The Full Story
The year 1487 is the earliest verifiable date, confirming the existence of a gravestone, at the Old Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt, in the Shnípeshok district of Vilnius (Šnipiškės).
The 500-year old cemetery was initially purchased by the Jewish community with royal permission as freehold property, to serve as the eternal resting place for the deceased. Over a course of several centuries it was expanded through land acquisitions. Approximately 50,000 to 70,000 Jews have been buried on the property, including the Torah sages of the immediate and extended family of the Vilna Gaon, R. Abraham Danzig (famed author of the "Chayei Adam”), R. Moshe Rivkes (author of the "Be’er Hagolah") and hundreds more.
It reached capacity in 1831, but a number of graves were maintained by descendants, up until the Nazi invasion of 1941.
After the war, fearful of the total annihilation of the cemetery by a hostile Soviet Union, Jewish religious leaders arranged to move the remains of the holy Vilna Gaon and adjacent graves to the new Jewish cemetery at Sudervės Street in the Saltoniškės district. Tragically, the remaining gravestones were plundered for construction by the Soviet authority. In the 1960s, the Soviet regime initiated development of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports (“Sporto Rumai”), located in the center of the cemetery. In 1971, it opened its doors, with a seating capacity of 4,400. After Lithuania became independent in 1991, the building was left to deteriorate. It was abandoned to complete disrepair in 2004.
Between 2005 and 2008, despite international protests, two apartment complexes (with commercial areas) were erected on the site of the cemetery. This was conducted under the auspices of the Lithuanian and Vilnius municipal authorities. The majority of the cemetery is still intact and a 2008 ground radar survey showed the existence of thousands of graves. The examination found that the two erected apartment buildings were within the cemetery perimeter. Lithuanian authorities refused to give over the earth and bones from the excavations, to the Jewish community for reinterment. In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the construction and desecration of the cemetery. The sentiments of the House of Representatives were essentially ignored by the Lithuanian government.
PLAN TO BUILD CONFERENCE CENTER
In April 2015, the Lithuanian government announced plans for the renovation of the old Sports Palace, under the auspices of the state-owned property bank, Turto Bankas. The bank seemingly had acquired the property. Their plan was to convert the building into the Vilnius National Convention and Conference Center. This initiative was denounced by the presiding Chief Rabbi of Lithuania (and leading rabbis in the USA and Israel). Pointedly, the democratically elected leadership of the Vilnius Jewish Community joined international protests and vigorously opposed the government’s plan. In 2020, Turto Bankas accelerated their plans, and recent media campaigns have touted the project as crucial to Lithuania’s economy. The government has ignored other potential sites for a convention center, not on a Jewish cemetery. An online protest petition launched by a Vilnius native, has garnered over 50,000 signatures. Concerned descendents of Lithuanian origin have created a video expressing their concerns. See the video.
COURT ORDER PROHIBITS CONSTRUCTION
OF CONFERENCE CENTER
The proposal by the state property bank has been widely condemned by members of the Vilnius Jewish community, by world leaders, heads of Jewish communities from across the globe, multi-denominational spiritual organizations and expert authorities on Jewish law, including the Jewish Orthodoxy’s leading sage Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky of Israel.
Recently, an Israeli court (the highly respected Rabbi Nissim Karelitz Rabbinical Court), has ruled that the Lithuanian government’s proposal is a desecration of Jewish law.
The respective court order was served on all the parties involved in the development, by attorneys Hadad Roth Shenhar and Co. The court order forbids them from participating in the proposed planning and construction of the conference center.
The court ruling states:
"It is forbidden to use the cemetery for a conference center or any other purpose, other than as a resting place for the deceased."
Earlier press reports incorrectly suggested that Lithuanian government has the backing of a Jewish interest group and Jewish community. However, the Israeli Court Order specifically and conclusively precludes any party from participating in the development of the conference center. Additionally, the Vilnius Jewish community vehemently opposed the plan to build a conference center on the cemetery and continues to do so.
Conference of European Rabbis (CER)
Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah (Council of Torah Sages) of Agudath Israel of America
NY Board of Rabbis
Agudath Israel of America
Members of the Israeli Knesset
Chief Rabbi of Israel
Minister Ayeh Deri – Israeli Minister of Interior
Bnei Brak Rabbinical Court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz
Chief Rabbi of South Africa
WHY THE ISRAELI COURT ORDER IS MEANINGFUL
According to Lithuanian law, it is illegal to develop or construct on a protected site, if it violates heritage and cultural considerations. See Law of the Republic of Lithuania on Protected Areas December 4, 2001 No. IX-628, Vilnius. Both the Sports Palace and the Shnipishok cemetery are registered as protected sites in the land registry.
The decision by the Israeli court (the rabbinical court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz) that determined that the development of the conference center violates Jewish law, serves as certification that such action would be a gross affront to the Jewish religion and a cultural violation of Jewish law. That certification is universal and does not require a level of legal jurisdiction per se.
Accordingly, development of the conference center on the Sports Palace (based on the fact that it violated cultural and heritage considerations) would be illegal in terms of Lithuanian law be illegal. Certainly any participation in the project would be unlawful, both according to Jewish law and Lithuanian law.
PROPOSAL DOES NOT HAVE SUPPORT FROM ANY JEWISH AUTHORITY
More recently, President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt issued an order stripping the CPJCE (Committee for Protecting Jewish Cemeteries in Europe) of any authority, to represent a Jewish community in Europe.
The Turto Bankas land bank had previously touted their development project as having the support of the CPJCE. This they claimed was authorization for their initiative, as it was evidence there was support from the Jewish community. However, the prohibition of the CPJCE by the the CER (and the Israeli rabbinical court) to conduct any communications with the government, together with an order that precludes it from participating in the development of the conference center initiative, effectively renders the project unlawful. See Rabbi Baron's video and address to Senator James Risch, clarifying this issue.
Additionally, the Turto Banka’s project violates the Geneva convention and EU Charter of Human Rights. It also runs contrary to U.S. congressional resolutions condemning the desecration of cemeteries.
CLASS ACTION LAW SUIT
In early 2017, approximately 170 descendants and heirs to the interred buried in the cemetery, filed a class action suit against Turto Bankas, the Lithuanian government and the Vilnius City Council.
An article which describes lead plaintiff, Yosef Yizhak Pines' motivation for being part of the class action, can be reviewed on the Save Vilna BLOG.
Court proceedings have been delayed due, to the Corona pandemic. A record of the list of plaintiffs in the class action suit, is available for REVIEW ON THE WEBSITE.
The legal action is aimed at preventing the development of the conference center and consequential desecration. The filing is founded on human rights considerations and is currently being litigated in the Vilnius district court. At a court hearing dated October 6, 2020, Judge Aistė Petravičienė reprimanded attorneys for the plaintiffs (Modestas Sriubas and Salvija Sriubienė), for filing their papers so close to the deadline. The judge also rejected affidavits from expert witnesses, Dr. Neil Rosenstein and Dr. Sid Z. Leiman because they were not apostilled. The plaintiffs were requested to refile the affidavits in the correct format.
Dr. Rosenstein is an expert genealogist who has provided evidence and written testimony that the plaintiffs are in fact descendants of the Vilna Gaon and have relatives buried in the cemetery.
Dr. Leiman is an expert historian who has conclusively certified that the Jewish graves in question, are within the area of the Sport Palace.
Testimony verifying that the Sports Palace is located in the cemetery was also provided by Professor Josif Parasonis, a founding member of the Vilnius Jewish Community and major national expert on the science of buildings (which he has been teaching for decades at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University).
Turto bankas is disputing the fact that the cemetery is in the vicinity of the Sports Palace, which is the location where the bank wishes to develop the conference center. However, the Sports Palace is in any event registered as a protected site in the Lithuanian land registry and subject to cultural and heritage protection provisions of Lithuanian law.
A court hearing scheduled for November 24, 2020, has been postponed to January 21, 2021 due to the unexpectedly large number of people who had registered to attend the hearing and COVID-19 concerns.
The court sought certification that: 1) the Sports Palace is in the Shnipishok cemetery, according to the Klausner map and 2) confirmation that the plaintiffs are descendants of those buried in the cemetery. Evidence and statements confirming these facts, have been conclusively provided by expert witnesses.
Human rights groups are concerned that the Lithuanian court system is rigged and therefore it is unlikely that the plaintiffs will receive appropriate relief through the court system. Additionally, there is a concern that a Lithuanian ruling "relocating" the gravesite, could be used as a precedent for other European governments to legally desecrate cemeteries, irrespective of its religious denomination.
The case reference is (lith. Dėl uždraudimo atlikti veiksmus sukeliančius realią žalos padarymo grėsmę ateityje) Nr. e2-625-918/2020 in the District Court of Vilnius City.
The recent election of a new government in Lithuania, offers hope and anticipation that a settlement can be achieved and that the desecration of a Jewish cemetery can be avoided.
PUBLIC OPINION POLL
The results of a recent Twitter Poll concluded overwhelming support, NOT TO DEVELOP the conference center on a Jewish cemetery.
Of 7,534 unsolicited pollsters who offered their opinion, over 94% declared that they are against the Turto bankas development.