O P I N I O N
VILNIUS—After two apartment and business buildings started to go up a decade ago on the grounds of the old Jewish cemetery at Piramónt in the Šnipiškės (Shnípishok) district of this city, across the river from the city center, a damaging international conflict ensued between elements of the Lithuanian government on the one hand and Jewish groups around the world and a number of Western governments on the other.
In 2009, the issue was finally “solved” by a practical compromise that would end acrimony, even if it was not palatable to many. In short: Those two buildings would stay put, but no more would ever be built on any part of the old cemetery site. That agreement held until this year when a twenty-five million dollar convention center was announced for the site of the old Soviet sports center building that stands in the middle of the old cemetery.
All-too-memorable tricks from the first time around were set in motion. These included a new heritage commission — right out of Orwell (or Stalin?) — to preserve Jewish cemeteries, with luminous Jewish Americans on board who would be entertained in Vilnius; arrangements with foreign controversial rabbis who in the past have taken “supervision payments” for supervising the desecration of parts of cemeteries they effectively “relinquish” in deals that are kept secret, rabbis so valuable to city-center real estate development that they are received by the nation’s prime minister. Add into the mix the foreign personalities who also serve on the Holocaust-revisionist “red-brown commission” and there is a veritable network of confusion to provide deep fog cover while building gets underway. To add insult to injury this time, the new convention center has been proclaimed a project of national importance and millions applied for from the European Union.
But how could any of this be happening if there was indeed a solemn agreement in 2009 that in return for the two new buildings remaining there would be no more desecration of the rest of the cemetery — in perpetuity?
The basis for the eventual agreement was in its broader contours taking shape in 2008. Here are some excerpts from the detailed report issued by the Lo Tishkach Foundation / European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative:
Meanwhile, in April 2008 the site of the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery (territory of 4.45 ha) was registered as a protected object of cultural heritage and the information on it can now be found in the Register of the Department of Cultural Heritage. […]
The inability of the Lithuanian state authorities to provide effective legal measures preventing further desecration of the cemetery by the development works has been seen as a lack of political willingness to protect the burial site. This argument is supported by the fact that only after years of international protests did the authorities agree to grant the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery official legal protection under the Law on the Protection of Immovable Cultural Heritage – at which point this instrument was not able to prevent the completed construction of the apartments on the site. […]
Until April 2008, the Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery did not appear on the Register. This was probably the legal ground upon which the government claimed it could not prevent development works. […]
From this it would follow that the status of the cemetery would be enshrined in law after April 2008, when building works would not occur.
A State Department Human Rights Report explains the subsequent understanding reached in 2009:
On October 20, the Vilnius city government announced that it had begun restoration of the historic Snipiskes Jewish cemetery site in central Vilnius, a source of concern since new construction began on and near the site in 2005. On October 25, under rabbinical supervision, two parking lots on the site were closed and covered with dirt to allow grass seed to be planted in the spring. In May 2009 the government unilaterally provided protection for nearly the entire cemetery site, and in August 2009 it agreed with the Jewish communities and the developer to preserve and protect it.
This is confirmed by all the other reports of the agreement, for example the report carried by the Israeli Association of Jews from Vilna and Vicinity in Israel:
But the final agreement grants full protection to the entire area of the largest of all the cemetery maps, and in addition recognizes a buffer-zone around the largest of these maps. No disturbance of the protected area is allowed at all, and even in the buffer-zone (which surrounds the cemetery) any excavation of any kind will require supervision under rabbinical guidance, as approved by the Lithuanian Government on 18th May 2009.
Of course the sports palace to become the basis of the planned convention center is not in any “buffer zone” but, as the United States Embassy reported in 2006,
The Sports Palace property indisputably rests in the middle of the former cemetery.
The same conclusion about the agreement that ended the last controversy emerges from the history published by the International Jewish Cemetery Project and dated September 2009:
The Palace of Concerts and Sports (Lithuanian: Koncertų ir sporto rūmai) was built in 1971 right in the middle of the former cemetery. In 2005, apartment and office buildings were built on top of another part of the site, incurring condemnation from international Jewish organizations and resulted in a motion being passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, condemning Lithuania for its “failure to protect the historic Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.” In August 2009 the Lithuanian government reached agreement with Jewish organizations on the boundaries of the cemetery and granted it protected status. Buildings already on the site will not be demolished.
The most revealing report of all, however, is the Wikileaks-published 27 May 2009 dispatch of the then United States ambassador to the State Department in Washington. Now in the public domain, it makes it clear that
the GOL [Government of Lithuania] on May 18  announced its plan (ref A) to prevent development on the cemetery site, but had not discussed that plan beforehand with the Jewish community.
The ambassador repeats that the agreement
prohibits any development on land identified as cemetery grounds
and goes on, to make clear that
the first, Zone A, would include the Mindaugas apartments and the 1971 Soviet-built Sports Palace, which nobody disputes was built in the cemetery.
Toward the end, he is happy to report that
the GOL [government of Lithuania] has taken a large step forward on this issue by unilaterally introducing its plan to prevent further development of Snipiskes cemetery.
But it is this report that contains a kind of “smoking gun” that explains a secret aspect of the agreement that is only now becoming clear. The particular controversial group of London-based rabbis from the CPJCE (Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe) who blessed the agreement were concurrently charging for future supervision for what the report calls the
costs of rabbinical supervision during investigative digging and for future beautification of the site.
What were they charging?
[…] estimated the cost of rabbinical supervision of digging for the entire project at 100,000 USD.
Far from being proud of offering this service, the whole thing would need to be kept rather secret because
the CPJCE appears to be striving for maximum flexibility — to the point of accepting exploratory digging in or near the cemetery, a stance that would infuriate some other Jewish groups should they learn of it.
This is elaborated elsewhere in the report:
The GOL had already issued press releases and given media interviews about the plan before the May 21 meeting. [The CPJCE] asked them to give the project a much lower profile, saying that publicity would limit the CPJCE’s flexibility to move forward.
Another US cable dated 5 August 2009 confirms that
The GOL in May took an important and welcome step in unilaterally protecting from development most of the site of the historic Jewish cemetery in the Snipiskes area of Vilnius. That cemetery was the main burial ground for Vilnius’s large Jewish community for several centuries. While applauding the GOL’s recent action, we continue to urge the government to work with international Jewish groups to ensure that the cemetery is protected and appropriately memorialized in compliance with Jewish law.
Then, on 26 August 2009 the US embassy described the (secret) agreement actually signed. The report includes these comments:
The conditions for protection of the cemetery and development of adjacent property have not been publicized, nor do the parties intend to publicize them. Those negotiated conditions allow for some digging in areas outside the cemetery border, with provisions that all digging stop immediately if graves are found outside what is believed to be the cemetery boundaries. Some Jewish groups, including some based in the United States, are vehemently opposed to any digging near the cemetery, saying that because there is no way to determine the actual borders of the burial ground, the prohibition on disturbing the ground should extend well beyond what are believed to be the borders. Under Jewish religious law, burial grounds and remains must not be disturbed and any digging in cemeteries is forbidden. The London-based CPJCE, led by Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, opposes digging in the actual cemetery, but is willing to allow careful excavation under rabbinical supervision in adjacent areas. Development will be allowed in areas in which no substantial remains are found. Rabbi Schlesinger signed the agreement, as did the chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Vilnius and the director of the GOL’s Department of Cultural Heritage.
[…] The actual borders of the cemetery cannot be definitively determined. Maps and records from different periods show different boundaries. When it acted to protect the cemetery in May (ref B), the GOL created an overlay of all the known maps and used the most expansive boundaries shown for any point to define the area to be protected. It created buffer zones adjacent to those areas. The government’s plan does not require removal of the Sports Palace, which is in the middle of the cemetery, and the two apartment buildings constructed within the past few years, which probably stand at least partly on cemetery land. The construction of those new apartments, the Mindaugas Buildings, first caught the attention of Jewish groups, and the embassy, in 2005. Since then, repeated efforts to resolve the issue have failed, and the Mindaugas buildings were completed despite GOL promises to halt their construction. The majority of the cemetery and adjacent land are owned by another developer, Ukio Bank Investment Group (UBIG), which has planned a much larger development anchored by a convention center that would be joined to the Sports Palace. UBIG has delayed its project pending resolution of the cemetery conflict (ref C), and is also giving up the use of some of its land. […]
COMMENT: Snipiskes Cemetery has been a focal point of this Embassy,s engagement with the GOL for three years and has prompted two Congressional resolutions. After several years during which Lithuania has been lambasted internationally for mishandling Jewish property restitution and trying to prosecute Jewish WWII partisans while ignoring evidence against Nazi collaborators, PM Kubilius, government, which took office in December, has shown by its actions on the Snipiskes Cemetery that it can do the right thing. If it follows through and takes action to ensure that the cemetery is fully protected and treated respectfully, the GOL might earn some goodwill, which it badly needs, from the international Jewish community. However, such action is not guaranteed. Opposition from Jewish groups who believe that actions allowed by this agreement will further defile the cemetery also could complicate matters. We will continue to monitor the situation and work with all parties involved for the best mutually acceptable solution. As all the signatories agreed today, this is only the beginning of the process. End comment.
The long-secret actual agreement (though excluding reference to what the London rabbis would be paid which is presumably in a separate contract) was finally leaked this month by a Lithuanian government official and published in Defending History.
In contrast to the public moral understanding, paraphrased in many ways to the ultimate effect that “those two buildings will stay put but the rest of the cemetery will be respected forever” (a formula that US embassy officials approximated in convincing Jewish groups from around the world to turn their attention elsewhere), the part of the actual secret agreement just released will be interpreted by some as a deceptive formula for dividing human remains into different categories of importance depending on their position (itself only known after desecration of their final resting place), and a deceptive formula for dividing up a single old cemetery into an array of “buffer zones” for the benefit of the millionnaire builders and their London rabbinical yea-sayers. Little surprise that all three Vilnius rabbis were excluded from the conversation.
Fast forward to 2015 and the eerie tale of high state intrigue around the cemetery. It is precisely the same group of CPJCE rabbis that surfaces once again in Vilnius, is welcomed by the prime minister, Algirdas Butkevičius, and his Jewish affairs maestro, Lina Saulėnaitė (report; image; video). And the rest, as they say, is — current events. If the fee for supervising some vague “exploration” and “beautification” was $100,000 for these rabbis in 2009, what is their current fee for approving and supervising a twenty-give million dollar convention center in 2015?
What has now gone wrong for the commercial and political plotters has been the local and international reaction of both moral and religious revulsion at a convention center being built on the old Jewish cemetery. The people of Vilnius and visitors alike deserve to be able to enjoy conventions and congresses without jumping up and down on thousands of graves. Ethical protests have come from a Vilnius born Holocaust survivor, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a protestant pastor, a Lithuanian philosopher and a French urban planner, among others.
On the religious front, protest has come from the chief rabbi of Lithuania, Rabbi Chaim Burshtein; the president of the World Gaon of Vilna Center and coeditor of 70 Gaon books, Rabbi Shmuel Jacob Feffer, who has been based in the city for a quarter century; the Vilna Gaon Synagogue in Tel Aviv (and its leaders who are direct descendants of the Gaon of Vilna); the top Lithuanian-tradition rabbis in Israel; and the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada.
A list of those, individuals and institutions, that have spoken out in opposition to a convention and entertainment center in the heart of the old cemetery, is available here. A list of institutions dedicated at least in part to Jewish cemetery preservation that have yet to speak up is available here. In all these cases, one or more principal leaders seems to have direct ties to Lithuanian government investments into Jewish affairs.
Moreover, there has in the intervening years been an enhanced appreciation of the rights of the deceased generally as a part of human rights, and the need for protecting minorities’ cemeteries where they are endangered. The cause achieved its most prominent landmark just under a year ago, when the United States Senate and House of Representatives both passed Public Law 112-154 that commits Congress to
protecting and preserving the heritage and sacred sites of national, religious, and ethnic groups, which includes cemeteries in the United States and abroad.
It goes on to specify that
cemeteries around the world have and continue to be defaced or destroyed as a direct result of their affiliation with a particular religious or spiritual group.
Indeed, it was Pastor Michael Maass who asked last spring, writing about the current Vilnius cemetery issue:
“Would these building projects be pursued if the cemeteries in question were the resting places of Catholics, Protestant Christians, or other non-Jewish people?”
Lithuanians and Jews alike are increasingly expressing their hope that the inspiring progress of recent years will not be thrown away, that another venue may now very rapidly be found for the convention center, one where all the people of the city, and the planet, can celebrate life together.