How a country’s attempt to give well-deserved credit to a pious Jewish sage was hijacked and a nation’s honor ransacked.
VILNIUS - It should have been a moment of celebration, 300 years since one of the great Torah scholars came to this world. However, the enthusiasm was marred by a much bigger event: a horrific plan to build a conference center on a cemetery filled with over 50,000 Jewish souls.
Turto Bankas, the Lithuanian government-owned bank saw fit to move forward with its proposal. Despite international opposition to the development of a conference center on a cemetery, the developers, Turto Bankas, the Lithuanian government and the City Council of Vilnius pressed forward relentless in their efforts to execute the wholesale desecration of a cemetery which is a historical landmark.
Proclaiming the year 2020 as the year of the Vilna Gaon was an amazing idea. It had the makings of being a fitting tribute to a rabbinical giant, the likes of which Jewish communities had not seen for generations. It had the potential to solidify Jewish and Lithuanian relations, to inspire communities across the world who had some connection to Lithuania.
However, the enormous value which may have been achieved by the Year of the Vilna Gaon was hijacked by interest groups who were committed to following their own agenda. These groups totally ignored the importance which Jewish law attaches to cemetery preservation and to respect for the dead; in fact not so distant from generally accepted practice which is attributed by international law to cemeteries.
These assemblies and individuals placed their own personal interests before those of Lithuania. In the end the total disregard for Jewish law, indifference and lack of appreciation for the preservation of Jewish culture, overshadowed the merit which the Year of the Vilna Gaon may have produced.
Jewish communities the world over, respect and appreciate the tribute which the Seimas has bestowed on them, but they refuse to accept and eat caviar, while their brethren are being cattle-carred to the gas chambers. They refuse to be audience to the desecration of a cemetery in which their families were buried. Such an atrocity is no cause for celebration. Pretending so would be incongruent and hypocritical.
A Jewish interest group depicts the sentiments of disenchanted Lithuanian Jews in a video. They are shocked, angry and feel betrayed over the notion of a conference center on their family burial plot.
Rabbi Elchonon Baron, an activist for Jewish causes together with famed Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff are quick to point out that Jewish communities in Lithuania were not victim to train transportation to the camps. This is because 95 percent of the Jewish population was slain in Lithuania.
"However, most Jews want to move forward," a spokesperson for a Jewish community said. "We will never forget, but we are builders. We want to be part of that vision, to contribute towards making life better for everyone."
Unfortunately, an initiative which could have been an international success story, has become a case study for failed diplomacy and an example of how hijacking a noble cause for personal interest, can be a defeat for the greater good of the nation.
Descendants of the those Jewish families interned in the Shnipishok cemetery, have filed a class action suit in Lithuanian courts to stop the developers from building the conference center. Attorneys for the plaintiffs submitted expert evidence, certifying that the Sports Center is located in the cemetery and that the plaintiffs ancestors are buried there. Many of the plaintiffs are direct descendants of the Vilna Gaon. The case reference is (lith. Dėl uždraudimo atlikti veiksmus sukeliančius realią žalos padarymo grėsmę ateityje) Nr. e2-625-918/2020 in the District Court of Vilnius City.
Human rights groups have expressed concern over the likelihood of a just outcome, as they state that the Lithuanian court system is rigged. The next hearing is scheduled for November 24, 2020.