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August 16, 2021 6:44 pm
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Jewish Activists Declare Victory as Lithuanian Government Shelves Plans to Build Conference Center on Vilnius Cemetery Grounds

avatar by Ben Cohen

A view of an abandoned ‘sports palace’ build by the Soviet authorities on top of a 15th-century Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. Photo: Screenshot

The government of Lithuania announced on Monday that it was shelving widely-criticized plans to build a cutting edge convention center on land containing graves from the Old Jewish Cemetery in the capital Vilnius — previously known as Vilna.

A statement to local media from the Lithuanian government chancellery observed that the COVID-19 pandemic had “changed the conference tourism market and environment, so the plans are adjusted due to the previous visions of this project.”

The Vilnius Congress Center had been scheduled to launch in 2023. However, the funds allocated to the project have been removed from the state budget, the government confirmed.

Jewish groups had opposed the project, claiming that the construction of the conference center to replace a disused Soviet-era sports hall located on the grounds of the cemetery violated the graves of those buried there. Several of the individuals interred at the cemetery were noted Jewish scholars who gave Vilna its reputation as the “Jerusalem of the North.”

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A hearing at the Lithuanian parliament last October featured a witness statement from a prominent Lithuanian academic and member of the Jewish community, Prof. Josif Parasonis, who produced evidence showing that the site of the planned conference center lay in the middle of the old cemetery.

Prof. Dovid Katz, a Vilnius-based Jewish scholar who edits Defending History — a website dedicated to combating the political manipulation of the Holocaust and preserving Jewish life in eastern Europe — told The Algemeiner on Monday that the Lithuanian government’s announcement was a “major success.”

The decision to abandon the conference center project “teaches us that fighting for what is right is not futile, even when powerful entities and their leaders warn you not to be a Don (or even a Dovid) Quixote,” said Katz, who has waged a dogged campaign to preserve the cemetery’s integrity.

“It would be abominable for thousands of revelers to cheer and sing surrounded by thousands of Jewish graves in our cherished Vilna, graves going back over half a millennium,” Katz added. “This would never be countenanced for the majority Christian population. Simple equal rights, and human rights, extend to the right of the departed to be left in peace in the burial grounds purchased by their families in freehold perpetuity.”

Katz also paid tribute to a group of individuals who “had the courage to stand up,” he said.

The group includes “Vilnius’s own Ruta Bloshtein, whose petition garnered over 50,000 signatures; the chief Rabbi of Lithuania, Chaim Burshtein, who lost his position in 2015 for speaking up; the Christian-background Vilnius intellectuals Julius Norwilla and Andrius Kulikauskas, whose writings will go do down in history for the equal rights principles and the values of Lithuanian-Jewish harmony that they so eloquently express,” Katz said.

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