Despite a Jerusalem Post story that would suggest otherwise (“Anger flares over Lithuanian Sports Palace” Sam Sokol, 8/11/2015) there is today a remarkable consensus in Vilnius that the site of the former Snipiskes Cemetery and the graves beneath must be protected. On this matter, the government of Lithuania, the Lithuanian Jewish Community which I chair, and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) which is Europe’s foremost halachic authority on cemeteries all agree.
Attention is now focused on the abandoned former Soviet Sports Palace, which partially sits on the cemetery grounds and in its current condition is mostly a gathering place for graffiti artists and alcoholics. The government rightly wants to renovate the building and turn it into a center for conferences and cultural events. Because the building itself has been designated an architectural heritage site, no significant structural changes are possible, but the interior will be renovated. The surrounding area will be maintained as a memorial park with inscriptions that describe some of the famous people who were buried here.
The Lithuanian government and the CPJCE have an agreement dating to 2009, concerning the cemetery site. Even though we are only in a planning stage and still months away from any construction, recent discussions between the two have worked out an understanding for dealing with the renovation of the former Sports Palace. The CPJCE will provide rabbinic oversight and ensure that there are no halachic violations in the course of the work that takes place. The government has further agreed to limit the type of activities that will take place in the renovated center so that they are in keeping with the special nature of the site.
If anything, this should be a cause for celebration and a model for how other governments in our part of the world should deal with similar challenges of respecting and protecting Jewish cemeteries and the mass graves of Holocaust victims.
So what accounts for the “angry voices” in your story and the outrageous claims that a “desecration” is taking place?
No doubt some of those quoted are simply uninformed, and this fuller explanation will assuage their concerns. But sadly there are others who do know better but are using this issue to advance their own personal feuds and grievances. Some of them are rivals to the CPJCE, and while they would never publicly criticize its eminent Chairman, Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, they pretend not to know of his involvement here. Perhaps even more destructive is the role being played by our community’s former rabbi, Chaim Burstein. His contract was recently terminated—he has spent more days abroad on his personal business than serving our Jews here in Lithuania—and so he is spreading these stories in order to attack me. It pains me to say these things, but your readers should know the truth.
As a proud Litvak who has the honor to chair a small but resilient Jewish community I have been part of many difficult struggles during these past decades as we have pressed the Lithuanian government to return former Jewish property and pressed the Lithuanian people to squarely confront the history of our Holocaust-era past. Those struggles are not over, but we have had much success. How ironic that as we now have Lithuanian leaders who are prepared to see clearly what happened in the past, we have fellow Jews who refuse to see clearly what is happening today.