VILNIUS—The website of the Jewish Community of Lithuania today posted an English version of its chairperson’s reply to a Jerusalem Post article of 11 August 2015 by Sam Sokol. The following is the text of the reply reposted in full with no textual changes. For more background from the Defending History perspective, please see the list of publications on the topic to date, DH’s summary of the high political and finance-sector intrigue, a registry of public opposition to the convention center project, and our editor’s open letter to the group of London rabbis invoked in recent debates.
About the Anger on Šnipiškės Cemetery and the Congress Center Project
Why is there so much anger and such a lack of truth emanating from an article by the well known and much respected Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post regarding the former Jewish cemetery in the neighborhood of Šnipiškės (Shnipishok, aka Piramont) in Vilnius, demolished by the Soviets in 1950 to make way for the Palace of Sports, which is now the subject of plans to renovate as a conference center? The Government of Lithuania is only planning to renovate existing buildings to serve as a conference center and for other cultural events while at the same time cleaning up and commemorating the territory of the former Jewish cemetery. This decision is being implemented in cooperation with members of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe who are to be included as supervisors over all work there. The Government’s actions regarding the project are being coordinated fully with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.
So far there has been no construction or any other work performed at all and everything remains in the planning stage. Furthermore, there are no headstones there and no new buildings are planned. The article in the Jerusalem Post apparently initially claimed the newspaper was unable to contact the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and for that reason their statements were not included in the article. Furthermore, Jerusalem Post wrote: “Kukliansky initially claimed support for the project from the Conference of European Rabbis but later changed her statement, withdrawing mention of the organization.” Rabbi Abraham Ginzberg, executive director of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe said that wasn’t true.
In correspondence with the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Rabbi Abraham Ginzberg forwarded a letter he had sent to the Jerusalem Post objecting to the newspaper’s reporting, saying “Firstly in your article you quote our organisation The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish cemeteries in Europe, as being unavailable for comment, well this is totally false, since myself as the Executive Director of the CPJCE I can confirm that we were never even approached by any media outlet asking us for comment, and I therefore feel that we do not need to comment on information that is completely false and we will not comment until asked and then we will say exactly what we have to say.”
He went on in the same correspondence: “On our website we do not write anywhere that we are affiliated with any of the names and organizations mentioned in your article so this is again false. Further details in your article are far from accurate and completely unfounded if not false. For the sake of balanced unbiased reporting and accurate information we would kindly ask you to please not quote things in our name or about us before truly approaching us and to double check your information as appropriate for such a respected newspaper you wrote this article for. Should you need any further information and comment, please feel free to contact me on the details provided herewith,” he told Sam Sokol, the author of the article in Jerusalem Post.
Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky confirmed that “we consult with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe on all questions concerning cemeteries. Their representatives are part of the Ponar Memorial Renovation Group. We don’t have any basis for doubting the committee’s decisions. It is an authoritative organization recognized by the European Union.” The LJC chairwoman believes the Community’s cooperation with the Government of Lithuania and relevant institutions is a positive thing. “Jews want to live in peace in Lithuania. They know full well Jewish law forbids moving the soil of graveyards, but no is making any other claim. Chaim Burshtein, the initiator of these articles against the Lithuanian Jewish Community and its chairwoman, is misleading readers through the presentation of false information. The Lithuanian Jewish community isn’t a bunch of conformists who are ready to trample underfoot their traditions and culture, but modern citizens of Europe who want to get along in the country where they currently live.
The Government of Lithuania and other state institutions have bent over backwards to take into careful account the requests, rights and interests of the Jews living in Lithuania. We enjoy the support and the help of the embassy of Israel and the ambassador personally, who is in constant contact with the chairs of the regional communities as well as the Lithuanian Jewish Community. On numerous occasions he has praised what has been accomplished so far.
Is it possible that the Congress Center project which the Lithuanian Government is planning to implement for multiple public use, for congresses, conferences and cultural events, at the same time renovating and commemorating the territory of the former Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery, has been too little discussed in the media?
LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky noted:
“The Community has not undertaken this because no work has even begun, all that is happening is meetings on what might be possible. The statements and attacks by Chaim Burshtein are a challenge to the Lithuanian Jewish Community which he is trying to provoke and divide. Not just to divide it against itself, but also in the expectation the Government of Lithuania would decide the Community is somehow an unreliable partner. What his intentions are, we can only speculate. After all, the Palace of Sports complex was built in the Soviet era and are protected under Lithuania law as an architectural heritage site.”
Currently the Palace of Sports site is slowly turning into a large weed patch and a venue for graffiti artists and alcoholics. No recent construction is visible at all on the site itself. There is currently a monument made of stones commemorating the former Jewish cemetery and some of its more famous burials, including the martyr Count Potocki who converted to Judaism and was burnt at the stake for his trouble, and the Vilna Gaon, whose remains were removed many decades ago to the actual Jewish cemetery in Vilnius located in the Šeskinė neighborhood. One stone has fallen off one side of the monument but it is in better repair than most of the Palace of Sports. Visitors have left small stones with the names of people painted in white upon them on the monument’s lintel.