American rabbi pushes property issue

  • 2008-10-22
  • By Adam Mullett

Baker met leaders and politicians

VILNIUS - A high profile member of the Jewish Community has come to Vilnius to influence national leaders on the property restitution issue.
During his visit to Vilnius, Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of the International Affairs Department of the American Jewish Committee, met politicians and local Jewish leaders.
Baker had several key meetings with Lithuanian politicians to find out their opinions on the government's property restoration bill and the possibilities for it to be adopted by the parliament.
The bill proposes the return of 430 buildings stolen from the Jewish community before and during World War II.
"We are looking to have buildings that served the community returned. Schools, synagogues, hospitals," Baker told The Baltic Times.

Baker cited Romania and the Czech Republic as good examples for Lithuania to follow. In Romania, property has been returned to the Jewish Community because legislation was set that allowed the process to take place.
After meeting with Deputy Parliamentary Speaker and Chairman of the opposition Homeland Union Andrius Kubilius, Baker said he was hoping the government would adopt the bill.
Baker did not meet current Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas during the visit.

He told TBT that the Jewish community had become skeptical about the intentions of the outgoing government.
"Over the last year, we had increasing skepticism that the government was not interested in solving this problem," he said emphasizing that logistics, not politics, prevented him from meeting Kirkilas.
Baker presented Kubilius with his own statement titled "Lithuania's Promises." The document of several pages contains Lithuanian top-ranking officials' public statements to address the matter of Jewish property restitution with entries dating back to 2002.

"The government is pushing [the Jewish property restitution matter] around like a hot potato, neither swallowing, nor spitting it out," Kubilius said after the meeting.
Baker was interested in whether the parliament would go along with the government's bill should the document be finally presented to the parliament.

"I told him I saw no major problems to address it. Other European countries have already settled this matter. As far as I know, that is not an issue that will ruin our economy. We are talking about 100 or 200 million litas (29-58 million euros) over ten or fifteen years," Kubilius said.
During the meeting Kubilius told Baker that some of the members of the Lithuanian Jewish community were critical of the government bill saying that it does not provide for a proper fund to manage the money or organizations that would actually inherit the resources.

The bill amending the law on restoration of religious communities' rights to remaining real estate as prepared by the Justice Ministry reads that "the public institution Lithuanian Jewish Heritage
Foundation established by the Lithuanian Jewish community, the Lithuanian Jewish religious community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization shall be recognized the successor of the Jewish communities' title to remaining real estate and shall have said rights restored in its favor under this law."

According to the bill, surviving real estate of Jewish religious communities may be returned to the foundation observing the same procedure that applies to religious communities, unless other laws are violated.
"Remaining real estate of Jewish religious communities transferred to the foundation and compensations for Jewish communities' remaining real estate shall be used for religious, cultural, educational, science and charity purposes of Lithuanian Jews, with the exception of funds that will go to the victims of Holocaust," the bill states.

Assistant Prime Minister Vilius Kavaliauskas said they are considering an easier way to address in the form of a special law to facilitate the transfer of compensation for Jewish property.
"We would hate to be tangled up in disputes over individual properties for the benefit of attorneys," Kavaliauskas said.