OPINION | HUMAN RIGHTS | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH ISSUES | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER
by Andrius Kulikauskas
After several phone calls, I learned that First Deputy Chancellor of the Government of Lithuania, Rolandas Kriščiūnas, is responsible for organizing the Commission which will develop the vision for the future of the Vilnius Sports and Concert Palace and the Jewish cemetery at Piramont (Šnipiškės) which this building desecrates. On April 6, 2023, I wrote him with my concerns that the Commission include some of the local Litvaks who had opposed the conversion of this building into a congress center and who now oppose its conversion into a Jewish memorial or museum.
I have yet to receive a reply.
Here is my letter, translated from Lithuanian into English:
Dear First Deputy Chancellor of the Government Rolandas Kriščiūnas,
I read in the press and heard from Lina Saulėnaitė-Višinskienė, an employee of the International Relations and European Union Group of the Office of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, that a “special commission of Lithuanian and world scientists, rabbis, historians, public figures” is being formed to prepare the concept of a place of memory so that the Vilnius Sports Palace “could become a museum or memorial dedicated to the history of Lithuanian Jews”.
Who is in charge of the formation of this commission? Who can I talk to about this? As far as I understood from Lina Saulėnaitė-Višinskienė, you are the person responsible for this commission, so I am writing to you.
I, a Lithuanian, am interested in expressing to our state in a benevolent way what Litvaks desire, those who may end up heard only by God. After all, there are Litvaks, as well as their Lithuanian friends, for whom the Vilnius Sports Palace is completely incompatible with the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, which the Soviets desecrated with this palace. There are Litvaks who will pray as long as the palace stands, until we dismantle it, until the palace itself collapses.
Laima Kalinauskienė, head of the State Assets Management Policy Department of the State Assets Management Department of the Ministry of Finance, supervises the Vilnius Sports Palace as an Important State Project, as this project is taken care of by Turto Bankas, which is under the Ministry of Finance. She explained to me that this Important State Project, to install a congress hall at the Vilnius Sports Palace, is being reassessed for risk factors. And the first risk factor is that the palace is built in the Vilnius Jewish cemetery.
However, I would say, there is a much more important risk factor. Maybe there is a God who loves us all, who will listen to the Litvaks praying to Him to destroy the Vilnius sports palace built in a holy place? I think if it wasn’t for God, apartments would have been built on this place a long time ago. I imagine that God made sure that the Vilnius Sports Palace was included in the Registry of Cultural Heritage, so that it was temporarily preserved. He made sure of the bankruptcy of UAB “Ūkio bankos investicinė grupė”. He made sure the termination of the contractor’s tender due to possible corruption. He made sure that 53,000 people sign a petition not to install a congress hall in the Vilnius Sports Palace, that members of the “Gerbkime kapines” (Respect Cemeteries) society would protest the idea every month, and that a hundred luminaries write letters, first to the Seimas Budget Committee, then to the Speaker of the Seimas, and finally to the Prime Minister. He made sure that the Prime Minister resolved to remove the funding.
The Prime Minister’s idea to install a Jewish museum and memorial in the Vilnius Sports Palace is understandable in a political sense. She thereby acknowledged the most important thing, that this building cannot be separated from the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, which it desecrated. However, it remains to take a consistent and correct final step, that this building cannot exist at all.
I propose, in the name of the harmony of Lithuanians and Litvaks, in the name of the appeasement of our God, that the Head of the Litvak nation, the Heart of the nation, the Conscience of the nation, the Voice of the nation, the Spirit of the nation, the Hands of the nation, the Feet of the nation and not only the Seat of the nation should participate in the commission discussing the fate of this holy place. The commission should include:
* A representative of the Vilnius Jewish Community. After all, the Soviets took the cemetery from the Vilnius Jewish Community.
* A religious believer from among Vilnius Jews who would help to understand the attitude of an ordinary person as to the sanctity of this place.
* A rabbi from among those who have actually served the Jews of Vilnius as resident rabbi.
* A member of the “Gerbkime kapines” society.
* An expert on the history of the Vilnius Jewish cemetery.
* A representative of the Litvak diaspora who defended the Vilnius Jewish cemetery.
If two or three such defenders of the Vilnius Jewish Cemetery were to participate in the commission, I think the members of the commission would be able to appreciate and understand the sanctity of the Vilnius Jewish Cemetery, they would be able to calm the defenders of the Vilnius Jewish Cemetery and the God who listens to them.
I am worried that there will not be a single defender of the Vilnius Jewish cemetery in the commission, who urged to abandon this Important State Project to install a congress hall in the Vilnius Sports Palace. I can imagine that in the commission there will be those Litvaks who wrongly claimed that Lithuanians are insensitive, that it is impossible to dissuade them from this shameful idea, and on the basis of this assertion included non-Lithuanian rabbis who would supervise the implementation of this shameful idea, and for such work would furthermore receive a fee from the Lithuanians. All I do know is that the defenders of the Vilnius Jewish cemetery have not been contacted, and the commission is being formed secretly and will be announced only after its formation. Wouldn’t it be wise to discuss the formation of the commission with the defenders of the Vilnius Jewish cemetery?
The Seat of the Litvak nation, along with its Fat and Hair, is an important and large part of the nation, but it cannot rise by its own power. It can only lead downwards. It is understood that the Seat participates where it is possible to sit down. Will all the chairs go to Her and Her subordinates and admirers?
That downward path, which is not opposed, leads to the revival of the Vilnius Sports Palace as a Jewish museum and memorial. This is a misunderstanding. The Temple of Soviet Culture, built as a hockey arena, will be presented as the sum of Jewish culture. Yet these are completely unrelated things. The conclusion of such a strange equation is that “Bolshevism and the Jews are one and the same inseparable thing” because for the Bolsheviks’ henchmen, the Jews, “communism was the best means of exploiting others and ruling”, as the first issue of Į laisvę, the newspaper of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), declared on June 24, 1941. Children from all over Lithuania will be led to ascertain this from an early age. And what will the ambassadors and representatives of the USA, Europe and Israel say, will they agree to visit such a palace? What prayers will the pilgrims say near this palace? Will there be rabbis willing to step inside?
All this is not being done for Litvaks, not for Lithuanian Jews, not for Jews of the world, not for their friends, but for those Lithuanians who, while dying out, are still attached to their Soviet heritage. With Russia invading Ukraine, it’s hard to find fans of that era and its heritage. Nevertheless, the idea is to preserve this heritage on the hide of Lithuanian Jews, because they were exterminated, and their remnants are simply too downtrodden to resist.
If at least two or three defenders of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius participated in the commission, then it would be possible for this holy place to enrich and extol Lithuania as do the Hill of Crosses, the Nida Dunes and the Castle of Gediminas. It is not for me to decide, but for the sake of understanding I can state what follows from the sanctity of this place.
The cemetery must be surrounded by a wall so that outsiders do not cross its territory. The most important thing to realize is that this area is one of the “dead zones” of the city, where no extraneous activity takes place. Such areas are very important for the life of the city, for the distinction of its neighborhoods. Let us appreciate how inappropriate it would be to build houses on Kalnu Park, and how this restriction contributes to the distinctiveness and attractiveness of the Old Town, Užupis and Antakalnis neighborhoods.
The wall around the cemetery must be built where it stood before the Second World War. The gate that stood in the northwest should be rebuilt according to Sholem Zelmanovich’s drawing. The house of chief caretaker Meir Zelmanovičius, which stood next to the gate, should be restored. A museum should be established there. The wall of the cemetery should be high, at least three meters, so that outsiders do not worry whether the territory is tidy or not. The wall could be even six meters high. It would be a kilometer long and its exterior, from the outside, would be a wonderful place for artists to present the history of Lithuanian Jews, including their rescue. I think such a wall could become famous throughout Europe. And it would cost very little compared to the adaptation of the Sports Palace for any activity. The views of pilgrim guides should be heard so that it makes sense for pilgrims and tourists to walk around the entire wall from the outer side.
With a high wall, it would be easy to take care of the order and peace of the cemetery area. Only people who value the cemetery itself would go into the territory. Next, there would be the question of the fate of the Vilnius Sports Palace. No activity in it is compatible with the cemetery. The Vilnius Jewish Community could work with rabbis on how to abandon the palace as tranquilly as possible, without disturbing the people buried nearby. I imagine they could let the building collapse on its own, that is, dismantle it bit by bit, only as necessary. We would be left with Soviet imperial ruins, which could grow meaningful with the passage of time. Or they could promptly dismantle everything, as peacefully as possible. This is really a question for rabbis, who I think should be chosen by the Vilnius Jewish Community. Sooner or later, there would remain the foundations of the palace, which are deep and do not rest on remains.
I imagine that on those foundations it would be possible to reconstruct from photos the tombstones that stood there. After all, the tombstones of the most famous rabbis stood exactly where the foundations are now. In time, it could be an impressive place. This entire area would be visible from Gediminas Castle, as it was to the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.
I envisage how to pursue the rejection of the Sports Palace. First of all, the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center should invite the public to investigate and determine whether the Soviet authorities committed a crime against humanity by desecrating the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius and building the Vilnius Sports Palace in its place? This would be an opportunity to review the “spiritual genocide” that took place in Lithuania, the taking away of national identity, the belittling of the symbols of national self-respect, the destruction and erasure of heritage, the disruption of rites, the restriction of religion, the obstruction of the expression of the nation’s will and the implementation of its right to self-determination, the killing, deportation, confinement of individual leaders, the closure, subversion, coopting, infiltration of organizations.
It is important to understand the significance of religion, because religion is the basis for the significance of symbols, and the nation is based on symbols. The Genocide Center restores historical truth and justice, and investigates not only physical but also spiritual genocide. The Criminal Code names the destruction of protected objects and the looting of national treasures (Article 106) among crimes against humanity and war crimes (Chapter XV). In general, Lithuania could use its painful experience to develop the concept of spiritual genocide, to advance the treatment of its wounds. It would be very healthy for us and the world.
Individuals or organizations and even the commission itself could apply to the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture to remove the Vilnius Sports Palace from the Registry of Cultural Heritage with a certificate indicating the criminal purpose of the Vilnius Sports Palace to disparage our Litvaks, and at the same time the whole of Lithuania, or even without such a certificate, so that there would be no obstacle to the removal of the Sports Palace. On the same occasion, it would be appropriate to apply to give the oldest Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės the highest — national—- level of significance, taking into account the exceptional historical and religious importance of the cemetery and the international concern about its fate. The Department would refer the matter to its evaluation board, and then the Ministry of Culture would refer the matter to the Cultural Heritage Commission.
I believe experts would reconsider whether it is appropriate for us to ground ourselves in the values of a Soviet person as to what is healthy, humane, progressive and creative? Indeed, we could listen to the teachings of the architect Christopher Alexander, the author of The Timeless Way of Building, as to whether standing next to this building we feel that it rejuvenates us, gives us fullness, peace, life, or does it wear us down, annoy us, belittle us, bring us down? The word “brutalism” says it all, and such a building should have no place even in Siberia.
If the Vilnius Sports Palace is struck from the Registry of Cultural Values, then it could be dismantled. The Government should cancel the installation of the Vilnius Congress Hall in the Vilnius Sports Palace, as an Important State Project. The commission could propose this.
I ask you to respect the tens of thousands of people who patiently called to abandon the pointless idea of giving meaning to the Vilnius Sports Palace, which does not exist and will not, because it desecrates the Vilnius Jewish cemetery. These are incompatible things. Please understand that these people saved the state at least 29 million euros, and in fact, 64 million euros or more, as can be seen from the budget made public by journalist Skirmantas Malinauskas. Please make sure that there are two or three people in the commission who are able to oppose the existing idea of turning the Vilnius Sports Palace into a Jewish museum and memorial.
Is there reason to believe that the Prime Minister’s good heart will implement a truly beautiful idea, unlike the one pursued so far? If the state will no longer heed the tens of thousands of people, if it will not include in the commission a healthy percentage of people representing them, then I will explain what I envisage will happen next. There will be the same prayers, the same clamor internationally, as before, but I think there will also be a feeling that history is repeating itself and something more is needed. Maybe it’s time not to let one person rule the Lithuanian Jewish Community for twenty years.
It is time to review all of the activities of the Good Will Fund down to the smallest details. It is time to investigate and reveal the strange Lithuanian and Jewish cultural apparatus.
It’s time to be concerned about the cult of Captain Jonas Noreika, his mendacious defenders, Minister of National Defense Arvydas Anušauskas, Chairman of the Seimas Committee for National Security and Defense Laurynas Kasčiūnas, and Vilnius City Council member Vytautas Sinica.
It is time to rouse the government fundamentally, not only the Seat of the Litvaks, but also the Seat of the Lithuanians. Time to ban people from working as public officials for more than twenty years. Then public officials would be new, free, healthy people. The defense of a holy place can fundamentally transform our entire country so that it shines bright.
However, the simplest thing would be for the Prime Minister’s good-hearted ideas to be clarified by the people she cares about.
Please, could I know more about who is organizing the commission that will tend to the fate of the Vilnius Sports Palace?
I await your answer,
Member of Gerbkime kapines (Respect Cemeteries)
Eiciunu km, Alytaus raj, Lithuania