OPINION | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | INTERNATIONAL PETITION | USCPAHA | HERBERT BLOCK’S POSITIONS ON THE SUBJECT | CPJCE | ADMAS KODESH
I have been involved in Jewish community, heritage and Holocaust-restitution issues in Lithuania for almost two decades, through various professional and personal capacities. While I have worked on these matters in other European countries, I have a special interest in and bond with these subjects as almost all my family came to America from Litvak areas. In the past few years I have spent a lot of time on the issue of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery in Šnipiškės (Piramónt) and the future plans for the Sports Palace building which has been on that site for decades. I met with many rabbis and community leaders with vastly different views and no meeting or photo should be interpreted as an endorsement of any position.
VILNIUS—Herbert Block, a veteran member of the American government’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, and chair of its committee on the old Vilnius Jewish cemetery, visited yesterday and today for two sessions with staff of the Defending History team here in the Lithuanian capital. Mr. Block is a well-known and beloved figure for the Lithuanian Jewish community, with whom he worked closely for many years (1999 to 2015), during his tenure as Assistant Executive Vice President of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or “Joint”), where his work included coordinating successful efforts to achieve restitution that could enable the Jewish community’s survival for generations to come. At present, he is executive director of the American Zionist Movement (AZM). Previously Mr. Block served as Assistant Director for Intergovernmental and Public Affairs for the New York City Independent Budget Office (1996-1999) and was Deputy Director for Intergovernmental Relations at the federal Corporation for National and Community Service in 1994-1995. He was Assistant to the Mayor of the City of New York from 1990 to 1993 and Special Assistant to the Manhattan Borough President from 1986 to 1989. For years he has been a member of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) with specialization in the Baltic region and Poland.
Herb Block explained how hard he has been working behind the scenes to ensure the cemetery’s preservation, and pledged his firm personal commitment to work resolutely for the convention center project to be moved to another venue in town — away from Vilna’s Old Jewish Cemetery.
VILNIUS—Defending History today inaugurated a new section, in the Lithuanian language, on the international efforts calling for restoration of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery at Piramónt and for the Jewish heritage of Vilna and Lithuania to not be defiled by a convention center surrounded by a half millennium of Litvak graves. The convention center project can easily be moved to another appropriate venue. The section aims to provide content stemming from various communities within Lithuania as well as translations of the international outcry over the convention center project.
VILNIUS—In comments reported today by the Lithuanian press service ELTA, the nation’s prime minister, Saulius Skvernelis has announced and hailed the decision to proceed with a national convention center in the heart of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery as one that “will lift the Lithuanian capital to a higher level of competitiveness in tourism.” He also notes that “the lack of a modern congress center in Vilnius is the main obstacle for the development of conference tourism in Lithuania,” not mentioning that there are numerous alternative sites for much more rapid and hassle-free construction of such a center.
VILNIUS—The following statement by Vilnius native and resident Ruta Bloshtein, an active member of the city’s religious Jewish community, appeared today as an update to her international petition, which has just approached the 40,000 signature mark. Her update was issued as a reaction to the comments by Lithuania’s top leaders, made after receiving a letter of protest from twelve United States congressmen concerning plans to site a projected new national convention center in the heart of the territory of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Šnipiškės district of modern Vilnius). International opposition to “the convention center in the old Jewish cemetery” continues to mount.
VILNIUS—One month ago, on 7 July 2017, twenty of the twenty-one elected board members of the Vilnius Jewish Community (the 21st was abroad) signed a full-hearted letter addressed to the Good Will Foundation, the Lithuanian government restitution fund for Jewish community survival deriving from part of the value of the communal properties owned by the annihilated religious Jewish communities of prewar Lithuania. To this date, there has been no reply from the Good Will Foundation, nor any statement from its esteemed foreign board members who represent the World Jewish Restitution Organization. The board’s co-chair is Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, who is a recipient of a number of Lithuanian government medals over the years.
VILNIUS—Lithuania’s top neo-Nazi blogger “Zeppelinus” has republished with some noticeable relish, in a post dated 27 May 2017, parts of the 19 May official “Lithuanian Jewish Community website” attack (as PDF) on this journal’s editor, Dovid Katz. The attack was, some would say shamefully, signed “LJC staff” though sources rapidly revealed its prime author (see our rapid response on the day). It is not the first time that the antisemitic far-right has found its material on the website of the official Jewish Community under its current leadership (that is under legal challenge after the recent allegedly rigged election), at a time when the website is, disturbingly, allegedly under control of elements very far from the interests of Lithuania’s Jews. Last autumn’s website attacks on Rabbi Sholom-Ber Krinsky were picked up and elaborated by another key antisemitic blogger who went so far as to dig up the 1790s antisemitic attacks on a prime founder of Lithuanian Hasidism.
You know something is wrong when the neo-Nazis are finding their material on the “website of an official Jewish community”. It’s a website funded in fact by the state via restitution funds deriving from the communal religious properties of the annihilated Jewish communities of Lithuania, administered by a (this one’s for you, George Orwell) “Good Will Foundation”.
Then there was the most recent fiasco, a comparison of the democratic electoral congress of the Vilnius Jewish Community on 24 May to Russia’s “Zapad 2017” military exercises, and the charge that the assembled 300 or so Vilnius Jews were “mainly Russian speakers calling themselves Jews, with only a minority of people with Litvak blood” (see our report which led to JTA’s coverage, and the essays by Professor Pinchos Fridberg and by Leonas Kaplanas). This was a proverbial gift of the gods to the local antisemitic establishment here that revels in delegitimizing the country’s living Jews while embracing a de-Judaized ersatz “Litvak heritage” for PR, with some help from a tiny elite of privileged “court Jews” who themselves at times, it seems, become conduits for antisemitic invective against the local Jewish community. Prof. Fridberg has pointed out that a subsequent vague and unclear “apology” posted failed to disclose the author(s) of the offending text, and never even appeared in the Russian-language section of the website. Is the author of the offending text still employed by the official “Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community”? Why is his or her identity a secret?
VILNIUS—The Hon. Herbert Block, a prominent and popular personality known to New Yorkers from his days as the highly successful Jewish affairs liaison for the campaign and administration of New York City mayor David Dinkins years ago has emerged as a major force at the confluence of Jewish-Hasidic, American and Lithuanian-government politics on issues in Lithuanian-Jewish affairs. There are conflicting views about his myriad, and some would say conflict-of-interest laden, entanglements that include a Satmar group in Monroe, New York intent on fulfilling the wishes of Vilnius builders for a convention center and annex in the heart of the old Jewish cemetery of Vilnius (allegedly for the financial benefit of their London followers in the CPJCE), a US taxpayer funded agency that exists to preserve Jewish cemeteries (but has yet to issue a word of protest at the “convention center in the Jewish cemetery” project) and the Lithuanian government’s “Good Will Foundation” that allocates monies deriving from the religious properties of the annihilated Jewish communities of Lithuania.
VILNIUS—The human rights of even small, weak and demographically struggling minorities to enjoy a free and open website that offers a forum to people and groups of diverse opinions is well established. It is also a test of democracy that members of such groups feel able to speak out when those rights are abrogated. Against that backdrop, it was significant today that a group of older members of Lithuania’s Jewish community (including Holocaust survivors), spoke out on the subject, around a week after a pubic appeal for website democracy by a younger generation on Facebook. The older group blogs under the name of the semi-legendary 19th century Vilna Jewish “wisecracker and whistleblower” Mótke Chabád in the Russian-language Vilnius-based publication Obzor (not to be confused with Defending History’s “own” Motke Chabad…).
“Bravo to Vilnius’s Jewish community for their pre-Passover 2017 stand for democracy, the younger generation in Facebook, the survivor generation in Obzor.”
VILNIUS—A member of the United States Congress today provided to Defending History the PDF of the letter sent by Senator Ron Johnson, then (and current) chair of the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, to Ms. Lesley Weiss, then (and current) chair of the taxpayer-funded “United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad” (USCPAHA). The letter concerned scarcely believable levels of corruption and wastage of taxpayer money. The 12 page PDF follows below (note the page-turning arrows in the upper left hand corner).
VILNIUS—The following list of “Statistics: Project Funding Allocations” is a screenshot taken today of the page of that name on the website of the Lithuanian government’s Good Will Foundation (GWF). It is also available (with some browsers) in the alternative interactive Tableau format (below the screenshot).
VILNIUS—The following “List of Project Allocations” is a screenshot taken today of the page of that name on the website of the Lithuanian government’s Good Will Foundation. It is also available in the alternative interactive Tableau format (below the screenshot).
It bears the date 1 July 2016 and includes the following introductory text: “We thank all the applicants who submitted project applications to the Good Will Foundation (Geros valios fondas). You may find a list of all projects, including the ones that received funding allocation from the Foundation. All applicants will be contacted individually and informed about the results and decisions taken.”
See also the “Statistics” page that covers several recent years.
The decisions on these allocations are taken by the Foundation’s Board.
The reference in the tweet is to the outstanding 24 June 2016 essay by the eminent Professor Bernard Fryshman in Yated Ne’eman. Professor Fryshman’s critical role in a landmark 2014 United States Congress law protecting vulnerable cemeteries of minorities internationally was explicitly recognized in the applicable Congressional Resolution. Why would a taxpayer supported agency, USPACHA, now be engaged in repeatedly honoring the Satmar-Aaronite sect’s de facto unit for trading away other people’s graves that publicly libels Professor Fryshman and any others who seek to defend the sanctity of human burial grounds around the world?
VILNIUS—Today marks one calendar year-and-a-month since “Admas Kodesh,” the American affiliate of the London “grave trading unit” called CPJCE (Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe) boasted on Twitter that Herbert Block, a prominent member of the State Department linked Commission for Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (USCPAHA), came to Monroe, New York to “report to the Satmar Rebba”… Thirteen months later, there has still not been a single public word from the taxpayer-funded commission urging the Lithuanian government to move its convention center project away from the old Jewish cemetery, as now called for by a petition signed by 38,000 people including, in its first moments online in December, the official chief rabbi of Lithuania. The “Admas Kodesh” group had previously, in August 2015, posted triumphant photo-ops with the commission’s chairperson, Ms. Lesley Weiss. Earlier that month, they posted photos of USCPAHA’s Jules Fleischer thanking (!) the Lithuanian Consul General in New York for preserving the cemetery. The same “Admas Kodesh” group so dear to the US taxpayer-funded USPACAHA regularly attacks major Jewish scholars with whom it disagrees, particularly on the Vilna cemetery. One infamous July 2016 tweet refers to the esteemed Professor Bernard Fryshman, who played a major role in the US Congress’s passing of a 2014 law on preservation of cemeteries of minorities, as “Lying Professor Bernard Fryshman” for holding a different point of view on CPJCE / Admas Kodesh role in the Vilnius scandal.
See earlier summary of USCPAHA’s Vilnius cemetery record and DH’s USCPAHA section (best to scroll to bottom and peruse chronologically)
VILNIUS—Not for the first time, outstanding scholars and professionals are happy to accept a gracious invitation to a Jewish-topic international conference in this beautiful East European capital city that has for centuries been a symbol of the resilience of various minority cultures, including stateless cultures, to thrive side by side.
“HISTORY IN THE MAKING”
Delegates to a conference on Jewish cemeteries, held in Vilnius in 2015, can get to read the statement in 2015 on a certain Jewish cemetery by the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania of 11 years’ standing, for which he was dismissed a couple of months before the conference. Would the conference not wish to hear from the rabbi too?
VILNIUS—The American taxpayer-funded agency known as the “U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad” has a mission statement that stresses commitment to preserving Jewish cemeteries in post-Holocaust Eastern Europe. They are in special danger because of the Holocaust: the people buried have no descendants or relatives to care for the preservation of their final resting place. Moreover, nationalism and antisemitism sometimes come into play, with powers that be not wanting any city-center reminders of major erstwhile Jewish populations in their cities, and in any case, applying very different standards to the preservation of Jewish and Christian cemeteries. The issue was addressed in a 2014 U.S. Congressional resolution.
NEW YORK—Herbert Block’s office today issued the following statement which in effect modifies the Lithuanian government’s published list of members of its new commission on the Lithuanian Jewish heritage. This clarification is now linked at relevant points in Defending History’s recent report on the cemetery saga in Vilnius.
Herbert Block has informed Defending History that, while he was appointed to the new Commission by the Government of Lithuania without prior notice, and was honored by the designation, he formally resigned this position. As a Member of the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a US federal government agency, Mr. Block is not permitted to serve on any body appointed by a foreign government.
Mr. Block attended the May 7, 2015 meeting in Vilnius only as an Observer on behalf of the US Commission.
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.
The following excerpt from the Lithuanian government’s documents, released today, explains the purposes of the new state commission on Jewish heritage. It is excerpted from longer documents available here and here. Updates on the commission’s history will appear on this page.