NEW YORK—The Brooklyn based office of the international NGO Asra Kadisha that works to preserve Jewish cemeteries worldwide from desecration has released the following statement to coincide with the official visit to Israel of Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Titled “World Jewry Hopes that Lithuanian President’s Visit to Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem will Result in Government’s Cancellation of Development Plans on Vilnius Cemetery,” it calls on the president to cancel the mass desecration of the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Lithuanian capital by a convention center where crowds would cheer, sing and drink surrounded by many thousands of Jewish graves. The old cemetery is in the Šnipiškės (Shnipishok) district, and is known in Vilna Yiddish culture as Piramónt. The Asra Kadisha statement reads as follows:
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė is currently on a 4-day trip to Israel, which includes a visit to the Holocaust commemoration museum Yad Vashem. It is the hope of international Jewry that the show of respect to the Jewish Holocaust victims will also extend at home, with her government’s cancellation of the plans to Develop a Congress Hall on top on the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery.
The over 500-years old Šnipiškės cemetery, where Vilnius’ most famous Jewish leaders are interred, was desecrated both by the Nazis and Soviets. The latter built on it a now-abandoned Sports Palace. Desecration continued under Lithuania’s democratic government, with the construction of two apartment buildings in the cemetery. Recently, the government purchased the abandoned Sports Palace to redevelop it into a Concert and Congress Hall.
Leading rabbis in Israel and the United States publicly decried the plan, which will turn the cemetery into a public arena. In a letter, a dozen rabbinic leader of major Lithuanian communities, including the leaders of the largest Lithuanian-Jewish yeshivos, protested “any use of this sacred site other than for prayer and solemn reflection.” In August, an international rabbinic delegation traveled to Vilnius to plea with the government to cancel the plans.
The plans are also opposed by local residents, including Vilnius’ Chief Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, who was subsequently dismissed from his post in retaliation, and by Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs, and many others.
“Cemeteries are the holiest places of Judaism. Establishing a public Concert and Congress Hall on these holy grounds is prohibited under Jewish Law, and is a grave violation of the sacred memory of those interred in the cemetery,” said Rabbi Lazar Stern, Chairman of Asra Kadisha, an international cemetery-protection organization. “Lithuania is the country with the largest percentage of Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Is it too much to ask that at least the little that is left of the centuries-old Jewish presence should be fully preserved and protected? We hope that President Grybauskaitė will return home with a commitment to heed the outcry of worldwide Jewry, and will convince her government to cancel plans to desecrate this holy site.”
Lithuania was among a handful of countries singled out by New York City Bill de Blasio, during his keynote address at the Annual Conference of Mayors in Jerusalem, for the desecration of cemeteries. “This anti-Semitism can be seen in the desecration of cemeteries in France, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Germany… That reminds us that it’s not any one religion that is the enemy. The enemy is hatred itself,” Mayor de Blasio said.
In a recent letter, the European Commission stated, on behalf of President Juncker, that they are aware of the sensitivity of and controversy surrounding this project, and denied report that it will be supported by European funds.