Saving on appearances

  • 2002-04-25
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
In 1994 the then Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas visited Israel and apologized in the Knesset on behalf of Lithuania for Holocaust crimes. Some complained Brazauskas had no right to apologize for them, saying they had nothing to apologize for.

Many said there was no national complicity, merely a few bad apples who worked for the Nazis.

Cases have since been brought against a few suspected Holocaust perpetrators, but no one has received a prison sentence.

With Lithuania continuing to come under international scrutiny and NATO membership ever on the agenda, the near-liquidation of Lithuanian Jewry in World War II is at least still being discussed.

Taking center stage this week was the issue of the restitution of property owned by Jews. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and U.S. President George Bush talked about the issue at a meeting in Washington earlier this year.

Jews accounted for around 40 percent of the pre-World War II population of Vilnius. Until the war the city had for centuries been a cultural capital for Ashkenazi Jews.

Following a meeting between President Adamkus and Brazauskas - now prime minister - around which there has been much media speculation, the government has formed a group devoted to the issue.

The opposition Christian Democrats argue that this means Jews are being singled out for favorable treatment while claims by other ethnic and religious groups are ignored.

The government counters that formerly Jewish-owned property requires special attention because many Jewish public buildings also served religious functions and the lack of a clear hierarchy in the prewar Jewish community adds further complexity.

Another aspect of the current controversy is a parliamentary resolution calling for the restoration of Jewish structures in Vilnius' beautiful Old Town, passed last year but not addressed by the Cabinet till now.

The plan would restore three sites in Vilnius and envisages luring private investors with the chance to operate from such premises on favorable terms.

This was the backdrop to Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations in the Lithuanian Parliament in April.

Predictably the event was marred by radical MP Vytautas Sustauskas who weighed in with a statement warning that Lithuanians would become "Jewish slaves" within 30 years should the restitution and restoration plans go ahead.

From the Jewish side, former MP Emanuelis Zingeris argued that claims by members of the Jewish community amounted only to several dozen buildings and attempted to allay fears that half of Vilnius was up for grabs.

With the debate heating up, the Lithuanian Parliament issued a committee resolution that the property restitution issue should not be used for political gain during a presidential election year.

Whatever the motives of Lithuania's political elite, public opinion seems firmly divided on the issue.

Shadowing these controversies are plans for the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. President Adamkus has expressed concern about the government's plans on which books and which ethnic musicians should represent the country in Frankfurt. Lithuania may want to present itself abroad as a tolerant, multi-ethnic society, but the Lithuanian public still know precious little about the country's rich Jewish heritage.

The resolution passed by the Parliament last year is titled "On the Restoration of the Jewish Ghetto in Vilnius." But Vilnius never had a ghetto, except the one the Nazis set up in the 1940s to murder the Jews. Jews lived throughout Vilnius with no restrictions on their movement - as they did throughout Lithuania for 500 years.

Efforts to honor the rights and property of Lithuania's Jewish citizens are laudable and never too late, and will more likely raise hopes rather than divisions among other ethnic minorities. The problem is that Lithuania's political elite may experience feelings of personal catharsis by appearing to do the right thing, but may not do the right thing in educating themselves and the public.