OPINION | DOCUMENTS | 2023 “WORKING GROUP” ON VILNA CEMETERY | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | THE “CPJCE” LONDON GRAVE TRADERS | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS
by Dovid Katz
This week’s release of the official minutes, in Lithuanian and in English, of the 26 October 2023 meeting of the current international “Working Group” (list of members) established to advise on the future of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Shnípishok district, today’s Šnipiškės) contain some passages, in the view of this journal, worthy of George Orwell. Here are some samples from the official English language text (the entirety of which appears below, and is available in PDF format). Each quote in bold text is followed by some commentary.
“The objective is to honour and commemorate the centuries-long history of Lithuanian Jews and the Šnipiškės cemetery.”
A cemetery where many thousands of people still lie buried, can be honored in a museum, memorial, book, film or even in signage at the cemetery. But if the project is to refurbish a huge Soviet ruin in the middle of the cemetery instead, the actual project underway is to destroy rather than restore the actual cemetery. See Julius Norwilla’s recent comment piece on the abject nonsense that unlike other hated Soviet monstrosities in town, this one “masterpiece” cannot have its preservation order revoked and be torn down (see also his earlier comment on the cultural message the hated Soviet building sends to modern free and democratic Lithuania).
“No work will be carried out unless approved and supervised by the LJC and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.”
Well, that’s jim-dandy, in the spirit of the wolves being brought in to guard the sheep, given that these are the very corrupted entities that for years were fighting for the cemetery to become a new national convention center! The London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE), known informally as the “London grave-traders” was exposed by Wikileaks for taking large payments for their “permissions and supervisions” and was expressly forbidden from touching anything in Vilnius by Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the Conference of European Rabbis (they were also reported to the UK’s Charity Commission, and were explicitly disqualified by Lithuania’s last Chief Rabbi, Chaim Burshtein, before he was fired, never to be replaced, for speaking the truth about the Vilna cemetery). Indeed, one of the CPJCE’s leaders’ public statements, some years ago, that the Soviet dump plonked in the middle of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery was for the Lithuanian people the equivalent of “The Tower of London and the Statue of Liberty” has become part of Jewish folklore illustrating the depths to which “European court Jews” will go to receive honors, accolades and privileges from a government looking for supposed Jewish legitimization for that which is inherently illegitimate and can only do harm to the country’s standing. It is the true friend of Lithuania who points out that something is wrong here.
The LJC (fueled by tens of million in “state restitution” managed by two non-rotating chairpersons, from the LJC and AJC) is best known for its illegitimate stolen-election status. The democratic Vilnius Jewish Community, representing the vast majority of the country’s extant Jewish people, is not even mentioned.
“Ideas on how to commemorate the old Jewish cemetery site (around the Sports Palace).”
The Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery is decidedly not a “cemetery site”: it is a cemetery. In Jewish law (in which there are no “former cemeteries”) it would remain a hallowed cemetery until the end of days even if all the remains of its buried were to be removed. But in this cemetery, both the Soviet “Sports Palace” and the two green buildings erected earlier this century (with the help of one of the same Jewish stars eagerly flown in now for this newest “cemetery commissions”) are surrounded on all four sides by rows of extant graves, as demonstrated by ground radar years ago. Put differently, one does not respect, preserve and restore a cemetery by renaming it a “cemetery site” and then pouring millions of hard-earned Lithuanian taxpayers’ euros into renovating the very building erected by the Soviets in the middle of the cemetery and turning it into a bustling museum, memorial, or cultural center, with sewage pipes, electricity lines, events and meetings in the heart of a cemetery. Would this even be under humorous discussion if it were a Christian Lithuanian cemetery where great Lithuanian scholars, leaders and everyday people were laid to rest in perpetuity over some five hundred years, in graves purchased freehold and in perpetuity by their families? Indeed, it wreaks of communism to nullify the freehold purchase of burial plots in favor of some government scheme for museums and cultural centers “for the people”…
“It was pointed out that the rebuilding of the cemetery with tombstones would be difficult for the local population to understand. And it would be more likely to close the site off from people. It should rather be seen as a park, with paths and special historical signs. It is particularly important not to close this site off from people. The cemetery site must be dedicated to the memory, dignity and respect of those enterred [sic] there.”
At last, the stark and simple truth emerges from the abyss of obfuscationary claptrap. A cemetery with tombstones “would be difficult for the local population to understand.” Translation: We don’t want this cursed Jewish cemetery in central Vilnius! It must become a Soviet building about all sorts of cool nice topics. And — Wow! They are saying that the people of Vilnius are dopes, morons and nincompoops who could not fathom the painful truth that a cemetery is where dead people are buried and where they and their graves are commemorated by beautiful tombstones. Indeed, the leading scholar of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery has pointed out that many hundreds of inscriptions have been preserved by transcription or photography before the tombstones were pilfered by the Soviets, and can be lovingly restored, as in the case of Frankfurt in Germany.
“The building could also house exhibitions from YIVO’s collections and have spaces for research. Possibilities of displaying digitised content would be limitless. YIVO also has a lot of video material from YIVO’s activities.”
Well, the magnificent secular Yiddishist heritage of the Vilna Yivo deserves continuity in today’s Vilnius. Defending History staff were deeply involved in the founding and working of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, which flourished for many years before its takeover and destruction by government-agency “history-fixing operatives” when it came to the defense of Holocaust survivors accused of war crimes for having escaped the Vilna Ghetto to join up with the anti-Nazi partisans. But the least appropriate place for a commemoration of the Vilna Yivo is the Jewish cemetery. Its most beloved interwar leaders, including Max Weinreich and Zalmen Reyzen, were avowed atheist, anti-religious activists. Nevertheless they had deep respect for the heritage of traditional religious Jewish culture. Sure, they would polemicize in the rough-and-tumble debates of the day. But they would not in a million years have attempted to muscle in on a synagogue or cemetery! It is part of the rich tapestry of Jewish Vilna that there is even a distinct neighborhood, away from religious centers, that became the world center of secular Yiddish academic culture. Not, dear readers, in the city’s sacred old Jewish cemetery.
“It was pointed out that the history of the building itself could be displayed in the building: both the history of the Jewish cemetery that was destroyed and the history of historical events that were important for Lithuania. It could be a ‘museum of itself’.”
This fine sample of masturbatory verbiage tells it all in yet another novel way. There is, it seems, no end to the ways of Shooting an Elephant — or, Shooting a Cemetery. Restored Jewish gravestones of hundreds of grand Litvak scholars actually buried in the cemetery would be too hard for today’s people to understand. Indeed, let this one sacrosanct Soviet building (in a land where others are understandably de-landmarked and demolished all the time) become a museum of itself. Well done, chaps, this last dashing phrase will truly do go down in the history of Lithuanian-Jewish affairs, and in handbooks of rhetoric.
“For some folks, better a useless ‘museum of itself’ than heaven forbid a beautifully restored Jewish cemetery in Vilnius”
“Given that we cannot alter history and there exists a building on the cemetery site listed as a cultural value, we must adapt to this reality and talk about the cemetery within the building, paying special respect to those interred there.”
Ah, “we cannot alter history” and “we must adopt to this reality”. Wait a second. Other Soviet monstrosities that were not even in the middle of cemeteries were delandmarked and demolished. So, perhaps the independent scholars in the Working Group are free to suggest that we not adopt to this particular “reality” that can be made an “unreality” in the exact same way the Soviet sculptures on the Green Bridge, and many others, were delandmarked and carted off to the junkyard (or even a memorial park established just for Soviet architectural junk). Or is the real sacred goal of this story another one. That there must be no Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery in today’s Vilnius. Just a Soviet building to be used for all and sundry as commercial and political powers of the future will dictate. Slowly — or not so slowly — the project merges with the aborted “convention center in the Jewish cemetery” (so desired by the bosses of Turto Bankas, the state property bank, and their corrupt cronies) that the prime minister had the courage to scuttle back in the summer of 2021 to international acclaim.
“Due to the huge size of the building, considerations should be made on how to integrate additional historical elements of Lithuanian history or other relevant activities.”
A fitting conclusion to the foregoing: We don’t want the cemetery to be a cemetery. Heaven forbid. We don’t want restored gravestones that would be hard to understand in a cemetery (modern people would not be able to understand such a thing). We want a restored modern building for all sorts of pleasurable, exciting activities that would never even be thought of in a Christian, Muslim or Hindu cemetery. Indeed, the passion against restoration of Jewish Vilna’s most sacred site itself represents one of the more exotic forms of contemporary East European ultranationalism and antisemitism (see comments by Baron, Katz, Kulikauskas, Norwilla). Come to think of it, the vast international condemnation of the project to erect a convention center in the same Soviet building, in the middle of the old Jewish cemetery, is in most cases directly applicable to its new guise as a multipurpose national event center that is, this time around, “in memory of the cemetery.”
“Simultaneously, it is crucial to allocate at least 10% of the total area for the history of the building and Lithuania, with the remaining 90% devoted to the memorial aspect.” […] The administrative spaces could also accommodate research and academic activities, specifically delving into the history of Lithuanian Jews. Academic activities are paramount for the future, especially for the education of the younger generation.”
Indeed, abso-darn-lutely. But — not only is there a time to every thing under the sun (as we learned way back when, from Ecclesiastes, chapter 3). There is also a place to every thing under the sun. The places for these vital “research and academic activities” are universities, research centers, libraries, and increasingly, the universe of online resources and programs. Academic research is not conducted in cemeteries, with electricity wires and snack bars coming in and sewage pipes going out through the bones of thousands of buried people who have the same human right to rest in peace and dignity as the rest of contemporary humanity.
“N.B. Dr. Sid Leiman’s proposals were received and emailed to the members of the Working group.” [italics in original where this line appears randomly interposed after the first section]
Professor Sidney Leiman is the internationally preeminent academic specialist on the history and status of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery. Indeed his now classic 2015 essay (that appeared in Seforim Blog and Defending History), brilliantly debunking the machinations of the CPJCE and LJC on the then-version of cemetery destruction (turning the Soviet dump into a national convention center), made the main point back then (bold type below added for rapid referencing): “Ms. Kukliansky continues: ‘Because the building [i.e., the Soviet-era Sports Palace] itself has been designated an architectural heritage site, no changes are possible.’ Really? It was in the Soviet period that all the tombstones were systematically removed from the cemetery between 1948 and 1955, and it was in the Soviet period that a Sports Palace was constructed over the dead bodies of thousands of Vilnius Jews. Now who was it that designated the Soviet Sports Palace an architectural heritage site? If it was the Soviets, what has this to do with Independent Lithuania? If, however, it was Independent Lithuania that made this designation, then rectification is long overdue. Indeed, the government of Lithuania should recognize the Shnipishkes Jewish cemetery as a heritage site of the Jewish community of Vilnius from the 16th through the 19th centuries. It should certainly not condone and perpetuate the Soviet desecration of a Jewish cemetery.”
It is no secret that any specialist academic expertise and inherent intellectual integrity of the new Working Group derives from its inclusion of Professor Sidney (Shnayer) Leiman, who, we learn from this passage, took the time and trouble to produce special written proposals for the benefit of his fellow Working Group members. But while extraordinary claptrap and malarkey are detailed in the Minutes, there is not one word, not even of summary, of the content of Professor Leiman’s written proposals that “were received and emailed to the members of the Working Group.” What is the point here? Is it that his proposals are meant for the spam graveyard (no pun intended) of the personal email accounts of the other appointed members? Are his thoughts not even worthy of mention, of a few words of summary, in the Minutes of the meeting? Was he included in the Working Group as a kind of hapless window dressing to supposedly cover for the travesty being committed against many thousands of citizens of Vilna whose graves are about to be eternally desecrated by the multimillion euro renovation of the hated Soviet dump put in the cemetery in a classic case of perpetuating Soviet antisemitism? Is the one substantive view of the Working Group’s members the only one omitted from these sacred Minutes produced for the annals of Lithuanian history? Surely a number of members of the Working Group will appreciate the sterling opportunity to learn from Prof. Leiman’s decades of research on the old Vilna cemetery.
So, what can we learn from this genre of literature, contrasting one non-divulged opinion by a named party vs. all the rest of the document comprising divulged opinions with no names attached to any of the words of wisdom on offer?
The full English text of the official minutes of the Working Group’s 26 October meeting follows. It is in the public domain and can be used for courses in creative writing and the integrity of public discourse. Please use handles in upper left hand corner to turn pages in either direction.Minutes of 26 October Working Group Meeting