First world Litvak congress gathers

  • 2001-08-30
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Barbara Streisend, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Monica Lewinsky have one thing in common: they are all Litvaks. On Aug. 24, many Litvaks, who tend to consider themselves a little different from other Jews, gathered for their first congress in Vilnius.

"Litvak is not a geographical term, it's a spiritual term," said Simonas Alperavicius, chairman of Lithuania's Jewish Community, at the conference's opening in Vilnius city hall.

"It is a national self-consciousness that preserves ancestral tradition. Our country was famous as a unique center for Jewish religion and culture. Vilnius was called the Jerusalem of the north."

Litvaks are Jews with roots in Lithuania. Some 300 attended the six-day congress, coming mostly from Israel, the United States and France, but also from Canada, Germany, Britain, Lithuania, Estonia, Mexico and the Netherlands.

The aim was to develop contacts and encourage cooperation in the economic and cultural spheres. It was also described as a tribute to those Litvaks who have spent years working for Lithuania, supporting the country's quest for independence and diplomatic recognition.

Delegates also visited old Jewish cemeteries and synagogues to pay homage to the victims of the Holocaust.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus added to the rousing welcome. "I've said it many times and I repeat it again. The modern generation of Lithuanians greets you. And it greets you not as guests, but as compatriots and people with a common historical experience."

He added a personal note. "I'm a son of the same country as you and am your brother in fate. I too was forced to leave. At the same time, no other nation suffered as much as the Jews."

He expressed hope that Lithuanian-Jewish cooperation in researching the Nazi and Soviet occupations would be strengthened not only by officials from the U.S., Israel, Germany and Lithuania, but by public organizations and intellectuals.

But he also noted with regret, "Some among the million-strong ethnic Lithuanian diaspora, mostly in the United States, and the Jewish diaspora are still blaming each other for the events of the past."

His words prompted a standing ovation.

At the conference Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, submitted 97 names of suspected Nazi collaborators of Lithuanian origin to Rimvydas Valentukevicius, chief prosecutor of the special investigations division of the Lithuanian prosecutor general's office.

All 97 live abroad, in Western countries, said Zuroff, although he acknowledged that some are likely to be already dead.

"The passage of time in no way diminishes the horrible nature of these crimes, which should not go unpunished. We hope the Lithuanian authorities will take the necessary steps to help achieve justice so that at least some of these perpetrators will pay for their crimes."

Delegates were assured by Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas that the necessary steps would be taken. Brazauskas said the Lithuanian authorities would speed up the return of Jewish property confiscated during the Nazi and Soviet occupations.

"Our land is as friendly and tolerant as it was before. I grew up with Jewish children, and Lithuanians and Jews are united in common history, common problems and joys."

Another controversial note was struck by Izraelis Lempertas, a prominent member of Lithuania's Jewish Community, who urged Lithuania to help Israel by defending it at this week's United Nations conference in Durban, South Africa, where Arab countries plan to pass resolution accusing Israel of the occupation of foreign territories and a policy of state racism.

Speaking to The Baltic Times, Markas Zingeris, a writer from the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, elaborated on Litvak history: "There are more than 1 million Litvaks in the world. On the eve of the Holocaust they made up a big part of the local population in ethnic Lithuania as well as in Belarus and Ukraine - the former territories of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy.

"There were 220,000 Litvaks in Lithuania and more than 500,000 in Belarus. Only 10 percent of them survived the Holocaust."

More than 90 percent of the Jews of South Africa are Litvaks and a large part of the Jews of Israel, the U.S., the UK and other countries consider themselves Litvaks. Three prime ministers of Israel have been Litvaks. Most emigrated from Lithuania when it was controlled by czarist Russia between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

"Litvaks later had to escape from the Nazis and Soviets," recalled Zingeris, pointing out at the conference the case of Nathan Kacas, president of a New York real estate company, who was persecuted by the Nazis and later Soviet security forces. "In 1946-47 he escaped via Poland to western Germany."

Zingeris emphasized that Livaks have made a great impact on Lithuanian history. "At the end of the 18th century, they bravely participated in Lithuanian-Polish resistance to the Russian invaders. In 1918-20, several hundred Jewish soldiers were awarded medals for heroism in Lithuania's independence wars against Soviet Russia and other enemies. There were also many Jews among Lithuanian diplomats."

Litvaks also protested against Polish occupation of Vilnius in 1920 and in 1922, Vilnius Jewish Community leaders boycotted a referendum on Vilnius joining Poland.

Zingeris' brother Emanuelis was one of the leaders of Lithuania's independence movement in the late 1980s and a signatory of the Lithuanian Act of Independence of March 11, 1990.

"I remember sitting in a Chinese bar in New York in the late 1980s. A TV was showing crowds of hundreds of thousands in Vilnius chanting, 'Zingeris! Zingeris!' It was a strange feeling," said Markas Zingeris.

On the eve of this month's congress, Alperavicius and Emanuelis Zingeris, board chairman of the Jewish Culture Heritage Fund, wrote a letter to Litvaks worldwide, urging them to support Lithuania's NATO and European Union membership aspirations.