U.S. officially condemns cemetery fiasco

The Baltic Times
Adam Mullett, VILNIUS
October 9, 2008

Just one week before the national elections, the U.S. government has put pressure on its Lithuanian counterpart to resolve the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery situation.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that slams the Lithuanian government failing to protect the historic Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.
An international furor emanating from the United States began this year when new luxury apartment buildings were completed on top of the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.

The author of the bill, Republican Rep. Mike Ferguson, said the measure would bring increased international attention to the government”s failure to stop construction on the grounds of the Snipiskes cemetery.

“We”ve repeatedly asked the Lithuanians to stop construction until the cemetery”s boundary disputes could be resolved. Yet at every turn, the Lithuanian government has failed to be responsive and protect this sacred ground. It”s my hope that this resolution will shine muchneeded light on the Lithuanian government”s failure to act and ultimately motivate them to do the right thing,” the congressman said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that U.S. officials don”t understand what is happening in Vilnius.

“We would see this type of a resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives as not reflecting the actual situation,” ministry spokeswoman Violeta Gaizauskaite said.

She said the U.S. House of Representatives was ignoring the attention the Lithuanian government has already paid to the issue.

“We are hurt by the resolution passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, which was initiated a year back and which fails to take into consideration that the Lithuanian government has given considerable attention to issues of enshrining cultural heritage in Snipiskes, all the while closely cooperating with Jewish experts. The former Snipiskes Jewish cemetery has been granted status of cultural heritage of the Republic of Lithuania, and with it the corresponding legal protection,” Gaizauskaite.

Simonas Gurevicius, head of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, commended the Lithuanian government for solving the problem and said the U.S. resolution is an unfortunate echo of the feelings from the beginning of the issue.

“There has been big progress toward the solution of the Snipiskes problem, and we are happy with the government, but we see this resolution as an echo from that time — these resolutions take time to pass. The government was too slow to act at the beginning,” he said.

“The government has done a lot to resolve this issue and find a practical solution. The owners of the buildings have also agreed to make a memorial on the site of the cemetery so people can enjoy and remember it. This will be good for the city as well as the Jewish community.”

Following the complaint by the world Jewish community, the Lithuanian government funded a 350,000-litas (100,000-euro) geological study to determine the boundaries of the cemetery.

The Israeli company Geotec was hired to do a seismological study on the area, to be followed by an archaeological dig.

The dig made headlines after a rabbi who was supervising the study allegedly assaulted a photographer for stepping into a restricted area.

The dig was eventually stopped after human bones were discovered just 30 centimeters beneath the surface, leading some to believe the site is part of a mass grave.

Jewish leaders halted the dig reasoning that all human remains, Jewish or not, should be preserved and left to rest. Because the dig was halted prematurely, the boundaries of the dig were not established.