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A delegation of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has met with the Lithuanian Ambassador in London to protest against building work on the site of a Jewish cemetery in central Vilnius.
The discussion on Monday with Ambassador Vyguadas Usackas and his Minister Counsellor Ernestas Grabazis centered on construction work on the site of the Snipiskes Cemetery estimated to contain approximately 10,000 Jewish graves. The London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) estimates that some 10,000 Jews have been buried in what was one of the region's largest Jewish cemeteries.
The site has been the focus of international protest from Jewish communities in Europe and the US since construction began on a new office complex earlier this year that encroaches on the cemetery grounds. According to Jewish tradition, burial grounds are sacred and no work should be allowed to take place that would disturb any remains.
In July, Jews from across Europe held a protest and prayer vigil at the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels and a delegation of rabbis delivered a formal complaint at the office of the Lithuanian permanent representative to the European Union.
The delegation, led by board vice president and chair of the International Division Flo Kaufmann and chief executive Jon Benjamin, stressed the significance of the cemetery both to Vilnius's 6,000-member Jewish community, as well as its significance to Jews throughout the world whose families originated from the city.
Known for centuries as the "Jerusalem" of Lithuania because of its Jewish culture and heritage, Vilnius was one of European Jewry's most vital centers of religious life and education before World War II.
Usackas and Grabazis told the delegation that the Lithuanian government was sympathetic to their concerns and was seeking legal measures to overrule the decision of the municipality to allow building on the site. Kaufmann, who is also chair of the Board of Governors of the European Jewish Congress, suggested that Lithuania, as a member of the European Union, might wish to deal with the matter swiftly as a gesture of goodwill to the European and world Jewish communities.
The delegation was assured that it would be informed of developments and that the minister counsellor would be in contact as soon as there was more information.
The Snipiskes Cemetery plays a central role in the history of European Jewry. It was the final resting place in 1797 of the Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, the internationally renowned rabbinic authority and scholar. The 600-year-old cemetery was closed by the Czarist Russian authorities in 1831 and partly built over. During the Holocaust and World War II, more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were killed. In the 1950s, Soviet authorities built a stadium and concert hall on the site, but allowed the remains of the Vilna Gaon to be removed.