The Lithuanian government has halted its plan to build a $25 million conference center on top of the Snipisek Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius due to the coronavirus, after years of petitioning by Jewish historians and organizations.
Vilna, once one a flourishing center of Jewish life and learning, was decimated by the Holocaust. What remained includes Vilna’s “old” cemetery, with the resting place of the Ger Tzedek, the Chayei Adam, Reb Zalman of Volozhin, and many other Lithuanian Gedolim.
Sadly, none of the original tombstones remain — victims of Nazi occupation and Soviet rule.
The Vilna Gaon was originally interred there, but his remains were moved in the 1950s, when the communist Soviet government began construction of a sports complex on the cemetery’s edge.
Despite international efforts to protect Snipisek, the Lithuanian government’s designation of the site as a “former Jewish cemetery” has allowed several construction projects to go on.
The site was granted “Cultural Heritage” protection in 2009, but it continued to be used as a staging ground for public events for more than a year after that.
In 2017, 12 members of the United States Congress sent a letter to the Lithuanian government, asking them to halt plans to built over the cemetery.
In 2020, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America sent a letter to Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, urging him to protect the cemetery.
“The cemetery in Shnipeshok occupies a prominent place in the hearts of Jews the world over. Great sages and scholars, whose piety and leadership are revered still today, and whose written scholarship is studied today, are buried there. All cemeteries deserve respect; the Old Jewish Cemetery in Shnipeshok deserves special respect,” they wrote.
Despite protests, the building project moved forward until 2021, due to the sinking popularity of conferences amid the pandemic making it financially unfeasible.
“We are pleased to report this week that the plans for construction were suspended by the government of Lithuania. We commend the government of Lithuania for making the right decision on this important matter,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.
Updated Thursday, August 19, 2021 at 2:19 pm .
Updated Monday, August 23, 2021 at 12:50 pm .