Vilnius City Council Session of 8 July 2020: A Swift, Surgical Attack on the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery


by Julius Norwilla

The author is chairperson of the Vilnius Committee for Preservation of Piramont (Šnipiškės) Cemetery. A selection of his English articles is available here.

The triumphant new visualization of national convention center and “red annex” in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, produced at last week’s meeting of Vilnius City Council. Omitted at left: the  two “green buildings” constructed on the cemetery in 2005-2008. The earth and bones removed have never been made accessible. 

On the 8th of July, Vilnius City Council approved the Joint Activity (Partnership) Agreement Between Vilnius City Municipality Administration and State Enterprise Property Bank. The session is available online. The deliberations on the Jewish cemetery are at timecode 19:50 through to 26:43. The new agreement has been heralded, without mention of ongoing opposition, in triumphant mainstream media reports in Lithuanian and English.

The visualizations published show a brand new Caliornia-redoowd colored annex to be built on to the extant Soviet-era derelict former Sports Palace. This comes as a shock to many, as this past January, Lithuania’s ambassador to Israel, HE Lina Antanavičienė, repeatedly promised a group of top Litvak rabbis, on video, that nothing would ever be built outside the confines of the existing building.

One council member, Ms. Evelina Dobrovolska, a lawyer working with the European Foundation for Human Rights, which is (was?) pursuing the preventive case in the courts against restoration of the Sport Palace in the middle of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in Šnipiškės), left the meeting for that part of the session, as is the custom for those City Council members whose personal commitments may be seen to be a conflict of interest. But that also meant that there was nobody on hand to effectively offer the Second Opinion (including moral and reputational issues, information on the ongoing court case via a European human rights organization, the international petition, and the scope of opposition).

The Joint Activity (Partnership) Agreement (hereinafter: the partnership agreement) between the Vilnius municipality represented by the City Council and the Property Bank (Turto Bankas) was presented by the municipal staff member responsible for urban planning.

During the months of quarantine and lockdown, the municipality’s staff was apparently hard at work drafting the agreement aiming to divide control over the territory of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery and by this to push ahead the restoration and expansion of the dilapidated Soviet edifice in the center of the Jewish cemetery. What about the special status of the old cemetery site and protection of the burials? The Lithuanian euphemism for downplaying the issue of all the buried people still there is to “brush it up” (in Lithuanian sutvarkyti). In the vision of brush-up presented, there is no sign referring to all the extent burials right beneath the grass all over the territory, and not one visible sign of a matséyve (gravestone) or an óyhel (memorial houselet).

The reconstruction and conversion of the Soviet-era monstrosity into the national convention center is a project of Turto Bankas. To save money for the Vilnius City budget, one council member suggested turning over the entire territory to Turto Bankas. The cost of brush-up of the cemetery around the dilapidated Sport Palace project is 3.5 million euros, where Vilnius City would have to come up with around two-thirds of that expenditure. The overall budget of the project is around ten times more, in other words in the vicinity of 30 million euros.

In his reply to the discussions, the chairman of the session, Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, explains that it is perfectly fine for the Vilnius municipality to take care of a part of the presently unprotected territory of the Jewish cemetery, the territory that is under protection by law as “a site of cultural heritage.” The proposed “partnership agreement” with the Property Bank is portrayed by him as a true success and a step forward to move the project of the Convention Center out of its dead end, where it has been stalled for two years, he reports, to no avail, with or without reason by the national government. Then the mayor explains that would the convention center have already been built, it would not have been used to its full capacity, a reference to the deficit caused to all such entertainment centers by the pandemic and lockdown for four months. To have the national convention center open two years from now, in 2023, is for him absolutely desirable.

The video of the Vilnius City Council meeting, from which the member tied to the class action court case on behalf of the buried and their descendants removed herself, shows that not one single word was said about the 51,421 people who have by today signed Ruta Bloshtein’s petition. Not a word about the opposition of the Vilnius Jewish Community, or about the consensus of Lithuanian origin rabbis internationally.

Not a word about the potential damage to Vilnius’s standing in the world resulting from people of conscience of all religions and none refusing to enter a building in the middle of a cemetery, one whose descendants are not onsite to speak up because they perished in the Holocaust.

Prior to the plenary session, the partnership agreement was dealt with in “urgent mode” only to be approved by three Council committees. At the plenary meeting on July 8th, the motion for the partnership agreement with an expenditure of 3.5 million euros was dealt with in less than six minutes and was approved by consensus, i.e. without individual councilors having to cast their votes!

What kind of information and documents have been shared among members of the City Council? Have they as a group intelligently reflected on the petitions and the vast amount of the documents calling for the convention center project to be moved away from the old Jewish cemetery? If so, then to no avail. No one expressed any worries about making an entertainment center surrounded by graves, downplaying the significance of the international and Jewish opposition to their policy of greed and opulence for the territory of the cemetery.

On the municipal website one can see the attached main documents and three technical maps of the site, where the cemetery borders are moved from where they used to be. For example, Olimpiečių Street and the territory between the street and the river are now placed outside the historical cemetery borders. It seems that city urban planning experts just change and squeeze the cemetery’s measurements without even thinking to consult with the external experts. The partnership agreement over this overly sensitive issue was dealt with in the Council in urgency mode, what could be interpreted as a partisan way to “fix everything rapidly before anyone notices that anything has happened.”

At the July 8th plenary session, when dealing with the partnership agreement, some usually highly eloquent councilors kept a strict silence. That is appalling, alarming and totally irresponsible. An anachronistic and overpriced project exposing thousands of guests to infection and possibly death is being approved in less than six minutes after four months of the national lockdown against the covid-19 pandemic! As if the council members do not know that the pandemic is far from over, that the world hasn’t yet come through the first wave, that we still don’t know enough about the covid-19 virus. That the vaccine against it may not come, as it didn’t came against HIV, that there might be other deadly airborne viruses against which the city should be aware and prepared. As if the council members don’t know that pandemic fuels poverty in Vilnius. This dangerous Soviet building is the last thing our city needs.

During the lockdown months from mid-March until June, all kinds of local and international meetings and conferences quickly moved to zoom. In a post pandemic world, albeit the pandemic is far from over, the initial concept of making money through running the convention center now seems as if it is from some alluvial or prehistoric period of human civilization. Worldwide we have already learned how to use the on-line applications for video calls and for conferences and there will be no way back. As conferences increasingly will be taking place online, the spacious edifice (supplemented by a big annex built right on top of the city’s Jewish bones) might well stay empty. Who will take on the costs of the maintenance? Will it be shifted, as usual, onto the shoulders of taxpayers?

In the foreseeable future, to generate income just to cover the maintenance costs by filling the bars and restaurants, the convention center would be turned into a place for the most extravagant and noisy celebrations. As the building is right in the middle of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, that would be a place of grotesque danse macabre what would bring only shame to the city of Vilnius and the Republic of Lithuania!

What we need is an honest public discussion (not six minutes that nobody on the outside even knew about) about what kind of building and where in Vilnius it could be located. The old Jewish cemetery is the last appropriate place for grotesque celebration parties.

In any case, for 30 million euros Lithuania could build three or four state of the art convention centers that would be sparkling new, morally clean, and a huge credit to our new Lithuania.

This entry was posted in Cemeteries and Mass Graves, Human Rights, Julius Norwilla, Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, News & Views, Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in Šnipiškės / Shnípishok), Politics of Memory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
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