Active members of the Jewish community, non-Jewish Lithuanian human rights activists, and people of Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) heritage internationally have been trying for years to draw the attention of authorities to a project that would cause untold harm to Lithuania’s reputation and make way for a congress center that many people of conscience would on principle refuse to enter in the years to come, says European Foundation of Human Rights in a press release.
According to the statement, in 2015, then chief rabbi of Lithuania warned that nobody has the right to the graves of the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius or to use it for a convention center. In 2016, Ruta Bloshtein, a Vilnius-born resident of the capital, initiated a petition “Please Move New Vilnius Convention Centre Project AWAY from the Old Jewish Cemetery”.
This year, Turto bankas (Lithuania’s state-owned Property Bank) is planning to announce a tender process for the Vilnius Congress Center’s rental in the future. A public discussion was held concerning drawing up rent documents, where petitioners took part as well. During this meeting, it became obvious that nobody was taking seriously the vast catalogue of local and international opposition, or the damage to Lithuania’s name that would ensue.
A legal case was brought before the court by a person of Litvak origin residing in Israel. His forefathers are buried in this very place. In this lawsuit, the court is asked to evaluate the fact that such a legal dispute would not, frankly, be taking place if this cemetery was not a cemetery of Jews, a national, ethnic and religious minority for the past seven hundred years, but a cemetery of Lithuanian Catholics. In gross violation of the principle of equal rights, the old Sports Palace is being reconfigured to become a new national center for congresses and conferences where people will dance, cheer and drink in bars on the graves of many thousands of Vilnius residents whose families duly paid for their burial plots in perpetuity. It is not right.
In the opinion of the European Foundation of Human Rights, which is coordinating this lawsuit, the matter at hand is a major instance of a much wider, and deeper, human rights issue. The old age of minority cemeteries (most emphatically of minorities that have largely disappeared locally as a result of Genocide), and their illegal past Soviet abuse, including pilfering of the gravestones, is no moral license for that wantonness to be continued today in the realm of the European Union and its human rights values, least of all where thousands of a city’s citizens still lie buried.
Turto bankas: boundaries of the cemetery were build 10 years ago
Meanwhile, Mindaugas Sinkevičius, CEO of Turto bankas, says that representatives of Turto bankas regularly meets with the Lithuanian Jewish Community and talks about issues.
"Knowing the sensitivity of the project, representatives of Turto bankas meet regularly with the Lithuanian Jewish Community. During the meetings representatives of Turto bankas presents the process of the project, as well as consultations on one or another solution or its implementation. There is a constructive dialogue on this important project", says he.
According to M. Stankevičius, the boundaries of the cemetery were established in 2009.
"In the same year, an agreement (protocol) between Lithuanian Government and Lithuanian Jewish Community was reached due to the boundaries of the cemetery. Later in 2016, there were pre-projective proposals, which were endorsed by the European Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries and for which we are continuing our work", states CEO of Turto bankas.
As M. Stankevičius adds, Turto bankas implements reconstruction of Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace by Government decision. Reconstruction of the building is planed in 2020-2021. After reconstructions, the building will operate as a Center of Congress. There will be events, congresses, and events of classical culture.