High Intrigue Over the Fate of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery

by Dovid Katz

Updates in [brackets] to 12 July 2015  

VILNIUS—According to Lithuanian media sources, including the highly respected English-language Lithuania Tribune (now merged with Delfi.lt), the government, working in concert with property developers, plans to declare the controversial project of a huge convention and entertainment center in the heart of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery site as a “project of national importance.” The move enables an application to the European Union for a grant of 13 million euros (14.64 million US dollars at current rates) as part of a grand-total (for now) of 22.8 million euros (25.67 million US dollars) for the new complex. The nation’s prime minister has told Lithuanian media that “after the modern congress center is completed, private investors could build a hotel, parking lots and other infrastructure,” eliciting fears that all of the old Jewish cemetery is becoming a cash cow slated for developers for years to come. The Lithuania Tribune / Delfi.lt report concludes with an estimate of “110 million euros in economic and social benefits over 15 years” in addition to “600,000 foreign tourists and 2.2 million local tourists to Vilnius over that time period, with their spending estimated at 183 million and 60 million euros, respectively,” in other words, with profits from the old Jewish cemetery exceeding the equivalent of 250 million dollars, apart from the millions to be had from the building projects per se. Some estimates are provided in Baltic Course.

Objections to further desecration of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery at Piramónt (in today’s Šnipiškės district of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital) have come from Lithuania’s Chief Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, Pastor Michael Maass, director of the Lithuanian Branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, and numerous foreign rabbinical and Jewish personalities and organizations, including major Litvak rabbinical leaders in Israel, among them Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, Rabbi Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz and Rabbi Tzvi Rotberg. [Updates: On 15 June the Wiesenthal Center went on the record opposing the convention center. On 25 June Vilnius Holocaust survivor Prof. Pinchos Fridberg published an op-ed in the Times of Israel. On 30 June, Rabbi Shmuel Jacob Feffer issued a rabbinic ruling in Vilnius. On 2 July, various documents were made public, including the protests of the Central Rabbinical Congress (CRC) of the United States and Canada; the Vilna Gaon Synagogue in Tel Aviv including signatures from the Gaon of Vilna’s descendants; a poster signed by the leading Litvak heads of yeshivas in Israel.]



Nevertheless, an intricate government effort has succeeded in pitting two haredi (ultraorthodox) Jewish groups against either other on the question (see DH’s color-coded list of publications to date). Ironically, both groups are affiliated with a major Hasidic dynasty, Satmar, at the  polarically opposite end of the historic Litvak-Hasidic divide. Satmar split into two groups upon the previous grandrabbi’s death, and the affiliated cemetery-preservation groups of the two are at loggerheads. One haredi rabbi has publicly leveled specific accusations of corruption (though without evidence) against the group supporting government plans for the convention center. The haredi group persuaded to support the convention center has even thanked the government for ‘saving’ the grave of the Gaon of Vilna (though in fact it had been moved from this site to the new Jewish cemetery over a half century ago).

Prewar scene from the great Jewish cemetery of Vilna. Some have suggested the standing Soviet-era structure become a commemorative home to thousands of pilfered Jewish gravestones that turn up all over Lithuania, particularly in the capital, Vilnius.

But the plot line is more intricate still. It has entailed the haredi group approved by the government (that has “blessed” the new convention center) being given royal treatment in Vilnius. They were accompanied on the cemetery site by none other than the prime minister of Lithuania, Algirdas Butkevičius, who told local media on April 15th: “I indeed expected a more difficult discussion, however, we had an extremely good and constructive conversation. […] We hope to be in time (to purchase) and, of course, I think that the other party will be very honest and responsible, will not start making any demands about the price growth. […] Knowing that we have approval, we will start forming the negotiating commission as early as next week, and it will be authorized to hold talks with a commercial bank.” [Update: A Wikipedia publication of a U.S. State Department document from 2009 has since revealed that the same group of rabbis were allocated a $100,000 fee for supervising “beautification” of the site, leading to the question of what transparency will be in effect regarding their fees for a $25,000,000 convention center in the heart of the old Jewish cemetery of Vilna?] Back in February, the PM confidently told Lithuanian media about the rosy future once the convention center is complete: “Private investors could build a hotel, parking lots and other infrastructure.”

But things get even more complicated. The concerted effort to build the new convention center on the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius entailed also the establishment of a high-profile Lithuanian government sponsored commission of international experts on Jewish heritage more generally, who were also wined and dined in Vilnius and given “other” questions to think about. Both the rabbinic delegation (in April) and the new commission (in May) were facilitated on the ground by Lina Saulėnaitė, the top specialist on Jewish issues at the elite International and European Union Affairs Unit in the Office of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania.

Showing the rabbis around

The prime minister of Lithuania Algirdas Butkevičius (3rd from left) is joined by Jewish affairs expert Lina Saulėnaitė in persuading one (not very Litvak-looking) haredi delegation to effectively bless the development of a twenty-five million dollar convention center in the heart of the ruined old Jewish cemetery of Vilnius. Still from: LRytas.lt TV video (at: http://media.lrytas.lt/2015/4/19/102855.mp4).

In a further twist, one of the yes-saying rabbis from the PR photos of April, Abraham Ginsberg, surfaced in Vilnius in May as part of the new state heritage commission.The prestigious commission (public list of members) also includes famed international secular Jewish figures, including the American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi Andrew Baker; the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research’s Dr. Jonathan Brent; Dr. Samuel Gruber, head of the leading international survey group dedicated to historic Jewish sites; and Herbert Block of the United States government’s US Commission for the Preservation of the American Heritage Abroad, the longtime widely beloved former leader at the Joint Distribution Committee in New York and advocate of Jewish and liberal causes in New York City [update: see Herbert Block’s clarification of 19 June]. Rabbi Baker and Dr. Brent have been involved in recent years in painful issues involving the State Department’s stance on Holocaust obfuscation and Double Genocide politics in Eastern Europe; both are already members of another commission — the controversial state-sponsored commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes (the “red-brown commission”). Baker is the recipient of major honors from the Lithuanian government. Brent was recently involved in an exchange of letters with a Holocaust survivor in Vilnius, and under his directorship, Yivo has suffered some years of murky involvement with Lithuanian government Holocaust politics (best read in chronological order via scrolling down to bottom first).

There is mounting concern now that even the U.S. government has been embroiled in the controversy. The Lithuanian government’s published list of members included as affiliation of one of its members, Herbert Block [update: see his clarification of 19 June] of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of the American Heritage Abroad. But the U.S. Commission was much more deeply implicated in a number of published pieces in the haredi media, including an article in the New York Yiddish weekly Der Blat on 12 June, which identified a second USCPAHA member, Jules Fleischer, as being among a delegation of haredim in New York who participated in an out-of-George-Orwell “thanksgiving visit” at the Lithuanian consulate in New York. The delegation expressed effusive gratitude to the Lithuanian government for preserving the old Vilna Jewish cemetery. The photo-op had also appeared in the 5 Towns Jewish Times, Yated Neeman, JP Updates, and, with a veritable centerfold in Kolhazman.il and other publications where supposed approval from the U.S. government’s “Commission to Preserve” is flaunted in print.

The impression was widely given that an American government agency agrees with the particular haredi group (in conflict with another) whose representatives were personally lobbied by the Lithuanian prime minister in Vilnius last April for giving approval for massive desecration of a cemetery they have nothing to do with historically, and which they have been accused by their haredi opponents of effectively “selling” or turning into a “business.”  [The Wikileaks record from 2009 itself makes references to payments for (agreeable) rabbinic supervision that would entail permitting digging on the cemetery itself (in gross violation of Jewish law) and a presumed need for secrecy, because  these rabbis’ actions would “infuriate some other Jewish groups should they learn of it.” The precise group referred to is, surprise-surprise, the one that surfaced in Vilnius in April 2015 for entertainment by the prime minister of Lithuania and Ms. Saulėnaitė and their team in the current context of erecting the twenty-five million dollar convention center. Given the 2009 wikileaked State Department memo’s references to a little digging here and there, it seems fair to say that the report’s author did not envisage a twenty-five million dollar convention center being next on the menu at a spot that State itself characterized this way in 2006: “The Sports Palace property indisputably rests in the middle of the former cemetery.”]

Observers hope the U.S. government commission will now rise to the occasion and publicly  disassociate itself from the effort of developers and politicians to desecrate Lithuania’s largest Jewish cemetery (and to get the EU to pay for the offending convention center!). It is hoped the episode will not become part of the American administration’s policy of occasionally betraying Jewish causes and the accurate history of the Holocaust in the current geopolitical context. It is an ongoing concern (see USA page). In the case of cemeteries, it is now thought that the Vilna cemetery debate will test the seriousness of the 2014 “Protection of Cemeteries Law” passed by the United States Congress and signed by President Obama last summer. At the very least, a government commission on heritage abroad whose remit includes cemeteries would be expected to invoke the law at the earliest possible opportunity.

“Would these building projects be pursued if the cemeteries in question were the resting places of Catholics, Protestant Christians, or other non-Jewish people?”

Pastor Michael Maass

It is widely anticipated that Dr. Gruber, one of the world’s most admired advocates of preservation of Jewish monuments, will soon address the issue on his website; it was absent from his initial report (PDF) on the new commission, though its actual government mission statement includes the wording “preservation of the Jewish cemeteries and Jewish mass graves in Lithuania.” There are, moreover, fears that various factions plan to enlarge the commission’s de facto activities to enable some parties’ meddling in the disbursement of Holocaust restitution monies, while dissuading members from speaking up on the cemetery preservation issue for which it was ostensibly, in large measure, set up.

At the urging of several commission members focused on the material heritage issues for which the commission was formally established, Defending History provided, on May 1st, a list of twelve major issues. At the time of the commission’s maiden meeting in early, a main concern had been (and remains!) the need to urgently preserve the last Jewish anti-Nazi resistance fort of the Jewish partisans in the forest, that is rapidly disappearing, and which the state “refused to put on the table,” presumably because Jewish Holocaust survivor anti-Nazi partisan heroes are regarded as “war criminals” by some in the (ultra)nationalist establishment. The fact that plans for the multimillion-euro convention center on the old Jewish cemetery site in Vilnius were at such an advanced stage was unknown both to commission members and to critics of the government’s Jewish-related policies.

“But it is a Holocaust and genocide issue: Had those thousands of buried people had descendants and relatives to mind their graves, things would look different today.”


In fact, it is widely agreed that the American commission members had no idea that they were being drawn unbeknownst into a maelstrom of controversy over desecration of Lithuania’s largest Jewish historical cemetery, specifically as marionetted “maintainers of a public silence” (“Our new commission has to exercise patience”) on the issue while the two haredi groups fight it out in the “obscure Jewish press abroad” and the convention center rises rapidly as a $25,000,000 fait accompli (following the precise pattern less than a decade ago when two new buildings were built on hundreds of Jewish graves at the same cemetery under cover of another commission with  American Jewish academics and leaders brought to Vilnius for cover). It is thought that members of the new commission did not know that one of the two feuding Hasidic groups actually published a “constitution” for the commission whereby it must take religious advice from that Hasidic group — the one favored by the government in its pursuit of the new convention and entertainment complex. This may be related to the circumstance that one of the rabbis on the April visit to Vilnius, Abraham Ginsberg, executive director of the group that blessed the convention center, is also a member of the secular heritage commission that came in May. Following the commission’s meeting in May, neither its own press release nor the government’s report on the meeting even mentioned the existence of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery and the very progressed plans for the $25,000,000 convention center. One would be hard-pressed to guess that “preservation of the Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania” is a major part of the commission’s purpose for existing.

Various Lithuanian and Christian observers who are very far from the religious debates about the ancient Jewish laws of burial grounds are quietly pointing out that morally speaking, the issue here is that the territory of the famous old Jewish cemetery is not being proposed for a memorial park, a Holocaust museum or even a national gathering ground for the thousands of pilfered Jewish gravestones that turn up regularly all over the country. It is a proposal for a twenty-five million dollar convention and entertainment center, where participants in conventions, celebrations, concerts and other events will be “clapping, jumping, singing and dancing” surrounded on all four sides by the thousands of subterranean skeletons of a half millennium of Vilna’s Jewry (at a time when the government enjoys using the branding “Jerusalem of Lithuania” more than ever). Even the most perfunctory digging last time around turned up body parts just beneath the surface. There are many other fine sites for a new convention center that would be eminently deserving of generous EU support.

The cemetery dispute broke into the public arena on May 1st with an article in the haredi  Der Yid, the world’s largest-circulation Yiddish weekly. In its fourth article on the subject, this past Friday, June 12th, the paper pointed out, in a vibrantly colorful Yiddish, that the twenty-five million dollar price tag on the development is frankly not compatible with the story about “giving the old place a paint-over job.”

Sitting on a Commission to “preserve the Jewish heritage” along with the Deputy Foreign Minister (cutout from the complete list [see Herbert Block’s clarification]):

cutout from commission list 2015

This entry was posted in American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Lithuania, Antisemitism & Bias, Appeals to the European Commission on Piramónt, Cemeteries and Mass Graves, CPJCE (London), Double Games, EU, Foreign Ministries: Holocaust Politics Abuse?, Herbert Block and Issues of Lithuanian Jewish Cemetery Preservation, Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, News & Views, Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in Šnipiškės / Shnípishok), Politics of Memory, United States, US State Dept Manipulated?, Yivo Manipulated? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
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