Image of the large new annex (right, in red—Californian redwood tone) to be built onto the Soviet-era sports palace in Vilnius, as visualized by the City Council and the government’s property bank, recently announced in Lithuanian and in English (English versions seem to omit images of the new structure).
VILNIUS—The recently approved “final plan” for the convention center complex intended for the historic heart of the Old Vilnius Jewish Cemetery (where a multitude of graves still lie, though the stones were all pilfered in Soviet times) features a prominent new red-colored annex on top of and surrounded by extant graves.
The announcements stress that the plans proceed by way of agreement with the highly controversial London-based “Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe” (known for short as “the CPJCE“) who have been accused of granting permissions to build on Jewish cemeteries in defiance of firm prohibitions by local and international rabbis alike. International opposition has included all the major Lithuanian tradition rabbinic leaders as well as a petition by Vilnius resident Ruta Bloshtein that has garnered some 51,500 signatures. Opponents ask that the convention center project be moved to another venue.
Observers are questioning the CPJCE’s acquiescence to the new structure being added to the convention center complex, in apparent direct contradiction to the group’s own assurances over the years.
In August 2015, an official CPJCE statement contained the assurance:
“At the first meeting of the representatives of the CPJCE together with the Prime Minister of Lithuania and his representatives, it was agreed that the Lithuanian government will neither touch nor move any earth that is suspect of containing portions of graves or bones. All such remains must remain as is. Thus, it is essential that all plans for reconstruction be confined to within the walls of the one building [i.e., the old Sports Palace building].”
An official CPJCE press release the same month confirmed the position:
“The CPJCE and Admas Kodesh have been heavily involved in achieving the initial successful agreement in 2009, which secured the comprehensive preservation of the remainder of the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery that resulted in scrapping the planned development on the cemetery grounds […] and ensuring that no digging or construction would take place within the boundaries of the cemetery.”
The same promise, in essence, was made by the then prime minister of Lithuania. The leading news portal Delfi.lt cited his statement on the subject in October 2015:
“Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius said that Vilnius Concerts and Sports Palace, a currently abandoned modernist structure in central Vilnius, will become a modern congress centre by 2017. According to the prime minister, the original structure of the building will not be altered and construction will not take place nearby due to disagreements over land with the Jewish community.”
Most recently, at a 22 January 2020 meeting between a group of Lithuanian-tradition rabbinic leaders in Israel, and the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel ( joined by a Christian Evangelical White House correspondent from Washington DC), HE Lina Antanavičienė, the ambassador, promised repeatedly that nothing more would be built on the cemetery grounds. See the video of the meeting, esp. at timecodes: 4:27, 9:19, 9:29, 11:02 and 11:20.