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The great Snipiskis affair Lithuania's outraged Jewish community

The fiasco at the Jewish cemetery in the Snipiskes district of Vilnius has created an international uproar in Jewish circles. More importantly, however, it has uncovered the deeply rooted anti-Semitic feelings in Lithuanian society that stem from centuries of history. The scandalous issue, involving building over a centuries-old cemetery, was slow to get solved and displayed the schism in society between ethnic Lithuanians and the Jewish community, who were once the primary owners of the capital Vilnius. The U.S. government even got involved in the issue, passing a resolution to condemn the tardiness of the Lithuanian government in resolving the case.

Tensions first flared when a building permit for a new luxury apartment complex was signed on the eve of former Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas' departure. It is widely believed that money changed hands and palms were greased for this to happen. When the Vilnius municipal government was asked about the legality of the buildings, the only answer was that "all permits and papers have been signed and submitted." The apartment buildings are believed to be on the grounds of the old Jewish cemetery. Jewish officials demanded that building was halted, but had no legal power to stop construction.

The original cemetery was bulldozed by the Soviet regime during the occupation so that it could no longer be seen on the surface. By the time the buildings were complete, the Lithuanian government decided to fund a 350,000 lita (100,000 euro) geological survey to test the boundaries of the cemetery, which was carried out by the Israeli geological company Geotec. This was at the request of the Jewish community, who said they would only trust a survey on a Jewish cemetery to be done by Jewish people.

The Lithuanian government arm for geological research, the Lithuanian Geological Survey, said this was a waste of money at the time and that they could do the same tests using the same technology. Following the geological survey, archaeologists commenced a dig on the disputed boundaries under the supervision of rabbis from across the world. The dig was intended to cross-reference the findings of the geological tests, which were not comprehensive enough. The dig however was marred by controversy when a visiting rabbi from England lashed out and punched a photographer who allegedly overstepped a 'stop' line.

He claimed that the photographer had provoked him. Following the brawl, he went straight to the airport, fled the country and was never heard from again. Shortly after, human bones were found just centimeters below the surface. This prompted Jewish leaders to stop the dig. The bones discovered were not actually buried in anatomical positions, i.e. the way bodies look after a normal burial. Chaim Birstein, a senior member of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, told The Baltic Times that any bones, Jewish or not, should be left in peace, so the dig was halted. Following the halting of digging, some officials came out with an "I told you so!" type stance because the boundaries of the cemetery could not be changed.

They Jewish community came under fire after this because they had supposedly wasted taxpayer money on research that came to no end. Recently, head of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Simonas Gurevicius, said they had penciled a deal with the owners of the apartment complex that they would not build another set of units next to the original one. Instead, a memorial would be created to honor the cemetery and to put an end to fighting between parties. "This will be good for Lithuania and it will be good for the community. People will be able to go there," he said. MARRED REPUTATION One of the biggest casualties throughout the half-year row has been the international reputation of Lithuania. The U.S. government's resolution was a palpable culmination of the international disapproval of the Lithuanian government's inaction.

Republican Representative Mike Ferguson, who was behind the resolution, said at the time that 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 much-needed light on the Lithuanian government's failure to act and ultimately motivate them to do the right thing," the congressman said. This elicited an angry response from the Lithuanian government who said they were 'hurt' by the resolution and went so far to say that the U.S. government doesn't understand the issues at hand. Gurevicius defended the Lithuanian government saying that the issue had finally been resolved, but added that if they had been more expedient, there would have been no problems.

Initially local politicians did not get involved in the dispute, but after international leaders demanded action and tension on the street grew, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus spoke out. Following a spat of vandalism on the Jewish Community office in which Swastikas and derogatory messages were spray-painted, Adamkus said that it had gone too far. "Contempt targeted at a nation which has suffered from genocide is not casual hooliganism. It is a destructive and sordid act against Lithuania as a whole, not only Lithuania's Jewish community," Adamkus said. "I consider such disreputation of our country a harsh provocation against Lithuania," he said. G urevicius echoed Adamkus' regret that all Lithuanians must suffer from the actions of a few. "These racist attacks actually hurt the image of Lithuania, and why should all people be connected with these neo-Nazis when the fact is that most people are very tolerant?" The Jewish community is currently in another debate with Lithuanian lawmakers over property restoration. Until World War II, Jews and Poles owned most of Vilnius. It was known at that time as the European center of Jewish culture. It is unknown when the property restoration debate will be solved.