Vilnius announces plan to buy land parcel in Jewish graveyard

Jewish groups slam statement issued over Rosh Hashana.

September 17, 2015 03:27
2 minute read.
Vilnius cemetary

The old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, circa 1922. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lithuania announced over Rosh Hashana that it will shortly go ahead with its purchase of a tract of land in the middle of Vilnius’s old Jewish cemetery in order to build a convention center.

The move has elicited vocal objections from opponents of the plan who accused the government of timing its announcement to prevent an immediate Jewish outcry.

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On Tuesday, website reported that the government had agreed to purchase a Soviet-era “sports palace” erected in the middle of the centuries-old cemetery, paving the way for its $25 million construction plan.

The final price for the plot was expected to be announced late Wednesday.

Many prominent representatives of the Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodoxy around the world have objected to the plan, which is supported by the country’s small Jewish community and the London-based hassidic Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.

“As usual, such announcements are made during the Jewish holidays when other opinions are likely to be delayed to beyond the announced deadline,” Vilnius-based historian Prof. Dovid Katz complained in an email to The Jerusalem Post.

Katz called for opponents of the plan to push for “moving the convention center to another site in the city where it can be equally celebrated by all the city’s and the planet’s peoples and will not result in cheering, drinking and reveling in a European capital at a convention site surrounded by the thousands of graves of old Jewish Vilna, including some of the most sacred rabbinic personalities of the last millennium.”

“In issues that are controversial in the Jewish community it is not surprising that the Lithuanian government would announce a step that would arouse protests in the Jewish world on the Jewish holidays when they know that no Jewish organization would publicly respond,” said Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an outspoken critic of the plan.

“This is a real chutzpah on the part of the Lithuanians and consistent with their utter refusal to take into account the widespread opposition throughout the Jewish world and especially by the leading rabbis of Lithuanian origin,” he added.

Asked about objections to the timing of the announcement, Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe said that he did not understand the question and that it seemed “totally irrelevant.”

“The plan of the government purchase of the Sports Palace has been widely know and well publicized by the Government and in our recent statements,” he told the Post.

In a statement to the Post on Wednesday, the Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv said that it wanted to “reiterate that all steps of the Lithuanian Government related to Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery have been closely coordinated with the Lithuanian Jewish Community and Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.”

According to Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, who recently visited Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his blessing for the project.

“He was clear – this is very good,” Butkevicius said in a recent interview with the Baltic News Service. “He gave no critical remarks whatsoever – the prime minister said he had recently received the information and was fully familiar with it.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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