(JTA) — The president of Lithuania dismissed concerns raised by 12 U.S. Congress members over the planned construction of a conference center atop what used to be a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.
Responding to a letter sent last month by the lawmakers about the Piramont cemetery, Dalia Grybauskaitė on Monday told the BNS news agency that “decisions on Jewish cemeteries are taken together with the Lithuanian Jewish community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.”
The congressmen, including Randy Weber, R-Texas, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., wrote that the plans “conflict with the respect for human dignity.”
Lithuanian Jews are split on the approval for the project given by Faina Kukliansky, who heads the national umbrella group that is charged with representing the community. Kukliansky has long faced accusations of corruption, which she has denied.
A petition launched online against the plan last year has gathered approximately 40,000 signatures. Jewish Orthodox law prohibits disturbing human remains except in special cases.
Rabbi Avraham Ginsberg, executive director of the London-based committee on Jewish cemeteries, said the construction would not disturb the Jewish graves. Grybauskaitė cited the OK from the committee for the conference center plan.
In 2009, the committee was shown to be seeking $100,000 for “rabbinical supervision of digging” to be obtained by the Lithuanian government from developers. The sum was noted in a cable sent by a U.S. State Department official and leaked by WikiLeaks.
Ginsberg has said the sum was never paid and was a maximum estimate of expenses that his organization might incur while supervising the site.
The affair was highlighted on the website Defending History by Dovid Katz, a Vilnius Jew who has led efforts to stop the plan.
Meanwhile, many Jewish community members consider Kukliansky’s title illegitimate because of a contested internal election in May in which her administration voided the election of a critic to head the Vilnius community, where the vast majority of Lithuanian Jews live. Critics say the election was rigged by a last-minute change to voting procedures that gave the votes of association heads greater weight.
In their letter, the congressmen also referenced a House of Representatives resolution from 2008 condemning the advancement by Lithuania of the early stages of construction, which still has not begun.
The resolution states that “the fact that the Government of Lithuania has allowed construction to take place within the perceived boundaries of the Jewish cemetery” and that “desecration continues into the 21st century is an affront to the international Jewish community, the American people, and everyone who values religious freedom.”
The Piramont cemetery, also known as the Snipiskes cemetery, is the original burial site of the 18th-century sage known as the Gaon of Vilna. His remains were moved in 1949, before Soviet authorities destroyed the graveyard and built a gymnasium on its grounds. However, thousands of bodies, including many Jewish luminaries, are still buried in the area, which today is among the most valuable real estate assets in Lithuania.