After years of conflict and extended negotiations, an agreement has been signed in Vilnius last Wednesday afternoon, to protect the old Vilnius (Vilna) Beis Olom at Snipiskes, containing many thousands of kevorim including those of the great geonim and tzadikim who brought the historic Vilna kehilla fame as ‘Yerusholayim of Litta’, and recognising it as a heritage site protected under Lithuanian law.
The agreement was signed by Rav Elyokim Schlesinger Rosh Yeshiva Horomo – London, on behalf of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, Dr. Simonas Alperavičius Executive Director of the Lithuanian Jewish Community and Ms Diana Varnaite Head of the Cultural Heritage Department of Lithuania. The meeting was also attended by: Rabbi Gershon Tzvi Gluck - Rabbinical Board CPJCE, Mr. Arieh Klein - Geotechnical consultant, Ms. Faina Kukliansky - Chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Community, Mr. Donatas Valančiauskas - Vice Minister of Culture, Mr. Šarūnas Adomavičius - Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Renaldas Augustinavičius - Representative of the Cultural Heritage Department and Mr. Saulius Jaskelevičius - Counsellor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Throughout the conflict, there had been extreme difficulty in establishing and obtaining agreement from all sides on the exact original boundaries of the cemetery. But the final agreement grants full protection to the entire area of the largest of all the cemetery maps, and in addition recognizes a buffer-zone around the largest of these maps. No disturbance of the protected area is allowed at all, and even in the buffer-zone (which surrounds the cemetery) any excavation of any kind will require supervision under rabbinical guidance, as approved by the Lithuanian Government on 18th May 2009.
The CPJCE has been actively involved in this campaign over several years, with ongoing meetings in London and Vilnius and many site visits, as well as a geotechnical study and sub-surface scan, which confirmed the existence of graves over the site, contradicting the denials of this fact expressed previously by some Lithuanian government officials.
The Committee’s Rabbinical Board were involved throughout the campaign and especially in the approval of all action taken to delineate the cemetery boundaries. The Rabbonim discussed and approved all details of the agreement signed, at a special meeting in London last Sunday.
The actual signing of the agreement was carried out in Vilnius with great ceremony and speeches were delivered by a number of government dignitaries. Rav Schlesinger spoke on behalf of the CPJCE, describing the occasion as, “A day when the truth has been recognized, which is a revelation of the Divine presence in the world … and an act of peace and justice bringing closer a better world which we are all awaiting.”
Before the ceremony, the Rosh Yeshiva and Rabbi Gluck were received by Lithuanian Prime Minister Mr. Andrius Kubilius, who expressed his pleasure at the historic agreement having been reached. The rabbonim were also welcomed by Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Lithuanian Ambassador to London Mr. Vygaudas Ušackas, who had been involved in efforts to settle this issue when still in England.
A CPJCE spokesman said that the Committee felt privileged to be involved in the protection of the many thousands of kevorim in the Snipiskes cemetery and expressed special thanks to Vilnius Jewish community leaders, Dr. Simonas Alperavičius chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish community, and also to Mr. Simon Butt British Ambassador to Lithuania and to US Ambassador Mr. John A. Cloud and their diplomatic staff for their devoted efforts to reach this historic agreement.
The Vilna Beis Olom dates back several hundreds of years, and was officially closed for burials over 100 years ago. Government attempts to seize sections of the Beis Olom were resisted by the Vilna kehilla under the gaon Rav Chayim Ozer Grodzenski. Later, under Soviet rule, the remaining matzevos were removed and a Sports complex was erected on one part of the cemetery. With great effort, the kehilla was able to remove the kevorim of the Vilna Gaon, the famous Ger Tzedek Avrohom ben Avrohom and a few other tzadikim, to the new cemetery. Remarkably, the sports complex and all other buildings on the cemetery at the time have fallen into disuse or collapsed, and the new democratic Lithuanian government wished to redevelop the entire area as a new residential neighborhood and business centre.
International protests and efforts to save the cemetery began immediately, but unfortunately, two buildings were erected on the cemetery area before the election of the current Lithuanian government, while international Jewish organizations were also divided on the best approach to save the cemetery. The current government has shown a new understanding of Jewish concerns for the sanctity of the area and a determination to come to an agreement, which has at last been achieved.
The CPJCE and the rabinnical Board express their deepest gratitude and sincere thanks for the jewish Community of Vilnius, and especially to Dr. Simonas Alperavičius- Director of the Lithuanian Jewish community, Mr. Simon Gurivicius -Excutive Director of the Jewish Community in Lithuania, and Ms. Faina Kukliansky - Chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Community, for their firm standing, conviction, and commitment, throughout the campaign of saving this ancient cemetery in perpetuity. Their help is greatly appreciated and the remarkable outcome of their wonderful efforts will remain widely acknowledged by the Jewish Community all over the world.
The CPJCE expresses its sincere thanks and appreciation to the Conference of European Rabbis, and especially to Rabbi Aba Dunner-Chairman of CER, Mr. Philip Carmel-Director of International relations at the CER, and Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag-One of the leading Rabbis of the CER for their selfless devotion and tireless efforts all along the campaign, and arranging high ranking meetings in Brussels with the European Parliament, attending the many meetings in Vilnius and abroad, and being active partners in the working group set up by the Lithuanian Authorities in May 2007, to resolve this issue, like the many other cemetery issues that the CER is very helpful and actively involved with the CPJCE.
The CPJCE hopes that this will set an example once again for Governments and local Authorities all over, that these sensitive issues of safeguarding and preserving Jewish cemeteries in Europe can be resolved by positive negotiations and mutual understanding.