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The Facts Regarding the Threat to the Shnipishok Cemetery in Vilnius

I. The Cemetery houses the Chayai Adam, the Be’er HaGolah, many other distinguished rabbis and scholars, the entire family of the GRA, the Ger Tzedek, and all Jews in Vilna – men, women, and children – who died between 1593 and 1830.

II. The Cemetery was seized, first by the Nazis and after World War II by the Communists. In 1991, when Lithuania became independent the cemetery should have been returned to the Jewish people. Instead, the cemetery was transferred to a trade union on condition it not be sold. It was sold soon after, and several times since. The cemetery still belongs to the Jewish people; any other claims to ownership are false.

III. In 2005 and 2008 the Lithuanian government permitted the erection of two apartment buildings in the cemetery. No outside observers were allowed to be present while the foundations were dug, and to this day the Jewish people have not been told where tons of earth containing human remains were dumped. In spite of attestations of good faith on the part of the Lithuanians, we don’t know where the earth is, and the sacred remains cannot be reburied.

IV. In 2008 the United States Congress censured the Lithuanian government for desecrating the cemetery. To allay criticism, the Lithuanians created a ‘Work Group’ which later led to an agreement in 2009 ostensibly intended to protect the cemetery. The agreement, signed by the Commission for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) had provision for excavation in the cemetery, purportedly under ‘supervision.’

V. Jewish groups, worldwide, protested this agreement, to no avail. Headlines greeted this ‘saving of the cemetery.’ The lack of protection for this sacred site was highlighted a year later when a ‘PRIDE’ parade was scheduled to take place on the cemetery grounds and was cancelled at the last moment.

VI. Soon after the 2009 agreement was signed, the Lithuanians agreed to a restitution settlement in which $41 million dollars would flow to some Jewish groups over a period of 11 years. Some voices were heard claiming that this sum was the price of acquiescence to the complete destruction of the cemetery. Other voices have been raised questioning the distribution of these funds.

VII. In February 2015, the Lithuanian government announced a $25million dollar project to renovate the Sports Palace, a 1971 edifice built by the Soviets in the middle of the cemetery. The purpose of the renovation was to create a “Congress and Concert” center attracting 5,000 or so people each night to different social, political and commercial events.

VIII. The CPJCE, before seeing any plans, approved the project. The Jewish people as a whole raised its voice against the project, noting the extensive excavation that would have to take place to provide for sewers, water, heating, and other services to bring a derelict 1971 building up to the standard of 2019 and 2020 crowds. The resulting excavation and exhuming of the dead would cause further desecration of the cemetery and defiling of the dead.

IX. Others pointed out that the mere presence of this Sports Palace, even without the presence of thousands of participants (and sometimes revelers) desecrates the cemetery. A bill passed in Congress in 2014 declares cemetery desecration a violation of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

X. Many point to the danger of this Sports Palace project serving as a precedent to violation of Jewish cemeteries throughout Eastern Europe. There are several thousand Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe in locations where the Jews were brutally murdered by the Nazis. Often, tombstones and other grave markers were removed under Communist rule, while the graves underground remained in place. Developers view these seemingly empty areas as ideal for building. Shnipishok could serve a trigger for the destruction and defiling of Jewish cemeteries everywhere.

XI. Violating a grave violates a person’s human rights. A person purchases a grave, makes arrangement for burial – and is assured that his/her grave will remain untouched in perpetuity. This undertaking is integral to the person’s current humanity, personage, and rights. Abrogating this undertaking, treating the body as chattel negates the humanity and worth of the person ex post facto.

XII. Cemeteries belong to the people lying therein. Nobody has a right to disturb, dislodge, defile the dead, or to desecrate the cemetery as a whole.

B. Fryshman January 8, 2019

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