OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO ‘CONVENTION CENTER IN THE CEMETERY’ PROJECT | LONDON’S “CPJCE” | INTERNATIONAL PETITION | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | HUMAN RIGHTS | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH ISSUES | MEDIA WATCH
VILNIUS—As Jewish communities worldwide continue to prepare during the pandemic for the Jewish New Year (and roughly three weeks of high holidays) that gets underway on Friday evening, the action on the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery has been revving up to a high pitch on a number of fronts. The question revolves around the vast pain caused by government plans to site a national convention center and annex in the heart of the old Vilna cemetery at Piramónt (in the Shnipishok / Šnipiškės section of modern Vilnius).
Conference of European Rabbis Takes Action
In a tweet today, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, for close to a decade president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), confirmed that the body today formally banned the controversial London-based, Satmar-hasidic (“Aaronite sect” branch) from further involvement in the fate of the Old Vilna Cemetery.
Orthodox Jewish media earlier reported on the background to this development, the London CPJCE’s refusal to honor a formal invitation to come before a rabbinical court to explain their bizarre Vilnius activities in near-rapturous fervent favor of the cemetery’s utter desecration.
Litvak Rabbinic Edicts are Served on Parties in Vilnius and London by Israeli Law Firm
Vilnius journalist Arvydas Jockus published two balanced articles in Alfa.lt (on 9 Sept. and 10 Sept.). He reported that the “official” Jewish community told him it had never received formal notice of the rabbinic edict from the world’s major Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish tradition) court forbidding the convention center in the cemetery. The recent injunctions, in both Hebrew and certified English translation, were sent to the Vilnius and London parties by an Israeli law firm acting as process servers. The document was signed by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the doyen of Litvak rabbis worldwide, as well as the heads of yeshiva of Ponevezh, Slabodke and Telz, three major rabbinic institutions that proudly retain the Yiddish forms of the Lithuanian place names of their origin (today in Lithuania: Panevėžys, Vilijampolė and Telšiai).
In the United States and Canada, the Central Rabbinical Congress included the travesty of plans for the Vilnius cemetery among a list of the top Jewish cemetery desecrations worldwide.
The London Rabbi “Grave Traders” (CPJCE) Accused of Secret Payments for “Permissions”
While raising funds to “save” and “preserve” cemeteries, the London group has been assertively supporting Lithuanian government plans to erect a national convention center and large new annex in the heart of the fifteenth century cemetery. Thousands would each night clap, cheer, sing, drink at bars and flush lavatories surrounded by thousands of extant graves on all four sides of the Soviet-era “Sports Palace” (now a ruin), that would be renovated for state of the art nightly events for thousands, according to the plan. The London group was exposed by Wikileaks for eliciting secret payments, a scandal reported on in 2015 by Defending History, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and the Jerusalem Post, among others. Incidentally, the rival group of Satmar hasidism (Zalmanite branch), that year issued a statement signed by its own grandrabbi condemning the desecration of the major Jewish cemetery in Lithuania. This has been followed up just recently by major statements from United Jewish Organizations (UJO) and the Orthodox Union (OU), reported on robustly in Orthodox media, bringing them fully into line with the edicts of Lithuanian rabbis internationally which unanimously call upon the government to find another venue for the convention center project.
In addition, a Serious Incident Report has been filed with the UK Charities Commission over the CPJCE’s Vilnius escapades. The video of their delegation being glorified by the then prime minister of Lithuania in 2015 (when local rabbis were not even informed of the meeting) has been a classic in body language narrative (from timecode 0: 12). The CPJCE letterhead lists famed businessman B.S.E. Freshwater as “patron”; it is assumed he will be warned of the proposed Vilnius cemetery desecration by the CPJCE.
Major Financial Scandal Highlights Convention Center Corruption: Costs for Refurbishing a “Soviet Dump” Now at 64 Million Euros
This week also saw the emergence of a major financial scandal about the corruption involved in a plan to spend much more to abuse the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery by glorifying a “Soviet dump” than it would cost to build a sparkling new and morally clean congress center that would bring pride, joy, harmony and progress to all the peoples hailing from Lithuania, as well as to Europe, and globally. Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas, also a regular DH author, and editor of the Respect the Cemeteries website, published an English summary of the Lithuanian video program by Vilnius journalist Skirmantas Malinauskas: the plot to desecrate the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery is now going to cost the hard working and long victimized Lithuanian taxpayer, among others, a grand total of sixty-four million euros (around three times the earlier estimates for renovating a Soviet-era dump hated by everyday people in Vilnius).
The Vilnius court case brought by over a hundred descendants of the buried at the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery is now scheduled for 1 October. International observers are expected. The first signatory, Isaac Pinyes, a direct descendants of the Gaon of Vilna, may be one of them.
Vilnius Court Action Brought by Dov-Ber and Chaya Fried of New York Scheduled for 1 October; Over 100 Descendants of the Buried Have Signed Affidavits
But all this may be prelude. The next hearing in the Vilnius District Court case brought by over one hundred descendants of the Jewish citizens of Vilna buried at the cemetery (mostly current residents of the United States and Israel) is scheduled for 1 October. The case is being coordinated by Chaya and Dov-Ber Fried, Orthodox Jews of long Litvak heritage who have emerged as key figuresin international efforts. For decades Dov-Ber Fried, a Talmudic scholar, has been visiting Lithuania to help poor and aged Holocaust survivors, and to pray and study at the graves of the greatest Litvak sages of the ages.
Rabbi Elchonon Baron, Scion of Litvak Rabbinic Royalty, Assumes Leadership Role in Diplomatically Engaging Lithuanian Gov.
Moreover, a position of international moral and spiritual leadership of the movement to save the cemetery has been filled informally this year by Rabbi Elchonon Baron, head of a major Litvak yeshiva in Israel, and scion of Litvak “rabbinic royalty” who led a delegation of top Litvak rabbis to discuss the issue with the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel in Jan. 2020 (video). More recently, Rabbi Baron spoke briefly from the Western Wall (video), after the Lithuanian government’s Turto Bankas gloated about new visualizations that include a large new annex to the convention center. The international “Litvish yeshiva communities” are thought to number up to a million people who cherish their Lithuanian roots.
“Breathtaking” Spectrum of Opposition to Desecration of Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery
Opposition to the “convention center in the cemetery” has come from, among others, twelve US congressmen, three US senators, the chief rabbi of Israel, ten members of the Knesset, the chief rabbi of South Africa, the last chief rabbi of Lithuania (for which he was fired), and virtually all Lithuanian heritage rabbis internationally, in addition to numerous individual authors, including secular, Christian and human rights specialists.While the official state-sponsored Jewish community has been providing a fig leaf, there has been consistent opposition from the democratically elected leadership of the Vilnius Jewish Community, reported on in 2018 by the New York Times. Last month, three members of the elected board of the Vilnius Jewish Community addressed a public protest on various matters, including the cemetery, to the foreign members of the Lithuanian government’s “Good Will Fund” board, which is cochaired (without rotation) by the official Jewish community’s leader and the American Jewish Committee’s Andrew Baker. Mr. Baker, decorated with crosses and other awards by the Lithuanian government, replied with his usual disdain for those Lithuanian Jews not serving as state quislings. He had earlier publicly called Ms. Bloshtein’s petition a fraud at a public state-sponsored event in Vilnius, earning him the adoration of officials invested in the “convention center in the cemetery” project. It is thought that it was at his initiative that the American Jewish Committee was “persuaded” to give a de facto stamp of AJC approval to the alleged grave-selling CPJCE racket in London.
The world’s leading scholar of the cemetery’s history, Professor Shnayer (Sid) Leiman of New York, has published extensively on the topic in addition to being the primary speaker on a video viewed to date by over 25,000 people.
Then there is the petition by Vilnius native and resident Ruta Bloshtein. It is expected to achieve the 52,000 signature mark in the near future.
For human rights activists far from Jewish religious issues there are universal questions too. Would this be the fate of a majority population (ethnicity, religion) cemetery? Do the buried of minority communities also have the right to rest in peace? Are the payments for their graves purchased by their families in freehold rendered null and void by genocide of their local descendants?