On Monday the daily news talk and interview program Sixty Minutes hosted by radio journalist Deividas Jursevičius on Lithuanian Public Radio discussed a letter sent by 12 members of the US House of Representatives to Lithuania president Dalia Grybauskaitė. The following is an unofficial translation of the program.
US congressmen call for a halt to the project for the reconstruction of the Palace of Sports in Vilnius and not to disturb the graves of the old Jewish Šnipiškės cemetery. Lithuanian leaders are rejecting these complaints. Prime minister advisor Deividas Matulionis said the letter from the congressmen was a surprise to him because there was already agreement with Jewish organizations on the territory of the Šnipiškės cemetery back in 2009.
“We are taking this letter seriously, but I think some sort of misunderstanding has happened. Actually that problem no longer exists. Back in 2010 we, together with the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, reached an agreement, the essence of which was that we identified the territory where there is no disagreement that there were Jewish graves, the parking lot was removed and a monument was erected, and it was resolved to plant grass there and that no work can take place there. But around, and the Palace of Sports itself falls into it, is the so-called gray zone, or disputed zone, where we agreed there will be, from beginning to end if such work takes place or if we reconstruct the Palace of Sports, there will be consultation and discussion with the same Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the Lithuanian Jewish Community. So we have adhered to that position and will continue to adhere to it. So I’m not sure why this problem has come up now and why it is being treated so emotionally, but really we haven’t done any such thing. We really need to talk with the Jewish Community and with Jewish organizations to make it clearer what we actually want and what the Jewish organizations want, and to find a solution. We made an agreement then we would coordinate with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and we truly haven’t rejected that idea. If it turns out it’s unacceptable and graves are discovered in the Palace of Sports site, then we could say yes, we need to go over everything again and come up with different solutions. We truly want to find a way forward in the spirit of good will, and not at any cost, either, let’s say, if there is a problem we will not ignore that problem. We really will not do anything to violate the essential, fundamental Jewish religious interests and our historical legacy,” advisor to the prime minister Deividas Matulionis said.
Host: [We have] Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, [on the phone,] hello, and Simonas Gurevičius, hello Mr. Gurevičius.
Host: It was you who said on the radio earlier that this letter from the [US] congressmen was a surprise to you, too. Do you approve of this kind of letter, or not?
[both guests talk at once]
Host: The question is for Mr. Gurevičius, please.
SG: The Vilnius Jewish Community just wants to know what’s going on, we are caretakers of the cultural legacy of Vilnius Jews, and this was really news to us. We are concerned and simply would like to know more.
Host: Why are you concerned?
SG: We believe, if it is really true what was written in the congressmen’s letter, that there will be construction on top of bones, we know that the entire process was not transparent, we’ve read about that in the media, we don’t want our rights trampled, not just ours, but general human values.
FK: Thank you, Mr. Gurevičius, for the opinion you expressed. I would like to just second the advisor to the prime minister Deividas Matulionis. Really all of this time when there were discussions of possible construction, the Lithuanian Jewish Community took part in all discussions. And I’d like to say that we don’t have any concerns at all that the Lithuanian Government or the Cultural Heritage Department could take some sort of actions which might violate the dignity of Jews, which could violate Jewish law, and in the final analysis we, the Lithuanian Jewish Community, are not great experts on Jewish law, so we are very thankful to the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe who are participating actively, taking an active interest and supervising all work. I don’t see any problems here and I would think the letter by the senators [sic, all of the signatories are members of the lower House of Representatives] doesn’t have a foundation and most likely appeared as a result of a petition written some time ago which as I understood has the signatures of 40,000 Jews attached to it, but the Lithuanian Jewish Community has stated our opinion regarding this petition and we have warned the public that not everything contained in that position reflects the actual situation.
Host: Mr. Gurevičius, so it seems as if everything was solved earlier, in 2009 an agreement was reached, Mr. Matulionis recalled that agreement, and that everything was done with the Lithuanian Jewish Community, we heard that from Mrs. Kukliansky. So how do you see things now?
SG: That agreement when it was reached was an agreement on protection of the Jewish graves sites, there was no agreement about the Palace of Sports building about which Mr. Matulionis spoke. We are very happy if all Jewish and general human principles are honored, but from the media we hear the process wasn’t transparent, the purchasing process, the renovation process. We really don’t know the details. We hope everything is in order as Mrs. Kukliansky says, but from the position of morality, well, we have this sort of observation. I imagine there are many places in the city of Vilnius were some Congress Palace could be built. Well, I don’t know if the Jewish cemetery site, contrary to what Mr. Matulionis said, nonetheless the Palace of Sports is standing on top of Jewish graves without any doubt. We know that full well and remember it from history. So morally, I’d say perhaps there better places in Vilnius to build a Congress Palace, better than the Palace of Sports, but again the Vilnius Jewish Community didn’t take part in this process from the very beginning, the Lithuanian Jewish Community participated, and I am hearing claims that everything is in order, we’d like to learn more about this and to take joy in this, but in the moral sense I would recommend not forgetting this aspect, 40,000 people and even if not everything is correctly written down, we should pay attention to the letters of the 12 congressmen who also probably don’t write those sorts of letters for no reason.
Host: Right, so historically, you mentioned history, we should speak correctly and objectively and say that the Jewish cemetery in central Vilnius operated from the 16th century but in the first half of the 19th century the Jewish community received compensation because the cemetery was closed down, received compensation from the Russian Tsarist administration of the time.
SG: …didn’t stand the Palace of Sports.
Host: That’s the history, Mr. Gurevičius. Mrs. Kukliansky, let’s get back to that letter. Why do they keep appearing? This wasn’t the first letter by congressmen.
FK: It seems there are a group of people who think as Mr. Gurevičius does. Among those groups there can be different opinions, and in the end there can be certain insinuations made by specific people. Perhaps the congressmen who signed the letter don’t know everything fully, and we would dearly like to invite them to travel to Lithuania and to view the site and the charts and plans with their own eyes. The executive director of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is prepared and ready to come to Lithuania and to give a press conference. Perhaps it so happened that not everything is clear, or that not everything is being conveyed truthfully. So we would really like to invite them so they can make sure for themselves that no one is desecrating graves; about the cemetery, that it hasn’t been there for a very long time; that the depth of the foundation is 7.37 meters, that the building isn’t being constructed now, it already stood there and remained there as a symbol of Soviet beliefs as well as being a traditional Jewish site… So it’s difficult for me to judge why one or another person signed onto this letter, but I would simply invite them to come and get a more informed picture of all the circumstances.
Host: Mr. Gurevičius, looking at the situation in general now you have an opinion different from Mrs. Kukliansky’s. Why isn’t there general agreement?
SG: It’s not necessarily true that there are different opinions, I would approve of Mrs. Kukliansky that she said it is supervised by European rabbis, maybe truly there are no plans to build auxiliary buildings which would stand next to that building, maybe, maybe… Because there is very little known about this project but much talk, from different sources we hear a lot of information, [but] we ourselves don’t have detailed information. Purely from the side of morality, since you asked, I would really think there are better places to build the Congress Palace because I believe many people will refuse to go to deliver lectures and participate in events which will take place at this location. On the other hand, if everything is done in conformance to law, if everything is done transparently and clearly, Jewish traditions are supervised by European rabbis, well, I’d just invite people as Mrs. Kukliansky said, that the entire process would be as open as possible, that all who really don’t like it really could look at the material, and maybe this is being blown out of all proportion without foundation.
Host: Mrs. Kukliansky, is the commemoration of this cemetery appropriate at the current time?
FK: At the current time it is not really appropriate, but what I’ve seen in projects and plans by the Vilnius municipality and the Lithuanian Government, they are planning to commemorate the site of the former cemetery very beautifully, in a dignified manner. I am not an expert in this field but it seems to me these projects do great honor to the former cemeteries and, if there are human remains left there, to the Jews of Lithuania.
Full audio available in Lithuanian here.