The president of Lithuania dismissed concerns raised by 12 U.S. Congress members over the planned construction of a conference center atop what used to be a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.
Responding to a letter sent last month by the lawmakers about the Piramont cemetery, Dalia Grybauskaitė told the BNS news agency that “decisions on Jewish cemeteries are taken together with the Lithuanian Jewish community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.”
The congressmen, including Randy Weber (R-Texas) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), wrote that the plans “conflict with the respect for human dignity.”
Lithuanian Jews are split on the approval for the project given by Faina Kukliansky, who heads the national umbrella group that is charged with representing the community. Kukliansky has long faced accusations of corruption, which she has denied.
A petition launched online against the plan last year has gathered approximately 40,000 signatures. Jewish Orthodox law prohibits disturbing human remains except in special cases.
Rabbi Avraham Ginsberg, executive director of the London-based committee on Jewish cemeteries, said the construction would not disturb the Jewish graves. Grybauskaitė cited the OK from the committee for the conference center plan.
In 2009, the committee was shown to be seeking $100,000 for “rabbinical supervision of digging” to be obtained by the Lithuanian government from developers. The sum was noted in a cable sent by a U.S. State Department official and leaked by WikiLeaks.
Ginsberg has said the sum was never paid and was a maximum estimate of expenses that his organization might incur while supervising the site.
The affair was highlighted on the website Defending History by Dovid Katz, a Vilnius Jew who has led efforts to stop the plan.
Meanwhile, many Jewish community members consider Kukliansky’s title illegitimate because of a contested internal election in May in which her administration voided the election of a critic to head the Vilnius community, where the vast majority of Lithuanian Jews live. Critics say the election was rigged by a last-minute change to voting procedures that gave the votes of association heads greater weight.
In their letter, the congressmen also referenced a House of Representatives resolution from 2008 condemning the advancement by Lithuania of the early stages of construction, which still has not begun.
The resolution states that “the fact that the Government of Lithuania has allowed construction to take place within the perceived boundaries of the Jewish cemetery” and that “desecration continues into the 21st century is an affront to the international Jewish community, the American people, and everyone who values religious freedom.”
The Piramont cemetery, also known as the Snipiskes cemetery, is the original burial site of the 18th-century sage known as the Gaon of Vilna. His remains were moved in 1949, before Soviet authorities destroyed the graveyard and built a gymnasium on its grounds. However, thousands of bodies, including many Jewish luminaries, are still buried in the area, which today is among the most valuable real-estate assets in Lithuania. (JTA) v
From Sid Leiman
Sid Leiman, professor of Jewish History and Literature, Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University, on behalf of the Committee for the Preservation of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius, wrote a concise explanation of the situation.
If one reads the news report carefully, it turns out that the president of Lithuania hardly ignored the congressmen’s protest. Her Excellency Dalia Grybauskaite actually did the best she could under difficult circumstances. She responded with every lame excuse that she could muster, namely that the decision to construct a convention center atop the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius was a joint decision made by the Lithuanian government, the Lithuanian Jewish community, and a group of rabbis who call themselves the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. She forgot to mention that this tiny group of rabbis is from London, not Lithuania. She also forgot to mention that these three groups are hardly equals either in number or in power. In terms of the Lithuanian Jewish community, it is more properly referred to as the “official” Lithuanian Jewish community (LJC), a group carefully monitored by the Lithuanian government, and one that does not represent the full spectrum of Jewish voices in Lithuania. Indeed, the “official” Jewish community regularly suppresses the voices of Jewish dissidents who disagree with its policies.
It should be quite obvious to everyone that no Jewish community in history ever agreed to the construction of a convention center over its cemetery. A Jewish cemetery is sacred space; its graves may not be disturbed or desecrated in any manner. If the “official” Lithuanian Jewish community agreed to do this, it was for remuneration, or out of fear of antagonizing the Lithuanian government, and in violation of basic Jewish teaching. In terms of rabbis, no rabbi in all of Jewish history has ever permitted the construction of a convention center over a Jewish cemetery, and it is prohibited by Jewish law. In fact, Lithuanian rabbis all over the world have protested against this project, a project initiated entirely by the Lithuanian government, and not by either the Jewish community in Lithuania or the London rabbis. Indeed, the rabbis serving in Lithuania in recent years, who have openly banned the project, have been fired, including a recent chief rabbi of Vilnius, after he publicly announced his opposition to the construction of the convention center over the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius.
Kudos to the congressional representatives who reminded the president of Lithuania of her obligation to affirm Lithuania’s commitment to basic human rights, and especially to the right of minorities to maintain the sanctity of their holy sites. The congressional representatives also reminded the president of Lithuania of House Concurrent Resolution 255, passed by the House of Representatives in 2008, which states that the continued desecration of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius “is an affront to the international Jewish community, the American people, and everyone who values religious freedom and ethnic diversity around the world.”
As firm admirers of Lithuania, we genuinely hope that the Lithuanian government will seek a change of venue for the convention center project, one that will not involve the desecration of a Jewish historical site some 500 years old, one of the few remaining Jewish sites in Vilnius to have survived the Holocaust.
We thank you for your enthusiastic support of this noble endeavor.