CEMETERIES | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PETITION | HUMAN RIGHTS | LITHUANIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS
Over the last few days, reports began to circulate about “digging at Piramónt”. Piramónt (in the Šnipiškės district of modern Vilnius) is the Vilna Yiddish name for the city’s Old Jewish cemetery, of 15th century vintage, where many thousands of Vilna Jewish citizens from the last half millennium, including numerous giants of Jewish intellectual history, still lie buried (the Soviets plundered all the gravestones, but most graves are still intact as demonstrated by ground radar projects over the years). At present, there is growing worldwide opposition, and a petition that has garnered some 44,000 signatories, asking the Lithuanian government to move its national convention center project away from the old Jewish cemetery, so that the cemetery could be restored and Lithuanians could enjoy a national convention center that would for generations attract people of all backgrounds, and be a source of pride for all of Lithuania’s peoples.
On behalf of Defending History, I rushed over to see what had changed. On my arrival today there was no visible digging, but a hefty pile of gravel had been plonked on the cemetery grounds along with growing numbers of “Do Not Enter” signs, never a hopeful sign for Jewish cemeteries. One rumor has it that yet another “fake decoy memorial for the cemetery” will be erected to deflect attention from the imminent desecration of the entire cemetery, where, if the convention center and its new annex are erected, untold thousands would cheer and sing, drink in bars and flush toilets, surrounded by graves of thousands of Jewish people. Off the record, senior officials have conceded repeatedly that this would not be the fate of a Christian cemetery home to the remains of Lithuanian heroes from the fifteenth century onward.
There are rumors that the new decoy memorial will make use of the gravestones stolen from Vilnius’s newer (19th century vintage) Jewish cemetery at Zarétshe (in the Užupis district of today’s Vilnius), which were recently dumped here at this cemetery by city authorities for a supposed memorial to the people buried at this cemetery, which is about to be effectively desecrated and destroyed forever. Who will want to attend a convention surrounded by thousands of graves, with or without some sham “monuments” to the destroyed cemetery dotted on the periphery?
Since his recent visit to Vilnius about two weeks ago, Mr. Paul Packer, head of the United States taxpayer funded “Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad” (USCPAHA) has not yet issued any public statement calling on the Lithuanian authorities to move the convention center to another venue, but hopes remain high among his supporters that he will soon break the silence, and join with fellow commission member Herbert Block in speaking out (and that all commission members will join Mr. Block in signing the international petition underway). While the major rabbis of Litvak origin, and the major rabbinic organizations worldwide have all condemned the “convention center in the cemetery” project, the government, local builders and others standing to make a fortune from the old cemetery have relied on “permission” from the allegedly corrupt “CPJCE”, a group of London rabbis currently under investigation by the United Kingdom’s Charity Commission.
People who care about Lithuania and its standing in the world will continue to do their best to persuade the authorities to find a better location for the convention center and annex than the old Jewish cemetery, where people of conscience would refuse for generations to step inside the grounds. There is still time for a happy ending for this self-inflicted chapter of pain in our country’s modern history.