Jewish community betrayed

  • 2008-07-09
  • By Abdul Turay

AT PRAYER: Lithuania's Jewish community today is keeping alive centuries-old traditions in the face of intransigence, apathy and hostility.

VILNIUS - Jewish community leaders on two continents have united to emphatically condemn the Lithuanian government for reneging on its promise to restore stolen Jewish property and for pandering to anti-Semites in Lithuania.
Jewish leaders claim that the Lithuania authorities promised to return property stolen from murdered Jews during World War II in return for Jewish support for Lithuania's EU and NATO membership efforts. Jewish leaders say that since gaining membership, Lithuania has broken its promise.

In what can only be described as the strongest language the diplomatic setting allowed, community leaders who met with Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas in New York in late June described Kirkilas and the Lithuanian government as "callous" and "indifferent."
"How else would you describe it?" said Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International, who was part of the delegation that met with Kirkilas. B'nai B'rith is the oldest Jewish service organization in the world, based in the U.S. but with chapters around the globe.

"I wish I could tell you that we made some progress, but I can't," Mariaschin told The Baltic Times.
"The issue is so vexing that the patience factor is running thin… What started out as a promising relationship has not turned out as we planned," Mariaschin said.
A senior leader of a Paris-based group, who cannot express an official opinion because his organization is apolitical, told The Baltic Times of his personal anger and frustration at the Lithuanian government.
"We feel absolutely [betrayed]. There was a formal promise. Six years of joint work on this issue… A lot of work by many people. There is obviously a sense of big betrayal," he said.

Jewish leaders also expressed concern that the Lithuanian government had failed Jews on a number of other issues, citing as one example the government's war-crimes investigation of Lithuanian-born Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad, whom many hail as a hero of the Nazi-era Jewish resistance.
The World Jewish Congress, a U.S.-based international organization of Jewish communities, said that Lithuania is unrivaled in its indifference to Jewish restitution.

"Until today, no piece of legislation had even been sent to the Lithuanian parliament for deliberation," the group's secretary general, Michael Schneider, told the prime minister.
"There has been some encouraging progress in local negotiations with Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Lithuania stands alone among these European countries," a WJC representative told The Baltic Times.

Jewish leaders also contend that the government was half-hearted in its condemnation of neo-Nazi marches in the center of Vilnius and that it is desecrating a Jewish cemetery by allowing developers to build luxury flats on it.
Mariaschin explained that famous figures were buried in the cemetery. "If this was some other place they [would issue a] restraining order [to stop construction] while the discussion was going on. The desecration of the site….it could be that it has already taken place," Mariaschin said.
The property that the Jewish groups are claiming comprises some 150 buildings, reduced from the original figure of 1,200, valued at 50 million to 100 million euros. The property would be managed by a foundation, and any profits it generated would be used to revive Jewish culture in Vilnius and to improve the quality of life of the remaining 800 elderly Holocaust survivors, many of whom are in need of constant care or are living in poverty.

The Baltic Times spoke to community leaders in Washington, New York, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Vilnius. They all said the same things.
"There is unanimity among organizations that have been working in Lithuania for years," Mariaschin said. "It would bring justice and closure to this chapter of history," he added.
Vilnius used to be the center of Jewish culture in Europe. There were once a quarter of a million Jews in the city. Of the seven Lithuanian winners of the Nobel Prize, six were Jewish.
"There is a great attachment for Jewish people all over the world to Lithuania. One does not have to have family from Lithuania to feel that attachment," Mariaschin said.

A representative for the World Jewish Congress said they were concerned that anti-Semitism was driving the Lithuanian government's agenda.
"There will be an election in October. It is probably not a vote-winner. … They do not want to be accused of selling out to the Jews," he said.
Jewish leaders say that the attitude of the Lithuanian government is self-defeating, in part because cities where Jewish property has been returned, like Prague and Krakow, have become tourism hotspots.
The Lithuanian government refused to comment on the issue.

A community back from the brink: Lithuania's Jews old and new Page 16 Outlook.