'It’s a welcome end to a dispute that's been going too long'

Lithuanian city vows to preserve ancient Jewish cemetery it had sought to dig up

Reversal in Vilnius follows highly publicized 10-year battle; activists issue two reports with cultural preservation strategies to avoid similar problems in the future

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

The Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports, a complex that was shut down a decade ago, is the site of a proposed $25 million conference center.  (JTA)
The Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports, a complex that was shut down a decade ago, is the site of a proposed $25 million conference center. (JTA)

The decade-long controversy surrounding the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery in Lithuania’s capital appears to have reached a resolution: Instead of building a convention center atop the burial ground, the Vilnius municipality will turn it into a monument for Lithuanian Jews.

The decision, announced Thursday by Lithuanian National Art Museum director Arūnas Gelūnas, puts to rest concerns about disturbing the remains of Jews believed by some to be buried under a Soviet-era building authorities wanted to tear down and replace. The plan set off a highly publicized legal fight between some Jewish community members and authorities — and also among Jewish groups.

“It’s a hugely welcome outcome to a dispute that has been going on for too many years,” Michael Mail, the chief executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, a nonprofit working to preserve such sites in Europe and the Middle East, told The Times of Israel Monday.

“We would have liked to see it resolved much sooner,” he added.

Mail’s organization on Tuesday published two reports that he described as a roadmap for municipalities, cultural preservation activists and other players on how to avoid the pitfalls that have turned the Snipiskes cemetery dispute into a protracted and costly saga.

The reports, whose publication date was not connected to the latest development in Lithuania, feature recommendations on how to turn at least 1,700 Jewish cemeteries in seven countries including Lithuania into centers of education about Jewish and local heritage and simultaneously attract tourists and their revenues to those sites to provide locals with an income.

The recommendations include creating regional ties across national borders in neighboring countries to offer tourist packages that combine several Jewish heritage sites. They also recommend cultivating a commitment to Jewish heritage sites in the municipalities where they are located to guarantee an active, constant involvement in preservation efforts.

The excavation at the medieval Jewish cemetery of Erfurt, Germany. (TLDA Ronny Krause)

“Stakeholders need to consider how visitors will access these sites, and how improved accessibility is balanced with ensuring visitors are visiting in good faith and respectful,” read one portion of the recommendations for the Lithuanian state.

Part of the criticism over the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery project was over the plan to build on the site a conference hall where alcohol and food would be sold — activities that critics said would disrespect Jewish graves.

The Soviets had razed the centuries-old cemetery and built a sports center on it. Vilnius authorities had planned to tear down that building, which is situated in one of the capital’s most prestigious neighborhoods, and build in its stead a multimillion dollar conference center. But opposition by local Jews who said it would disturb the bones of the Jews buried there delayed and ultimately thwarted the plan. Gelūnas, the museum director, said the sports center would be turned into a memorial monument.

Smoke billows among headstones of a Jewish cemetery that reportedly was bombed in Hulkhiv, Ukraine, May 8, 2022. (Dmitry Zhivitsky / Facebook )

Another questionable site in Lithuania is the Seventh Fort near Kaunas, a former Holocaust-era concentration camp strewn with bodies. It is now a privately owned museum that hosts weddings, camping activities, and children’s summer camps.

Besides Lithuania, where during the Holocaust Nazis and their collaborators murdered 141,000 out of the country’s 168,000 Jews, the reports also offer an overview of Jewish cemeteries in Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

In 2012, the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental body that is not part of the European Union, adopted a nonbinding resolution placing responsibility for the care of Jewish cemeteries on national governments. The resolution was based in part on a report that said Jewish cemeteries are “probably” more vulnerable than other cemeteries.

Meadows surround the ancient Jewish cemetery in Nagyteteny, Budapest, May 11, 2021. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

This reality is taken into account in the two new reports – one on Jewish cemeteries as educational centers and the other looking at them as visitor destinations — by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, which compiled them in an EU-funded collaboration with the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESJF) and Centropa, an organization devoted to preserving Central and Eastern European Jewish memory.

“Part of the vulnerability stems from the fact that these cemeteries have no users – in places where there are no Jews or very few of them,” Mail said. “One way of getting around that is making sure locals begin engaging with the local Jewish cemetery, either as a destination for tourism, a center for educating children about the town’s history, or both,” he said.

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