Anger flares over Lithuania sports complex planned over Jewish graveyard

"The many thousands buried here have no descendants or relatives to stand up for the integrity and dignity of their graves precisely because of the Holocaust," says a Vilnius-based scholar.

August 11, 2015 18:40
4 minute read.
Vilnius, Lithuania

A man walks past a sign at a commemoration place during the March of the Living to honor Holocaust victims in Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A spat between the leaders of Lithuanian Jewry descended into bitter recriminations this week when the country’s Chief Rabbi accused the community’s chairwoman of “unacceptable desecration” of a historic graveyard.

In a statement Tuesday Rabbi Chaim Burshtein reiterated his fierce opposition to a government-backed plan to erect a congress and convention center complex on the site of Vilnius’ old Jewish cemetery. The new complex would replace a sports center erected over the graves during the Soviet period.

Among those buried at the Šnipiškės cemetery are “many of the greatest of our nation: rabbis, dayanim [religious court judges], teachers, authors of books of rabbinical thought and Jewish learning” in whose merit Vilnius became “the capital of the Jewish world for many generations,” the rabbi wrote.

While former community head Dr. Simonas Alperavičius was staunchly opposed to the project, his successor, Faina Kukliansky, “has agreed with state and business developers’ plans to construct the convention and congress center,” he continued.

“Both by Jewish law (Halacha), and by secular codes of law, this is considered to be unacceptable desecration of a graveyard of human beings.”

Many senior leaders of the Lithuanian stream of ultra-orthodoxy -including senior Israeli haredi leaders such as Shmuel Auerbach, Meir Soloveitchik, Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz and Tzvi Rotberg- have come out against the construction.

Last week a group of twelve American yeshiva deans, including members of the prominent Kotler and Feinstein rabbinic dynasties, issued a joint letter to “protest any use of this sacred site other than for prayer and solemn reflection.”

Last week Burshtein, who commutes from Israel and is not a Lithuanian citizen, accused the government of threatening to deport him because of his views on the graveyard. Both the government and Kukliansky strongly denied such claims.

“We have no information that his departure was connected in any way with the Congress Center project which the Government plans to implement to both refurbish and commemorate the territory of the Jewish cemetery in Snipishnok,” Kukliansky said in a statement.

“His family lives in Israel and therefore it is natural that the head of a family of many children spends the majority of his time there, with the performance of the duties of Rabbi in Lithuania taking second place and being somewhat sporadic,” she added.

“As far as we know, Chaim Burshtein does not have permission to live in Lithuania but does use the no-visa regime often in his travels. According to the Schengen Agreement, however, the no-visa regime is limited to 90 days per every 180 days. We can only imagine what would happen if someone tried to enter the United States without a visa and wrote about being deported. That would be true deportation, and without a visa they would not even be allowed to leave Israel.”

Both Kukliansky and the government have cited the support of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, a British organization that has given its seal of approval for the development.

“No works regarding the Vilnius Sports Palace and the old Šnipiškės Jewish cemetery will be undertaken without the knowledge or consent [of the committee] or the Jewish Community of Lithuania, so that the future Congress Center may operate while ensuring proper respect for the sanctity of the cemetery,” a Lithuanian embassy official in Tel Aviv told The Jerusalem Post.

Kukliansky initially claimed support for the project from the Conference of European Rabbis but later changed her statement, withdrawing mention of the organization.

The CER has sent letters to senior officials in a bid to save the cemetery but at the moment it is taking no more action and is seeking additional information, the Post has learned.

“Unfortunately the personal relations between the chief rabbi and the president of the community are deteriorating, and we hope that this fact will not hamper our efforts to save the aforementioned cemeteries from destruction,” said CER President Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt.

"Clearly if this was a Christian or medieval Lithuanian cemetery, there would be no plans for a convention center on the site; this is simple discrimination,” said Dr. Dovid Katz, a a Yiddish scholar based in Vilnius who is strongly opposed to the plan.

“As for the Holocaust, the link is rather tragically simple. The many thousands buried here have no descendants or relatives to stand up for the integrity and dignity of their graves precisely because of the Holocaust. Lithuania, where I have enjoyed living for many years, has made so much terrific progress on so many fronts. On this occasion the nation's (and the city's) leaders must show some political will and tell the developers to move their convention center to another site where it can be enjoyed by all the people of Vilnius, and for that matter, the planet."

Correction: The initial version of this story incorrectly stated that the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe was linked to Israel's Atra Kadisha. In fact, it is the Heritage Foundation for Preservation of Jewish cemeteries that claims a connection with that group.

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