Government halts apartment construction near Jewish cemetery site

The Baltic Times
Autors: TBT Staff and Wire Reports, VILNIUS
September 13, 2007
The Lithuanian government announced on Sept. 7 that city authorities will be asked to suspend the construction of a controversial luxury apartment block near the Snipiskes Cemetery in central Vilnius.

Construction work on the King Mindaugas apartments near the 600-yearold Jewish cemetery is on standby until the developers, along with religious and historical institutions, can more precisely determine the graveyard”s boundaries. Religious groups fear that the building may infringe on the cemetery”s territory.

The continued construction of the project has sparked worldwide indignation and has been making international headlines over the past few months.

“It has become an international problem for us… The developer should realize that it needs to seek a compromise,” Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas told journalists.

A series of demonstrations by outraged Jewish groups has captured attention in the United States and the European Union. Orthodox Jews from Lithuania, Belgium and other EU member states rallied outside the EU headquarters in Brussels on July 31.

However, the developer of the commercial and luxury apartment complex, located near the Neris River, has told the media that the construction is outside the former graveyard”s territory.

“There are no new legal reasons to halt the construction, except a political desire,” Edvinas Butkus, a spokesman for the developer, told Reuters on Sept. 10.

The King Mindaugas apartment complex is the second building project in two years that city officials have allowed in the area. The city first sold the land, halfoccupied by the cemetery, to a local developer in 2003.

In May the city announced it had reached an agreement with a group of foreign experts to halt construction work until archaeologists, historians and religious experts could survey the disputed area. But the construction continued.

Religious and historical groups worry that Vilnius” rich Jewish history is fading away.

“Unfortunately the Lithuanian government and the Vilnius municipality are not sensitive to such an important issue. This could not happen in a [Western] European state,” Chief Rabbi of Lithuania, Chaim Burshtein told the Israel Insider online news magazine on Aug. 23.

Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas appointed Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas on Aug. 27 to head a work group on the issue.

Experts estimate that 10,000 Jews have been buried in what was one of the region”s largest Jewish cemeteries. Most of its tombstones were destroyed in the 1950s.

A memorial is scheduled to be installed in the cemetery by the end of this year.