VILNIUS—Between October 2014 and October 2015, the international Jewish-cemetery group Asra Kadisha, coordinated by haredim largely affiliated with the “Zalmen” branch of the split Hasidic Satmar group (today the world’s largest Hasidic group) made a number of contributions that will remain permanent. Thanks in whole or in part to Asra Kadisha, eighteen important documents were published opposing the antisemitic decision of some Lithuanian government officials to allow a convention center to rise, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of skeletons on all four sides, skeletons of Jewish citizens of Vilnius buried there between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a Protestant minister and Catholic philosopher have pointed out, such would not have been the decision were it a Christian cemetery or one housing heroes of Lithuanian culture between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of course the millions in store for property developers and their many “beneficiaries” (for decades to come) play a prime role; antisemitism enters the picture when the state fails to put in play the same brakes which it applies for majority culture and majority religion sacred sites.
The accomplishments of Asra Kadisha (Aramaic for “Holy Place” referring to human burial grounds) include mobilization of a delegation to Vilnius of the world’s top Litvak rabbis and their subsequent statement, as well as an actual rabbinic proclamation by Grand Rabbi (Rebbe) Zalmen himself condemning the “convention center in the cemetery.” History was made in Jewish law and lore in Lithuania, as the world’s top Litvak and Satmar rabbis came to the same conclusion. In addition, Asra Kadisha published a number of articles in the Zalmenite Brooklyn Yiddish weekly, Der Yid, and helped inspire powerful statements from the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada and Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries.
All the while, Asra Kadisha was leading the battle against the morally dubious CPJCE, the London rabbis caught on Wikileaks (see Defending History, Jerusalem Post, JTA) to in effect be secretly “selling” parts of the Vilna cemetery for large sums by offering paid-for supervision and authorization, in circumstances where there is near universal international rabbinic unanimity condemning the disturbance of the site. The CPJCE is closely affiliated with the “Aaronite” branch of Satmar, whose own Yiddish weekly in Brooklyn, Der Blat, published numerous accolades to the convention center project in Vilnius (marked in red on Defending History’s color-coded paper trail guide page).
In April 2015, their decidedly non-Litvak looking Hasidim were wined and dined by the Prime Minister of Lithuania (is he so committed to this issue?), without any of the three on-site rabbis in Vilnius even being informed, when they came to bless the project. They were chaperoned by the prime minister’s assistant for Jewish affairs who is married to the head of the “Good Will” restitution fund (that disburses monies from the legacy of communal properties of Lithuania’s annihilated religious Jewish communities). Another of the blatant conflicts of interest is the presence on that board of a prominent member of the US government’s Commission for the Preservation of the American Heritage Abroad.
In August 2015, the official chief rabbi of Lithuania was fired (by the lay-leader nominal head of the Jewish community, herself in danger of conflict-of-interest situations for representing wealthy foreign clients seeking EU citizenship). The reason given for the chief rabbi’s dismissal was his speaking out on the cemetery, and he has been replaced to by two rabbis, one of whom recently participated in a PR photo-op with the CPJCE’s top PR man, ultra insensitively at Ponár, where 100,000 innocent civilians of the Vilna area were murdered by the Nazis and their many local volunteer shooters. The only clear rabbinic voice within Vilnius currently speaking out against the desecration of the old cemetery is that of Rabbi S. J. Feffer, whose June 2015 formal rabbinic psak (judgment) has strongly impacted the subsequent rabbinical condemnations. The rabbi, in partnership with his brother, has co-edited over seventy volumes of works by and about the Gaon of Vilna, published under the imprint of Machon HaGra in Israel.
For the outside world, the inscrutable haredi map as regards the Vilna cemetery has been largely disentangled by Defending History’s color coded Paper Trail page enabling those following the saga to see what is coming from who.
But almost a year to the day from the start of its campaign, Asra Kadisha went suspiciously AWOL on Vilna starting in October 2015, some seven months ago. There has been zero reaction even to large amounts of earth-mixed-with-bones being removed at night from an adjacent construction site in January and February 2016. Some rumors in haredi corners of Brooklyn have it that the branches of Satmar have secretly united, some say with financial deals in play, on at least one question: to let the darned Litvaks’ old cemetery become the scene of conventions, songs, concerts, drinking at bars, flushing of toilets under a cocakamamie “compromise” of annexes (according to one document, for a circus atop the cemetery) being built on stilts and poles with a system of bridgeways to make it “kosher.” Could it be? Hopefully not. Hopefully Asra Kadisha will now make it clear, perhaps by one of its expensive “PR wires” where it stands today, on the eve of the arrival of the bulldozers — Asra Kadisha’s last chance to bring to successful conclusion the meritorious campaign it had led with such dignity over a year.
In addition to the haredi rumor mill about Satmar unified on destruction of a Litvak cemetery, there are equally worrying secular rumors in Washington DC, centered on the United States taxpayer funded U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, already deeply compromised and manipulated by Satmar hasidim in the matter of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery at Piramónt, on top of its other major scandals. To put it simply, a taxpayer-funded entity that exists to preserve Jewish (and other) cemeteries, has, after numerous interactions with Satmar (see e.g. here, here, here), not yet found the moral courage to issue even the mildest statement gently urging Lithuanian authorities to avoid decades of strife by simply moving the convention center project to another venue. Too much to ask of the USCPAHA’s high-salaried bigwigs and specialists who enjoy all the junkets and hotels to “preserve” Jewish cemeteries? Or is there pressure from the State Department? And are there conflicts of interest, including, as noted, the presence on the Lithuanian government’s restitution boarda member of the USCPAHA who has participated in photo ops with the Vilna cemetery guzzling branch of Satmar hasidism?
According to usually reliable sources, various members of the Commission have in 2016 — after Asra Kadisha went Missing in Action — been invited to meet with members of the group in order to get a “balanced” view, and this after many shameful photo-ops of the U.S. taxpayer funded commission with the de facto American agents of the London CPJCE’s campaign to help the Lithuanian property developers, government and nationalist establishment profit massively while dancing, jumping and urinating atop thousands of Jewish graves in one of Eastern Europe’s most sacred and oldest Jewish cemeteries.
This issue is not going anywhere, and it is only a matter of time before larger media rise to their journalistic task of holding state-funded bodies and donor-funded public bodies alike to a serious standard of public scrutiny.
The 18 Documents of Oct. 2014 — Oct. 2015 in the Cause of Preserving the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery in which Asra Kadisha Played a Role:
1 May 2015. Der Yid [New York Haredi Yiddish weekly]: ‘Major outcry in the Jewish world: Lithuania’s government planning to renew a concert hall in the heart of the Vilna Jewish cemetery’ [in Yiddish: Groys úfbroyz in yídishe[r] velt: Líte regírung plant tsu banáyen kontsértn-hol in harts fun altn vílner beys-hakháyim].
15 May 2015. Der Yid [New York Haredi Yiddish weekly]: ‘Shocking news: Agreement allows government in Vilna to enlarge sports building within the Jewish cemetery‘ [in Yiddish: Ópmakh [d]erlóybt regírung in vílne óystsubrèytern spórt gebàyde inerhalb beys-hakháyim].
26 May 2015. Yoreh Deya [blog]: ‘A charlatan returned to the scene of the crime’ by Rabbi Eliyahu Caufman [in Hebrew: Hanokhel khazar limekom hapesha].
5 June 2015. Der Yid [New York Haredi Yiddish weekly]: ‘Jewish world shocked: Stormy reactions to the planned desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Vilna’ [in Yiddish: Yídishe velt shokírt: Shtúrmishe reáktsyes tsu geplántn khílel beys-hakháyim in Vílne]. Note: the article includes quotations from Litvak rabbis in Israel — Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, Rabbi Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz, Rabbi Tzvi Rotberg.
12 June 2015. Der Yid [New York Haredi Yiddish weekly]: ‘Chief Rabbi of Lithuania writes to the government: The reconstruction of of the concert hall is tied up with massive desecration of graves’ [in Yiddish: Hóypt-ròv fun Líte shraybt tsu di regírung: Der íberboy fun kontsértn-zal iz farbúndn mit masíve kvórim farshvékhungen].
19 June 2015. Der Yid [New York Haredi Yiddish weekly]: ‘Multiple appeals to the European Union: Appeal holds up funding for those who seek to desecrate the historical Jewish cemetery of Vilna’ [in Yiddish: Mérere véndungen tsum Eyropéyishn Yúnyon: Bíte halt tsurík shtítse fun di vos farshvékhn histórishn Vílner beys-hakháyim].
3 July 2015. Der Yid [New York Haredi Yiddish weekly]: ‘Central Rabbinical Congress to Lithuania and the EU: Return the entire Vilna Jewish cemetery to its Jewish owners’ [in Yiddish: Hisákhdus Horabónim tsu Líte un E.U. lénder: Git tsurík far yidn dem gantsn vilner beys-hakháyim].
17 July 2015. Der Yid: ‘Outcry against excavation and desecration of mass grave in the famous city of Šiauliai, Lithuania’ [in Yiddish: Véy-geshrèy kegn óysgrobung un farshvékhung fun másn-kèyver in barímte shtot Shavl’ Líte]. Another copy.
14 August 2015. Der Yid: ‘A shocking desecration of God’s name: ‘Chairwoman (head of community) of Vilna Jewish community dismisses chief rabbi because of his inflexible stance on the Shnípishok Jewish cemetery’ [in Yiddish: Khílel ha-Shém íyem venóyre: Fórzitserin (rosh-hakóholte) fun Vílne yídishe geméynde zogt op dem hoypt-rov tsulíb zayn umbóygzame shtélung tsum Shnípishek beys ha-kháyim], pp. 9, 29.
14 August 2015. Der Yid: ‘Don’t dare touch it! Heartrending appeal from Torah study leaders of the United States to the government of Lithuania to halt shameful plans for Vilna Jewish cemetery elicits powerful reactions’ [in Yiddish: Loy tiga boy yad: Hártsràysnder ruf fun gdóyley-Tóyre in Artsoys ha-Bris tsu regírung fun Líte óptsushteln shéndlekhe pléner in Vílner beys-hakháyim hot mékhtikn ópruf], pp. 9, 14.
25 September 2015. Der Yid: ‘Prime Minister of Lithuania announces the shameful purchase of parts of the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius’ [in Yiddish: Prémyer fun Líte anonsírt dem shéndlekhn ópkoyf fun teyln fun beys-hakvóres in Vílne], pp. 142.