VILNIUS (Reuters Life!) - A new office block going up in Vilnius seems like any other project in this booming city, but the local Jews are angry.
They say the work is on the site of an ancient cemetery, and the dispute has reopened old wounds and accusations of anti-Semitism in Lithuania, where the Nazi Holocaust wiped out a Jewish community of more than 200,000.
“This was a very special place,” said Mordechai Gurwicz, 84, as he wandered slowly around the area of the 600-year-old Snipiskes cemetery, or Shnipishok in Yiddish.
He recalled his imprisonment in the Vilnius ghetto during World War Two, escape, fighting with partisans against the Germans and, in the Soviet era, emigration to Israel.
His memories include rabbis from all over Poland taking part in the burial of old Torah scrolls in the 1930s, when Vilnius belonged to Poland and was called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”.
Protests over the cemetery, the final resting place in 1797 of the Vilna Gaon (genius), a world famous Jewish rabbi and scholar, have come at home and from abroad, including a letter from U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Developers dismiss the idea they are working on the site of the cemetery.
One block, the grandly named King Mindaugas apartments, has already been completed, despite the protests.
“Unfortunately the Lithuanian government and the Vilnius municipality are not sensitive to such an important issue. This could not happen in a (western) European state,” said the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania, Chaim Burshtein.
The cemetery was closed by the Tsarist Russian authorities in 1831 and partly built over. In the 1950s, Soviet authorities built a stadium and concert hall, but allowed the remains of the Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, to be removed.
Jews say the burial ground is still sacred and no work should take place to disturb any remains. “There is no such thing as a ‘former’ Jewish cemetery,” Burshtein said.
Such talk and international pressure persuaded the government to form a working group, but no action is imminent.
“The group’s conclusion should come by the end of this year,” said Vilius Kavaliauskas, an adviser to Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas. He had earlier said the government was concerned and seeking a solution.
Unconvinced, orthodox Jews from Belgium and other EU countries rallied outside the headquarters of EU institutions in Brussels in July and vowed to stage bigger worldwide protests.
Western diplomats have also voiced concern.
“All people want to see their ancestors’ remains protected. It is not normal to build on cemeteries,” the U.S. embassy in Vilnius said in an e-mail to Reuters.
Lithuanian experts disagree whether construction work is in progress on the territory of the cemetery, but the developer of the apartment block is clear.
“This is an artificial scandal. There is only a guess that there was a cemetery,” said businessman Kazimieras Musteikis.
Mindaugas Valkiunas, a construction supervisor at the site, said no human bones had been found, only animal bones.
Calls to stop the construction have also found little support so far from the public and mainstream media.
“Let‘s say that there was a cemetery. So what? All cities inevitably had to expand on former cemeteries, and there is no difference who was buried there,” the daily Lietuvos Rytas said in an editorial.
Rabbi Burshtein said anti-Semitism remained a problem in Lithuania, where Nazi forces and local collaborators decimated the Jewish population during World War Two.
Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has accused Lithuania of dragging its feet on prosecuting the remaining Lithuanians accused of war crimes.
However, Jewish community leader Simonas Alperavicius says the issue is not anti-Semitism.
Apartments being built in the city now fetch up to 4,000 euros ($5,500) per sq meter.
“When an apartment costs more than 1 million litas ($400,000), who would want to stop construction?” he said.