Lithuania Struggles to Come to Terms with Its Checkered Jewish Past

August 5, 2019 | Raphael Ahren
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Two weeks ago, the Vilnius (Vilna) city council voted to change the name of a street named for a Nazi collaborator and committed anti-Semite who was long considered a hero for fighting the Soviets during World War II. In April, a decision was made to take down a plaque elsewhere in the city honoring a similar figure. The Lithuanian parliament also voted to make 2020 the “Year of the Vilna Gaon and the History of the Jews of Lithuania,” to honor the 300th centennial of the birth of Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman—the famous talmudic genius who lived in what is now the country’s capital city. But, writes Raphael Ahren, the small former Soviet state’s reckoning with history remains complicated:

Last month, during a government-sponsored trip to Lithuania, I visited the old Jewish cemetery in Kaunas (Kovno), the country’s second-largest city. . . . If local anti-Semites wanted to vandalize the cemetery, they couldn’t possibly make it any worse than it already is: abandoned and neglected, with countless toppled tombstones, some broken into pieces, many lying on the earth overgrown with grass, about to be swallowed by the ground.

When World War II ended in 1945, more than 90 percent of the country’s 250,000 Jews had been murdered. . . . Modern-day Lithuania, a country of 2.8 million people, is sincere in its embrace of its rich Jewish history, although that may also have to do with public relations and tourism-related benefits that come along with such an approach. Local Jews have few complaints; anti-Semitism is marginal. Diplomatic relations with Jerusalem are excellent, and nobody there has heard of the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS).

More problematic, [however], is the government’s refusal to face the fact that many—not just a few—Lithuanians were, passively and actively, involved in killing Jews [during the Holocaust].

And then there is the problem posed by the ruins of the Great Synagogue, currently being excavated by a team of American and Israeli archaeologists:

Surprisingly, perhaps, Vilna’s Great Synagogue survived the Nazi occupation and was only demolished by the Soviets, who built a kindergarten on its ruins. This “ugly building” will eventually be torn down, despite the city’s lack of kindergartens, Vilnius’s Mayor Remigijus Simasius said. What will be built in its place is still unclear. Local Jews are against rebuilding the Great Synagogue, because the community already has one active house of worship, and another one is currently under construction.

“For them it’s very important not to have a fake synagogue. We don’t want to have an empty synagogue with no Jews praying in it. But they do want to have a place that could serve as a symbol of a very rich Jewish history in Lithuania,” [said Simasius]. Some Jews in Vilnius of course disagree and call for the Great Synagogue to be rebuilt as a place of study and prayer.

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