VILNIUS—The controversial Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) London conference on Jewish cemeteries wound up here in the Lithuanian capital yesterday afternoon with a triumphant press release that seemed to suggest that there are no serious objections to a $25,000,000 convention center in the middle of the old Jewish cemetery (the release says little about most of the diverse topics and academic contributions that made up the bulk of the actual academically and culturally rich event). A dozen delegates contacted by DefendingHistory.com had no idea from one-sided conference presentations that there was a highly specific, budgeted-for decision taken for the multimillion dollar facility not necessarily appropriate for a historic cemetery where thousands of people’s remains are interred. They were under the impression that there is some consultative, respectful dialogue between the different sides. There was much more they were not told about.
The prime minister has, for example, personally announced hoping for addition of “a hotel, parking lots and other infrastructure.” He also personally welcomed controversial “grave-trading” rabbis from the CPJCE in London last April without informing any of the local rabbis, or the world’s Litvak rabbis, who have unanimously opposed the project. Some top national architects say that “It should not be a venue exclusively for conferences, it should also host concerts and theatre performances. There are ideas to build an annex with a universal ‘black box’ suitable for various events, including circus shows.” Another aspect is nationalists’ wish for the building to become a nationalist shrine honoring the memory of peaceful Lithuanian protesters killed by Soviet forces in January 1991 because they were brought to lie in state at the site after their brutal murder by Soviet tanks near the TV tower (far away). Of course those victims deserve a major city-center memorial, but not in a convention and circus center in the middle of the old Jewish cemetery.
The unspoken thread running through the lot is antisemitism. A Christian Lithuanian cemetery dating to the fifteenth century would not be chosen as the site for convention centers and circuses, as noted by a Protestant pastor. The principle was made clear in a United States Congress resolution in 2014.
Delegates were not exposed to a single voice in opposition during the hermetically sealed event. Most were unaware — at a conference on Jewish cemeteries — that there has been massive local and international opposition to the desecration of Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery by a convention center where tens of thousands would cheer, clap, sing, dance, drink in bars and use toilets surrounded by thousands of graves dating from the late fifteenth century, by most accounts, to the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. The controversy has generated a large paper trail and is the subject of much intrigue. The chief rabbi of eleven years, Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, was recently dismissed after he issued a statement disagreeing with state plans for the cemetery’s redevelopment.
Within minutes of the conference press release, the director of the Kaunas Religious Jewish Community, Moyshe Beirak, which administers Kaunas’s only pre-Holocaust synagogue that still functions, the Choral Synagogue and its small Jewish museum, issued a statement on behalf of his community in Lithuanian. It reads as follows in English translation:
Statement of the Kaunas Jewish Religious Community Regarding the Old Jewish Cemetery in Šnipiškės (Piramont)
We, Jews around the world, respect the history of our nation and the memory of our ancestors and predecessors. Among them, we cherish the memory of the spiritual leader of Vilna (Vilnius) Jewry Rabbi Chaim-Ozer Grodzenski (1863—1940), and the lifetime of effort he put into preserving the old Jewish cemetery at Šnipiškės (at Piramont, as it was known to the Jews of Vilna), which the municipal authorities of the then Polish government tried to destroy to make way for a stadium.
If we shall fail, and not dare to express our standpoint and firm position, and if shall remain silent, adulating the self-centered interests of temporarily influential people who disregard any historical responsibility and pursue completion of a macabre activity that was started by the Soviet government – the destruction of Jewish cemeteries and historical memory of Lithuanian Jews, then we would be complicit.
The Kaunas Jewish Religious Community disagrees with the position of the Chair of the official Jewish Community of Lithuania, Faina Kukliansky, regarding Šnipiškės cemetery. The chairperson, in assertively representing her position, can sometimes perhaps leave people thinking that she represents the whole of the Lithuanian Jewish community and speaks on behalf of Jews here or elsewhere and that her position is supported by the Conference of European Rabbis. But the reality is completely different. The overwhelming majority of European rabbis, and the overwhelming majority of Jewish people, do not support the plans for a convention center in the heart of the old Jewish cemetery, surrounded by thousands and thousands of Jewish graves.
The Šnipiškės cemetery is a sacred place, where thousands of the most scholarly of our ancestors were buried. In 1965 the construction of Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports was started, and many graves were destroyed, and the sacred burial place defiled and transformed into a place of amusement. The independent and democratic Republic of Lithuania carries on the “macabre tradition” by extending the possible usage of the territory of Jewish cemetery to a new convention center and business zone.
It is unbearable anguish for us, Jews here who are still alive, to witness this case of history repeating itself as the very dignity of our ancestors in Lithuania is trampled and desecrated.
The Kaunas Jewish Religious Community does not support the agreements on this subject announced between the Lithuanian Government and the Jewish Community of Lithuania regarding construction works on Šnipiškės cemetery territory and the conversion of the unused building of the old Palace of Concerts and Sports into a new convention center that would bring so much harm to the name of our beloved capital city and our beloved country.
- Maushe Beirakas
- 28 October 2015
- Chairperson of Kaunas Jewish Religious Community