by Julius Norwilla (Vilnius)
Like my fellow campaigners, over the years, in opposition to the project to plonk a national convention center in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery (via refurbishment of a hated Soviet “Sports Palace” dump that should have long ago been demolished), I felt nothing but relief and the need to express congratulations back in the summer of 2021 when our prime minister wisely cancelled the project. Over two years later, there is again fear, among Jews, Lithuanians, and many around the world who respect the right of the dead to lie in peace (verily a part of Human Rights), even when they are members of a minority. When the buried belong to a nation’s ethnic majority, there are usual no serious efforts to situate conference centers surrounded by subterranean graves (even when the above-ground gravestones have long disappeared).
The new fear stems, to be frank, from the minutes of the first meeting (held 1 June 2023) of the new Working Group (also called “the new commission”) recently made available, containing a number of proposals that add up to “a shiny new conference center under another name” in the middle of the long shamefully desecrated Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, without even mention of the opinion that it should come down. The circulated minutes are accompanied by a pizzazzy series of visuals depicting the shiniest dreams of the builders, contractors, corrupt politicians, and of course, the ultranationalist antisemitic community that does not want a Jewish cemetery in central Vilnius. The images do not include those of a restored cemetery that would bring Vilnius pride and pilgrims for centuries to come. The minutes of the meeting contain what has to be one of the most Orwellian sentences ever published by a government agency: “The Palace of Concerts and Sports should seamlessly blend with the surrounding cemetery area.” You can bet your boots that had this been a cemetery of ethnic Lithuanian scholars over five centuries, there would be no talk of “seamlessly blending” a decrepit Soviet eyesore in the very middle of a cemetery, which, by definition, belongs to the dead whose families purchased their plots freehold and in perpetuity.
The press releases featuring news of the new Working Group (list of members) all speak of the need to retain the miserable Soviet dump, which I have described elsewhere as the moral and symbolic equivalent of a Russian warship vis-à-vis Ukraine.
Contacts with a few parties involves all report that the Working Group “has been told” that the hated Soviet building (in a country where Soviet structures are rightfully despised and taken down, right down to World War II monuments in military cemeteries), can in this one case never be demolished because it is on a list of objects protected by state law. Back in 2015, at the height of the international clamor over the desecration of the sacred Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, Professor S. Leiman, the world’s leading academic expert on the cemetery, made the position very clear:
“Ms. Kukliansky continues: ‘Because the building [i.e., the Soviet-era Sports Palace] itself has been designated an architectural heritage site, no changes are possible.’ Really? It was in the Soviet period that all the tombstones were systematically removed from the cemetery between 1948 and 1955, and it was in the Soviet period that a Sports Palace was constructed over the dead bodies of thousands of Vilnius Jews. Now who was it that designated the Soviet Sports Palace an architectural heritage site? If it was the Soviets, what has this to do with Independent Lithuania? If, however, it was Independent Lithuania that made this designation, then rectification is long overdue. Indeed, the government of Lithuania should recognize the Shnipishkes Jewish cemetery as a heritage site of the Jewish community of Vilnius from the 16th through the 19th centuries. It should certainly not condone and perpetuate the Soviet desecration of a Jewish cemetery.”
The Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports was completed in 1971 right in the middle of the very old and history and culture rich cemetery, dating back to the fifteenth century. Over the past more than thirty years since Lithuania become independent from the Soviet Union in 1990, Lithuania has been unable to stand up an say, with moral clarity: “This Soviet monstrosity has nothing to do with Lithuania, buildings just like it are strewn all over the former evil empire of the USSR; the old Jewish cemetery, one of Lithuanian Jewry’s must sacred locations, has everything to do with our nation’s heritage.” So what happened?
The cemetery code is: 31812 (2008-04-08),
The Sports palace’s code is: 17400 (2006-07-04).
Moreover, both protected objects fell under one more layer of protection, coded as 25504: The Archaeological Site of Vilnius Old Town and suburbs.
But let us start with the good news. The restauration of the Sports palace into a Congress Center has been removed from the list of state priorities. It is not clear when and under what circumstance the decision was taken, but now the is marked as NEGALIOJA (VOID). Please have a look at the boxes at the top of this document. The document had been used on more than one occasion to attempt to secure public (Lithuanian taxpayer!) funding, up to 30 million euros, for the hideous project of adapting the Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace to the Congress Center — right in the middle of the Jewish cemetery (a fact confirmed even by the U.S. State Department in 2006).
During a period of years, the multisided efforts undertaken to save the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery resulted in prevention the conversion of the Sports Palace into a National Congress Center. But the convening of the current Working Group, and the brand new announcement of a number of conference-center type options, demonstrate that the same danger to the cemetery has been revived under a set of new names. The cemetery remains exposed to development works and years, decades, and centuries of future desecration, what with sewage pipes, electricity cables, and thousands of feet trampling the graves on all four sides on the way to conferences, lectures, exhibitions — and you be sure before long “culturally significant” concerts, bands and festivals will also end up there.
“What are the real reasons behind efforts to renovate a Soviet ruin in the middle of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery? Elementary: (a) antisemitism; (b) ultranationalism; (c) greed for money for builders, contractors, and corrupt politicians. Not necessarily in that order.”
Are even the Lithuanian-citizen members of the new Working Group aware of the long-term damage they would be causing to Lithuania’s standing in the world by enabling a conference center in the heart of the old Jewish cemetery, because they were “told” that the Soviet building is equally holy? To cite just one of hundreds of potential thought experiments. Jews of priestly heritage (kohanim, cohens) are not allowed to enter cemeteries (no matter how old or desecrated, or how many stones have been removed). This might include a future major personality from the United States, Britain, Israel or any one of a number of countries. Moreover, once the outside world sees through the new ruse trying to manipulate the Working Group, it is equally plausible that a future American president would refuse to step into the place so as not to offend religious Jews around the world? Is this what Lithuania needs?
„אַ גוט מאָרגן, רבותי! ברוכים הבאים! קומט זשע אַרײַנעט אין אונדזער ווילנער בית⸗עולם!“
All this takes us to the very simple answer to the question: Have other Soviet buildings been removed from the “National Register of Cultural Properties”?
Of course. Here are three of the most famous examples:
(1) The Green Bridge’s iconic Soviet-era sculptures had its protection order removed on 1 March 2016. Guess what? The sculptures were physically removed in September 2015, prior to the formal regal rescinding of architectural protection (unique object code: 8048; Registry date: 28 January 1993). Other codes for the same object: 16900, 23573, 23574, 23575, and 23576.
(2) The monuments honoring Soviet soldiers of the Second World War (fighting against Nazi Germany in alliance with the United States, Great Britain and the other Allies) had their protection order rescinded on 6 June 2022. The unique object code: 15286. The date they were originally registered as protected monuments: 28 April 1993. These sculptures, in the Soviet military cemetery in the Antakalnis section of Vilnius, were unveiled in 1984, comprised a composition of six sculptures, each six meters high, of Soviet soldiers of equal size. The project’s creator were Juozas Burneika and architect Rimantas Dičius, (both top Lithuanian specialists). But on 8 June 2022, it took Vilnius City Council just two days to revolve to summarily demolish all six sculptures (invisible from the road, deep in a cemetery that is still cherished by families of veterans of the war against Nazi Germany of all ethnicities).
(3) Monument to Petras Cvirka. Its protection taken away on 24 August 2021. Its Unique Object Code: 7286. It has been registered as a protected object on 9 December 1992. Vilnius City Council resolved to take the monument down on 15 September 2021. It was demolished on 19 November 2021.
What then was the procedure in these cases? Elementary, my dear Watson. The protection order is lifted by of the Council of Experts on Immovable Cultural Heritage at the Department of Cultural Heritage, under the Ministry of Culture to remove a monument from the register of cultural property. And at this stage, other public institutions, for example the (widely known as the “Genocide Center”) might be also engaged to issue a statement in favor of removing object protection. Once protection is lifted, Vilnius City Council resolves on the removal of the object. The resolution taken by the Council goes to the executive branch of the municipality and the monument is taken down.
As we see, with the removal of protection from Soviet monuments in recent years, there has been increasingly better coordination between the Ministry of Culture, the national government and Vilnius City Hall, engaging state media outlets to explain the decision. All the public protests and outcries against demolition (some from Lithuania’s most prominent intellectuals) were totally unsuccessful. Each event served as an ad hoc mean to demonstrate to the outside world Lithuania’s understandable bitterness against the Soviet Union and its Russian Federation successor. From the material point of view, it is important to mention that the loss of each monument in Vilnius is symbolic and doesn’t imply any loss of supposed income.
The ongoing efforts at protection of just one Soviet monstrosity are an exception to the rule. An exception reserved for the middle of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery. What gives here?
Among other things, the Sport palace means something completely different. The Sports palace, and the cemetery site, are managed by the state property bank known as Turto Bankas. The board of Turto Bankas is appointed by the Ministry of Finance. It is not a body elected by a popular vote, but a body of appointed technocrats. Their competence area is limited to efficiency in financial and technical operations and the value of the cemetery is not symbolic, but primarily it is the value of the site of the cemetery, now being a hostage of the Sport Palace. They have been in cahoots with the discredited London CPJCE (images from a day of shame, not that many years ago).
Question for members of the Working Group: How many “restored Jewish cemeteries” on the planet have a huge “holy and untouchable” Soviet eyesore preserved in their center?
Lithuania’s politicians produce many pious political declarations condemning antisemitism, but the monstrous hijacking of the Jewish cemetery by vested money interests enjoys active state protection right up to the office of the prime minister. Without protection, the derelict ugly building would be taken down, for safety reasons, effectively closing up the well of public money for alleged conservation and renovation works. But that is just peanuts. Taking down the derelict building would leave the cemetery free from builders’ and contractors’ and corrupt officials’ hijacking. Once the building comes down, the crooks’ dreams of profits and glories from it would end, and the cemetery can finally come under proper protection by the law. The developers would lose an incentive in taking take over the site of the old cemetery, and have to find another site for future tens of millions of euros in profits from conferences and other activities surrounded by Jewish graves.