VILNIUS - Parliament looks set to go ahead with Lithuania's Jewish property restitution process, currently scheduled to begin in 2009. However, the process may be hindered by divisions among Lithuania's Jewish community, some of whom are upset with the amendments tabled for governmental decision this month.
If Parliament approves the restitution amendments, it will owe some 200 million litas (58 million euros) for Jewish property lost during WWII's Nazi and Soviet occupation.
"The process will begin with the payment of compensation for property that no longer exists. Later, property which has survived over the decades will be returned. In practice, the process could start in 2009, with completion probably in around 2020," Justice Ministry Secretary Paulius Koverovas told journalists after a Sept. 28 meeting with Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas and Andrew Baker, head of the international department of the American Jewish Committee. "Preliminary estimates show that the restitution of Jewish property will cost the country some 170 million litas (50 million euros)," Koverovas added.
He also said that the Jewish community initially handed a list of some 900 properties to be restituted. The list was later shortened to 206 properties, but according to Koverovas, only half of them are backed with the proper documentation. Another half still must be discussed by the special commission. Seventy-two properties to be restituted belong to the government or local municipalities.
The year 2009 was earmarked as the beginning of the restitution process, taking into account that personal property restitution had not yet been completed. It is estimated that by 2009, all Lithuanian citizens will be paid compensation for their property, which should help avoid controversy around the restitution of Jewish property.
Under Lithuania's current legislation, only personal property or property that belonged to religious communities can be restituted. However, most of the Jewish property seized by the Nazis in World War II, and by the Soviets who annexed Lithuania at the end of the war was owned by the community.
The new amendments to the law provide that properties owned by the Jewish community, including schools, charity foundations, hospitals, kosher canteens and other properties may be also restituted or compensated.
Baker welcomed the Lithuanian government's resolution to move forward with the project, and accepted that some of the property would not be restituted in kind.
"I think we fully understand that in this situation - not only half a century after of the loss of properties, but 15 years after the re-establishment of democracy and the privatization of properties - there will be a number of properties that simply cannot be restituted in kind," Baker said, adding that compensation was "a proper substitute for restitution."
But not everyone in Lithuania's Jewish community, which numbers some 4,000-5,000 people, is happy with the government's proposal.
"The new amendments are a complete fiasco, and may cause immense problems," Arkadijus Vinokuras, representing the Jewish organization Maccabi Baltic, told The Baltic Times.
"The amendments provide that property will be restituted not only for Lithuanian Jewish communities and Jewish religious societies, but also to some public institutions, such as the Lithuanian Jewish Heritage Foundation. The problem is, it's not clear who this foundation represents," Vinokuras added.
"The association represents only about 1,000 of Lithuanian Jews, so why does it get such exclusivity?" he asked.
Mausa Bairakas, who represents Kaunas' Jewish community, also questioned the foundation.
"It was established by private persons, some of them not even coming from Lithuania. They do not represent Lithuanian Jews, they also do not represent litvaks [Jews, living abroad but originating from Lithuania 's ed.]," Bairakas said.
"We are a traditional Jewish community, with a long history, but we are excluded from the law and the foundation," he added. "They even included property that we already own in the list of properties to be returned. What for, what is their goal? Maybe they are looking for compensation?"
He stressed that Kaunas' Jewish community would never agree with the amendments tabled to the government and will strive that they are reviewed.
"One of our proposals is to determine that only Judaic religious communities which functioned in Lithuania before July 21, 1940, may be acknowledged as successors of Jewish property in Lithuania," Bairakas said.