Expert Court Witness Challenges Lithuanian Government’s Plan to Construct Convention Center Atop Historic Jewish Cemetery
A court in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius has heard an appeal from over 100 descendants of Jews buried in the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery against a government plan to build a state-of-the-art convention center on top of the burial grounds.
The thousands of deceased interred at the cemetery include successive generations of Jewish scholars whose efforts gave Vilnius — formerly Vilna — the reputation of the “Jerusalem of the North.”
The key witness at Thursday’s hearing was Professor Josif Parasonis — a founding member of the Vilnius Jewish Community and one of Lithuania’s foremost experts on building science.
Parasonis challenged the Lithuanian government’s claim that the conference center, which is in turn being constructed out of the ruins of a Soviet-era indoor sports hall, lies outside the boundaries of the cemetery.
He pointed to a map of the area drawn up by local experts and approved by government officials in 2005 which showed that the site of the conference center lies in the middle of the cemetery.
The hearing was observed by members of Defending History (DH), an activist group of scholars who are campaigning in Lithuania and internationally to protect the remains of the cemetery.
“One could not leave today’s hearing without feeling the disturbing dissonance between a state policy of declaring 2020 to be the Year of the Gaon of Vilna, while pursuing further desecration of the cemetery where the Gaon’s relatives lie buried, and mocking the Jewish communities worldwide that are so proud to have the names of Lithuanian towns in their current and permanent identities,” wrote DH’s Julius Norwilla in a detailed report of Thursday’s proceedings.
International opposition to the construction project has escalated in recent months. Among those who have protested are three US senators — Benjamin Cardin (D – Maryland.), Pat Roberts (R – Kansas), and James Risch (R – Idaho) — who wrote to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė calling for the convention center to be sited at a different location.
Opposition to the construction at the Jewish cemetery has also come from members of the Israeli Knesset, as well as the chief rabbis of Israel and South Africa.