LONDON—Reliable sources in London reported this morning that solicitors are being instructed by a group of international clients whose ancestors lie buried in the old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt, in today’s Snipiskes district of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. For years, the Lithuanian government’s justification for planning to situate in the cemetery its new national convention project, confirmed on numerous occasions in writing, is the “permission of the CPJCE in London,” a group of renegade rabbis who have ignored the pleas of all other rabbinical groups, and all major Litvak (Lithuanian origin) rabbis internationally, to give “permission” for the convention center in the heart of the cemetery. When Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, the then chief rabbi of Lithuania dared speak up in opposition, in 2015, he was rapidly dismissed. In late 2016, Rabbis Kalev Krelin and Sholom-Ber Krinsky were among the first to sign the international petition (see also Rabbi Krinsky’s blog and DH section). Rabbi S. J. Feffer, author of dozens of learned books on the Gaon of Vilna, based in the city for a quarter century and head of its Litvak rabbinic authority, published a powerful ruling in 2017.
As 2017 gets underway, Defending History is proud to honor three Vilnius personalities, this year all from its Orthodox Jewish community, who have stood up for cherished principles against powerful forces. In all cases, the principles defended pertain also to human rights more generally. Their courage and determination can serve as an example to all who defend human rights and history even when it is inconvenient and draws the ire of power-invested institutions that are often associated with state-supported entities.
The three honorees are, in alphabetical order, Ruta Bloshtein, Rabbi Kalev Krelin, and Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky. On Facebook. See from previous years the Prophet Amos Human Rights Awards and the 2014 Person of the Year.
NEW YORK—The Brooklyn based office of the international NGO Asra Kadisha that works to preserve Jewish cemeteries worldwide from desecration has released the following statement to coincide with the official visit to Israel of Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Titled “World Jewry Hopes that Lithuanian President’s Visit to Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem will Result in Government’s Cancellation of Development Plans on Vilnius Cemetery,” it calls on the president to cancel the mass desecration of the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Lithuanian capital by a convention center where crowds would cheer, sing and drink surrounded by many thousands of Jewish graves. The old cemetery is in the Šnipiškės (Shnipishok) district, and is known in Vilna Yiddish culture as Piramónt. The Asra Kadisha statement reads as follows:
NEW YORK—Rabbi Lazar Stern, New York area chairman of the international religious Asra Kadisha organization that calls for preservation of threatened Jewish cemeteries, issued a statement today concerning the latest prima facie instance of desecration of the final resting place of dead Jewish citizens of Lithuania. This time the fracas concerns a Holocaust-era mass grave site in Šiauliai (Shavl), in northwestern Lithuania. Published in a number of media outlets, including Baltic News Service (BNS), News.lt, Gnome.es, the Asra Kadisha statement calls for an immediate halt to the ongoing excavations. These works rapidly resulted in lurid pictures of human remains and personal possessions (including shoes) with which these people were murdered, being splashed over a number of Lithuanian online publications, including 15min.lt; Etaplius.lt; Skrastas.lt; Snaujienos.lt. Asra Kadisha is Aramaic for “Holy Place” and refers here to the sanctity of human burial grounds.
UPDATE OF 16 JULY:
VILNIUS—Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, chief rabbi of Lithuania (and of Vilnius) today issued a heartfelt appeal to both national government authorities, and to the municipal leadership of Šiauliai (known in Jewish history as Shavl), to call an immediate halt to the excavation of hundreds of victims’ remains from a Holocaust-era mass grave site uncovered during a highway construction project.
The discovery was widely reported in the Lithuanian and regional media, including the English-language Lithuania Tribune (English Delfi.lt). Various Lithuanian media outlets have reveled in publishing photos of skulls, bones and other remains from the mass grave being dismantled, sometimes including shoes and clothing (among others: 15min.lt; Etaplius.lt; Skrastas.lt; Snaujienos.lt).
The BNS (Baltic News Service) report quotes the official responsible archaeologist, Audronė Šapaitė on the decision reached (apparently without consultation with Jewish religious authorities): “It’s been decided to excavate the remains, do anthropological tests and then rebury them and also mark this place.”
UPDATE OF 16 JULY:
VILNIUS—According to Lithuanian media sources, including the highly respected English-language Lithuania Tribune (now merged with Delfi.lt), the government, working in concert with property developers, plans to declare the controversial project of a huge convention and entertainment center in the heart of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery site as a “project of national importance.” The move enables an application to the European Union for a grant of 13 million euros (14.64 million US dollars at current rates) as part of a grand-total (for now) of 22.8 million euros (25.67 million US dollars) for the new complex. The nation’s prime minister has told Lithuanian media that “after the modern congress center is completed, private investors could build a hotel, parking lots and other infrastructure,” eliciting fears that all of the old Jewish cemetery is becoming a cash cow slated for developers for years to come. The Lithuania Tribune / Delfi.lt report concludes with an estimate of “110 million euros in economic and social benefits over 15 years” in addition to “600,000 foreign tourists and 2.2 million local tourists to Vilnius over that time period, with their spending estimated at 183 million and 60 million euros, respectively,” in other words, with profits from the old Jewish cemetery exceeding the equivalent of 250 million dollars, apart from the millions to be had from the building projects per se. Some estimates are provided in Baltic Course.
VILNIUS—The website of the Reformed Evangelical Church services this weekend advertised today’s Sunday service with a previously-made photo of pastors and worshippers posing for a photograph with their shoes pressing into the pilfered Jewish gravestones, some of which still have visible writing, of which the steps to the church are made. The church has still issued no public statement on its retention of the Soviet-era made-of-pilfered-Jewish-gravestones steps even after its much-celebrated reconstruction and restoration less than a decade ago.