A Grave Matter In Vilna

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L–R: Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Rabbi Osher Kalmanowitz, R’ Shmuel Lemberger, R’ Shmuel Mordechai Stern (standing), Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, Rabbi David Niederman, Rabbi Yakov Ber Teitelbaum (Sigeter Rav), and Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Rolandas Krisciunas
L–R: Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Rabbi Osher Kalmanowitz, R’ Shmuel Lemberger, R’ Shmuel Mordechai Stern (standing), Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, Rabbi David Niederman, Rabbi Yakov Ber Teitelbaum (Sigeter Rav), and Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Rolandas Krisciunas

By Larry Gordon

A friend of an acquaintance was in Mumbai, India, a few years ago, shortly after the tragic murders of Chabad emissaries Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg, amongst others, at the Chabad Center. He appeared downcast and somewhat depressed, even to a colleague who was a native of Mumbai. The Indian asked his Jewish visitor from New York why he seemed so out of it. The visitor responded that he was upset and disturbed about what had occurred several weeks prior. “That?” the local citizen exclaimed. “That was weeks ago!”

This incident played itself over in my mind as I sat last week in a meeting with the consul-general of Lithuania in New York, Julius Pranevičius. I was there with Rabbi Zev Friedman of Rambam Mesivta to inquire about the planned construction of a convention center on top of part of the 500-year-old Jewish cemetery in the capital city once known as Vilna and today referred to Vilnius.

Here’s a brief history of what is going on there and how and why we became involved. First understand that none of what is currently going on has occurred in a vacuum. There are a variety of entities involved, including a divided Jewish community in the ancient Vilna, and rabbinical and lay groups in both the U.S. and Europe that have long ago undertaken to preserve the sanctity of Jewish burial grounds around the world.

A Jewish presence in Lithuania dates back to the 8th century. There have been many highs and lows since those early days, with Lithuania serving at various times as either a safe haven for Jews and Jewish institutions or at other times—as in World War II—a savage killing ground that decimated the Jewish community there.

So we are sitting with the consul-general last week, and Rabbi Friedman is stating our case and the purpose of our visit. He refers to the prodigious and amazing thoroughness with which native Lithuanians murdered Jews. It was an uncomfortable moment, but that fact needed to be stated clearly. The consul-general acknowledged that this was a sad and sorrowful reality, and, to this day, Lithuanians are seeking to come to grips with it. When World War II started, there were 200,000 Jews living in the country; 95% were murdered, mostly by their neighbors, average Lithuanians.

There is no changing this tragic history, but there is now the matter of protecting these graves today. We cannot accept someone looking the other way, random reburial, or, in most cases, discarding of the remains of Jews anywhere—whether from 75 years ago or 500.

Mr. Pranevičius states his case, which is clear and, to a point, a good one. He says that the cemetery was desecrated and tombstones removed and discarded going back to the suffocating Communist rule in the 1950s. In the early 1970s, a sports stadium was constructed on the grounds of the stadium. That has fallen into disuse and is now an eyesore and blight on the area. Today it is an area frequented by drug users and unsavory characters. The consul-general tells us that the plan to revitalize the area will be a tribute to those buried there and, in his estimation, is hardly a desecration as is considered by many.

We tell him that we do not agree. A 500-year-old burial ground in Europe, especially the final resting place of so many that were brutally murdered, is not a place to build convention centers and sports facilities. It looks like he understands us. But as in the Mumbai incident related above, I don’t think he fully comprehends the obligation and responsibility we feel to these people, even though they died so long ago.

Last week, as we sat with Consul-General Pranevičius in his office in New York, seven rabbis were visiting with the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Rolandas Krisciunas, to also express their chagrin and concern about the plans to build a sprawling complex on top of Jewish burial grounds. On Tuesday, I spoke with Rabbi Shmuel Stern, who attended the meeting with Rabbi David Niederman of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn.

Stern said that they were warmly received at the embassy in Washington and that the rabbi spoke about the sanctity of the site and called for its protection by a Lithuanian government acting according to the norms of an enlightened democracy. “The ambassador and his staff showed an interest in the concerns that were shared by the rabbis,” Stern said.

That’s where this story becomes a bit more complicated. There is a group that has done wonderful and important work around the globe that has a different view of the effort to stop the Lithuanian government from building on the Shnipishok Cemetery. The group—the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, CPJCE—is based in London and has held extensive talks with the Lithuanians about minimizing the damage to the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.

The director of the group, Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, spent about an hour on the phone with Rabbi Friedman and me on Tuesday explaining the position of his group on the matter of this cemetery.

Firstly, it is important to note that at the present time, the project is stalled and there are conflicting stories circulating as to why. Some say that the contractor charged with building the new convention center went bankrupt, and others say that there was fraud discovered in the bidding process. Either way, the march in the direction of virtually erasing the existence of this burial ground is presently halted.

On the complete other side of this equation is the Rabbi Ginsberg group that has determined that the decision to build on this site in Vilnius is already too far gone and that it is in the Jewish community’s interest to help the Lithuanian government minimize the erasure of graves and the discarding of human remains.

Rabbi Ginsberg went so far as to tell us that he has a psak from Rav Shmuel Wosner, zt’l, of Bnei Brak, who passed away in 2015, and from Rav Dovid Feinstein in New York, saying that the grounds beneath the sports stadium where hundreds of people were once buried is no longer halachically considered a cemetery. Rabbi Ginsberg said that both rabbis determined, based on information from the Ginsberg group and documentation examined, that the site is lacking any human bones to the extent that even a kohen can visit the former cemetery.

Rav Ginsberg says he is absolutely certain that there are no human bones at this location because the contractor dug down over 100 feet to build a foundation and a basement floor. “The bones that were found there were placed in bags and buried in another Jewish cemetery in Lithuania,” the rabbi said.

I asked the rabbi why we are accepting the fact that this excavation and construction that will potentially unearth more bones and destroy many more graves must go forward. The rabbi explained that the location is important to Lithuanians because it was in this stadium now in disrepair and rotting that the Lithuanians declared their independence in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism in 1990.

“This location is Lithuania’s London Tower and Statue of Liberty; they are not letting it go anytime soon,” Rabbi Ginsberg said. He’s a little upset at the American rabbis who met with the Lithuanian ambassador in Washington last week. “Lithuania is being very cooperative and is committed to honoring the sanctity of the dead.” That might be true—to an extent. Even Rabbi Ginsberg said that the current situation is the best of the worst circumstances, and that the optimal situation would be if all building at the cemetery were halted.

“There are many other countries where construction is taking place on Jewish cemeteries, but where are the rabbis?” Ginsberg asks. He enumerates as we are speaking that he is dealing with cases where apartment buildings and shopping malls are being built on top of Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine, Lvov, Poland, Belarus, Spain, and Italy. He says in most of these countries he does not get anything near the cooperation he is getting in Lithuania.

As I was completing this essay on Wednesday morning, I received the following story in my inbox from the Jewish Telegraphic agency:

“Lithuania’s government is reconsidering plans to build a convention center atop what used to be a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, rabbis said after meeting with the country’s ambassador to the United States.

“The seven-member delegation of American haredi Orthodox rabbis and activists met Rolandas Krisciunas last week to discuss the controversial plan to build the $25 million center above the former Snipiskes Cemetery, which the Soviets destroyed decades ago. Many Jewish sages are buried there.

“‘The reception was certainly different than prior meetings, and we were encouraged to hear that the government is currently reviewing its options,’ Rabbi David Niederman, who organized the meeting, wrote in a statement sent to reporters Tuesday.

“The meeting coincided with reports in the Lithuanian media that the Lithuanian government recently canceled the solicitation for bids for the Congress Hall project due to technical irregularities.

“The developments follow months of intensive lobbying by rabbis and activists who oppose the planned construction for religious reasons, citing rules set forth in halacha that forbid disturbing Jewish bodies.

“Other activists, including the American scholar Dovid Katz of Vilnius, also oppose the plan on the principle of equality, saying Lithuanian authorities would not proceed with such a project on the burial grounds of the nation’s luminaries.

“An online petition launched last year calling for a halt to the project has received more than 38,000 signatures.”

We will be following up next week to bring you up to date on the latest development on this matter. Which version of events is accurate remains to be seen.

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

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