Lithuania, a NATO ally with a Jewish history in turn glorious and tragic, has once again become a cause for Jewish concern more than 60 years after the Holocaust.
A home to Jews for more than 1,000 years, Lithuania once cradled a renaissance of scholarship, religious thought and culture second to none in the Jewish world. Its capital, Vilnius - known as Vilna, in Yiddish - was called the “Jerusalem of the North.” The country was home to thousands of Jewish scholars, writers, rabbis, leading figures in science and medicine and internationally recognized educational and cultural institutions.
This exemplar of Jewish life was extinguished in less than four years, in a ferocious frenzy carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators, culminating in the death of more than 90 percent of its prewar population of more than 200,000, including many members of my mother’s extended family.
Today, the former Soviet republic enjoys full membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO, having been one of the first Central and Eastern European countries to join those prestigious institutions. Several American Jewish organizations supported Lithuania’s accession to these bodies, recognizing a historic moment in which to solidify democracy and rule of law on the full European Continent.
Step by step, Lithuanian Jewry has attempted to rebuild community life after its near destruction during the Holocaust, and its suppression under the Soviets. Indeed, in the years following independence in 1991, there were several important attempts by Lithuania to reconcile with the past, including establishment of a commission to investigate “crimes of the Nazi and Soviet regimes”; the transfer (after protracted negotiations) of hundreds of Torah scrolls to Jewish institutions abroad; and the introduction of public school texts, which included material about the Holocaust on Lithuanian soil.
Soon, Lithuania’s steady integration into the democratic West will reach a new plateau when Vilnius assumes the EU’s designation as the European Capital of Culture for 2009. But as the country prepares itself for the honor the EU will confer upon it next year, an alarming convergence of issues relating to the Jewish community and the country’s Holocaust-era past has posed serious questions about whether the EU designation is merited.
I presented these concerns directly to Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas at a recent meeting in New York. I, along with colleagues from other Jewish organizations, urged the prime minister and his government to pass legislation that will resolve the issue of restitution of Jewish communal property. Frustration over the slow pace on this issue is just one of the topics we discussed with Mr. Kirkilas.
Four problems, in particular, require immediate action:
(1) Rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Lithuania’s small remaining Jewish community has spoken out recently against the growing frequency of anti-Semitic and other hateful displays, such as a skinhead parade in central Vilnius on the country’s independence day, March 11. There was no immediate condemnation from any political leader against the march, some of whose participants shouted “Juden raus” (“Jews Out”) and other anti-Semitic taunts. The Conference of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, representing 25 organizations, also criticized the government for its attempt to include provisions in a new citizenship law, which would promote inequality based on ethnic origin.
(2) Investigations of Holocaust survivors. The state prosecutor has begun legal proceedings against Holocaust survivors Yitzhak Arad and Fania Brantovsky, both of whom stand accused of war crimes related to their activities as anti-Nazi partisans in World War II. It is believed that investigations of other former Jewish partisans are under way. Mr. Arad, an internationally respected Holocaust scholar and longtime director of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, served on the international historical commission - appointed by Lithuania’s president - that documented the wartime atrocities of Lithuanian collaborators. The government’s actions against him now signal an attempt to turn history upside down by casting murderous collaborators as heroic victims.
(3) Property restitution. Lithuania has stalled for years on an agreement that would return or provide compensation for properties belonging to the Jewish community, while some of those assets have by now been privatized and Lithuanian Jewry still struggles to revive itself. Draft legislation on restitution has languished for years, with no sign it will soon be considered. Other governments in Central and Eastern Europe acted years ago to restitute properties seized from Jewish communities by the Nazi and communist regimes - with varying degrees of goodwill and effectiveness - but Lithuania has been idle on this front.
(4) The Snipiskes Cemetery. The possible desecration of the historic Jewish cemetery by the Soviet regime is now being perpetuated both by Lithuania’s post-communist government and Vilnius’ municipal authorities. In the 1950s, the communist authorities built a “sports palace” on the site, and some remains, including those of the legendary Jewish religious figure Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (The Vilna Gaon) were reinterred. Experts maintain there are still remains on the site and urged efforts to determine the precise boundaries of the resting ground.
But following the land’s privatization and sale to developers, construction of luxury apartments on the cemetery grounds continued apace, despite a pledge last year by the Lithuanian president to end defilement of the sacred site. Recently, a belated effort to establish the cemetery boundaries has been announced. While this effort to identify the cemetery’s boundaries is welcome, it is a tragedy that this procedure was not introduced before construction began. The government should cease all construction until experts definitively determine where the remains lie.
The cumulative weight of these ongoing issues suggests, at best, the Lithuanian government’s pronounced indifference toward the most pressing concerns of its surviving Jewish community and, at worst, outright hostility. This is hardly the posture the United States and Europe should expect of a full-fledged member of the democratic family of nations, or that the EU should expect of the host country of its 2009 cultural capital.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. B’nai B’rith is a founding member of the World Jewish Restitution Organization.