The Real Problem in Lithuania

The very real needs of the reviving Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the presence of aged and infirm Holocaust survivors demand that we continue efforts on their behalf.

In June, after nine years of negotiations, the Lithuanian parliament adopted legislation that will pay out $53 million in compensation for former Nazi-confiscated Jewish communal property. On the face of it, the bill was a success. The payments, to be spread over 10 years, should be sufficient to guarantee the long-term future of Jewish religious, educational and communal life in Lithuania, and to assist in restoring and preserving Jewish heritage sites. A portion of the funds will also be used to assist needy Litvak survivors both in Lithuania and around the world.

But since the prewar Jewish community's collective properties - schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as synagogues and yeshivas - were surely worth far more than the amount being paid, there inevitably are critics who believe more could have been achieved ("Still unresolved restitution," by Arkadijus Vinokur, Haaretz, July 8 ). Having led negotiations with the Lithuanian government on behalf of the World Jewish Restitution Organization - representing major Jewish organizations in the U.S. and Israel - and the umbrella Lithuanian Jewish Community organization, I would like to lay out the facts as I experienced them.

In 2002, Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas established a commission and designated a close confidant to lead the Lithuanian negotiating team. We on the Jewish side agreed to conduct our own research to determine the actual properties to be claimed, while jointly drafting legislation with the Lithuanian Justice Ministry that would provide the basis for restituting properties or paying compensation for those that could not be returned. There was little doubt that international pressure, particularly from the United States, helped keep the process moving, especially since Lithuania was then seeking membership in NATO.

A year later, we presented a list of 438 properties that we believed could be claimed. But the prospect of parliamentary elections, scheduled for fall 2004, brought a suspension of negotiations, since support for Jewish property return was deemed a political liability. Although it was not exploited by political opponents, the Lithuanian press would periodically highlight the subject, painting a picture of a world Jewry out to steal the country's rightful assets. Mainstream political leaders knew better, but few sought to confront the anti-Semitic nature of these attacks.

In March 2005, Brazauskas, now forced into a coalition government, reaffirmed his support for legislation, but new Justice Ministry officials insisted on reviewing the language of a draft bill. Even when agreement was reached, the government hesitated to introduce the legislation, referring it instead to the Finance Ministry for further review.

In 2006, Gediminas Kirkilas became prime minister, and we stood together at a press conference in Vilnius that September, where he announced his hope that restitution legislation could quickly be enacted. But his aides demanded the draft legislation be rewritten. They cited a few local Jews who took issue with the umbrella organization representing Lithuanian Jewry, and claimed "100 percent Jewish support" was lacking.

By 2007, it became clear that the Lithuanian government - while still paying lip service to supporting restitution legislation - had no intention of moving it toward passage. We continued to receive diplomatic and political support from the United States. Successive U.S. ambassadors in Vilnius pressed the case for restitution. Members of Congress held hearings and passed resolutions, singling out Lithuania for special criticism. The subject was raised at every high-level bilateral meeting. While Israel was at a disadvantage, since it lacked a resident ambassador in Vilnius, it also added to the diplomatic pressure. Every Lithuanian leader in turn responded by voicing support for legislation and expressing the hope that the matter would be resolved "soon."

But in January 2008, a senior aide to Kirkilas admitted the obvious, telling me that "there is no political will" to enact a law. Elections in the fall of that year brought a change of government, and long-time Conservative Party leader Andrius Kubilius to the prime minister's office. He said he wanted finally to take care of the matter, and seemed to have the political capital to do so. In June 2009, he announced his proposal to pay $53 million in compensation over a 10-year period. This was, he admitted, only a modest percentage of the actual value of former properties, but in light of the difficult economic situation, it was the best that could be done. He said he expected the legislation to move quickly through the parliament.

But "quickly" is a relative term in Lithuania: It would take two more years to marshal the necessary support in parliament, where some of the sharpest critics were members of Kubilius' own party. And during the debate, ultranationalist and anti-Semitic MPs even made common cause with the few vocal Jewish critics who remained.

The lessons of this Lithuanian saga should not be lost on other restitution efforts still in progress. The moral argument for the return of former Jewish property is unassailable, but there are competing demands for limited financial resources, and local Jewish communities - even if organized and unified - are too small to exert political leverage. In the public arena Jewish suffering during the Holocaust is "balanced" by the more recent experience of communist repression, an equation that may misread history but is frequently repeated nonetheless.

The American and Israeli governments can still be relied on for support, although here, too, competing demands on other important issues mean that property restitution will not necessarily get due attention. The very real needs of the reviving Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the presence of aged and infirm Holocaust survivors demand that we continue these efforts - mindful that success will increasingly be measured by what is achievable.

Rabbi Andrew Baker is director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee.