A petition has been launched to oppose the construction of a multi-million dollar conference centre on a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Before the Second World War, Vilnius (then Vilna) was home to a thriving Jewish community, whose oldest cemetery was at Piramónt in the Šnipiškės district.
The site was the resting place of the Vilna Gaon, acknowledged as one of the greatest talmudists, before his remains were moved to another Vilnius cemetery after the war.
In the Soviet era, all gravestones were removed and a vast sports hall was built in the middle of the site. Most of the graves on each of the four sides were left untouched, however, and thousands are still buried there.
The Lithuanian government is planning to spend $25 million on converting the now derelict sports building into a convention centre.
It consulted the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, which, after using a ground-penetrating radar, ascertained that the building was not standing on any human remains and has given its approval for the project.
“We’ve tried our very best to guard the sanctity of the cemetery. I’m not saying it’s an ideal situation, but we have cast-iron guarantees from the government that the land where the cemetery is will not be disturbed further in any way,” said Rabbi Herschel Gluck, a member of the committee.
The committee has also been told that a planned annex to the new convention centre will now be placed outside the boundary of the cemetery.
“At first the Lithuanian government wanted to redevelop the site entirely but we campaigned hard to stop this,” says Rabbi Gluck. “The people who are behind the petition are now putting in danger the preservation and protection of the cemetery and this is something that any feeling Jew will be affronted by.”
Although the Lithuanian Jewish community officially approves the redevelopment, many prominent local and international figures, including Rabbi Krelin, the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania, have signed the petition against it.
“It is sacred ground and should be restored as a cemetery and memorial park to which pilfered gravestones - which turn up all over the city - can be returned,” said Vilnius-born Ruta Bloshtein, who started the petition in mid-December.
Once it has 35,000 signatures, the petition will be presented to Lithuania’s President, Dalia Grybauskaite, as well as the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, in the hope that the convention centre will be moved to another site in Vilnius.
“This would never happen to a Christian or ethnic Lithuanian cemetery where great scholars of the past 500 years are buried,” said Professor Dovid Katz, a Vilnius-based historian and Yiddish scholar, who is also campaigning against the redevelopment.