In a remarkable interview cited today in the highly respected Five Towns Jewish Times, an Orthodox publication based in Inwood, Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Woodmere, and Hewlett, all in Nassau County, Queens, New York, Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, the PR specialist for the London-based CPJCE (“Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe”) is quoted as explaining why, in his estimation, the Lithuanian state feels the burning national-priority need to build a convention center and annex in the heart of Vilna’s historic Jewish cemetery that dates to the 15th century and continues to hold the remains of thousands of Vilna Jewish citizens whose families duly bought their plots over the centuries:
“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.”
The CPJCE has been implicated in demanding large sums of money for its various “permissions” and “supervisions” at this very site in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, in a Wikileaks cable of 2009, reported on in depth in 2015 in Defending History, the Jerusalem Post and JTA, among others, in the context of the current discussion on the fate of the 15th century vintage Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt in the modern Šnipiškės (Yiddish: Shnípishok) district of town.
RELATED: Defending History‘s open letter to the CPJCE; CPJCE section; Professor Bernard Fryshman’s 2016 critique.
Rabbi Ginsberg is reported in today’s article as “a little upset at the American rabbis who met with the Lithuanian ambassador in Washington last week.” Rather strange. An outfit claiming to work to preserve Jewish cemeteries in Europe should be sending flowers and (kosher) champagne to Rabbi Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, who organized the recent Washington DC meeting with the Lithuanian ambassador, accompanied by top heads-of-yeshivas and rabbinical authorities from the classic Lithuanian (Litvish, Litvak) tradition. Rabbi Niederman’s achievement has resulted in genuine progress here in Vilnius, and has been reported on at length this week in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Baltimore Jewish Life, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), and JP Updates, among others.
The London-based CPJCE is affiliated with the “Aaron” branch of the huge Satmar hasidic movement. The opposing “Zalmen” branch, by contrast, has condemned the project to desecrate one of Eastern Europe’s most sacred cemeteries, in a rabbinic judgment signed by the grandrabbi (rébbe) Rabbi Yekusiel Zalmen Teitelbaum himself. See DH’s color-coded index to the extensive paper trail.◊
An Orthodox Jewish native and resident of Vilnius, Ruta Bloshtein, launched in international petition to save the cemetery in Dec. 2016. Over 38,000 people have signed to date, including many citizens of Lithuania of all backgrounds. Two of Vilnius’s senior rabbis, Sholom Ber Krinsky and Kalev Krelin signed. A third, Rabbi S.J. Feffer published his own ruling. Longtime chief rabbi Chaim Burshtein (2004-2015) was fired after he spoke out courageously, following the great Lithuanian tradition rabbis.
There is a long paper trail on the CPJCE’s partnership with corrupt building interests and politicians in Lithuania, but today’s quotations seem to strike out new ground. Rabbi Ginsburg is re-inventing the modern history of Lithuania to try to explain why the modern state “needs” this Soviet-era dump in a country where Soviet-era structures are universally abhorred. Any resident in Vilnius will tell you it’s a monstrosity that needs to come down as soon as possible. And, in fact, Lithuania’s independence was decidedly not proclaimed in the old Soviet sports stadium built in the middle of the old Jewish cemetery. It was declared in the beautiful house of parliament building, the Seimas, on Gedimino Boulevard, at the other end of town, on 11 March 1990.
The old Soviet-era ruin is neither the London Tower nor the Statue of Liberty for modern democratic Lithuania. That is the case decidedly only in Rabbi Ginsberg’s CPJCE imagination as he grasps for straws to justify his group’s support for desecration of thousands of Jewish graves on all four sides of the old stadium building in the middle of the old cemetery. His group, a publicly listed charity in the United Kingdom, that is being reported to the Charities Commission in connection with the current scandal, continues to refuse to reveal details of how much they have been paid for their permissions and supervisions, and how much in glittering photo-ops with high government officials. In fact the present chapter got underway in April 2015 when the CPJCE’s leaders were wined and dined by Lithuania’s then prime minister on prime time television without even informing any of the three Vilnius rabbis in town of their presence.
Many prominent Lithuanians have spoken out with courage and integrity. These include the nation’s chief inspector for procurements and a leading Lithuanian member of the European Parliament. In other words, the democratic institutions of proud, successful, modern Lithuania are playing their due role in uncovering and reversing this massive corruption, even as a certain group of Aaronite Satmar “grave traders” in London continues to think it is dealing with a banana republic cash cow. Think about it: Honest patriotic Lithuanians like Declaration of Independence signatory Rimvydas Valatka (who can enlighten the London rabbis on where that declaration was issued), member of the European Parliament Antanas Guoga, and Public Procurement Service director Diana Vylitė are publicly unmasking the corruption inherent in the plan to rebuild the hated old Sports Palace, while a group of Satmar (Aaronite branch) anti-Litvak rabbis in London now fantasize that this is the location of Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence in their zeal to see the world’s major Litvak cemetery desecrated for their own profit and public relations interests. The eminent Lithuanian Christian philosopher, Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas, a professor at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, was among the first here in Vilnius to call for the hated Soviet building to be torn down and the cemetery restored. His words to his countrymen have already become classic: “From the top of Gediminas Castle, do we want to see and cherish, for hundreds of years to come, what the Communist Party Chief saw (the Sports Palace) or what the Grand Duke of Lithuania saw (the Jewish cemetery)?” A protestant pastor, Michael Maass has duly noted that this would not be the fate of a Christian cemetery here.
Think about it: Honest patriotic Lithuanians like Declaration of Independence signatory Rimvydas Valatka, member of the European Parliament Antanas Guoga and Public Procurement Service director Diana Vylitė are publicly unmasking the corruption inherent in the plan to rebuild the hated old Sports Palace, while a group of Satmar (Aaronite branch) anti-Litvak rabbis in London now fantasize that this is the location of Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence in their zeal to see the world’s major Litvak cemetery desecrated for their own interests.
Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas, a Christian philosopher and university professor, was among the first here in Vilnius to speak out. He said this to his countrymen: “From the top of Gediminas Castle, do we want to see and cherish, for hundreds of years to come, what the Communist Party Chief saw (the Sports Palace) or what the Grand Duke of Lithuania saw (the Jewish cemetery)?” A protestant pastor, Michael Maass has duly noted that this would not be the fate of a Christian cemetery here.
Alas, the CPJCE’s nonsensical misrepresentations become more bizarre by the day. By contrast, rabbinic and other authorities around the world have unanimously opposed, with integrity and courage, the desecration of the cemetery by a convention center where thousands would cheer, sing, drink at bars and flush lavatories surrounded by thousands of Jewish graves. A petition opposing the project has gathered 38,000 signatures, including all three senior rabbis based in Vilnius. High time for the CPJCE to cut its losses, and listen to reason, and abandon the project to desecrate Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery.