Cemetery controversy ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ say Lithuanian Jewish leaders

The Lithuanian organized Jewish community minimized the concerns of opponents of the plan, calling it the “best way to honor the memory of the dead."

Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
The ongoing controversy over a government plan to build a convention center in the middle of Vilnius’s old Jewish cemetery is “much ado about nothing,” the local Jewish community has asserted.
The statement was made only days after an international delegation of rabbis arrived in the Lithuanian capital to protest the “desecration.”
The plan is opposed by many prominent leaders of the Lithuanian stream of ultra-orthodox Judaism around the world but is supported by both the local community and the hassidic Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries, which fights to prevent the desecration of Holocaust graves.
Before the Holocaust, Vilnius was the center of opposition to the spread of hassidism.
In an article posted to its website, the Lithuanian Jewish community called the proposed development the “best way to honor the memory of the dead buried,” there because the construction will allow the government to “maintain a site for public use kept up with public funds.”
The article described how the cemetery was paved over by the Soviets, who build a sports complex on the ground where the current government wants to erect its convention center, and asserted that there would be no disturbance of territory in which remains can be found.
“The entire facility and grounds is falling into ruin,” the community asserted, stating that the only alternative to the government plan is to “allow the territory to become either a garbage dump or a place where youth and homeless people gather to drink, do drugs and paint graffiti.”
“At this point the building itself is still in passable shape and is being maintained to some degree, but it is only a matter of time before people force their way in for whatever reason, and then it will be open to the weather and more molestation by trespassers... A garbage dump does not serve the memory of the many and great Jewish figures buried there.”
Leading Lithuanian Orthodox figures in Israel and the United States have said that they believe that it is disrespectful to the dead to allow a convention hall on hallowed ground. A delegation from that community recently relayed its concerns to the government “We went there to explain to the government that this is not permissible to do,” one of the members told The Jerusalem Post last week. The delegation representative said that it, “basically relayed to the government that this is not appropriate and we asked the government to nullify these plans.”
Asked about the delegation, Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, executive director of the CPJ CE said that given the “nature and language” of the Post’s coverage of the controversy, he felt that it was “below our dignity to respond” because his “time and energy is much too precious and is dedicated to preserving and safeguarding Jewish cemeteries all over Europe.”
“Thanks to the policy of the CPJ CE and its esteemed Rabbinical Board, we have never been dragged in to belittling and shaming others who think other than us and we intend to continue this policy,” he said.
In a letter to one of the members of last week’s delegation earlier this month, the Lithuanian government stated that the territory on which it plans to build the center has become “a shabby place” and that after the new structure is built “only prestigious and important events will be held there.”
The government stated that construction would only go forward after the CPJ CE has been informed and that the ground outside the construction area would not be disturbed.