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Europe’s Jewish revival

Lithuanian Jewish community teams up with other minority groups to protect rights

Alex WeislerCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Faina Kukliansky entered the theater alone, waved at a few friends and sat down to watch “I Shot My Love,” the Israeli documentary film that kicked off Lithuania’s first gay film festival.

Some other Lithuanian Jews, she said, have told her to avoid such events for fear of being too closely associated with the gay community.

Kukliansky, however, was attending for that very reason: As the vice president of Lithuania’s Jewish community, she was trying to cement a new partnership between the Jewish community and seven other groups focused on human rights and minority rights.

“Even those who are smart in our community do not want to be involved,” said Kukliansky, a restitution lawyer. “People do not understand, really, that we are not playing with gays, but we are together against attacks on human rights.”

Believed to be the first of its kind in the Baltic states, the new collaboration — dubbed simply the Human Rights Coalition — was established officially in late June, but has been in the works for more than a year. It brings together groups with highly specialized agendas — including the official body representing the Jewish community, the Lithuanian Gay League and the Roma Community Centre — and broader human rights-focused organizations.

Simon Gurevicius, executive director of Lithuania’s Jewish community, said those who told Kukliansky to avoid gay events do not speak for the Jewish community as a whole.

“Those who spoke expressed their personal opinion — in a community you can find a whole spectrum of thoughts,” he said. “I am sure you could find many who would also oppose these people from our community, as well.”

Kukliansky said the fight against homophobia and xenophobia is a universal cause, so joining the coalition was a simple decision. “This should be an answer to all the homophobes and fascists which are so active in all of Europe,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I support it?”

Birute Sabatuskaite, a lawyer with the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, said the coalition will help allow its member groups to pool their resources in confronting the threats they face.

Lithuania’s approximately 3,500 Jews live in relative security, but in recent years they have seen activity by extreme nationalist and neo-fascist groups, as well as instances of anti-Semitic vandalism. International Jewish groups also have strongly criticized the Lithuanian government for what they see as its failures in confronting anti-Semitism and the country’s role in the Holocaust.

Gurevicius said Lithuania is still struggling to overcome the Soviet-era mentality that “being different is bad.”

Minorities, however, should not solely focus on their own interests, he said, adding that the Human Rights Coalition should make an effort to engage with Lithuanian society at large.

“The key is not only to try to look for a unified voice for minorities. The key is to find a way to be in dialogue with all the groups — without division into bigger or smaller ones,” Gurevicius said. “In a world full of extremism and xenophobia, it is very important to look for allies.”

He added, “Even though we all are different, we can live, share and learn one from another.”

The Lithuanian effort is modeled after similar coalitions in Ireland and the Netherlands, Sabatuskaite said, and it has already elicited positive reactions from her contacts in the Lithuanian parliament.

Margarita Jankauskaite, project manager for the Centre for Equality Advancement, said she does not think the coalition will change how its member organizations operate, but that it will send a strong public message.

“Everybody was specialized on their own agenda, so we were not united,” she said. “Now we’ve become mature enough to decide to join to make our voices stronger together.”

Vladimir Simonko, board chairman of the Lithuanian Gay League, said the coalition reflects a belief that all Lithuanian minority communities share the same struggles and pressures.

“Before when we heard about issues against Jews or against the Roma people, we monitored it but did nothing for the rights of other minorities,” he said. “But right now we are really stronger.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Mixed message in Lithuania

Country’s dual wartime remembrances leave doubts about sincerity

_JStandardWorld
Published: 28 October 2011

VILNIUS, Lithuania – At first it seemed like a potential breakthrough in Lithuania’s efforts to come to terms with the Holocaust.

In September of last year, the country’s parliament declared 2011 to be the Year of Remembrance for the Victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Yet only a week later, the parliament passed another resolution — one that critics charge also made 2011 the year of the perpetrators.

The Lithuanian parliament declared 2011 the Year of Commemoration of the Defense of Freedom and the Great Losses. That designation marks the events of 1991, when the Baltic state won its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, and more controversially, 1941, the year the Nazis drove the Soviets out of Lithuania. Lithuanian fighters rose up against the year-old Soviet occupation, and Lithuanian nationalists formed a short-lived, Nazi-allied provisional government.

While the anti-Soviet fighters are seen as national heroes by many Lithuanians, they are remembered by Jews as having played a key role in the Nazi effort that wiped out some 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population, with some mounting deadly pogroms against Jews even before the Nazi killing squads arrived.

It is a disconnect that continues to bedevil Lithuanian-Jewish relations.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, said the two resolutions “are inherently contradictory,” noting that while there is a desire “to honor Lithuanian heroes, among them are people who were involved in the mass murder of Jews.”

Lithuanians have tended to focus on the brutality they faced at the hands of the Soviets rather than their wartime collaboration with the Nazis. In 2008, Lithuanian authorities outraged Jewish groups by investigating anti-Nazi, Soviet-aligned Jewish partisans for alleged complicity in war crimes against Lithuanians.

Milan Chersonskij, the former editor of Jerusalem of Lithuania, the country’s now-defunct Jewish newspaper, said he finds the juxtaposition of the two parliamentary resolutions troubling. He says the situation reflects an unwillingness to grapple with Lithuanian culpability in the Shoah.

“They want the European countries to forget and forgive them the Holocaust of the Jews. They’re doing all that they can,” he said. “The Holocaust, they say, was made not by Lithuanians, but by Germans.”

The text of the Holocaust remembrance resolution condemns “the genocide committed against Jews by Nazis and their collaborators in Lithuania during the occupation by Nazi Germany.” It also hails residents of Lithuania who fought against fascism and rescued Jews.

The resolution was sponsored by Emmanuel Zingeris, a Lithuanian parliament member who is Jewish. He said the two initiatives simply honor different slices of the country’s history.

A conversation and healthy dialogue between the two is important, he says.

“In our parliament, we have different political groups promoting different projects. We are a democracy, not a Belarus dictatorship,” Zingeris said. “We’ve struggled long enough for the right to live in a democratic society, where there’s no way one can block an initiative to mark and reflect on and evaluate history.”

Faina Kukliansky, a restitution lawyer who serves as the vice president of Lithuania’s approximately 3,500-member Jewish community, says it is important to remember that the country was under Soviet rule for 60 years and is only two decades into grappling with its role in the Holocaust.

“You have to notice not only what is wrong but what is good,” she said. “Only to sit and criticize and not take part in all these events..., I don’t think it’s the best position.”

Kukliansky said that funding from the Holocaust remembrance initiative has financed the commemoration of the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius and facilitated the proper burial of 64 people killed during the Holocaust.

She said the Jewish community has been involved every step of the way, and if she has concerns about the other parliamentary resolution, Kukliansky said she knows better than to bring them up now. The Jewish community has pushed for Jews to be included in events commemorating victims of Soviet oppression, with some success, she said.

“We try to use it as much as we can, to commemorate the events, to educate people, to use it in our favor,” she said. “We’re not openly fighting with the government about this issue.”

The Holocaust commemorative year has brought tangible results, including 25 victim remembrance projects and the passage of a law that will allocate $53 million in compensation to Jewish communities. Zingeris noted that it also has spurred discussion about the construction of an upgraded memorial at Paneriai, near Vilnius, where some 70,000 Jews were murdered during the Shoah, along with thousands of Poles and others.

Zuroff, however, said the Holocaust commemoration year is a publicity stunt.

“This is one big cover-up, and it’s part of a well-orchestrated and financed campaign to fool world Jewry and help polish Lithuania’s image,” he said. “Everything that’s being done is being done for all the wrong reasons, and I haven’t seen any serious effort to honestly face the past.”

For Zingeris, the year represents a chance to increase tolerance in Lithuania and remind the country of its substantial Jewish heritage.

“I just happen to be a second-generation Holocaust survivor and member of the parliament since 1990. If I would not introduce this resolution, perhaps there would be no Year of the Holocaust Remembrance,” he said. “We have to fight revisionist tendencies in our society. We have to honor the victims, the fighters, and the rescuers.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

focus_on_european_jewry

Lithuania: Bitterness on both sides

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 04 May 2012
(tags): lithuania
$50 million payout a step forward, but distrust lingers

Lithuania’s 800-year-old connection to its Jewish population broke down in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the country and murdered nearly all of its 200,000 Jews — often with the complicity of local Lithuanians.

Last month, 70 years on, Lithuania finally passed historic compensation legislation to provide some $50 million in compensation to Jewish families whose property was confiscated during the Shoah. Jewish groups hailed the move as a milestone for Lithuanian-Jewish relations.

Lingering bitterness on both sides over the discussion of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust remains an obstacle to better ties, however.

Some Jews are concerned that Lithuania has yet to confront its own role in the Shoah.

“Relations have to be promoted within a context that is based on mutual respect and respect for historical truth,” said Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which was founded in prewar Lithuania. “Everywhere you go searching for the truth, the truth cannot be found without conflict.”

On the flipside, many Lithuanians say Jews focus too much on the Holocaust.

Three years ago, during negotiations over Holocaust compensation between the Lithuanian government and the Jewish community, a Lithuanian tabloid ran a cover featuring an oversized Jewish official from the United States demanding money from a miniaturized Lithuanian prime minister. “Give it now!” screamed the headline.

The president of a Lithuanian museum in Chicago, Stanley Balzekas Jr., said Jews should not take Lithuanian anti-Semitic inclinations “personally.”

“The Jewish leaders have to be sensitive,” he said. “The terrible consequences that happened with the Holocaust aren’t going to go away. That shouldn’t be forgotten. But it shouldn’t cloud the future.”

Harley Felstein, a Jew with Lithuanian roots who lives in Washington, wants to focus on positive aspects of Lithuanian-Jewish history. Last fall, he launched a campaign called the Sunflower Project to promote Lithuanian-Jewish events in the United States and organized Jewish trips to Lithuania, including exchanges of high school students between Israel and Lithuania.

Felstein recently convened a group of Lithuanian and Jewish community leaders for a discussion in Chicago focused on improving ties.

“If you’re going to do a reconnection between the Lithuanian and the Jewish people, you don’t want to enter into the situation through conflict,” Felstein said. “You want to do it through learning and nurturing. If our project is successful, there won’t be any negativity left.”

The idea for the project was born when Felstein’s 16-year-old, Benjamin, traveled to Lithuania in 2010, found Jewish cemeteries in disrepair, and sent photos to his father. Felstein, who works for a cemetery as a funeral counselor, was inspired.

“We want to reconnect the Jewish world back with the Lithuanian people,” Felstein said. “If we don’t take action now, the next generation won’t have that information available to them. Our time with survivors who have that linkage is limited.”

Lithuania has a rich Jewish history. The country’s capital — Vilnius, known to Jews as Vilna — was the center of non-chasidic Orthodox Jewish life in Eastern Europe, home to the original YIVO and the hometown of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, the 18th-century Jewish sage known as the Vilna Gaon.

Today, only about 3,000 Jews live in Lithuania.

In recent years, ties between Lithuania and Israel have been improving. Between 2009 and 2011, Israeli and Lithuanian diplomats visited each other 20 times. Last year, Lithuania designated 2011 as the year of commemorating the Shoah. And last month’s compensation decision will send a portion of the $50 million to support the upkeep of Jewish heritage sites in Lithuania, including cemeteries and synagogues.

The Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Žygimantas Pavilionis, said he believes that differences between the communities will dissipate as Lithuania, which has been independent for about 20 years, moves away from the anti-Semitic legacy of the Soviet Union.

Just as it took countries in Western Europe decades to examine their roles in the genocide of the Jews, so too it will take time in Lithuania, Pavolonis said. “It took some time to build from scratch, from the distortion of reality,” he said.

Already, Pavilionis said, the Lithuanian government is training teachers to educate schoolchildren about the Holocaust.

Alexander Domanskis, past president of the Lithuanian World Center in Chicago, said Lithuanians should learn about the Holocaust. “I’m agonized because this is part of my own tradition,” he said. “This is not Lithuania as a people.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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