OPINION | HUMAN RIGHTS | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH ISSUES | MEDIA WATCH | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO ‘CONVENTION CENTER IN THE CEMETERY’ PROJECT |INTERNATIONAL PETITION
by Andrius Kulikauskas
Lithuanian journalists are raising questions that the Lithuanian government has yet to answer regarding its plans to repurpose as a modern convention center the Vilnius Sports Palace which the Soviets built on the oldest Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės. These journalists are informing the Lithuanian public about spectacular increases in projected costs, the rabbinical court’s ruling which prohibits use of the building, the architects who propose reconsidering the future of the building, and the historical documents which show that the Soviets seized the Cemetery in 1940 from the Vilnius Jewish Community, whose rights have yet to be restored.
Skirmantas Malinauskas Publishes Expected Construction Costs of 64 Million Euros
Most dramatically, on September 12, 2020, independent journalist Skirmantas Malinauskas uploaded an hour-long You Tube video. “For the sake of the public interest”, he presented portions of a document leaked to him, namely the technical project submitted in March, 2020 by Karolis Maciulevičius of UAB “ArchiMenai” to Turto Bankas (the State Property Bank). Malinauskas’s investigative videos are supported by 4,000 Patreon subscribers (at about 3 euros per month) and typically viewed by more than 100,000 viewers, and this bombshell may reverberate across Lithuanian media. Skirmantas Malinauskas was until March, 2020 an advisor to Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis. Prior to that he worked as a journalist for 15min.lt, where he wrote detailed articles on September 20, 2016 and June 7, 2016 about problems in the bidding process for reconstruction of the Vilnius Sports Palace.
In his current video, after discussing other topics, at timecode 8:00 he details the history of cost increases at the site. When Lithuania gained independence, the Sports Palace was owned and operated by Vilniaus koncertų ir sportū rūmai, UAB. However, it could not compete with the Siemens Arena which opened in 2004. That year, Ūkio banko investicinė grupė (ŪBIG) led by Vladimiras Romanovas purchased the site for 6.5 million litas (=1.88 million euros) with the intention of tearing down the Sports Palace and building apartments there. However, the Soviet building was declared a heritage site in 2006, as was the Jewish cemetery in 2008. Malinauskas shows a video clip of Catholic priest Feliksas Baliūnas urging that Jews decide what best to do with the cemetery. The European Union did not provide any funding for reconstruction. Later, ŪBIG went bankrupt. In three auctions, no buyer was found for the decrepit building. In 2015, the administrator sold the site to the Lithuanian government for 5.6 million euros.
Malinauskas then describes the questionable bidding process in 2016 which required the team submitting the bid to have a member with experience in restoring a heritage site in a project worth more than 4.5 million euros. In Lithuania, it seems that the only such company was Panevėžio statybos trestas, which had restored the Royal Palace. The government received four bid responses:
25,107,500 euros UAB “HSC BALTIC”, SIA “RE&RE”
27,789,000 euros UAB “IRDAIVA”, UAB Pamario restauratorius”, UAB “Litcon”
29,524,000 euros AB “Panevėžio statybos trestas”
30,711,252 euros UAB “Infes”, UAB “Kaminta”, UAB “Plungės lagūna”
UAB “HSC BALTIC”, SIA “RE&RE” were disqualified because of their unsatisfactory financial state. Malinauskas points out that the Latvian company SIA “RE&RE”, unfortunately, was the builder of the Maxima shopping center in Riga which collapsed in 2013, because of design flaws and an overloaded roof, killing 54 people. Ultimately, Turto Bankas anulled the contest because of information from the Financial Crime Investigation Service that Tomas Lukosevičius had been working at the same time for “IRDAIVA” and for the Turto Bankas Public Procurement Commission. Moreover, the Public Procurement Office noted that the prices were too high. Turto Bankas had designated 27.5 million euros which, above and beyond construction costs, was to include 3 million euros for equipment and furnishings.
After this background history, at 40:00 in his video, Malinauskas investigates Karolis Maciulevičius and his tiny company UAB “ArchiMenai”, which had only 21,000 EUR income in 2018, and yet on August 6, 2018, proposed to Turto Bankas to prepare the technical design for the reconstruction of the Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace for a fee of 722,370 EUR. Its partners included UAB “Projektavimo ir restauravimo institutas”, UAB “Vilniaus architektūros studija” and a.s.a Sigitas Kuncevičius’s design firm.
Apparently, this is the only proposal that Turto Bankas considered. Malinauskas notes that Karolis Maciulevičius happened to be working as a project manager for “HSC BALTIC”, which had participated in the 2016 contest. As we know, the resulting technical design buries and erases the Cemetery, covering it with a new layer of earth, making no effort to show its boundaries, contradicting Orthodox Jewish practices by introducing watered plants and irrigation systems, and keeping the area open on all sides to passers through, including bicyclists and, presumably, skateboarders. The design even disrespects the so-called Soviet heritage by appending a large annex. Elsewhere in his video, at 16:00, Malinauskas considers the fate of three reconstructions of analogous Brutalist Soviet sports palaces in Minsk, Volgograd and Chelyabinsk, and concludes that they are “dreadful”.
Finally, he drops his bombshell, key excerpts from that 335 page technical project, which was leaked to him. The projected cost is now 64,040,428.80 euros. Looking at the page that he published, it seems that the costs of “construction and installation” are 26 million euros but the costs of “equipment” for the transformable center has soared to 28 million euros. The costs outside the VKC (Vilnius Congress Center) territory of 2,247,713 euros accord with the 2,357,179 euro portion that the City of Vilnius agreed to cover in the partnership agreement with Turto Bankas that it ratified on July 8, 2020. In that partnership agreement the City of Vilnius also agreed to cover its portion of this technical project, 29,209 euros out of 42,350 euros for designing the grounds.
According to Malinauskas’s sources, Turto Bankas leader (presumably Director General Mindaugas Sinkevičius) and representatives are looking for experts who could validate an even higher projected cost of 76 million euros. At 1:00:00, Malinauskas notes that in Volgograd, Russia, a similar building is being reconstructed for 7 million euros. He concludes with the hope that Turto Bankas General Director Mindaugas Sinkevičius will reject the technical project. (Unfortunately, the Mayor Remigijus Šimašius rushed through approval of the City of Vilnius’s participation in ten minutes on July 8, 2020.)
Arvydas Jockus Records the Lithuanian Jewish Community Chairwoman’s Response to the Bnei Brak Rabbinical Court’s Ruling
On September 9, 2020, Arvydas Jockus of Alfa.lt published an article, “Israeli Rabbinical Court ‘Forbids’ Jewish Organizations From Condoning the Vilnius Convention Center Project”. He had found a report at BriefingWire.com and then contacted Lithuanian Jewish Community Chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, who is a practicing lawyer. She explained that these were legal matters and she did not want to rush to reply. The court’s jurisdiction was unclear to her, the information might simply be fake news, and it was unclear what legal interest the plaintiff may have in those buried at the Cemetery. It was the first that she had heard of this ruling. In her opinion, the court had no jurisdiction over her personally. “They can’t forbid me anything.” She found it suspect that the ruling was made by a rabbinical court. “Perhaps I’m not a person who practices religion.” She recalled that Asta Skaisgirytė-Liauškienė, who had served as Lithuania’s Ambassador to Israel in 2006-2009, had once inquired with Israel’s Ministry of Religion and received a reply as to what matter a religious court might decide. “I highly doubt that a religious denomination’s court can rule on the participation by the Jewish community in one project or another.” She emphasized that the Lithuanian Jewish Community is an association and not a part of the Jewish religious community. “An association works on entirely different principles. Probably a religious denomination’s court in Israel cannot regulate the life of the Lithuanian Jewish community.” She later sent an email explaining that she had a document from Lithuania’s Embassy in Israeli stating that the Israeli Rabbinical Court Directorate asserts that Israeli rabbinical courts are authorized to decide matters of marriage and divorce for Jewish persons in Israel, such as distribution of property, alimony and inheritance.
Chairwoman Faina Kukliansky emphasized that the Lithuanian Jewish Community is not participating in the reconstruction of the Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace either as a builder or as a destroyer. “We follow the instructions of the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE [see DH section – ed.]. This committee is recognized in the European Union and functions in the European Union, and not in some other country.” She said that the Committee believes that reconstruction is possible because all technical decisions are reconciled with this Committee.
For the informed reader, her remarks betray the question, why has the Lithuanian government deemed the Lithuanian Jewish Community as the “relevant interest group” regarding the Cemetery? How can it represent the believers whose ancestors are buried there, who all in all, were likewise believers? It is a human rights issues and also a political issue. How can Lithuania allow such a Chairwoman to permit the moral injury of Jews and their neighbors who for centuries past and future were and are obliged to regard the sanctity of this Cemetery?
The next morning, September 10, 2020, Arvydas Jockus published a long clarification, “Opponents of the Vilnius Convention Center Project Made Use of the Israeli Religious Court’s Decision. The Rabbis’ Ruling Does Not Mention Any Particular Jewish Organizations Or Individuals.” It published remarks by Turto Bankas Communications Department Head Tomas Bagdonas. He explained that BriefingWire.com is not a news portal but a press release mill. The press release links to a site (SaveVilna.org) which opposes the project. “That being said, Turto Bankas lawyers will review the decision when we have it.” He stated that rulings made in other jurisdictions are not valid in Lithuania.
The journalist also found and summarized the text of the ruling by Bnei Brak Rabbinical Court on February 9, 2020 forbidding the renovation of the Vilnius Sports Palace and requiring that it be sealed up and left as is. Next, he shared remarks from a letter by “Lithuanian scholar, writer, historian and human rights activist Dovid Katz”, the editor of DefendingHistory.com, DovidKatz.net and YiddishCulturalDictionary.org.
“Symbolically and historically it is important that to this day the great yeshivas, whose leaders signed the ruling forbidding the construction of a conference center on the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, bear the Yiddish names of Lithuanian cities, the yeshivas of Pónevezh (Panevėžys), Telz (Telšiai), Slabódke (Vilijampolė-Kaunas). These rabbis represent Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) heritage, not the anti-Lithuanian Hungarian or Romanian Jewish Satmar rabbis in London, who have absolutely no authority to meddle in Litvak matters.” Unlike Faina Kukliansky, the democratically elected leader of the Vilnius Jewish Community, Simonas Gurevičius, who represents the vast majority of Lithuanian Jewish citizens, publicly appreciates the Litvak rabbis.
Turto Bankas representative Tomas Bagdonas explained that Jewish organizations support the reconstruction project. The government and Turto Bankas as well have documents which affirm that. “We can talk about various Jewish organization and individuals who have other visions for the site and the building, but regrettably, those are being spread in the form of misinformation (fake news).”
Making Public the Diverging Values of Kapines.com and SaveVilna.org
The two long articles by Arvydas Jockus of Alfa.lt are tolerable examples of objective reporting. They have us consider our values as we face the challenge of penetrating the fortress of deceptions erected by the Lithuanian government, Turto Bankas, the Lithuanian Jewish Community and unknown economic interests.
The anonymous founders of SaveVilna.org are investing thousands of dollars in presenting important facts in inappropriately suspect forms. They are plastering the internet with press releases from fictional authors (Jonathan Braun) belonging to fictional organizations (such as Human Rights Court Watch), or even falsely assuming the identity of real authors (Pieter Muller) and real organizations (hrw.org), as here and here. Then they are citing their own press releases as if they were independent sources. Dag, the media contact person for SaveVilna.org, provided me his explanation on July 20, 2020. He declined to give his last name.
The above mentioned press release presented an esteemed rabbinical court as if it were an “Israeli court”. The press releases are ungrammatical (written by an Israeli?) and always include the most preposterous email address: reviews4hotspots @ gmail.com. A whole network of fake people have been set up on Twitter (Vilnius Patron, Very Fast Lane), Facebook, Quora (Jonus Norkus — the actual Lithuanian forename is Jonas) to recommend these press releases, at times using extreme language, such as the video “Jewish killing fields in Lithuania under the spotlight”, which is then understood by some to be part of the very real Russian information war on Lithuania, the US, the UK and other countries. I personally received a tweet from Very Fast Lane: “You’re the ostrich everyone is talking about. Where exactly is the fake news? Pull your head out the sand and open your eyes big boy.” This is demoralizing.
As the editor of Kapines.com (“Gerbkime kapines” — “Respect Cemeteries”), after repeatedly addressing my concerns in private, I am ever more publicly condemning this immoral approach to a moral problem. As this problem grows, it destroys the credibility of diaspora Litvaks, especially rabbis amongst them, who tolerate or condone this. We would hope to lean on their authority, but we mustn’t if they are rotten wood.
We don’t need to be fighting an information war alongside or against imaginary, cocky, amoral, anonymous, mercenary Israelis.
We simply need pious Jews who will pray for and at the Cemetery. Here in Lithuania so far there is only one such woman, Ruta Bloshtein, and not a single man. Who will pray with her?