Viewing cable 09VILNIUS456

09VILNIUS4562009-08-26 14:28:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Vilnius

DE RUEHVL #0456/01 2381428
O 261428Z AUG 09
C O N F I D E N T I A L VILNIUS 000456 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/26/2019 
     ¶B. B. VILNIUS 277 
     ¶C. C. VILNIUS 258 
Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Damian Leader for reasons 1.4 (b) and 
¶1. (U)  Summary:  The GOL and local and international Jewish 
groups on August 26 signed an agreement approving conditions 
for the protection of a historic Jewish cemetery in central 
Vilnius and for the development of land adjacent to it.  They 
had been negotiating those conditions ever since the GOL 
unilaterally declared the cemetery a protected area in May. 
Although the signing brought to an end more than three years 
of often acrimonious disagreements over the cemetery and 
surrounding land, all parties stressed that much work remains 
-- and much goodwill and cooperation are still needed -- to 
implement the agreement and give back to the cemetery its 
proper dignity and appearance.  Not all Jewish groups are 
happy with the current process, saying it does not guarantee 
total and permanent preservation of the cemetery.  End 
¶2. (C) During a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, in the 
very room where many of the same people had met on May 21 to 
begin their negotiations (ref A), representatives of the 
ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs met with leaders of 
the Jewish Community of Lithuania (JCL) and the Committee for 
the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) on 
August 26 to sign a protocol expressing support for the GOL's 
actions to protect the Snipiskes cemetery, which was Vilnius' 
main Jewish burial ground for 
centuries.  The signing took place during a week when 
Lithuania is hosting a worldwide gathering of Litvaks (Jews 
of Lithuanian origin) and has hosted several high-profile 
visitors, including an Israeli cabinet minister and the 
secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.  There also 
has been harsh rhetoric recently concerning the GOL's efforts 
on restitution of communal Jewish property seized by the 
Nazis and Soviets.  So, GOL officials at the signing ceremony 
were pleased to celebrate a bright spot in relations with the 
Jewish community, which was nearly exterminated during the 
Holocaust and has suffered from decades of anti-Semitism. 
We, along with the British ambassador, were invited to 
observe the meeting. 
¶3. (C) The conditions for protection of the cemetery and 
development of adjacent property have not been publicized, 
nor do the parties intend to publicize them.  Those 
negotiated conditions allow for some digging in areas outside 
the cemetery border, with provisions that all digging stop 
immediately if graves are found outside what is believed to 
be the cemetery boundaries.  Some Jewish groups, including 
some based in the United States, are vehemently opposed to 
any digging near the cemetery, saying that because there is 
no way to determine the actual borders of the burial ground, 
the prohibition on disturbing the ground should extend well 
beyond what are believed to be the borders.  Under Jewish 
religious law, burial grounds and remains must not be 
disturbed and any digging in cemeteries is forbidden.  The 
London-based CPJCE, led by Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, opposes 
digging in the actual cemetery, but is willing to allow 
careful excavation under rabbinical supervision in adjacent 
areas.  Development will be allowed in areas in which no 
substantial remains are found.  Rabbi Schlesinger signed the 
agreement, as did the chairwoman of the Jewish Community of 
Vilnius and the director of the GOL's Department of Cultural 
¶4. (U)  Archaeological surveys indicate that the cemetery was 
active from the late 15th century until its closure by the 
Czarist regime in 1830.  Since that time, several major 
events disturbed and largely destroyed the cemetery.  In 
1831, the Czar ordered 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 that area show that, while many parts of 
the cemetery were disturbed, a large portion remained intact. 
 Temporary buildings existed on the cemetery land during 
World War II.  Construction of nearby Zalgiris Stadium in 
1950 destroyed tombstones and graves.  The Soviet rulers of 
Lithuania decided to destroy all remaining tombstones in 
¶1955.  The 1971 construction of the Vilnius Sports Palace and 
the installation of underground water, sewer and other 
utility services led to further destruction of graves in the 
¶5.  (U)  There is no above-ground evidence of the existence 
of the cemetery, except for a monument on the southeast 
corner of the site.  The area is now unkempt and covered 
mostly with cement instead of grass, with two parking lots, 
the Sports Palace and two newer apartment buildings.  The 
actual borders of the cemetery cannot be definitively 
determined.  Maps and records from different periods show 
different boundaries.  When it acted to protect the cemetery 
in May (ref B), the GOL created an overlay of all the known 
maps and used the most expansive boundaries shown for any 
point to define the area to be protected. It created buffer 
zones adjacent to those areas.  The government's plan does 
not require removal of the Sports Palace, which is in the 
middle of the cemetery, and the two apartment buildings 
constructed within the past few years, which probably stand 
at least partly on cemetery land. 
¶6. (U) The construction of those new apartments, the 
Mindaugas Buildings, first caught the attention of Jewish 
groups, and the embassy, in 2005.  Since then, repeated 
efforts to resolve the issue have failed, and the Mindaugas 
buildings were completed despite GOL promises to halt their 
construction.  The majority of the cemetery and adjacent land 
are owned by another developer, Ukio Bank Investment Group 
(UBIG), which has planned a much larger development anchored 
by a convention center that would be joined to the Sports 
Palace.  UBIG has delayed its project pending resolution of 
the cemetery conflict (ref C), and is also giving up the use 
of some of its land. 
¶7. (C) Rabbi Herschel Gluck of CPJCE acknowledged at the 
signing ceremony that some Jewish groups remain suspicious of 
the GOL and the local Jewish community, and do not believe 
that they are sincere about protecting the cemetery.  He 
suggested that the GOL take action as soon as possible to 
provide tangible evidence that the site is being restored and 
respected as a cemetery.  Removing the two parking lots, he 
said, would be a good first step.  He did not, however, 
insist that the GOL close them immediately, acknowledging 
that doing so without first providing replacement parking 
areas could spark an anti-Semitic backlash. 
¶8. (C) The GOL and CPJCE representatives praised and thanked 
each other for the flexibility and cooperation that led to 
the signing.  They also praised UBIG; Rabbis Schlesinger and 
Gluck had met earlier in the day with Prime Minister Kubilius 
and Foreign Minister Usackas and urged them to find a way, 
perhaps through generous planning permissions, to compensate 
the company for its losses in time and land.  The government 
and Jewish representatives also noted the longtime efforts of 
the British and U.S. diplomatic communities to resolve the 
cemetery issue.  They singled out U.S. Ambassador John A. 
Cloud, who left Vilnius just last month, as having been 
especially helpful and diligent. 
¶9. (C) COMMENT:  Snipiskes Cemetery has been a focal point of 
this Embassy,s engagement with the GOL for three years and 
has prompted two Congressional resolutions.  After several 
years during which Lithuania has been lambasted 
internationally for mishandling Jewish property restitution 
and trying to prosecute Jewish WWII partisans while ignoring 
evidence against Nazi collaborators, PM Kubilius, 
government, which took office in December, has shown by its 
actions on the Snipiskes Cemetery that it can do the right 
thing.  If it follows through and takes action to ensure that 
the cemetery is fully protected and treated respectfully, the 
GOL might earn some goodwill, which it badly needs, from the 
international Jewish community.  However, such action is not 
guaranteed.  Opposition from Jewish groups who believe that 
actions allowed by this agreement will further defile the 
cemetery also could complicate matters.  We will continue to 
monitor the situation and work with all parties involved for 
the best mutually acceptable solution.  As all the 
signatories agreed today, this is only the beginning of the 
process.  End comment.