PRAGUE (JTA) – Jews inside and outside of Vilnius are outraged at Lithuanian officials who have allowed construction on land believed to cover part of the country’s largest Jewish cemetery.
Development of the King Mindaugas apartments is the second building project in two years that authorities have allowed on the area, one of the Lithuanian capital’s prime real estate sites.
The city in May reportedly agreed to an international expert committee’s recommendation that construction on the site be halted and that a geophysical survey be carried out in the disputed area. But construction has continued nonetheless.
“The government is playing a game with us, saying one thing and doing another,” Simon Gurevichius, executive director of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, told JTA in a telephone interview.
Gurevichius said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus promised the Jewish community that a second building would not go up, “and meanwhile the digging is going on at a frantic pace where we know there are Jewish bones.”
Estimates put the number of those buried at the Snipiskes Cemetery at some 10,000 over six centuries, although many bodies were removed by the Soviet regime when it controlled Lithuania. Prior to World War II, Vilnius was one of European Jewry’s most vital centers of religious life and education.
The city first sold part of a vast tract of land in the city center, occupied in part by the cemetery, to a local developer in 2003. Despite complaints by the 5,000-strong Jewish community, the city in 2005 allowed the construction of an apartment complex. Gurevichius estimates that apartment prices start at $400,000.
This February, the city granted a second building permit after receiving permission from the Ministry of Culture, which has the power to stop projects that interfere with ancient sites and ruins.
Based on archival research it commissioned, the city argued that the current construction does not overlap with the cemetery grounds.
After pressure and intervention from international voices such as the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius and the American Jewish Committee, the Lithuanian Prime Minister’s Office agreed in March to an expert committee of Jewish leaders, government officials and members of the historical institute that would try to resolve the boundary dispute.
The state-run Lithuanian Historical Institute declared in May that the construction area in question does encroach on the cemetery’s borders, but its recommendation to stop construction has been ignored. In an apparent bureaucratic snafu that Gurevichius attributes to ill will, the city and state authorities claim they are not following the institute document because it lacks the proper signatures.
Ina Irens, chief officer of the Vilnius municipal government’s international relations department, wrote JTA by e-mail that the city was aware of the controversy on the cemetery boundaries and was still waiting for the expertise from the Lithuanian Institute of History and the final document from the panel of experts.
The document in question was signed by the institute’s director, Gurevichius said, but one copy lacks the signatures of the two researchers who helped him. Now he worries that in a few months, the apartment building will be completed and the city will say, “It’s here now, it would just cost too much to tear it down,” Gurevichius said.
Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said the expert group’s 10 members – half of whom were Lithuanian – unanimously recommended that construction be halted until further research was conducted.
Baker said he told Lithuanian officials, including the foreign minister, that “this is an unacceptable response and surely the government could do more. It is hard not to conclude that the Lithuanian government has acted in bad faith.”
While the wrangling continues in Vilnius, the London-based Committee to Protect Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is convinced that the ongoing apartment construction, according to its own research in Vilnius, is disrupting the dead, which is a violation of Jewish law.
The cemetery committee, the Conference of European Rabbis and some 100 observant Jews held a prayer vigil in front of the European Commission in Brussels last week to protest the construction.
Abraham Ginsberg, the executive director of the cemetery committee, said: “We will protest at Lithuanian embassies around Europe, and men in black hats and long beards will lay down on the site if the construction does not stop.”