Viewing cable 06VILNIUS584

06VILNIUS5842006-06-21 14:14:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Vilnius
DE RUEHVL #0584/01 1721414
P 211414Z JUN 06
E.O. 12958: N/A 
REF: A. 05 VILNIUS 733 
     ¶B. VILNIUS 581 
¶1. (SBU) The newest front in Lithuania's struggle to come to 
terms with its troubled past is a Jewish cemetery that 
Russian Czars closed in 1830 and which they and the Soviets 
largely destroyed.  The site, known as the Snipiskes 
cemetery, has attracted the fervent interest of the Committee 
for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) 
and U.S.-based groups.  Their representatives dispute the 
boundaries of the cemetery and seek to prevent the commercial 
development of the area and further disturbance of any 
remaining graves.  A Lithuanian government commission is 
considering archeological evidence, the legal framework for 
protecting cultural heritage, and the public interest.  The 
commission's efforts to involve representatives of interested 
foreign parties have not succeeded, and initial contacts 
between the foreign groups and Lithuanian authorities have 
been acrimonious.  Meanwhile, the City of Vilnius has 
indicated its intention to purchase the property from its 
current private owner as part of an urban development 
strategy.  The Embassy has repeatedly engaged the Prime 
Minister and members of his government, the Vilnius Mayor, 
and representatives of local and international Jewish 
interest groups in an effort to encourage an amicable 
resolution to the controversy.  End Summary. 
¶2. (SBU) Archeological surveys indicate that the Old Jewish 
Cemetery of Vilnius (Snipiskes Cemetery) was active from the 
late 15th century until its closure by the Czar in 1830. 
Since that time, several major events disturbed and largely 
destroyed the Jewish Cemetery.  In 1831, the Czar ordered the 
construction of a fort on the north bank of the Neris River 
that destroyed much of the southern part of the cemetery.  In 
1901, an underground electrical station was built with 
several support buildings on the area.  Photographs from this 
era show that, while many parts of the cemetery were 
disturbed, a large portion remained intact.  After WWII, 
construction of the Zalgiris Stadium in 1950 by Soviet 
authorities destroyed tombstones and graves.  The Soviet 
rulers of Vilnius decided to destroy all remaining tombstones 
in 1955.  The 1971 construction of the Vilnius Sports Palace, 
an unsightly exemplar of socialist realism, and the 
installation of underground water, sewerage, and other 
services led to further destruction of graves in the area. 
While archeological evidence indicates that some burial sites 
remain subsoil, there is no above-ground evidence of the 
existence of the cemetery, except for a monument on the 
southeast corner of the site. 
¶3. (SBU) Two parcels -- the King Mindaugas apartment complex 
and the Sports Palace complex -- are at the heart of the 
controversy.  Construction of the Mindaugas complex began 
about three years ago on the foundation of an old swimming 
pool.  The Mission became aware of the controversy in June 
2005, when Amcit Rabbi Chizkiva Kalmanowitz contacted us 
about his concerns during a visit to Lithuania (ref A). 
Those concerns were not shared by Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, 
an American citizen who is the local Chabad rabbi.  Rabbi 
Krinsky told us last year that Chabad had previously viewed 
the Mindaugas site and had no problems with it.  Simonas 
Alperavicius, the president of the Lithuanian Jewish 
Community, gave us a similar assessment; in fact, 
Alperavicius told us that the city government's handling of 
the prior construction on the site had been commendable. 
¶4. (SBU) Construction in June 2005 was already well under 
way, and today it is mostly complete, with only interior 
finishing and some ground-leveling remaining.  Prior to 
commencing construction, contractors had archeological 
surveys performed and, on the basis of the findings, received 
construction permits.  The empirical evidence that this 
Mission has had the opportunity to review indicate that the 
site was outside the bounds of the cemetery.  (Note: 
Archeological surveys in 1996 and 2005 found random 
scattering of bones, but no Jewish graves in areas near the 
Mindaugas complex.  Historical maps from the 19th and 20th 
centuries also seem to place the Mindaugas complex outside 
VILNIUS 00000584  002 OF 004 
the cemetery boundaries.  End note.)  The CPJCE and others 
international groups dispute this conclusion and allege that 
the cemetery extended to the Mindaugas site. 
¶5. (SBU) The Sports Palace property indisputably rests in the 
middle of the former cemetery.  Archeological surveys from 
1996-1998 show the existence of undisturbed graves in the 
immediate vicinity of the Sports Palace.  During construction 
of a road adjacent to the Sports Palace property during 
2001-2003, the scattered remains of some 700-800 individuals 
were unearthed and reburied in a Jewish cemetery just outside 
Vilnius.  At the time of the roadwork, no international 
Jewish group questioned the act and Rabbi Krinsky presided 
over the reburial. Krinsky also said that Vilnius municipal 
authorities were conscientious in ensuring that the local 
Jewish community was able to relocate any disturbed remains. 
¶6. (SBU) The Lithuanian Confederation of Trade Unions sold a 
majority stake in the Sports Palace property that it had held 
since Soviet times to private developers in 2004, a 
transaction financed by Ukio Bankas.  Ukio Bankas, one of the 
country's largest financial institutions, purchased a 
controlling interest in the site in April 2005.  A Vilnius 
Court in November 2005 upheld an earlier ruling prohibiting 
the sale of trade union property for commercial purposes, 
effectively preventing Ukio Bankas from developing the 
property.  Ukio Bankas has now signed an agreement to 
negotiate the sale of the Sports Palace site to the City of 
Vilnius.  The Vilnius City Council approved the deal on June 
8, and the City has until September 1 to sign the deal.  The 
city has not presented any plans for new construction on the 
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¶7. (SBU) The Prime Minister established a commission March 27 
to consider the cemetery controversy and make recommendations 
to the Government for its resolution.  MFA Vice Minister 
Zenonas Petrauskas heads the commission which comprises 
representatives from the City of Vilnius, the local Jewish 
Community, the Minorities Department, the Ministry of 
Justice, and the PM's office.  In May, MFA invited a number 
of representatives of the international Jewish community with 
an interest in the Snipiskes cemetery to come to Vilnius to 
try to work out a common strategy.  Rabbi E. Schlesinger of 
the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish 
Cemeteries in Europe, Arieh Klein, an Israeli-based soils 
expert, AmCit Rabbi Chizkiva Kalmanowitz, and others 
¶8. (SBU) MFA Americas Director Jonas Paslauskas and Deputy 
Lina Antanaviciene told us that the meetings were 
non-productive and confrontational.  Antanaviciene said it 
was clear that, despite the evidence of archeological 
surveys, historical maps, and outside experts, the visiting 
rabbis were convinced that the cemetery encompassed the site 
of the Mindaugus construction and that they believed that 
Lithuanians were lying about the evidence.  Antanaviciene 
said that the visitors disputed the GOL maps, which show that 
the current construction site is not on the old cemetery 
site, but presented none of their own.  She said they offered 
only some photos and old postcards that showed a fence in 
front of what is now the Mindaugas complex. 
¶9. (SBU) Soon after the visit, the rabbis released a two-page 
statement denouncing the GOL's "attempts to misrepresent the 
true location of the cemetery boundaries."  Antanaviciene 
said that the two-page report was full of inaccuracies, 
including the following: 
-- Ukio Bank is building an apartment building on the site. 
-- "Old maps" prove that the Mindaugas complex lies on the 
site of the old cemetery and that bones have been discovered 
on the site. 
-- The GOL is using "amended" (read: falsified) maps to prove 
that the Mindaugas site is off of cemetery grounds. 
-- The Vilnius Jewish community "strongly supported the 
delegation in its demands."  (The Lithuanian Jewish Community 
signed off on an agreed delineation of the cemetery's 
boundaries on August 19, 2005.) 
¶10. (SBU) Paslauskas said the Jewish groups are, in his 
words, "blackmailing" the GOL.  In a faxed letter dated May 
28 from Schlesinger to the Lithuanian Ambassador in London, 
Schlesinger advised that the GOL had ten days (i.e., until 
VILNIUS 00000584  003 OF 004 
June 7) to agree to conduct a "sub-surface scan to prove the 
existence of graves on the site."  Schlesinger demanded that 
the GOL impose a work stoppage at the construction site 
pending the results of the scan and stipulate in writing that 
it would halt construction permanently if the scan reveals 
the existence of graves.  In a separate note to the City of 
Vilnius dated May 18, Schlesinger stated that he already 
referred the matter to the European Parliament. 
¶11. (SBU) Vilnius Mayoral Advisors Vytautas Toleikis and 
Rosseta Vingeviciute told us that the May 9 meetings were 
unproductive.  They lamented that the Vice-Mayor of Vilnius 
spent the entire day with the international groups, but they 
were unwilling to accept any evidence the government 
presented regarding the Mindaugas complex.  They were also 
surprised the group's interest focused on the Mindaugas 
complex, which is in private hands and for which construction 
is largely complete. 
¶12. (SBU) Paslauskas told us that the Government did not 
intend to respond to the rabbi's ultimatum.  He said that the 
GOL wants the commission to continue its discussions and 
consultations with technical experts, but considers the 
ultimatums an affront to Lithuanian sovereignty and will not 
accept them.  Nonetheless, he continued, the GOL remains 
willing to try to secure access to the site for the visiting 
delegation's technical experts, accompanied by Lithuanian 
experts.  In phone conversations with Schlesinger, we pointed 
out that the June 1 fall of the Lithuanian Government 
precluded the GOL from accepting his terms.  June 7 came and 
went without any sign of the "other courses of action" about 
which Schlesinger had warned. 
Cultural Preservation, Lithuanian Style 
¶13. (SBU) Albinas Kuncevicius of the Cultural Heritage 
Department of the Ministry of Cultural on June 7 seconded 
MFA's call for more technical work to achieve a common 
understanding of the facts on and under the ground.  The 
Cultural Heritage Department, Kuncevicius noted, will require 
archeological surveys of the Sports Palace site before 
authorizing any construction, just as it did for the 
Mindaugas site.  Regarding the Mindaugas complex, Kuncevicius 
showed us numerous archeological surveys and maps that he 
said indicate that the Mindaugas complex is outside the 
Jewish cemetery.  He acknowledged that construction 
activities since 1831 shifted bones all over the area, and 
that archeological surveys document their presence.  He 
pointed out, however, that Lithuanian cultural heritage laws 
protect cemeteries, not scattered bones.  Kuncevicius said 
that his department's mandate to protect cemeteries as 
cultural heritage may likely lead him to limit construction 
on the Sports Palace grounds to the site of existing 
structures, but said that further archeological work is 
¶14. (SBU) Ambassador Mull told then-Prime Minister Brazauskas 
on May 30 and Parliamentary Speaker Viktoras Muntianas on 
June 6 about the importance for Lithuania of finding a 
solution to the dispute.  He also wrote to Acting Prime 
Minister Zigmantas Balcytis and Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas 
on June 12 to urge Lithuania to seek to involve all 
interested parties in the commission and to pursue a solution 
that accounts for the historic and spiritual importance of 
the site.  We also remain in contact with Rabbi Schlesinger, 
Bernard Fryshman, and other interested foreign parties in 
advocating for a dialogue with the GOL. 
¶15. (SBU) There will probably always be critics of any 
outcome that does not involve the abandonment of the 
Mindaugas complex and prohibition of any activity on the rest 
of the site.  In our view, the likelihood of this occurring 
is close to zero.  The Mindaugas complex is a fait accompli, 
which Lithuanians consider a legitimate project by private 
developers.  Vilnius citizens are unlikely to support the 
indefinite retention of the graffiti-stained Sports Palace in 
its current, decrepit state. 
¶16. (SBU) At the same time, the GOL can do more to seek an 
amicable resolution with international stakeholders.  The 
Mission will remain engaged with the GOL so that it does so. 
The commission's work, we think, offers the only viable way 
out of the dispute.  We will continue to urge the GOL 
commission to identify a solution that addresses the concerns 
VILNIUS 00000584  004 OF 004 
of international Jewry and the Lithuanian Jewish community. 
We are concerned that while the commission is on the right 
track, it lacks structure and a roadmap toward the 
development of recommendations.  We intend to continue to 
urge the commission to: 
-- appoint an ad hoc group of international specialists to 
attend to the technical work ahead, including subsurface 
scans, boundary surveys, and other archeological work; 
-- consider and research the experience of other European 
neighbors who have taken on similar problems; 
-- ensure that the commission's work emphasizes the 
historical and spiritual importance of the site, supporting 
the revival of Jewish culture in Lithuania; 
-- extend the September 1 deadline for completion of the 
commission's work before putting forward final 
-- establish a work plan for the commission that assigns 
responsibilities and expectations for the members; and 
-- produce a written report formulating recommendations for 
public disclosure. 
¶17. (SBU) The GOL is progressing towards these targets. 
Antanaviciene  told us on June 20 that the GOL commission had 
achieved some progress at its June 13 meeting.  Antanaviciene 
said that the MFA will ask Mayor Zuokas for a voluntary halt 
on new construction on the Sports Palace property until the 
commission presents its findings.  She also said that the GOL 
commission will likely expand its membership, passing 
chairmanship from MFA to the Ministry of Environment, which 
has authority over territorial planning.  MFA will also 
contact the Israeli government for assistance in identifying 
experts from the international Jewish community who could 
offer technical advice to the commission.  She also said that 
the MFA remains hesitant to include groups which have spoken 
falsely about the issue and misrepresented the opinions of 
the local Jewish community.  She said, however, that they do 
want to include, as much as possible, the varied opinions of 
the international Jewish community.  In the meantime, the GOL 
commission is again researching all existing archival and 
archeological information available for the site and will 
formulate an opinion about the site's boundaries.  This 
commission plans to present its recommendations for resolving 
the issue to the PM by September 1, but Antanaviciene said 
the delays in forming a government (ref B) may delay the 
final presentation. 
¶18. (SBU) For our part, this Mission will also continue to 
respond to the inquiries of U.S. and international Jewish 
organizations.  We will encourage them to play a constructive 
role in the work of the commission, and reiterate our advice 
that they seek legal counsel in Lithuania.