Is YIVO Close to Deal With Lithuania?

Despite Controversy, Research Group Hopes To Show Archives

By Paul Berger

Published November 09, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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Negotiations between Lithuania and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research may be close to re-establishing YIVO’s presence in Vilna 70 years after the Nazis looted and largely destroyed its holdings.

Jonathan Brent
karen leon
Jonathan Brent

But just where those negotiations stand appears unclear following an announcement in the group’s newsletter and a follow-up statement from YIVO’s executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent. The article, in YIVO’s fall newsletter, announced that the organization had reached a “historic agreement” that “paves the way” for future cooperation on the establishment of a “YIVO Room” at the National Library of Lithuania.

“The YIVO Room will reconstitute YIVO’s library collections, approximately 8,000 books, which were expropriated by the Nazis during the war and subsequently subsumed into the Lithuanian National Library,” the article said. “The YIVO Room will also contain an exhibit of YIVO’s Vilna programs and archives.”

It continued, “This is the first time that YIVO will have an official presence in Vilna since the institution was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941.”

But YIVO’s Brent said in a later e-mail that the deal is only an “agreement to begin negotiations” and that there is still a long way to go before the room’s contents will be decided.

“No final disposition of materials has been achieved,” Brent said.

YIVO, once a center of Yiddish scholarship and the cultural pride of Eastern European Jewry, was founded in Vilna in 1925. During World War II, the Nazis destroyed almost two-thirds of its collection of books and archives. About two-thirds of the books and archives that remained were rescued and brought to New York. The rest stayed in Lithuania and survived through five decades of Communist rule.

Since 1989, successive YIVO heads have fought to have the organization’s documents, particularly its archives, returned to YIVO’s postwar headquarters in New York City. The Lithuanian government says the materials are part of Lithuania’s national heritage and should remain in the country.

Brent has pursued a more conciliatory tone with Lithuanian officials, provoking vehement opposition from a small group of Yiddishists, Holocaust survivors and their advocates.

Those critics, led by Dovid Katz, a Yiddish expert who divides his time between Lithuania and the United Kingdom, view any agreement that sees YIVO materials on display in Lithuania — even on long-term loan — as capitulation.

Their anger is fueled by what they perceive to be a Lithuanian government campaign to whitewash the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. About 95% of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered during the war, many at the hands of fellow Lithuanians.

“A decision to capitulate on looted Holocaust property would be an outrage in its own right,” Katz said, “supremely immoral for the memory of the victims and the dignity of the survivors of the Holocaust, and in the longer run, no help to the ongoing development of ethical and historical values in modern Lithuania.

“Why on earth does the Lithuanian government, that is so keen to improve its image, simply not send the books and papers back to their rightful owner as a matter of simple justice?”

Katz also criticized YIVO for sending “a multiplicity of messages” about the status of the YIVO Room. He accused YIVO of simultaneously suggesting that an accord is imminent and protesting that the fate of YIVO’s books and materials is far from certain.

“There has been a lack of moral clarity, straightforwardness and plain honesty to its nearer and international constituency that does not do justice to the institution’s proud past in Vilna before the war and then in New York City,” Katz said.

Some of the confusion may stem from Brent’s insistence in recent months that talks with the Lithuanian government have only just begun. The YIVO newsletter article, in contrast, stated that the agreement was the result of “a yearlong negotiation.”

Brent clarified in an e-mail to the Forward that the yearlong talks were limited to “the agreement to begin negotiations.”

He said, “It is our intent to establish the room, yet obviously everything depends on the course of the future negotiations that have not even begun.

“We are not envisioning and never have envisioned ceding our legal ownership of the books or archives that once belonged to YIVO.”

Brent said he would be going soon to Vilna, to meet with members of the Jewish community, members of the Lithuanian government and scholars “to initiate the discussions that will, I hope, produce a formal understanding.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com


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