Lithuania Woos Israel, in the Shadow of the Holocaust

Official Lithuania is a combination of determined, post-Soviet nation-building, reminiscent of a fledgling state of Israel, and European manners and mannerisms. But it is impossible to pretend the genocide of the Jews never happened here.

Sara Miller
Sara Miller
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Sara Miller
Sara Miller

The warning came in a phone call from a senior correspondent at Haaretz. It concerned my leaving for Lithuania the next day, invited by a Vilnius government keen for sympathetic press exposure in the Jewish state.

"Don't forget," my colleague said, "the Lithuanians, like the Estonians, are trying to whitewash their role in the Holocaust. Just remember that while you are there. They will try to persuade you otherwise, but that's the truth."

The summer trip was sponsored by the Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv, launching a new front in its Project Charm Israel. Three journalists from three leading Israeli news outlets were invited on a five-day trip to Vilnius. The message was unashamedly clear: Go, experience and enjoy, and come back and promote Lithuania.

The memorial at Paneriai, where more than 70,000 Lithuanian Jews were shot dead during the Holocaust.Credit: Sara Miller

But the reality, the dichotomy in the way Lithuania regards Israel and the nations' tragic, shared Jewish heritage, meant that no junket, no matter how well-meaning, could prove that straightforward.

At times in Lithuania, the old caveat "don't mention the war" appears to be something of a nationwide policy. The terms, it seems, are these: If the Lithuanians mention the Holocaust, then you can. Even then, however, don't ask what happened to Lithuanias Jews in the Nazi horror. The way it is couched sometimes, it is as if all the Jews spontaneously and simultaneously walked off in 1941.

This is clearly not the case.

Official Lithuania is a curious combination of determined, post-Soviet nation-building, reminiscent of a fledgling state of Israel, and European manners and mannerisms. Vilnius has a Duloc-esque feel to it, with Baroque architecture, clean streets and smiling faces. Nor is this an ingathering of nations. This is a country with close to zero immigration or ethnic minorities.

Vilnius - picturesque even in the rainCredit: Sara Miller

There is an unabashed drive by the Vilnius government to attract Israeli money to Lithuania. The Lithuanian chamber of commerce is actively courting Israeli investment, and it's working. Today there are 11 Israeli companies in Lithuania, employing 272 people, including Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to pretend the Holocaust never happened here, or ignore the Jewish history of Vilnius, the hometown of the Vilna Gaon. And to the credit of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, the first day in the city included a tour of the old Jewish quarter, and a day later a visit to Paneriai, the clearing in the woods a few kilometers outside Vilnius where over three years 100,000 people, more than 70,000 of them Jews, were shot dead and their bodies burned. It is impossible to describe how it feels to stand at this site. A tranquil, leafy location where the silent voices of the dead drown out the rustling of the trees and the singing of birds.

Call it unresolved and misplaced guilt, call it whitewashing (as my colleague suggested), but there is currently a government sponsored plan afoot to equate the Nazi genocide with the horrors of the Soviet occupation, which only ended with the fall of the Communist empire. Spearheading the plan is Lithuanias self-styled senior Jewish politician, Emanuelis Zingeris.

Zingeris is the chairman of a Lithuanian body called the International Commission for the Assessment of Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, and there are many among Lithuanias remaining few thousand Jews who apparently view him and his actions with hostility.

At the heart of the row is the commission-backed Prague Declaration of June 2008, which seeks to draw a parallel between the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation in Eastern and Central Europe.

The document - signed by dozens of leading politicians from across the former Soviet occupied states, including Zingeris, former Czech president Vaclav Havel, two senators of the Czech parliament and an Estonian MEP - states that millions of victims of Communism and their families are entitled to enjoy justice, sympathy, understanding and recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized.

The support for the declaration by Zingeris - who spearheaded the revival of the Jewish museum in Vilnius - has split the Lithuanian Jewish community.

The most problematic right now is the Prague Declaration, Dovid Katz, the creator of a Website on the Holocaust in the Baltic states and the founder the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, told the Jerusalem Post recently. Emanuel Zingeris is hated in the Vilnius Jewish community. He is the man who is fixing the Holocaust for the Lithuanians in exchange for political gain. He is betraying the memory of the 200,000 Lithuanian Jews killed during World War II.

But Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Darius Degutis reacts angrily to claims that his country is attempting to absolve itself of any culpability for actions during the Holocaust, or neglecting this chapter in its history.

"It is absolutely wrong and an unacceptable 'propaganda' attempt by a small group of people to interpret the mutual efforts of the Lithuanian and Israeli Governments to expand bilateral cooperation as some kind of conspiracy against the [Lithuanian] Jewish Community or the tragedy of the Shoah," he recently told Haaretz.

Degutis also maintains that his government is making enormous efforts to educate young Lithuanians about the Holocaust, and strengthen the Jewish community in the country.

"No other Lithuanian government had ever done so much for the Jewish community," he said. " I know personally how sincerely dedicated [the] prime minister is and it frustrates to see that some people unfortunately continue to be absorbed by the only goal - blindly criticizing anything Lithuania does."

The ambassador insists that there is no attempt to make a comparison between the Holocaust and the Soviet rule of Lithuania, pointing out that the Prague Declaration has been amended to note that, "We are not equating the respective crimes of Nazism and Communism. They should each be studied and judged on their own terrible merits.

The dispute has not yet been resolved, and the number of signatories to the declaration is growing. But all would do well to remember that in a battle for hearts and minds, it is the "now," not the "then" that has the most impact.

It is unlikely that Israelis - eager travelers always on the look-out for an inexpensive holiday in a new place - will be deterred by the infighting among the Lithuanian Jewish community, or by rows over how to best honor the memory of the Holocaust. The Lithuanian government would be better to dial down the rhetoric, and instead focus its efforts on securing the return of direct flights from Tel Aviv, or investing in a good kosher restaurant or two in downtown Vilnius.



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