PROMOTING PEACE: Israeli President Shimon Peres lays a wreath at the ceremony at Paneriai Memorial, honoring the victims of the Holocaust.
VILNIUS - Israeli President, Nobel laureate and founder of the Peres Center for Peace Shimon Peres, on a state visit to the Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania, was granted an honorary Vilnius citizenship at the Town Hall in Vilnius on Aug. 1, reports ELTA.
“It is my pleasure to greet you, the president of Israel, upon your arrival to Vilnius. As an honorable Litvak and a famous international politician, you have returned to Lithuania’s Jerusalem. When I visited Israel in May, you, honorable President Peres, said: there are two cities in the world that are important to the Jewish people - Jerusalem in Israel and the other Jerusalem in the North, Vilnius, in Lithuania. I’ve always remembered that. From that perspective, Vilnius seems even older, holier and more colorful. You’ve said that you’re unsure of where you were born because of the changing national borders at the time. You were born in what was then Lithuania. Its borders at the time changed more than once due to historical events. You were born about 100 km from Vilnius in what is now Belarus. However, you were born in what was then Lithuania,” said Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas.
The Jewish Community of Lithuania suggested that the Vilnius City Municipality grant Peres an honorary Vilnius citizenship. Their request underscores the fact that the Lithuanian Jewish community considers Peres to be one of the most famous Litvaks in the world, alongside the Gaon of Vilnius, Jascha Heifetz, Romain Gary and others honorable Litvaks who have impacted not just Lithuanian, but also world culture and history.
Shimon Peres was born in the small town of Vishnyeva, Belarus, which is only 100 km from Vilnius. Since the Middle Ages, the town has been home to a community of Jews that consider themselves Litvaks. Now, Peres is a military and political figure in Israel and 1994 Nobel laureate. In 1997, he founded the Peres Center for Peace and, since 2007, has served as the president of Israel. According to the Israeli Embassy, Shimon Peres has been influential in forming Lithuania and Israel’s strong bilateral relationship.
In an address given in 2006 to commemorate 15 years of diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Israel, Peres said, “You cannot be Jewish without being Lithuanian. Lithuania is the mother of the Yiddish language; therefore, they say Litvak. Litvak goes beyond a geographical expression, it is character and culture. Litvaks are famous for their special character - they will never yield to themselves or others.”
Honoring the innocent
On Aug. 1, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite together with Peres visited the Tolerance Center of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.
In the Tolerance Center, opened more than ten years ago, the two viewed an exposition of cultural heritage and contemporary art of Lithuanian Jews and got acquainted with educational activities of the Center - various educational programs, conferences and cultural events revealing the values of historic truth, freedom of thought and human rights, as well as respect for other cultures and traditions.
Following the visit to the Tolerance Center, the Lithuanian and Israeli presidents attended the ceremony of honoring the victims of the Holocaust at the Paneriai Memorial.
During the ceremony, Peres said he respected the efforts of Grybauskaite in perpetuating the memory and educating the youth about this shameful blot on the history to ensure that it would be never repeated again.
“The democracy of Lithuania established not long ago is based on the vision of courage, tolerance and freedom. People of Lithuania understood that it is essential to face horrible historical truth in order to raise a new tolerant generation. There will be no forgiveness for the bloodshed in Paneriai until the lessons learned here will become the past of all mankind,” said Peres.
He stressed that Paneriai was a warning for current and future generations that they could not, even for a second, abandon the mission of fighting against racism, anti-Semitism and mass extermination.
The Israeli President recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer, in memory of the dead.
Grybauskaite said, “We are standing on the land where the blood of thousands of innocent people was spilled. Most probably, the right thing to do would be to stand in silence, because it is hard to find the words that describe the evil of the Holocaust. One hundred thousand people, mostly Jews, were mass murdered here during World War II. All of them had names, families, home, and occupation. They were our friends and neighbors who lived and worked in Lithuania and for Lithuania.”
More than 830 Lithuanians who rescued Jews have been recognized Righteous among the Nations.
The presidents also discussed bilateral relations, economic cooperation, perpetuation of the memory of Holocaust victims and Jewish cultural heritage issues, the EU’s relations with Israel, and the Middle East peace process.
“Maintaining good and close relations with Israel is in the interests of Lithuania. We aim to assess the painful historical past and look forward to the future building bilateral relations based on friendship, mutual respect and understanding,” she said.
Economic cooperation discussed
According to Grybauskaite, there are many perspective areas in which relations between Lithuania and Israel could be expanded. Lithuania is especially interested in cooperation in the areas of innovation, biotechnology and research. Both countries are successfully developing high technologies. Lithuania is the global leader in laser technologies and communications, and Israel is the frontrunner in research and innovation, she stressed.
Pharmaceutical company Teva-Biotech Sicor, which is producing biopharmaceuticals by employing the most advanced research and production technologies, is one of the major Israeli investors in Lithuania. National innovation agencies of both countries have been conducting their projects in the areas of biotechnology, telecommunications and electronics.
The President has noted that a visit by Lithuanian start-ups to Tel Aviv this coming autumn will open up new opportunities for economic cooperation. Israel is the second most favorable place to start a business, after Silicon Valley in the U.S.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, in a meeting with Peres, discussed how Lithuania regards Israel as an important partner. During a working lunch the focus of the discussion was on bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel, economic cooperation, Lithuania’s efforts in preserving the cultural and historical heritage of the Jewish community and the education on the Holocaust.
The prime minister said he was pleased with improving relations between both countries.
“The increasing number of meetings between our countries shows that [we] are fostering close relations and have many common interests beneficial to both people and businesses of the countries. I am glad that over the recent years Israeli direct investment in Lithuania has increased, as well as the volume of trade. The potential has yet to be fully exploited. Lithuania has an innovative and skilled labor force, good universities and an attractive tax system, while Israel has experience in combining business with innovation; therefore, we have to develop bilateral economic and trade relations. Lithuania could become a gateway for Israel to the markets of the European Union,” said the prime minister.
Ahead of Peres’ trip, Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius said that the visit would be an impulse for better bilateral relations. According to Linkevicius, the absence of an Israeli embassy in Lithuania was not a handicap for the development of the bilateral relations.
“This does not trouble the development of relations between Israel and Lithuania,” said the minister while giving an interview on radio Ziniu Radijas ahead of the visit.
“We cannot forget the past but there is the high time to throw glances towards the future (..) It is time to look at the future, at the light and I think that the historic Israeli president’s visit to Lithuania will serve as a good background,” said the minister.
This year marked the 65th anniversary of Israeli independence and, on Aug. 2, Peres celebrated his 90th birthday.
Peres was on a state visit to Lithuania for two days.