By Henry J. Levy, Jewish Post Publisher and Editor in Chief.
The explosive news from Lithuania hit the world with shock: The Lithuanian parliament passed a decision to turn the date of the establishment of a pro-Nazi government in Lithuania in 1941 into a national holiday. Jewish organizations worldwide, as well as the Israeli government responded with outrage. They considered the decision by a step back to its dark WWII era "that tried to give legitimacy to a pro-Nazi Lithuanian regime which lent its support to collaborators in the most brutal genocide in all of Europe."
The decision was reached at the time The President of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus, was attending the Olympic Games in Sydney. Though the President of Lithuania has the right to veto the decision of the parliament, it wasn't at all clear that he will chose to use his veto power over the legislation when he returns, as the parliament's decision was found to be very popular in Lithuania.
Leaders worldwide have expressed the opinion that this decision was made due to Lithuanian deep resentment of Soviet rule over the country until a decade ago, which caused Lithuanians to look at the Nazi period as a "liberation" during World War II from dreaded Soviet rule. Five days earlier, on Sept. 8, 2000, The Jewish Post had an opportunity to meet with the honorable Mr. Valdas Adamkus, the energetic President of Republic of Lithuania, at his hotel in Manhattan. While a number of issues were discussed, our focus on those of concern to the Jewish community relating to his country.
Prior to the Holocaust, there was a distinctive community of about 220,000 Jews living in Lithuania. 95% of them were murdered in 1941- 1942, mainly by brutal Lithuanians. Today the Jewish community numbers between 5,000 to 7,000.
Jewish Post writer, author Kanan Abramson's father Yeshayahu, now 90, and mother Yonah, now 85, were out of the country prior to 1939, like many thousands of other Jews who were fortunate to flee the upcoming Holocaust. But, as happened to most of those Jewish refugees, Abramson's entire extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who stayed behind in their homes in Lithuania, were murdered brutally by the Nazis and, mainly, by their Lithuanian collaborators.
Abramson's parents still have nightmares about the loss of both their families. So, he addressed his family's Lithuanian experiences, as well as other Jewish issues, from a very personal perspective.
Since one of the themes President Valdas Adamkus wanted to address during this meeting was the question of historical justice, it was only natural to ask his opinion on the widespread genocide of Lithuanian Jews. At the beginning of the meeting, Abramson confronted the President with a direct accusation: "When I asked my ninety year old father if he would like me to visit the places where he had spent his childhood," said Abramson in a calm voice, selecting each and every word in order not to miss the given opportunity, "my father demanded from me 'not to honor the country where local mass murderers walk around free for over a half century.' In spite of detailed lists of thousands of names," added Abramson, "not one of them has yet been put to trial."
"My father is not alone," Abramson added. "Most of the Lithuanian Jews outside Lithuania think the same way, including their official organization in Israel, the Association of Lithuanian Jews of Israel." Surprised by the powerful accusation, Adamkus tried to be direct. "I absolutely agree," he responded. "It was an extreme tragedy. We have been meeting with the government and rabbis of Israel including the chief rabbi." He mentioned that Vilnius, Lithuania will host the International Forum on Holocaust Era's Looted Cultural Assets from October 3-5, 2000. President Adamkus appeared sincere in describing the lofty goals of the Forum to investigate and evaluate the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet occupations regimes in Lithuania.
"Mr. President," interrupted Abramson, "all the families who were murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust had personal assets and properties. It's a fact that those who murdered them so brutally, confiscated the supposedly "non-owner" properties and it's very likely that they, or their heirs, enjoy our properties to this very day. If you really want to imply historic justice, as stated in the invitation to this meeting, we, the heirs of the victims want our properties back, aside from seeing the murderers put to trial."
At this point, the President had some information. "Jews can claim their properties," he said.
Abramson: "But your law requires claimants to live within Lithuania." "We've changed recently the law," responded the President. "Now Jews who live outside Lithuania can also claim property." A check with the legal experts of the Lithuanian Association in Israel following the meeting, revealed, that the text of the law excludes "Jews who have returned to their homeland," which means, discriminating against those who have immigrated to Israel.
The other issue brought by Abramson was the fate of thousands of important books and Torahs, held by the government, either in state libraries or other official storage places.
In response, the President said that even though it is 50 years later, he desires to bring all the facts out into the open so they can be recorded for the entire world to see. The Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets will be held in Vilnius, Lithuania under the auspices of His Excellency Andrius Kubilius, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Lithuania, and His Excellency Walter Schwimmer, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. The meeting seeks:
- to provide a forum for discussion of the possibilities of compiling an inventory of cultural assets looted during the Holocaust and of their restitution to their rightful owners;
- to investigate various possibilities and opportunities open to institutions in this regard; and
- to establish legislative guidelines for the implementation of such a process.
The Vilnius International Forum will build on the work of the 1997 London Conference on Nazi Gold, the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, and the more recent Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. It will specifically concentrate on cultural assets and will implement Resolution No. 1205 (1999) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Emanuelis Zingeris, Rapporteur), which called for a European conference to discuss the return of looted cultural property. It will review and discuss challenges in the implementation of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. The member states of the Council of Europe, Israel, the United States, Canada, and Argentina as well as Jewish organizations have been invited to send delegations to the Forum. Other governmental and non-governmental organizations throughout the world which are concerned about the facilitation of the return of looted Holocaust-era cultural property to original owners or to the milieux of their origins are also invited.
It is most puzzling and not the least bit unsettling that the timing for this Forum will occur between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when it is least likely of attracting any coverage or input from the World Jewish community. There does not appear to be an auspicious beginning for bringing matters out in the open.
In the meantime, the Israeli Association of Lithuanian Jews has launched a campaign aimed to encourage the Israeli Government to boycott the Vilnius Forum, claiming that a country who didn't take any measurements to restitute Jewish cultural assets in its possession, cannot host such an international conference. "There's a smell of hypocrisy," says Tel Aviv based attorney Yosseph Melamed, the head of the Israeli association. "Let them prove that their intentions are pure and return the priceless assets first. Then they'll have all the moral justification to host such a conference."
Still on that issue, President Adamkus pointed out that in the history books used in schools, were included in recent years chapters on the Holocaust and students are taught about the subject. In response to a comment by Abramson, that survivors of the genocide carried out in Lithuania during the Holocaust prevent their children of visiting Lithuania, Adamkus disagreed. He said if this became an appropriate response "Germany would be eliminated from the face of the earth."
He continued by saying, "from my knowledge, Germans were responsible for killing along with some Lithuanian hooligans. Israel has awarded medals to righteous Lithuanians that have saved Jews. Sometimes I think about this (the Holocaust) and I'm amazed. I was in Aushwitz recently and cried about what happened."
In response to the allegation from Holocaust survivor, longtime member and former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Tel Aviv based attorney Dov Shilansky, that there is an extensive list of Lithuanian killers responsible for the murder of Jews that have never been brought to justice, the President pledged to check this out. In fact, both he and the other government representatives seemed unaware of this substantial list and suggested that prior information they had was previously reviewed. On this same point he indicated that U.S. law had no provision for trying people not present in the courtroom. However, 6 months ago the Lithuanian parliament agreed to try individuals in court in absentia.He added, "we are really trying to move those cases forward. The age of the perpetrators is no deterrent from our pursuing justice." He added that one trial has already started with another beginning shortly.
President Adamkus spoke about his country's efforts to reach out to the current Lithuanian Jewish community indicating the excellent relationship that exists. They are working to rebuild a cultural center and the major synagogue in Vilnius, which although it is too large for the current Jewish population, may be revamped as a multi-purpose building. He was committed to working with Jewish leaders to see that this is done. The Lithuanian parliament passed the resolution to create preconditions for restoring characteristic fragments of the historical Jewish Ghetto in Vilnius Old Town squares on July 24, 2000.
Mr. Emanual Zingeris, Head of the Human Rights Committee of the Lithuanian Parliament, termed the measure an effort to reclaim the special character of Vilnius Old town, which was called "Jerusalem of Lithuania" since the 17th century.
Among other things, the reconstruction of Vilnius' Great Synagogue is envisioned. Vilnius' Great Synagogue was an entire "town" with two inner courtyards developed in a densely filled quarter. Buildings were damaged during the Second World War and completely destroyed in 1955-57 under the Soviet rule.
The six centuries of Jewish residence in Lithuania have been ones of both blossoming and decline, of pinnacle and destruction. During that time, Lithuanian Jews established an unsurpassed culture, a particular character and a way of life defined as the "Litvak civilization."
Vilnius became the most important center of Jewish spiritual culture in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Vilnius was the source of a Jewish renaissance, new Jewish national thought, a Jewish democratic spirit. Vilnius was famous for its spiritual and cultural treasures: 102 synagogue and prayer houses, libraries and schools, philanthropic, medical, scientific and cultural institutions. There were several noted Jewish publishing and printing houses, including the largest in the world "Widow and Brothers Romm," which published hundreds of thousands of books annually in Hebrew and Yiddish. Before the Second World War, Jewish students all over the world used textbooks and terminology in Yiddish, which came from Vilnius. The restoration of Lithuanian Independence in 1990 marked the start of the revival of Jewish Culture in Lithuania, Holocaust Remembrance and Education.
Ironically, the same Lithuanian Parliament passed a resolution, in which it asks the government to approve the project for restoring characteristic fragments of the historical Jewish Ghetto by December 1, 2000. A bid, seeking international investments necessary for putting the project into effect, will be proposed for the governments as well. According to Mr. Zingeris, restored quarters in Vilnius Old Town with authentic shop signs in the Yiddish language could become a "tourist magnet," lacking nothing the historical Jewish Ghettos in Prague and Venice have to offer.
Ironically once again, on July 19th, Lithuanian lawmakers presented a bill to the same parliament, calling for the return of Torahs, held since the war in the country's national library, to the Jewish community. About 270 Torahs, Judaism's most religious scriptural books in various states of preservation, are currently being kept in Lithuania's National Library. Most of them were found several years ago in a Vilnius warehouse among other books.
Our impression from the meeting with President Adamkus, who tries to have his country join NATO and have thousands of tourists flooding it, following major western investments in its hotel infrastructure, was, that he is sincere and willing to take any measurements and make any effort to open a new chapter for his country. But, it is doubted that he will he be able to overcome the powerfully threatening rise of the historically renowned Lithuanian anti-Semitism in his own backyard.
Former Speaker of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), attorney Dov Shilansky: "The change in the Lithuanian law, regarding looted Jewish assets, discriminates against those who fled Lithuania, due to the horrors of the Holocaust, before, during or after the Second World War."
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