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Expert witnesses certify Sports Palace located in heart of Jewish cemetery

VILNIUS, October 2, 2020 - At a court trial which is opposing a plan for of a conference center on a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania, expert witnesses, Dr. Shnyer Leiman and Professor Josifas Parasonis testified that the proposed development is located in the heart of the cemetery on the site of the Sports Palace.

Government officials have stated that "the Sports Palace is a building which constitutes the last official desecration of the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. In 1950 and 1970, the Russian rulers defiled the ground with the construction of a swimming pool and Palace of Concerts and Sports (known as the Sports Palace)."

The witnesses in the court case in Lithuanian courts, Dr. Shnyer Leiman and Professor Josifas Parasonis provided their respective written and oral testimony confirming the precise location of he cemetery.

Professor Josifas Parasonis is Professor of Architectural Engineering, Civil Engineering, & Structural Engineering at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. He is knowledgable on the maps of the Shnipishok cemetery and was able to provide map coordinates of the geographical position of the cemetery.

Dr Leiman bears the title of “Distinguished Professor” of Jewish History and Literature at Touro College Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and Visiting Professor of Jewish History and Literature at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University. He is also a Professor Emeritus of Jewish History and Literature in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College (where I taught from 1981 to 2012).

Dr. Leiman has served as Skirball Fellow in Judaic Studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (1994); Lady Davis Fellow and Visiting Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University (1990); and as Visiting Professor of Jewish History at Harvard University (1984). Prior to his arrival at Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University, he served as Professor of Jewish History and Literature at Yale University, where he administered graduate and undergraduate programs in Judaic Studies. He also served as Visiting Scholar in Jewish Law and Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Dr Leiman is the author of Rabbinic Responses to Modernity (2007); The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture (second edition, 1991); the editor of The Canon and Masorah of the Hebrew Bible (1974); He is an Associate Editor to entries to Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Judaica, and Encyclopedia Miqra’it. He is the Associate Editor of Tradition, where he contributes to the column entitled “From the Pages of Tradition,” and he has served as Editor of the Yale Judaica Series of Yale University Press from 1988 to 1996. Dr. Leiman earned his doctorate from the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and has rabbinical ordination from the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York. He has also written a series of essays relating to the Jewish History of Lithuanian Jewry.

Given Dr. Leiman's knowledge of Jewish History and Literature, and the extensive research work he has conducted on the Old Jewish Cemetery at Piramont in the Shnípeshok district of Vilnius (Šnipiškės), he is considered an expert in historical matters and details that relate to the cemetery. He has also appeared as a narrator to a mini-documentary on the history of the Shnípeshok cemetery, which can be viewed on YouTube. See video

Dr. Leiman cited throughout his affidavit, Israel Klausner’s A History of the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilna [written in Hebrew; the Polish title is: Dzieje starego cmentarza Žydowskiegow Wilno] Vilna, 1935. in his affdavit, Dr. Leiman stated, "It is the most comprehensive and most accurate monograph written on the history of the old Jewish cemetery of Vilna. Klausner (1905-1981), born in Trakai , moved to Vilna where he attended local schools and ultimately graduated from the University of Vilna. His published works (aside from the monograph cited above) include: A History of the Jewish Community of Vilna [written in Hebrew], Vilna, 1938; Vilna During the Lifetime of the Gaon of Vilna [written in Hebrew], Jerusalem, 1942; Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania 1881-1939 [written in Hebrew], Jerusalem, 1983, 2 vols.; and Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania 1495-1881 [written in Hebrew], Jerusalem, 1988. Aside from these major publications, he published scores of studies on Lithuanian Jewry in a wide variety of scholarly periodicals. His scholarly credentials are impeccable; his works are cited regularly by the major historians writing on the history of Jewish life in pre-World War II Lithuania and Poland. Klausner’s maps of the old Jewish cemetery were charted in Vilna. The accuracy of his maps is impeccable. He spent endless hours in the cemetery and copied many of its epitaphs. The maps can be compared to any of the other maps charted in the first half of the 20th century. They are all essentially the same. His recording of the place and identity of the 300 or so tombstones that were still standing in 1935 is immaculate. This is easily proven by the many photographs (several hundred) in public and private collections throughout the world. In the photographs one sees row after row of tombstones, many with Hebrew epitaphs that can still be read. In every case, what one sees on the photographs matches exactly what was recorded by Klausner." "Dr. Leiman assisted the Plaintiffs by providing information about the history of the Old Jewish Cemetery and information about those who were buried in the cemetery from the time of its inception until 1830.

"The geographical location of the cemetery is clear to anyone who has examined the evidence. Its precise borders have marginally changed over the years, but its center was and still is namely, precisely where the Sports Palace is standing to this very day.

"We have reliable maps from the 19th century on; we have hundreds of photographs from the first half of the 20th century (through 1950) of mausoleums, graves, and fences of the cemetery which leave no doubt where the heart of the cemetery was and still is, the Sports Palace, standing to this day, is in the center of the Old Jewish Cemetery.

"As is clearly proven by 17th century documents referred to by Meilus and Klausner, Jews were granted the rights to the Old Jewish Cemetery of Shnipishok forever. Dr Leiman further stated that it is also forbidden for Jews to be buried in land they do not own forever. It is clearly evident that the Gaon of Vilna, the foremost Torah scholar of the generation, was knowledgable in Jewish law. Accordingly, he would not have buried his mother, father and wives in a cemetery that violated Jewish law. The same is true for the hundreds of rabbinical scholars buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery. They too were familiar with Jewish law. This cemetery always belonged to the Vilnius Jewish community. Jewish communal records of the Zedakah Gedolah record the annual sums spent every year by the Jewish community for its upkeep, renewing its tombstones, hiring guards and caretakers, and building its fences. Pointedly, no Rent was ever paid to a Russian Czar or Polish overlord for the right to use a cemetery of which the Jews had full freehold rights. "

As an ordained rabbi, Dr. Leiman testified that according to Jewish law it is forbidden to use a Jewish cemetery for any other purpose than as a resting place for the deceased. "There is no precedent in Jewish law to permit the use of a cemetery for any other use. Accordingly, any “ruling" which ostensibly permits the development of a conference center on a Jewish cemetery is invalid according to Jewish law," Dr Leiman stated.

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