OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PETITION | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS | CEMETERIES | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE
VILNIUS—The following statement by Professor Shnayer (Sid) Leiman, appeared today in the respected American weekly Five Towns Jewish Times. It is a reaction to the comments by Lithuania’s top leaders, made after receiving a letter of protest from twelve United States congressmen concerning plans to site a projected new national convention center in the heart of the territory of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Šnipiškės district of modern Vilnius). International opposition to “the convention center in the old Jewish cemetery” continues to mount.
Shnayer (Sid) Leiman, professor of Jewish History and Literature at Brooklyn College in the City University of New York as well as at Yeshiva University, is a major world authority on Jewish Vilna who has spoken out on the history of the old Vilna cemetery as well as the current situation. His statement that follows, made on behalf of the Committee for the Preservation of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius (CPJCV) is reproduced in full from today’s Five Towns Jewish Times, which today also published a feature article on the fate of the old Vilna cemetery. The article includes details and photographs of July 2017 meetings between major New York Jewish scholars, rabbis and educators with the mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, who was visiting in town. The meetings were held courtesy of the Lithuanian Consulate in New York City.
If one reads the news report carefully, it turns out that the president of Lithuania hardly ignored the congressmen’s protest. Her Excellency Dalia Grybauskaite actually did the best she could under difficult circumstances. She responded with every lame excuse that she could muster, namely that the decision to construct a convention center atop the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius was a joint decision made by the Lithuanian government, the Lithuanian Jewish community, and a group of rabbis who call themselves the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe [DH section]. She forgot to mention that this tiny group of rabbis is from London, not Lithuania. She also forgot to mention that these three groups are hardly equals either in number or in power. In terms of the Lithuanian Jewish community, it is more properly referred to as the “official” Lithuanian Jewish community (LJC), a group carefully monitored by the Lithuanian government, and one that does not represent the full spectrum of Jewish voices in Lithuania. Indeed, the “official” Jewish community regularly suppresses the voices of Jewish dissidents who disagree with its policies.
It should be quite obvious to everyone that no Jewish community in history ever agreed to the construction of a convention center over its cemetery. A Jewish cemetery is sacred space; its graves may not be disturbed or desecrated in any manner. If the “official” Lithuanian Jewish community agreed to do this, it was for remuneration, or out of fear of antagonizing the Lithuanian government, and in violation of basic Jewish teaching. In terms of rabbis, no rabbi in all of Jewish history has ever permitted the construction of a convention center over a Jewish cemetery, and it is prohibited by Jewish law.
In fact, Lithuanian rabbis all over the world have protested against this project, a project initiated entirely by the Lithuanian government, and not by either the Jewish community in Lithuania or the London rabbis. Indeed, the rabbis serving in Lithuania in recent years, who have openly banned the project, have been fired, including a recent chief rabbi of Vilnius, after he publicly announced his opposition to the construction of the convention center over the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius.
Kudos to the congressional representatives who reminded the president of Lithuania of her obligation to affirm Lithuania’s commitment to basic human rights, and especially to the right of minorities to maintain the sanctity of their holy sites. The congressional representatives also reminded the president of Lithuania of House Concurrent Resolution 255, passed by the House of Representatives in 2008, which states that the continued desecration of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius “is an affront to the international Jewish community, the American people, and everyone who values religious freedom and ethnic diversity around the world.”
As firm admirers of Lithuania, we genuinely hope that the Lithuanian government will seek a change of venue for the convention center project, one that will not involve the desecration of a Jewish historical site some 500 years old, one of the few remaining Jewish sites in Vilnius to have survived the Holocaust.
We thank you for your enthusiastic support of this noble endeavor.