Radio Documentary: Vilnius Sports Palace (Šnipiškės Jewish Cemetery)
As produced (English summary below) by the Lithuanian Public National Radio (LRT)
Andrius Kulikauskas, philosopher, founder of Respect Cemeteries (Gerbkime Kapines)
Itzik Pines, main plaintiff in the court case, the descendant of Vilna Gaon
Chaya Fried, from savevilna.org, front person of international movement.
Aida Štelbienė, researcher of architecture, who made a quality research about the Vilnius habitants connection with the building, and how it was an important place of events for Lithuanian independence.
Mindaugas Sinkevičius, head of Turto bankas
Rūta Matonienė, Senior Adviser of Chief City Architect
Rabbi Elchonon Baron, the leader of international coalition to save cemetery in Snipishok.
Faina Kukliansky, the head of Lithuanian Jewish Community (her quotes were taken from a radio show which was made in 2017).
What the main players have to say:
This radio documentary program invites the audience to look at the City of Vilnius from the hill of the Gedimina castle. The area of the cemetery and of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports is well visible from that vantage point. The program shows why that area is important to the Jewish people, relevant to the history of Lithuania. It details how this place generates different feelings and formulates the future visions, as perceived by the different groups. The radio documentary observes the timeline of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports construction, as well as developments and events in the years of Independent Lithuania. At the end of the year of the Vilna Gaon, proclaimed by the Lithuanian Parliament, the program also takes a glimpse into the heritage and legacy of the Vilna Gaon.
Summary of people who talked on the radio program in sequence and a review of some of their thoughts:
"The desecration of cemeteries was a systemic and intentional act by the Soviets." ~ Andrius Kulikauskas
Andrius Kulikauskas is a philosopher, initiator and editor of Respect Cemeteries (Gerbkime Kapines). He helps to depict the historical view of the Old cemetery of Piramont, by looking through archival photographs. In his words, the choice to care or not to care about the history of this cemetery needs to be considered. It will help to understand why so many people feel hurt. He focuses on the level of sensitivity that needs to be appropriated. He also reminds us that the desecration of cemeteries was a systemic and intentional act by the Soviets, as recorded in the annals of history. Andrius Kulikauskas also shares the thought that Vilnius had created a welcoming atmosphere for the Vilna Gaon to concentrate on his work and studies. Every time he departed for a journey, he always came back to Vilnius.
"To be a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, is a huge honor and a motivating factor to be a better person." ~ Itzik Pines
Itzik Pines is the lead plaintiff in the court case to prevent reconstruction works on the territory of the Concert and Sports Palace, He is a descendant of the Vilna Gaon. He shares what it means to be a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, that it is a huge honor and a motivating factor to be a better person. He mentions that during his last visit to Vilnius, when he was accompanied by his brother, a Lithuanian stopped them on a street and asked if they were Jews. When he answered to the affirmative, the man asked if they knew Vilna Gaon. When Itzik answered that they were descendants, the man started hugging them. This moment proved to Itzik, that Lithuanians feel deep respect for Vilna Gaon. He explains that according to Jewish belief, even if the remains are relocated from the original burial place, it still remains holy. He shares that he and others anticipated and hoped that the Lithuanian government and the Lithuanian people would appreciate why this cemetery is holy and important for Jewish people across the globe, why the plans to develop the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports would mean further desecration. Since the plan was not scuttled, he and more than 200 descendants of Vilna Gaon were compelled to file their legal action.
"The interred are "living memories" of our heritage." ~ Chaya Fried.
Chaya Fried from savevilna.org, is the front-person for the international movement. She also helped to translate Itzik Pines' interview from Hebrew. In the radio show she reminds us of the Tzadikim – the many pious people who are buried in the Piramont cemetery, explaining how these people live forever. These Holy people who are interred in the cemetery, are "living memories" of our heritage. They wrote books which continue to be studied and read all around the world, by millions of Jewish women, men. These Jewish communities study from these works and accordingly, the wisdom which is shared across generations, connects millions for eternity.
"It (the Sports Palace), was the site of the public funeral of 13 Lithuanians killed by Soviet troops during the January events in 1991." ~ Aida Štelbienė
Aida Štelbienė, is a researcher of architecture, who used the phenomenological method of research, to detail the inhabitants of Vilnius and their connection with the building of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports. It was also an important place of events for Lithuanian independence. She reminds us of the conference which marked the founding of the Reform Movement of Lithuania, that it took place here in 1988. This movement became the force which led to Lithuania achieving independence from the Soviet Union. It was also the site of the public funeral of 13 Lithuanians killed by Soviet troops during the January events in 1991. She says that events which took place in this building during the Soviet times had sown the seeds of community, solidarity and resistance which led to the movement of Independence. She shares that many of the people who she had interviewed, remember the time in this building very fondly and that keeping it empty and abandoned makes them feel hurt.
"There are many ethnical groups in Lithuania and we have to find consensus." ~ Mindaugas Sinkevičius
Mindaugas Sinkevičius is head of Turto bankas. On the question of how the ongoing court case, petition and many other opposing appeals affects the plans of reconstruction, he answered that since there is no court decision nothing changes. Opposition to the conference center development is expected. All big projects face disagreement. He added that Turto bankas is doing everything that the Government is obliged to accomplish including cooperation with 1) the Lithuanian Jewish community and 2) the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. The process of this cooperation was arranged to achieve a respectful way to protect and preserve the Old Jewish cemetery by the Palace of Sports. Therefore potential solutions were reconciled with said organizations, and according to him, there was a lot of effort invested to structure this project in a proper fashion. To the question of why opposition to the conference center project exits, if resolution was achieved prior to going ahead with the project, he answered that Turto bankas is aware of this opposing opinion. However, there are many ethnical groups in Lithuania and we have to find consensus. He added that due to historical events, the building became precious for many Lithuanians. Due to the fact that the edifice is on the Real Estate Heritage list, it has to be protected. Further, the Old Jewish cemetery is also on a Heritage list, and therefore according to Mindaugas Sinkevičius the project was made to commemorate and preserve both places, the cemetery and the Sports Palace. Separately, there is a government decision to establish a museum in the building of the Conference center. This museum according to their plan, will be not about the history of Lithuania, but rather about the history of the cemetery in Šnipiškės, and other Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania.
Rūta Matonienė, Senior Advisor to Chief City Architect. On the question of whether there is a need for a conference center for Vilnius she answered that currently, Vilnius is loosing the battle with neighboring countries which already have international conference centers. She says that since the moment the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports was inscribed into the Real Estate Heritage list its fate was determined – it has to be protected and adapted for usage. She explained that the layout of the building is very adaptable and the infrastructure around with the hotels and restaurants is convenient for the future guests.
"The Lithuanian government, in choosing to stop the reconstruction plans could make this site a significant attraction for Jewish and international tourism." ~ Rabbi Elchonon Baron.
Rabbi Elchonon Baron is the leader of the international coalition to save the cemetery in Snipishok. He gave reasons based on Judaism why it is important to protect the cemetery and to stop the plans of construction of the Palace of Concerts and Sports. He explains why building a conference center on a Jewish cemetery is in terms of Jewish law unanimously defined as desecration. By the example of the Czech Republic he said that the Lithuanian government, in choosing to stop the reconstruction plans could make this site a significant attraction for Jewish and international tourism. On the other hand if the Conference center would be completed, everyone who comes to Vilnius will understand, “This is the Conference Center which stands on the cemetery!” He described what the Lithuanian Yeshiva movement means, that it originated from the Vilna Gaon, and that this huge movement of millions of people today, stands for the protection of cemetery. He also shares the vision of the architects in New York, of how the Sport Palace could be preserved and made into a monument for all who cared.
"The Lithuanian Jewish community has never expressed clear opinion what to do with the building." ~ Faina Kukliansky
Faina Kukliansky, is the head of Lithuanian Jewish Community (her quotes were taken from another radio show which was made in 2017). She said that the Lithuanian Jewish community has never expressed clear opinion what to do with the building, because she is not a specialist in these matters and therefore doesn't have a right to comment what should or what should not be done. Accordingly, they gave this matter to the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, for due consideration. She says that it's not the 15th or 16th century. Neither are they fanatics who wish to talk down the government. She adds a comment that the content of the petition is misleading and shouldn't be discussed.