Jewish leaders fight to preserve Lithuanian cemetery

Delegation meets with ambassador to press its case

February 23, 2017 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The delegation came away hopeful following its meeting with Lithuanian Ambassador Rolandas Kriščiūnas (far right). Photo courtesy of Rabbi David Niederman
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A worldwide effort to save a historic Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania got a big boost when a group of religious leaders met with a top diplomat to present their case for preserving what is left of the burial grounds.

The delegation of Jewish leaders, which included several rabbis from Brooklyn, recently met Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Rolandas Kriščiūnas in an effort to stop a planned multi-million-dollar development in the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Shnipishok district of Vilnius, the nation’s capital.

The cemetery dates back over five centuries, according to a member of the American delegation.

During World War II, the Nazis cleared the cemetery of many of its tombstones, but thousands of human remains were left untouched beneath the ground. During the time Lithuania was part on the old Soviet Union (1944-1990), a sports palace was built on the cemetery grounds.

In 2005 and again in 2008, apartment complexes were built at the cemetery site.

As part of a new project, Lithuanian authorities are planning to construct a $25 million convention center on the site of the now-empty sports palace. Jewish leaders have expressed concern that the excavation work to be done for the project will result in the exhuming of skeletal human remains.

A worldwide protest that included an online petition on www.change.org which drew more than 38,000 signatures, called on the Lithuanians to select an alternative site for the proposed convention center.

Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, organized the meeting with the ambassador.

“Ambassador Kriščiūnas and his staff showed an interest in the concerns that were shared,” Niederman said in a statement following the session.

The delegation came away from the meeting hopeful, he added. “The reception was certainly different than prior meetings, and we were encouraged to hear that the government is currently reviewing its options. The rabbis expressed the readiness of worldwide Jewry to restore the cemetery and beautify it, as is appropriate for such a historic site, which is a testament to the Jewish-Lithuanian joint heritage,” he stated.

Two of the attendees, Rabbi Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Osher Kalmanowitz, are descendants of Lithuanian Jewish families. The two men have traveled to Vilnius to meet with government officials in an effort to save the cemetery.

At the meeting, the religious leaders talked about the sanctity of the cemetery site and called for the Lithuanian government to protect it.

A Jewish cemetery in the U.S. was also in the news this week following a shocking act of vandalism that took place there.

Vandals toppled more than 100 headstones in the Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery located in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, according to CNN, which reported that the vandalism was discovered on Feb. 20.

Within hours of the crime, volunteers came to the cemetery to help move some of the headstones back into place.

Support for the Jewish community poured in from all parts of the U.S. In one notable move, two Muslim-American community leaders, Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, started a fundraising campaign for the cemetery’s restoration that generated more than $100,000 in donations.

Vice President Mike Pence visited the cemetery on Feb. 22 and condemned anti-Semitism.

The petition to save the Old Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius can be found at: https://www.change.org/p/hon-dalia-grybauskaite-please-move-new-vilnius-convention-center-project-away-from-the-old-jewish-cemetery.


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