Chief Lithuanian rabbi opposes construction over ruined cemetery

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — The chief rabbi of Lithuania said he opposed the government’s plan to build a convention center on what used to be Vilnius’ oldest Jewish cemetery.

Rabbi Chaim Burshtein told JTA on Friday that he resisted the proposed construction on the former grounds of the Snipiskes cemetery because “it risks massive destruction of human remains.”

Burshtein’s opposition is to a plan announced by Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkeviciaus in April to demolish what in Soviet times used to be Vilnius’ main sports complex and build a modern conference center on the area.

ADVERTISEMENT

Burshtein and other rabbis oppose the plan because Soviet authorities built the sports center on a centuries-old Jewish cemetery where many of Lithuanian Jewry’s luminaries are buried. The cemetery is destroyed but many bodies are buried in the ground, according to Dovid Katz, a member of the Jewish Community of Lithuania who opposes the planned construction.

In his statement in April, Butkeviciaus said the construction project “is not possible without commemorating the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery,” adding the government would announce an international competition for an appropriate monument.

But Burshtein said his office would remain “firmly opposed to any construction, save, perhaps internal renovations to the existing structure as long as it does not require any significant digging.” Burshtein urged the leadership of Lithuania’s Jewish community to oppose the plans.

But Lina Saulenaite, an official from the Government Chancellery, told the Baltin News Service last month that the Jewish Community of Lithuania agreed to the plan. Also in April, Prime Minister Butkeviciaus received a delegation of rabbis from the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe led by London-based Rabbi Schlesinger. He “assured the group that the renovation work will be done under complete supervision,” a statement by the group read.

But on Friday, several influential rabbis from Israel’s haredi Orthodox Litvak community — Shmuel Auerbach; Meir Soloveitchik; Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz and Tzvi Rotberg — were quoted in the New York-based Der Yid newspaper saying they oppose the plan because it would lead to a “desecration of graves.”