The Intensified Threat to Jewish Cemeteries


by Bernard Fryshman

Prof. Bernard Fryshman

Dr. Bernard Fryshman, Professor of Physics at the New York Institute of Technology, is Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS), a US Department of Education recognized accreditation commission which enabled accreditation of major Lithuanian-origin yeshivas in the United States as institutions of higher academic learning. His writings were instrumental in enabling the  Protect Cemeteries Act passed by the United States Congress and signed into law in 2014.

I. A Brief Introduction

For several decades, an issue of deep concern for the Jewish People has been the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Europe. The situation has recently worsened. In Ukraine sections of the Lemberg (today, Lviv) cemetery plots were reportedly sold for development and in Lithuania, a recent action took place with respect to the Shnípishok cemetery in Vilnius which, by extension, puts every Jewish cemetery at risk.

Shnípishok is where the Vilna Gaon was once buried and where the Chayei Adam and the Be’er HaGolah, the family of the Gra and thousands of other Jews lay buried to this very day. The cemetery was owned by the Jewish kehillah of Vilnius and heroic efforts were made by Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski zt”l prior to the war to preserve the cemetery and raise funds for its maintenance. At no time was there a transfer of cemetery ownership to any entity — not to the Nazis, not to the Communists, and not to Lithuania when it became free of Soviet occupation in 1991.

In 1971, the Soviets erected a Sports Palace in the very heart of this cemetery. Thirty five years later, this building had become derelict. In 2015, the Lithuanian government announced its intention to renovate the building and convert it to a “Convention Center and Concert Hall.” Fierce opposition from Jews and Jewish groups worldwide convinced the Lithuanian government to abandon its plans.

II. Lithuania Creates a Commission and Adds a Condition

In early 2023 the Lithuanian government created a Commission whose members were charged with discussing appropriate uses for the abandoned Sports Palace. The Commission was peopled by a majority of artists, public officials and others, as well as a minority of six Orthodox Jewish leaders, three of whom represented very important Torah organizations.

This Commission was organized with the understanding that the Sports Palace must remain intact. As Lithuanian Prime Minister Šimonytė, the convener, wrote: “The Palace was designated as a cultural heritage site in 2006 and cannot be demolished.” Inadvertently, then, the Orthodox groups represented on the Commission were seen as approving the building’s remaining on the cemetery grounds.

III. The Situation has Become Markedly Worse

The Commission sent a formal Proposal to the Government of Lithuania which provides among others that “The grounds must be developed and maintained in accordance with the terms of the 2009 agreement.” The 2009 Agreement in turn prohibits

[…] earth-moving works in functional zones and C of the buffer zone of the Cemetery, unless it is related to the maintenance of existing engineering structures (underground services and roads) and/or the maintenance of Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace. In order to carry out earth moving works related to the maintenance of the said buildings,consent must be obtained from the Jewish Community of Lithuania and a minimum amount of work shall be carried out. All earth-moving work must be carried out under the supervision of an archaeologist and designated representative of the Jewish Community of Lithuania (all other essential requirements are set out in the Agreement).

So while there is language which calls for the prevention of “any further human desecration,” the document presented to the Lithuanian Government enables the further despoilment and desecration of one of our most sacred sites!

Desecration and Profanation

The very presence of the monstrous Sports Palace desecrates it. There is not a single such sacred site in the world with such a structure desecrating it, nor is there a faith whose adherents would acquiesce to the secular and inappropriate activities planned for this cemetery.

Excavation and Despoilment

The Sports Palace was built by the Soviets in 1971. Converting this building to standards expected by sophisticated and exacting twenty first century visitors will require significant excavation in the cemetery for new utilities, sewers, and other features of a modern site attracting thousands of people at a time. Parking, food and other services as well as ongoing maintenance will further exacerbate the harm.

IV. Implications for the Shnípishok Jewish Cemetery

A cemetery where the Chaye Odom, the Be’er HaGolah, the family of the GR”A and thousands of other Jews are buried is destined to remain unredeemed, open to continued incursion and sacrilege. Instead of a restored Vilnius Jewish cemetery becoming a sacred destination visited by thousands from around the world, it will remain captive to the Lithuanian authorities who illegally took it from the Jewish people.

V. Implications for All Jewish Cemeteries: A Precedent is Set

The three major Orthodox Jewish organizations whose representatives signed on to the Commissions’ Resolution are probably the most important Torah groups in the world. Orthodox Jewry could be seen as approving the (i) the Sports Palace remaining intact and standing in the cemetery and (ii) excavation in one of our holiest cemeteries.

VI. A Perilous Precedent

At one time, Jewish cemeteries were located far from centers of population. No longer. The expansion of cities has made cemetery land among the most desirable in the world. Developers eye this land avidly — especially where monuments and gravestones have been removed. Local governments are always anxious for land to serve as parks, as shelters, as locations for social welfare as well as economic welfare.

The above noted approvals by representatives of the three major Orthodox Jewish groups could (r”l) be seized upon as a precedent by municipalities and developers. In a word, every Jewish cemetery is now at risk.

VII. Dispelling the Precedent

It will not be simple. The three organizations in question possess immense moral leadership and are guided by halachic leaders of unquestioned authority. Dispelling the precedent that was set will not happen unless the voice of Torah leadership is heard, loud and unequivocally on the matter.



This entry was posted in 2023-2024 'Working Group' on the Future of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, Cemeteries and Mass Graves, Christian-Jewish Issues, Conference of European Rabbis (CER), Human Rights, Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, News & Views, Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in Šnipiškės / Shnípishok), Opinion, Professor Bernard Fryshman, Vilnius and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
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