OPINION | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | INTERNATIONAL PETITION | HUMAN RIGHTS
by Julius Norwilla
The Lithuanian state budget for 2021 is torn between the need to increase spending on vital areas during a time of significantly less income. For the pandemic year of 2021, the postponement of some half a million euros toward initial stages of the (shameful) convention center project in the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery has not, in fact, been a big issue. Nor is it the great “victory” for our movement to save the cemetery that it has been trumped up to be. Half a million euros is about one percent of the total real budget. First, the convention center (Sports Palace restoration) project has been classified as of national significance. Second, there has been no decision of any kind to move the convention center to a new morally clean venue, away from the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, as per the call of some 54,000 people in Ruta Bloshtein’s petition.
It seems to me that there has simply been a postponement until the pandemic is under control, which everyone hopes, of course, will be sooner rather than later.
In December of 2020, when the newly elected Lithuanian Parliament and the newly formed Conservative Homeland Union government got organized and going, they understandably decided to apply even more restrictions to fight the pandemic and save lives at the cost of lessening the revenues; “Elementary, Watson.” When I published my 30 October 2020 article in Defending History, calling on people to approach the Parliament of Lithuania, which led colleagues to embark on the recent Seimas campaign, my initial intention was to raise the awareness of the newly elected parliamentarians and freshly appointed State ministers about a seemingly tiny line in the annual State budget what might otherwise go unnoticed among hundreds of lines and be voted on as part of the bulk.
The intention was to open a dialogue on integrity with officials about the significance of the old Jewish cemetery, one that might lead to a change of heart toward a decision to move the convention center project to another site. But it turned out that the well-intentioned bombardment of parliamentarians and officials with emails and phone calls to cancel funding for the “Convention Center in the old Jewish cemetery project” increasingly looked like an “arm twisting” tactic. Acting this way might succeed in the short term. In the long term, in my humble opinion, Jewish causes would pay a big price for this supposed “major success story.”
As I see it now, there are two options:
(1) In response to the international campaign and its many separate little “lanes,” the Government could be pressured into renouncing the convention center in the old Jewish cemetery. The renunciation, or even just a postponement, would have been achieved during the dire economic situation of the pandemic by the perceived arm twisting. My fear is that this very temporary and very illusory victory would cost Jews much more than the old cemetery. Under a professionally organized slick public relations campaign to make the general public unhappy over the delay in erecting the convention center there will be no sincere turn of sentiment against wild parties after every pop star concert, with unbridled cheering and trampling on the top of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery which is of fifteenth century vintage. Indirectly, with the help of media tricks, it is very easy to reignite the latent (and not so latent) antisemitic prejudices and galvanize the general public against “the Jews” for their supposed anti-Lithuania activities (of course, many state-connected and -sponsored local institutions supposedly dedicated to “Jewish heritage” which acquiesce to the worst, are considered “anti-Lithuanian,” but that is a topic for another day).
(2) In spite of the dire economic situation, the government might well stay anyway behind their initial project of funding the convention center project slated for the heart of the Old Jewish Cemetery. The confrontation with the decision makers would only trigger more action against the international pressure which has to date been regarded as very manageable (what with sellouts in London and even a U.S. taxpayer funded commission in Washington DC that is supposed to work to preserve endangered cemeteries and has been doing the opposite by colluding time and again with the destroyers). The project is already approved and signed by two Jewish entities, the state-sponsored Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) and, indeed the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE), the first being a supposedly representative organization, the second – a supposed international experts’ and negotiating organization with a huge portfolio. Their “preservation” project includes a couple of sham signs and monuments to memorialize the Jewish cemetery (not the thousands of burials beneath the ground all over the site). Powerful antisemitic elements in media, politics and the academic would go on to flaunt the funding for convention center project in the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery as a grand victory against what is widely known in the sick antisemitic imagination as a Jewish anti-Lithuania conspiracy, heaven help us all.
Either way, I fear that the arm-twisting tactics may be making the situation worse, not better. Take an analogy from another major Jewish issue: the public-space glorification in central Vilnius and at locations around the country of Jonas Noreika, the notorious Hitlerite and Holocaust collaborator. Then think of Stanislovas Tomas’s dramatic, recorded online smashing of the central Vilnius Noreika plaque back on 8 April 2019. For a week or so we had some pleasure from the spectacular action. But on the tenth day after the action, Vilnius city municipality placed the restored plaque back. In July, the Vilnius municipality had the plaque removed in the dead of night, providing more illusory pleasure to those opposed to the glorification of Nazi collaborators. Then, just when everyone was moving on to other issues, on 5 September 2019, a much bigger and brighter and altogether more impressive Noreika plaque was firmly fixed high on the wall. The assembled crowd was ecstatic when the Catholic bishop (!) graciously came to honor fixing the plaque to the Holocaust collaborator with a special blessing. The previously “brave city mayor” now kept his silence, and city hall responded to queries from foreign journalists with an explanation that it would do no more. The new plaque is bigger and brighter, with candle lights and a bouquet of flowers beneath being regularly replaced with fresh ones, thus advancing the site to an idol shrine, more than ever before.
“One more victory like that and we’re sunk for good!”
Then there was the legal case brought by a famous South African born financial and wealth adviser in California. The impact on the general public by the legal case raised against the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center has been, so far, in its effects, sadly parallel to that hammer action. After the court ruling of 27 of March 2019, there was no meaningful feedback and engaging dialogue on Lithuanian nationalists’ collaboration with Nazism during the Holocaust.
The legal case against the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center aimed indirectly for a change of the director, who used to position herself as a mere bureaucrat following policies imposed on the Center by the power bosses at the higher levels. That wish came true. In June 2020, the new director was appointed. In August, to surprise of academia and to protest of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, a key job of the vice-director of the Centre was offered to an outspoken, blatant and well-connected Lithuanian ultranationalist.
These two actions against glorification of Lithuanian Nazi collaborators might look brave, but after deeper scrutiny of their impact on the general public both of them continue to backfire with dire consequences in terms of the situation on the ground. The jubilation of the city-center crowds at two nationalist rallies to honor J. Noreika a few months later, on 7 July and 5 Sept.2019 were rather a signal of reawakened ultranationalism and antisemitic and public opinion turning further in favor of the heroization of Holocaust perpetrators. The discourse in the air was and is along the lines of “We will teach these outsiders and enemies of our country to tell us who our heroes are!” Leaders of NATO, the European Union, the United States, and even Israel have little or no inclination to stand up for the truth of history to East European ultranationalists who wield so much power in regional governments.
Reflecting on these two “current events,” the triumphant headlines in our own modest media outlets may look valiant, but they are to say the very least — premature. Stretching out beyond this new fiscal year of this measly temporary cancelation or postponement of some 1% of the convention center budget safely leaves the entire funding package intact for the moment. When the pandemic’s crisis stage will pass, the moment will be ripe for that or even greater funding to be likely on the table, while an array of tricks and ruses, carrots and sticks, pretenses at negotiations and the like come into play. In reality, the in-your-face denunciations of a wide social media crowd’s unbridled and unedited denunciations and insults will lead to sophisticated countermeasures, perhaps with the usual array of photo-ops, medals, junkets and gold coins to “honor the Jews” — whether the local quislings or the grand American Jewish grandees who love the Vilnius banquets and photo-ops — in a truly Boratian spirit.
What looks today like a major breakthrough to ensure proper protection of the buried, could easily turn into another major humiliating failure for the simplest of ethical stances, that the buried be left in peace even when they are of a minority and not the majority ethnic or religious grouping of the ultranationalists’ image of citizenship.
To avoid triggering resentment among Lithuanian decision makers and making things for Jewish causes worse in the long term, the collective effort to ensure proper protection of all those buried in the Vilnius cemetery needs more professionalism, forethought, and coordination. That implies competence for construction of a well-balanced lobby to interact successfully with officialdom and painstaking advocacy work with the general public and a variety of influential persons and bodies.
Frankly speaking, that implies also full awareness about Lithuanian motivations in classifying the dilapidated Soviet era Sport palace dump as a “national heritage monument” slated for vastly overpriced (corruption laden?) renovation. What is of key importance for Lithuania, the painstaking dialogue in Vilnius cannot be relegated as an auxiliary “fun and protest” activity in service of rampant social media style up-front denunciations.
The backlash to the triumphant posts in our various mini-media outlets about cancelation of funding for the convention center project in the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery will be abused, I fear, to further antagonize the general public against the “bad” (i.e. honest) Jews from the local equivalent of Q-Anon quacks for whom the poisonous claptrap of an anti-Lithuanian Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy lurks on all sides. Therefore, the professionalized dialogue of protest with Lithuanian officials as well as with the general public to ensure proper protection of the Jewish buried in Vilnius cannot be regarded as a luxury but as a sine qua non. To change their mind, Lithuanian decision makers need a list of good reasons and substantial general public support to ensure protection for the buried.
The empty Orwellian slogan about “protecting” the cemetery is politically a popular issue. It is explicitly stated on the website of the Property Bank in the communique about the agreement signed by the Property bank (on behalf of Lithuanian Government), CPJCE and Lithuanian Jewish Community. But something is very wrong: the text and details of the agreement are not available. In the visualization of the project, one can see just one more cheap, pathetic “commemorative sign” in the vicinity of the expanded Sports Palace territory that in reality grows to encompass ever more meters and corners of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery. The slogan about protecting the cemetery by making a commemorative sign and suspicious references to an undisclosed document is straightforward trickery of the worst kind.
The State Property Bank (Turto Bankas) wants us to agree to accept and cheer the restoration with expansion of the Sport palace as being authorized by two Jewish organizations. In reality Agreement is an approval achieved by the ample power, the government and its elements tied to building-industry corruption or to antisemitic disgust at the idea of there being a restored Jewish cemetery in central Vilnius. During the Holocaust, the Jews were forced to private police and Judenrat ghetto officials. Nowadays, the collaborators are voluntary, driven by greed for profit or state honors and junkets.
The Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery can only be saved by removal of the now-dangerous ruin of the Soviet monstrosity Sports Palace building. It is a cardinal point in protecting the burials and saving the cemetery as a whole. Activities coming from the Lithuanian, i.e., non-Jewish side need to be more specific and focus mainly on that. Yeas, the idea about taking the Sport palace down would be met with objections from various sides, but we must stand up to them. The Jewish cemetery must be restored. The Soviet monstrosity must come down. Period.
The good news is that after the recent removal from this year’s budget of the start-up funding for the sickening “convention center in the Jewish cemetery” project, there is now a little more time. Let us use it with wisdom, and remember the need for professionalism in constructing a united, coordinated, dignified international coalition.
The details of the cemetery’s restoration and maintenance — once the convention center is relocated — will be the purview of the international Jewish Litvak-led authorities to whom rightful ownership of the cemetery must be restored.
POSTCRIPT: The events around last week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day offered some more powerful proof for all the above. From Western ambassadors in Vilnius to the head of the American government’s USCPAHA (the Orwellian commission that helps destroy Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe while jetting around the world on taxpayer money to “preserve” them), a bunch of “important people” who do not generally speak out with any noticeable courage or conviction about either the cemetery or the state-sponsored glorification of Nazi war criminals suddenly all jumped at an unknown parliamentarian who openly expressed his racist, Holocaust-revisionist, far right views, making great hay over the scalp of a small-fry. See DH’s survey of the week that followed. They got their press releases and press mentions. And what next? So where’s that cup of strong coffee?