OPINION | ANTISEMITISM | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | CEMETERIES | HUMAN RIGHTS | LITVAK AFFAIRS
by Dovid Katz
Antisemitism takes many forms in the twenty-first century. It includes the religion-based, the anti-Israel-based, the globalization-based, the envy-based, and the drunk-violence based — all the way to sophisticated and elegant forms that are so sublimated that it is hard to discern what’s what. In Eastern Europe, some rather exotic forms flourish: hatred of remnant local Jewish communities (who know the truth about the Holocaust-relevant roles played by local nationalists during the Holocaust years of 1941-1944/45) alongside love of rich, distant foreign Jews (who can be charmed right to the high heavens with medals, junkets and photo-ops to help underpin Double Genocide revisionism — and sometimes cover for glorification of local collaborators — as part, naturally, of “Holocaust remembrance” or “commemoration of the victims of equal genocidal regimes”).
Then there is the occasionally encountered East European love of substantial Jewish sacred sites that are suitably far from the center of town (“best place is the forest, you know!”) and provide a fine niche in-season tourism without upsetting the ethnic-purity concocted versions of town-center history that want it to be say pure Ukrainian (Lviv/Lvov/Lemberg), pure Latvian (Riga), or pure Lithuanian (Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vílne).
The hard fought battle to keep the convention center out of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery was won last summer (report in the AJ). It will go down in history as a victory for Lithuania and all the country’s true friends. Now comes Part II.
And so, one of the most patently antisemitic national edicts, dressed up as a routine run-of-the-mill document, passed in our curious century was that of 2006 that just “added” a hated Soviet ruin to the “Cultural Register” of unique and irreplaceable landmarks that may never be dismantled (its infamy goes down as object no. 17400; such is the banality, at times, of rarefied antisemitic state documents). That was, of course the already-closed-down, dilapidated, unsafe “Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports” (Vilniaus koncertų ir sporto rūmai or, for short: Sporto rūmai) that the Soviets built smack in the middle of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery (to this day bone fragments chopped and scattered in the construction process turn up all the way down to the river). Around the time of sacred-object preservation order 17400, twenty-first century Vilnius builders, contractors and politicians were rapidly succeeding in taking a big (corner) swath of the cemetery for the two new “green buildings” (with the help of swank American Jewish machers, glory-tourists from big organizations, and even JTS, who were given the royal treatment during the two buildings’ erection). Incidentally, ground radar has proven that the graves around all these buildings (the sports palace and the two new structures) are still there. Meanwhile, plans for the golden duck, the convention center in the cemetery’s center, were progressively pursued. It was an American Christian clergyman, the Rev. Michael Maass, who spent many years in Vilnius, who first asked the question, in 2015: Would such a convention center project have been countenanced if this were an old Lithuanian Christian cemetery?
The international campaign spearheaded by Defending History since 2015 succeeded, in August 2021 [AJ report], in persuading the powers that be to cancel funding for a national convention center in the old dump (with restoration slated at tens of millions to local contractors, builders and kickback artists, and unknown sums to an allegedly corrupt group of “CPJCE” rabbis in London who allegedly profit from “permitting” Jewish cemetery destruction). One of the various higher government officials who keeps in cordial touch with the Defending History community, understanding that we are allies for the genuine benefit of a land we all love, put it to us last summer off the record: “The government did not cancel the Convention Center in Šnipiškės to make you guys happy. We do what we do for Lithuania. What would it look like if a future American president would come and visit and refuse to enter an event in a building surrounded by the graves of the Jews?”
The remaining question on many people’s mind was: When would the Soviet monstrosity be taken down and the Jewish cemetery restored? Ah, but that would mean no lucrative building schemes and kickbacks or other shenanigans to defraud the hardworking Lithuanian (and EU) taxpayer. Such schemes are irresistibly luscious, to the point of financial intoxication, in the case of restoring massive old dumps — not like building a new building where all the costs and prices are transparent.
Moreover, without the building renovations there would be no role for the London grave-selling rabbis to “supervise” works and cash in (and regain street cred for “saving” more and more East European Jewish cemeteries on ground zero of the Holocaust by allegedly negotiating their destruction for money). But worst of all for the elite antisemitic establishment in town is the restoration of a substantial Jewish cemetery right in the heart of one of Vilnius’s prime locations. The nationalism and ethnocentric purities desired in East European city center urban planning constitute a worthy topic for a new academic study.
In to the rescue comes flying that sacred and sacrosanct 2006 inclusion of the Soviet dump in the Register of Cultural Heritage! Indeed, the ever-imaginative London CPJCE rabbis went much further than that modest inclusion, to proclaim several years ago that the Soviet dump was eternal, because it was, in the (unforgettable) words of that organization’s executive director, “the Statue of Liberty and Tower of London combined into one for the people of Lithuania” (if you live long enough, you live to see it all…). Yet incredibly, the CPJCE is boasting, in effect, now, that the proverbial local morons (= the Lithuanian government and authorities) are, after all that, continuing to turn to them to make stuff kosher for the Jewish people — and the West. Just look at the CPJCE’s latest triumphant press release. It can be paraphrased to mean: “Never mind all the trouble they had from the petition, the US senators and reps and Knesset members, the chief rabbis of Israel and South Africa, and all the rest, they are so stupid that we’re now convincing them again to trust us, that if whatever they do with the building has our London Queen of England approval (we are after all recognized by the American Jewish Committee’s medal-loving machers), they will have no problems from the Jews or anyone else.” Of course no mention by the London grave traders that they have been officially forbidden by the Conference of European Rabbis to touch Vilnius cemeteries with a bargepole.
To avoid losing millions more, and untold good will needed and deserved by the people of Lithuania, all thrown on the diplomatic bonfire for nothing and less than nothing, the government officials who actually love Lithuania would do well this time to start listening to the Conference of European Rabbis, and in a deeper sense even more significantly, to the heads of the yeshivas and communities in America, Israel, Europe and further afield, descended from Baranovich, Kelem, Kletsk, Mir, Ponevezh, Slabodka (/Kóvne), Slonim, Telz, Valozhin, Vílne, and the other cities whose Litvish Yiddish names (whether in modern Lithuania or Belarus) are eternal cultural concepts in the majestic inventory of history. Looking at a photo of the recent winter 2022 pilgrimage, one can’t help but take in the beauty of the scenario whereby the bona fide religious heirs to Litvak Jewry’s huge religious component would come to be taken seriously by all those in the government who want productive good relations with bona fide Litvak Jewry around the globe as a source of strength and inspiration to Lithuania’s best, grandest and truly inclusive future. To identify the Solomonic Real Mother, Lithuanian officials might do well to look at those among the major world rabbis who have cared enough about Vilnius and its future to actually issue documents and letters in recent years when it was for the sake of love and truth, not profit from the cockamamie London “permissions and supervisions” racket.
Finally, some long overdue common sense from the Vilnius mayor: a new convention center can easily be built in the area of the train and bus station that urgently needs urban renewal and revival. Heck—the Jewish cemetery wasn’t the only place, after all… Hizonner is suddenly now in full agreement with the Change.org petition of his city’s born-and-bred citizen, Ruta Bloshtein, developed in partnership with DefendingHistory.com that simply called for the convention center project to be moved away from the Jewish cemetery).
See also: history of Mayor Šimašius’s long, complex (and colorful) evolution and convolutions on Jewish issues.
So, suddenly, in 2022, after the powers that be decided in 2021 to ditch the “convention center in the Jewish cemetery” (appreciating the opprobrium that would fall on a European capital going in that direction), some now try to revive at least the “renovation of the building” part of the earlier for-profit scheme.
With the mayor of Vilnius finally coming into agreement with Ruta Bloshtein’s petition (“Move the convention center project away from the old Jewish cemetery”), the twin forces of elite antisemitism (“no Jewish cemetery in the heart of Vilnius”) and the builders, contractors and their beneficiaries’ profits are coming up with a “renovated nominally Jewish building” to rise like a phoenix in the old Soviet dump. A dump that should have been taken down years ago to make way for a beautiful restored cemetery, perhaps as visualized, say, by a talented young Lithuanian Christian artist in a non-scaled illustrative image.
The new chatter is about some kind of “Jewish” museum (the state Jewish museum has five or more major buildings already, and a curious new shtetl museum is rising out in the west). Or maybe not a museum, just a Jewish theme park (err, perhaps with a nice big auditorium and conference facilities to use now and then for conventions and convocations, you know—just for rental). Perhaps reminiscent of an old plan to make a Disney Wonderland Vilna Ghetto theme park in the old town exposed years ago by the late Milan Chersonski in the then Jewish community’s legendary quadrilingual newspaper, Jerusalem of Lithuania (hopefully some of the major scanning projects will preserve this national treasure, the one Jewish newspaper in history that appeared (for over two decades) in four languages (English, Lithuanian, Russian, Yiddish), and which already seems not to exist in a full preserved copy at any library on the planet.
A cemetery is a cemetery. How many museums of Christian history are situated on Christian cemeteries? Where are all the contemporary human rights champions when it comes to the rights of the deceased to rest in peace (on land purchased by their ancestors freehold in perpetuity), and the rights of the victims of genocide for their ancestors’ graves to be preserved when that genocide has eliminated the descendants that care for ancestors’ graves?
The long-suffering people of Lithuania are united in their understandable — truly admirable — disdain for unseemly Soviet architecture, and it has been coming down all over the country, with little or no objection. But this monstrosity is an exception. Why? Because it is in the middle of a Jewish cemetery that must not be restored or the antisemitic ultranationalist establishment would have to forever look at major Jewish historic real estate in the middle of its cherished capital city. Even worse, the sight of a restored cemetery makes clear the historic volume and cultural magnitude of Jewish life in the city over more than half a millennium. Just look at the old pictures. The world’s leading scholar on the history of the cemetery, Prof. Shnayer (Sid) Leiman, has succinctly summarized the obvious solution of restoration, on the “Frankfurt model” that has enhanced that city’s stature.
The narrative offered to dispute this? Ah, unlike all the other Soviet monstrosities in the country, this one, the old Soviet “Sports Palace” is unique! One in the world. Magnificent architecture. One of the seven wonders of the world. Lithuania’s pride and joy.
That is of course utter malarkey. Similar Soviet sports and “culture” palaces (in many local languages: kholéryas) exist all over the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries (usually in backwaters, but in the capital cities, surprise surprise, of Belarus and Kyrgyzstan; Borat can explain more). Here are some examples: