The third congress of Litvaks

  • 2009-09-02
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

WELCOME HOME: Jews from 14 countries arrived to the third world Litvak congress to Vilnius, which is also known as Jerusalem of the North.

VILNIUS - On Aug. 23-30, the third world congress of Litvaks, Lithuanian Jews, was held by the Lithuanian Jewish Community in Vilnius, called "Jerusalem of the North" by Jews. The event started with the Kaddish, mourner's prayer, at the Vilnius suburb of Paneriai where some 100,000 victims, killed by Nazis and their local collaborators, are buried 's some 70,000 of them were Jewish. There were delegates from 14 countries at the congress. Many Litvaks, scattered all over the world, have gained international recognition as artists, politicians and businesspeople who still feel a close relationship with the land of their ancestors.

"Litvak is not a geographical term, it's a spiritual term," said Simonas Alperavicius, chairman of Lithuania's Jewish Community at the first world Litvaks congress back in 2001.
There are more than 1 million Litvaks in the world. Some 90 percent of Jews in South Africa are of Litvak origin. The list of celebrities of Litvak origin in North America is impressive: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisend, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, and Monica Lewinsky. Litvaks together with Poland's Jews make up a backbone of Israel's political elite 's Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are of Litvak origin. French novelist Romain Gary, the only person to win Prix Goncourt twice, grew up in Vilnius in a Jewish family. French painter Chaim Soutine always emphasized that he is from Lithuania though he was born near Minsk. The Litvak means a Jew who was born in the former territory of medieval Lithuanian Grand Duchy.

The Litvaks are in Lithuania at least since 1323. On May 26, 1323, Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas sent letters from Lithuania's capital Vilnius to the German cities inviting monks, crafts artisans and merchants to Lithuania which then was still a pagan empire. There were some Jews among those craftsmen and merchants.
Now there are 3,000 Jews in Lithuania, according to the Lithuanian statistics department's data of 2009. A majority of those Jews are with family roots in Russia and other eastern countries, but in the Litvak capital, many of them start to feel as Litvaks.

On Aug. 24, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite visited the sitting of the Litvaks' congress in the Vilnius Town Hall. Among other things, she also spoke about compensation to the Lithuanian Jewish Community for the former Jewish religious communities' property, which was confiscated by Soviets and Nazis. "Seeking to help our citizens, Lithuania is ready to pay compensation for the confiscated property, although not Lithuania confiscated it," Grybauskaite said during a short briefing in the Town Hall.

On Aug. 26, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius talked about this issue with Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, information and diaspora minister of Israel. At their joint press conference in the Lithuanian government office, Kubilius said that the compensation will be 128 million litas (37 million euros), one-third value of the former Jewish property. The estimation is based on the real estate price at the end of 2008. "We speak about compensation for real estate. It is rather difficult to estimate today the value of that real estate," Kubilius said.

Some 113 million litas will be money compensation. The Lithuanian government is also ready to return two buildings, worth of million litas, in the center of Vilnius.
Edelstein was not talkative on the issue. "We didn't go into details," he said emphasizing that Holocaust survivors are elderly people and they can't wait.

The compensation will be paid in 2012 's 2023. At the very beginning of this compensation process, three million litas (870,000 euros) would be paid to the Holocaust survivors, according to the government-prepared law project which will be discussed in the parliament this fall. Some 800 Holocaust survivors still live in Lithuania, according to the Lithuanian Jewish Community.

The Litvak congress's participants also honored Lithuanians who rescued Jews during the Nazi occupation. The congress participants put a capsule into the place in Kaunas where a memorial for rescuers of Jews will be built. Those rescuers were real heroes 's unlike in Western Europe, where rescuers of Jews risked some temporary arrest, in Lithuania, according to the German racist eastern policy, rescuers of Jews were killed immediately by Nazis if they were caught. They are called the righteous among the nation by Yad Vashem, world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. There are hundreds of Lithuanian names on the Yad Vashem righteous' list.

The Litvak congress was also followed by many musical events in Vilnius yards, streets and music halls. Such superstars as Vyacheslav Ganelin, Lithuanian Jewish jazz musician and composer, living in Israel now, and Liora Grodnikaite, London-based Vilnius-born opera singer enjoying singing in her grandparents' native Yiddish, took part in the performances.

The Litvak congress and various Jewish musical events were included into the program of Vilnius 's European capital of culture of 2009. A similar event, included into the same program, was held on Aug. 9 's 16 when Wilniuki held their first world congress in Vilnius. Wilniuki are the Poles from Vilnius region. Dozens of Polish high culture and pop stars as well as members of ancient nobility families' members arrived from Poland, Western Europe and North America to Vilnius.

"You have no idea what an interesting place Lithuania is, historically, culturally, ethnically, politically.  One of my most recent sources of interest is actually all the people living in Lithuania, while not being of [ethnic] Lithuanian origin: Jews, Poles, Russians, Germans. All of them adding to the diversity of the country, so important for a full Lithuanian identity," Jonas Ohman, Swedish documentary films producer, told The Baltic Times.

According to the Lithuanian department of statistics, in 2009, Lithuania's ethnic composition is as follows, Lithuanians - 84 percent, Poles - 6.1 percent, Russians - 4.9 percent, Belarusians - 1.1 percent, Ukrainians - 0.6 percent, Germans - 0.1 percent, Tartars- 0.1 percent, Roma - 0.1 percent, Latvians - 0.1 percent, and all other ethnic groups - 0.2 percent while 2.6 percent of Lithuanians refuse to identify themselves with some ethnic origin. More than 99 percent of Lithuania's inhabitants are Lithuanian citizens.