Dear Matzav.com Editor,
In 2007, Asrah Kadisha, the Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries and UJO of Williamsburg discovered an impending threat to a Jewish cemetery in Spain. Thus began a series of sensitive, friendly, and skilled interactions with the Spanish government. The Monjuif cemetery in Barcelona was spared, but several months later developers exhumed Jewish cemeteries at Lucerna and Torrega. This, in spite of intensive efforts on our part. It became clear that Spanish authorities were intent on expediting development of the country, even at the expense of desecrating Jewish cemeteries.
Toledo was next. Only this time Spanish authorities could not claim that this was an unknown burial ground, accidentally uncovered during construction. The Toledo cemetery wherein lie buried the Rosh, the Tur, Rabbeinu Yonah and others was well known, and a major effort was made to reach out to Spain through the US Embassy. Unfortunately, the Spanish government was relying on the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain (FJCE) whose infamous protocol approved of exhuming bodies from Jewish cemeteries. The fact that two European Jewish groups were seen as cooperating with the FJCE made it possible for the Spanish Government and the US Embassy to choose a far more “reasonable” group with whom to negotiate.
The result was the exhuming of about 100 bodies, eliciting a strong protest (on March 8, 2009) from the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE), viz.,
No recognized orthodox rabbinic authority anywhere will sanction the removal of graves in this case and the disturbance of this historic Jewish cemetery will be a source of shame to Spain, a country that surely has a debt of honour to the great Jewish communities so cruelly destroyed there before, during and after the Expulsion of 1492.
Yet, with the return of the bones for burial, Toledo was trumpeted throughout the world as a success! Thus, the Executive Director of the CPJCE (letter to the Yated, 10/30/09) writes, “the Spanish government was very helpful and understanding and cooperated in general.”(!) At another point in the letter, the writer speaks of “achieving this great milestone.”
With all due respect to the chosheva Rabbonim Sh’lita who guide the CPJCE, we view the events in Toledo as a major tragedy and the honors showered on Spanish diplomats, inappropriate. We will try to work towards securing all the Jewish cemeteries in Spain, but success is far in the future. Toledo was a tragedy, not a success.
In my article entitled Are We Missing Something (Yated, October 16, 2009), I quoted, verbatim, the agreement regarding the Snipisek Jewish cemetery signed by the respective heads of the CPJCE, the Vilnius Jewish Community, and the Cultural Heritage Department of Lithuania. Although this agreement was trumpeted throughout the world as saving the cemetery, I pointed out that there is no real protection afforded here. As recently as November 3, 2009, the boundaries of the cemetery were still not officially mapped in the City of Vilnius. Anyone who remembers the manner in which the Lithuanian national government claimed it had no jurisdiction over the Vilnius municipality, will recognize that until such mapping takes place, the protections conferred on other cemeteries will not be in place here.
What is more tragic is the fact that consideration is being given to permanently recognize boundaries which do not include the whole cemetery. A Lithuanian archeological report associated with construction of the north/south road on the western side of the cemetery, clearly shows bones and human remains under the roadbed. We are convinced that the cemetery extends well beyond this road and while we do not ask that buildings be dismantled (a process which would further desecrate the dead), we certainly do not want any further disturbance of the earth in that region.
According to a US Embassy official the agreement permits excavation in the cemetery for ’emergencies’ such as a break in utility or sewer lines. The correct posture of the Jewish community must be that there should not be any such emergencies. Closing the Sports Palace, which sits in the middle of the cemetery, would preclude the need for sewer pipes, water, steam, and electricity! With this facility closed, there will be no emergencies and therefore no need for further digging and desecration of the tzadikim lying in this cemetery.
The signed agreement implicitly recognizes the existence of the two Mendaugus apartment buildings which were erected after 2005 over the strenuous objections of concerned Jews throughout the world. It also ignores the fact that the Lithuanian government, through its various delaying tactics and duplicity, was complicit in this construction.
Would it not be tragically ironic were the cemetery to be further desecrated to alleviate an ’emergency’ affecting these buildings? Particularly since the Lithuanians have not disclosed, to this very day, where the tons of earth and human remains removed from the construction sites were dumped.
Finally, the “historic agreement” would also permit the continued use of a parking lot on top of the cemetery!
We have put a great deal of effort and energy into this matter and maybe, sometime in the future, the Snipisek Cemetery will indeed be properly protected. For the time being, we, and the Gedolim we consult with, do not consider that “historic milestones” have been reached, neither in Lithuania nor in Spain.
Rabbi Elazar Elimeilech Stern
For the preservation of holy sites
19 Satmar Dr. #302
Monroe, NY 10950