CPJCE): “They don’t have the authority […] to sell the cemetery” (video timecode 3:53).

Vilnius Verdict is the Recent Example of the CPJCE’s Undermining of Jewish Cemeteries in Eastern Europe (with some help from the AJC)

The following is a translation by specialists commissioned by Defending History of those parts of the Vilnius District Court’s 10 May 2021 decision that make reference to the role of the CPJCE in the cemetery’s conversion to a national convention center with the London group’s backing (complete original; English summary).

Note: Headings in square brackets [] indicate the name of the section from which the the CPJCE-mentioning excerpt is extracted. For rapid identification, references to the CPJCE have been colored red below (they are of course not colored in the original).


 

[The Court’s Summary of the Plaintiff’s Demands]

  1. In 2009, an agreement on the conditions of heritage preservation in the territory of the Old Šnipiškės Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius and the protection zone around it was signed; according to it, the project of the Congress Center will be continuously negotiated with the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. This agreement allows representatives of state institutions to abstain from coordinating the reconstruction works’ process with any other representatives of the Jewish community that do not belong to these two organizations.
  2. In their reply (7 t. 1-7 e. b.l.), the Plaintiffs’ support the demands of their reviewed claim and ask the Court to satisfy their reviewed preventative claim. They add that the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is but a self-established London-based organization that operates only in four states: Germany, Romania, Ukraine, and Lithuania. An agreement signed with the aforementioned Committee is of the same legal power as any other contract signed with a self-established non-governmental organization. Among this organization’s aims, one can find its own financial interests but not willingness to preserve sites that are sacred to the Jewish people. The Committee’s activities do not reflect the European Union’s approach to the preservation of Jewish cemeteries, e. g. the European Commission has recently presented its pilot project of the preservation of Jewish cemeteries, one of the aims of which is to build up social consciousness on the importance of preservation of Jewish cultural heritage by using Jewish burial sites to demonstrate Europe’s cultural diversity.

 

[The Court’s Summary of the Defendant State Enterprise Turto Bankas’ Retorts]

  1. On August 26, 2009, representatives of the Department of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Lithuanian Jewish Community signed a declaration, by which the sides agreed on the boundaries of the Cemetery territory and its protection zone and agreed to continue their cooperation in commemorating the Cemetery. By signing this agreement, representatives of both the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the Lithuanian Jewish Community agreed with the definition of the Cemetery territory as presented by the Government, and the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports is not in this territory. Furthermore, the aforementioned Jewish organizations agreed with the survival of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports and presented no demands to demolish the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports; they both agree with and support preservation and reconstruction of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports.
  2. As Turto Bankas was entrusted with the implementation of the Project by a Government Decree, Prime Minister ordered the Ministry of Finance and Turto Bankas to negotiate all issues related to the implementation of the Project with the Lithuanian Jewish Community, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and its appointed representatives and to cover all related expenses. In its role as the Project Manager, Turto Bankas is interested in proper implementation of the Project and in ensuring protection of the Cemetery and heritage objects in its territory, and for these purposes cooperates with experts and representatives appointed by the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, arranges various steps of the Project with them, informs and consults with them, and ensures adequate participation of the aforementioned organizations’ representatives by covering their travel, accommodation, and other necessary expenses.
  3. In the May 5, 2016, Vilnius meeting with the representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Turto Bankas presented pre-project suggestions of converting the Vilnius Palace of Sports into the Congress Center; reconstruction of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports will be carried out along the lines of these suggestions. The Government of the RL and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe agreed, in writing, on additional conditions that would ensure the representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe the right to observe and control the process of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports’ reconstruction. On May 16, 2016, President of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe Head Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger accepted, in writing, the pre-project suggestions of converting the Palace of Sports into the Congress Center and noted that this agreement between the sides will no doubt ensure commemoration and preservation of the Cemetery as a historic and sacred site, as well as appropriate use of the reconstructed Congress Center.
  4. No earth-moving works will be carried out in the territory of the Cemetery. Point 13 of the Heritage Protection Conditions of the August 26, 2009, declaration-agreement, signed by representatives of the Department of Cultural Heritage, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Lithuanian Jewish Community, explicitly states that it is forbidden to carry out any earth-moving works in the territory of the Cemetery. […] The Technical Specifications of the Reconstruction Project of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports (Appendix 1, “Infrastructural Requirements for the Vilnius Congress Center”), as well as the January 17, 2019, Contract for the Project Preparation and Supervision of Implementation Services (points 7.9 and 13.7), as well as pre-project suggestions of converting the Vilnius Palace of Sports into the Congress Center, accepted by the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe—all three of these provide for preservation and protection of the Cemetery. Hence, as is obvious from the arguments presented above, the Defendant will carry out no illegal action during the Vilnius Palace of Sports’ reconstruction.
  5. The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) is the most important European organization for the supremacy and supervision of halakha (the Jewish Law). […]
  6. The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) is the most important European organization for the supremacy and supervision of halakha (the Jewish Law), established back in 1992 as an institution of rabbinical authority on Jewish laws concerning places of burial. This organization actively protects Jewish cemeteries and mass graves all over Europe. The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe consists of a team of rabbi experts who provide advice to organizations and communities that operate in the sites of Jewish burial. Furthermore, this organization was also a part of the American Jewish Committee coalition “Protecting Memory”. The Council of Europe has also recognized the role of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe by mentioning it in its May 2012 resolution on Jewish cemeteries. Participation and supervision by this organization and its representatives guarantees that appropriate protection of and respect for the Cemetery as a historic and sacred site as well as the people buried therein will be ensured during the reconstruction of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports. […]
  7. No earth-moving works will be carried out in the territory of the Cemetery. This fact is proven by the August 26, 2009, declaration-agreement, signed by representatives of the Department of Cultural Heritage, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Point 13 of the Heritage Protection Conditions of the aforementioned agreement explicitly states that it is forbidden to carry out any earth-moving works in the territory of the Cemetery. […] The Technical Specifications of the Reconstruction Project of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports (Appendix 1, “Infrastructural Requirements for the Vilnius Congress Center”), as well as the January 17, 2019, Contract for the Project Preparation and Supervision of Implementation Services (points 7.9 and 15.7), as well as pre-project suggestions of converting the Vilnius Palace of Sports into the Congress Center, accepted by the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe—all three of these documents, added to the case file, provide for preservation and protection of the Cemetery. […]
  8. […] Furthermore, in order to appropriately implement an economic and cultural project of state importance—reconstruction of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports and its adaptation for congresses, conferences, and cultural events—all decisions on the reconstruction of the aforementioned object were, are, and will be negotiated with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community. Participation and supervision by these organizations and their representatives guarantees that appropriate protection of and respect for the Cemetery as a historic and sacred site as well as the people buried therein will be ensured during the implementation of the Project and the reconstruction of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports. It should also be noted that numerous meetings with these organizations took place during the preparation stage of the technical project of the reconstruction and, this December, a meeting with representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community took place, during which essential project decisions of the Vilnius Congress Center were negotiated, as well as conditions for carrying out the contracted works.
  9. […] No heavy machinery will be allowed to park in the territory of the Cemetery, plus, all works will be carried out with supervision and guidance of representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. […]

 

[Position of the third party: Administration of Vilnius Municipality]

  1. In the conditions of the Contract for the Technical Project Preparation and Supervision of Implementation Services for the Reconstruction of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports, attached to the claim by the Plaintiff, it is specified that project suggestions must be negotiated with the Department of Cultural Heritage, the Lithuanian Jewish Community, and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. Appendix 1 to the Technical Specifications notes that conditions of the territory’s reconstruction and design have been approved by the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and it was arranged that any actions that are related to moving or touching the earth must first be presented to and negotiated with representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe; reconstruction works can be carried out only with the Committee’s approval; earth-related works are to be carried out only in supervision of a rabbi who can, in the case of human remains, a grave, or its fragments being unearthed, stop the works until further notice, etc. […] According to point 7.9 of the Contract for the Technical Project Preparation and Supervision of Implementation Services, the Designer must immediately, but not later than in 10 days or other reasonable period of time specified by the Client, correct the Technical Project according to suggestions of the Client and/or appropriate state and municipal institutions and/or the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and/or the Lithuanian Jewish Community and/or the Contractor.

 

[The Court’s Verdict]

  1. By entrusting the Defendant with organization of the building’s reconstruction, the Government of the Republic of Lithuania specified certain mandatory conditions. These conditions have been negotiated with the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. A certain pluralism of opinions is understandable in a democratic society, hence, a considerable amount of persons who do not agree with this or that position is not a basis to negate the organizations’ right to represent other members of a community. […]
  2. […] In the “Infrastructural Requirements for the Vilnius Congress Center“, included in the Technical Specifications, it is stated that, when designing solutions related to earth-moving works, it is mandatory to respect the conditions negotiated with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe: a) The Palace of Sports under reconstruction is in the territory of the Old Jewish Cemetery (added documents: the cemetery scheme and an agreement between the Lithuanian Jewish Community, the Cultural Heritage Department of the RL, and the Ministry of Culture of the RL); b) After the preparation of the Project, parts of the Project, parts of the construction site, and technological solutions that relate to moving or touching the earth must be presented to and negotiated with representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe; c) Only after an approval by the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is received, reconstruction works are allowed to commence in the construction site, costs related to these negotiations are non-refundable; d) When carrying out earth-moving works both inside and outside the building, constant participation of a rabbi appointed by the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is mandatory, works related to the earth are carried out only in supervision of the rabbi. […] g) Costs related to the negotiations and research, when participation of a representative of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is required, are non-refundable.
  3. In the requirements for the territory arrangement (plan of the site), included in the Technical Specifications, it is designated that driveways leading to the site, above-ground parking lots, and pedestrian paths must be designed in a rational way and without breaching the rules of the protected area or the conditions put forward by the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and with respect to the fact that the site of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports is in the site of the Vilnius Old Jewish Cemetery at Šnipiškės (object code 31812); territory arrangement solutions must not harm the valuable features of the aforementioned object and be in harmony with planned solutions of the site’s commemoration. The parking/logistics lot is designed in the northern and eastern parts of the site. Lots and driveways that happen to be in the territory of the Vilnius Old Jewish Cemetery at Šnipiškės must be designed to go over special blocks that meet the requirements of Halakha. This solution must be presented during the process of design and it must be negotiated with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. […]
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