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 fifty to seventy thousand 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 multiple number of graves were maintained by descendants up to 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. 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 government announced plans for the renovation of the old Sports Palace, under the auspices of the state-owned property bank, Turto Bankas. The bank apparently had purchased the property. The plan was to convert the building into the Vilnius National Convention and Conference Center. This initiative was firmly 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 post-coronavirus recovery. 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.
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 (a highly respected Rabbinical Court), has ruled that the Lithuanian government’s proposal is a flagrant desecration of the cemetery. A Court Order prohibits all parties, authorities, organizations and any community from participating in the proposed planning and construction of the conference center.
The ruling clearly states that "It is forbidden to use the cemetery for a conference center or any other purpose, other than as a resting place for the deceased."
Early press reports incorrectly stated that Lithuanian government has the backing of a Jewish interest group and Jewish community. The Court Order effectively and conclusively precludes any party from participating in the development of the conference center. In fact the Vilnius Jewish community vehemently opposed the plan to build a conference center on the cemetery and continues to do so.
AUTHORITY OF CPJCE HAS BEEN STRIPPED
More recently, President of the Congress of European Rabbis (CER), 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 CPJCE had entered into an agreement with the Government of Lithuania to "manage" the development of the conference center on the cemetery. The prohibition of the CPJCE by the CER (and the Israeli rabbinical court) to conduct any communications with the government and its preclusion from participating in the development of the conference center initiative, effectively renders the project unlawful.
Lithuanian law requires that any development of the cemetery (a protected site) be conducted under the auspices of a legitimate and qualified Jewish authority, which understands the parameters governing the protection of Jewish heritage and religion, as determined by Torah sages.
Additionally, the Lithuanian government’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.
Recently, foreign descendants and heirs of the interred have filed a class action suit against Turto Bankas, the Lithuanian government and the Vilnius City Council aimed at stopping the development of the conference center and preventing the desecration. The legal action is based on human rights considerations and is currently being litigated in Lithuanian courts.