On January 2, 2018, Mr. Paul Packer (Chairman United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad) wrote in a lengthy communication, his condemnation of any proposal to use the Old Cemetery in Vilnius for a purpose other than as a cemetery. The text of the original letter is as follows.
January 2, 2018
Rolandas Rolandas Kriščiūnas,
Ambassador of Lithuania :
to the United States of America
Re: Snipiskes Jewish Cemetery
Dear Ambassador Kriščiūnas:
Thank you for meeting with me the other day. This letter will confirm my observations to you.
President Donald J. Trump has appointed me as Chairman of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. As you may know, this Commission was
established by United States law in 1985 to encourage the preservation and protection of the cemeteries, monuments and historic buildings associated with the foreign heritage of United States citizens. In particular, the duties of the Commission include encouragement of the preservation and protection of cemeteries located outside the U.S. that are associated with the foreign heritage of United States citizens from eastern and central Europe, especially those that are in danger of desecration.
In pursuant of the mission of the Commission, the government of the United States and the
government of the Republic of Lithuania entered Into an agreement at Vilnius on October 15, 2002. This agreement requires each country to take appropriate steps to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of all national, religious or ethnic groups that reside or resided in its territory, specifically including victims of genocide during the second World War. This obviously will include the former Jewish community of Lithuania which was most concentrated in the city of Vilnius. The agreement specifies that “cultural heritage” includes cemeteries. This agreement would prohibit, for example, any action by your government which would constitute or lead to desecration of cemeteries of the former Jewish community, including the Jewish cemetery at Snipiskes the entire surface of which was previously demolished during occupation by the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
In 2008, Congress passed a joint resolution expressing “outrage at the construction that
occurred within the perceived boundaries of the historic Jewish cemetery located in the
Snipiskes area of Vilnius, Lithuania" and declared: “cemeteries are sacred sites and are established to remain undisturbed in perpetuity, and the sanctity of a cemetery Is determined by the bodies burled therein" and that while “construction of a commercial building on the site disgraces the cemetery, it does not change its status.” The resolution went on to note that "the Jewish cemetery located In the Sniplskes area of Vilnius, Lithuania, is known by scholars within Lithuania and from around the world as the first Jewish cemetery In Vilnius and dates back to the 15th century, and it is believed that before the government closed the cemetery In the early 1800s, more than 50,000 Jews were buried there.”
Most tellingly, Congress even in that 2008 Resolution declared that “the fact that the
Government of Lithuania has allowed construction to take place within the perceived boundaries of the Jewish cemetery located in the Snipiskes area of Vilnius, Lithuania, and that desecration continues Into the 21st century is an affront to the International Jewish community, the American people, and everyone who values religious freedom and ethnic diversity around the world” and that “the failure of the Government of Lithuania to protect the Jewish cemetery located in the: Snipiskes area of Vilnlus, Lithuania, violates the October 15, 2002, bilateral agreement between Lithuania and the United States on the protection and preservation of certain cultural properties, including cemeteries.”
Finally, in October 2014, the United States Congress passed legislation which added desecration of cemeteries to the list of violations of religious freedom which are listed in the
International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, violations of which have certain adverse
consequences. This legislation determined that: “Cemeteries are sacred sites of great spiritual, cultural, and historical significance to many religious and ethnic groups" and declared that “Congress has committed to protecting and preserving the heritage and sacred sites of national, I religious, and ethnic groups, which includes cemeteries in the United States and abroad.”
With that crucial background, let me turn to the current problem. In 2009, your government entered into an agreement with representatives of the current Jewish community, of Lithuania and a private organization of Rabbis headquartered in London, which dealt with the Snipiskes cemetery and its future. The United States was not a party to that agreement, but the Secretary of State at the time expressed appreciation that progress was being made and “anticipates with pleasure the return of the cemetery to Its proper dignity and appearance.” Unfortunately, that anticipated return has not occurred. Instead, since the 2009 agreement there have been various plans announced for redevelopment: of the Soviet structure located In the middle of the cemetery (the Sports Palace) Into a cultural center or convention center. Those plans have been announced, then retracted, and apparently are currently under reconsideration, but they are not consistent with the 2002 agreement between our countries, the 2008 Congressional resolution, the 2014 U.S. legislation or the intended outcome even of the 2009 agreement.
As the new chair of the Commission, I have had the benefit of work done over the last several years by that Commission and in particular by a subcommittee that has been carefully studying the situation and circumstances of this cemetery for the last couple of years. The Commission met in Washington, D.C, with your Deputy Chief of Mission Midaugas Zickus and First Secretary Evelina Petrone on February 1, 2017. I also have had the benefit of consultation and input with a number of other individuals and groups who have taken great interest in developments at the cemetery, I am aware of the position of the London- headquartered group that was a party to the 2009 agreement as well as the many groups opposed to it both within and without the Jewish community, within the U.S. and worldwide (including many members of the Christian clergy in Lithuania and elsewhere). I am sensitive to the issues raised both by the prospect of major construction In the midst of the cemetery (with some essential ambiguity as to whether the current structure is located over actual human remains, but with the entire adjacent area clearly still holding human remains) as well as the potential future uses of the building after renovation are reconstruction.
My conclusion is clear: the proposed reconstruction of the Sports Palace, and ongoing use as a cultural center, in the middle of the cemetery is not consistent with the prior agreements between our countries, prior declarations of Congress, the general human rights principles of protecting the memory and human dignity of the deceased, the emotional sensitivities of the hundreds of thousands of adherents to the Yeshiva school of learning formerly centered In Vilnius and destroyed during and after World War Il and the concerns of a great many American citizens with ancestors buried in that cemetery. These activities would certainly constitute desecration of a cemetery under any definition applicable to U.S. law.
I am aware that certain individuals have Interpreted the 2009 agreement as permitting these
construction and ongoing usage activities. I do not read the agreement as permitting these
activities (although it is not as clear as it should be in prohibiting them). In any event, that
agreement, to which the United States was not a party, cannot override the obligations of your government to preserve the cemetery and the dignity and respect for those buried there.
I am very sympathetic to the desire of the municipality of Vilnius and your country for a world class cultural and convention center, and I am informed and am confident that there are other locations within Vilnius which will serve that purpose at least as well without causing the disrespect and desecration that the current proposal would engender. Selecting a different venue would also eliminate the controversy over use of the cemetery location that could discourage many individuals from taking advantage of the new center when completed, so that choosing a different location would be a sound economic and policy decision even apart from the human rights implications of the current Inappropriate location.
Because the plans are now being reconsidered, Including resolutions of your government within the last few months, this Is an opportune time for a new location to be identified and cannot urge you strongly enough to do so.
With regard to the cemetery Itself, once we have agreed (as I hope we will) that the proposed cultural center will not be built there, we believe that there are two items to be undertaken.
First, there should be an attractive, durable fence erected around the entire cemetery site
(including the so-called buffer zones and functional zones A, B and C), to avoid any inadvertent desecration or misuse by those who might be unaware that the area constitutes sanctified ground. (This would also discourage intentional misuse such as the reported dumping of several hundred gravestones from the Zaretcha cemetery, dating a century after the Snipiskes cemetery was closed, within the last few weeks.) We have identified funding sources within the United States and elsewhere outside of Lithuania that are prepared to provide the funds necessary for the design and installation of an appropriate fence, gates and signage, obviously subject to cooperation with your government on the appearance, materials and construction.
Second, the Sport Palace structure Itself appears to be problematic, I understand there are
concerns that it has become derelict, possibly unsafe and attracting inappropriate uses by
unauthorized persons. We have also identified sources of funding that would be prepare to take either of the following actions, depending upon the preference of the municipality:
a) We can arrange for the gentle demolition of the existing, defunct structure without the use of heavy equipment that would impinge upon and desecrate the grave sites and remains buried below the surrounding areas, The goal here would be to leave an undeveloped area consistent with the rest of the surface of the cemetery. In this case, there would also be appropriate commemoration markers and monuments for the cemetery, perhaps including a description of its history and some indication as to who was buried there and what has happened to the Lithuanian Jewish community. Based on historical photographs, detailed maps of the cemetery and other evidence, many of the grave markers can and should be
b) As an alternative, after making sure that the building is structurally sound, it should be stabilized without any new construction, without any heavy machinery that may cause earth moving (or Involve pile driving as under the current plans), and without adding any new installations that might require new service lines. The stabilized building should be used
solely for reflection and solemn prayer, as is the practice In other Jewish cemeteries and at the grave sites of Rabbinic leaders elsewhere. The building walls can be outfitted with memorial stones and fragments found throughout Vilnius, and wall plaques commemorating all those buried in the cemetery whose gravestones were destroyed. The area around the building can still be restored as indicated in alternative (a).
Of these two alternatives, (a) would be preferable.
For now, our immediate concern is to make sure that the all desecration, including the currently proposed construction, development and future use of this site, be halted, and to the extent that a cultural or convention center is necessary a different location be identified. We are also prepared to move forward on preservation of the cemetery itself In the manner described above on a schedule that may be convenient for you.
I thank you in advance for your attention to these concerns and I look forward to a positive
response that would permit us to move forward in a cooperative fashion.
Chairman United States Commission
for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad
CC: Hon. Saulius Skvernelis, Prime Minister of Lithuania
Remigijus Simagius, Mayor of Vilnius
Deputy Chief of Mission Midaugas Zickus
First Secretary Evelina Petrone