The European Union has designated Vilnius as the “European Capital of Culture” for 2009. It is a recognition Lithuania does not deserve.
Vilnius, with its beautiful old town and venerable history, is without a doubt charming. Workers are busy restoring churches and palaces, and the first-time visitor is likely to be smitten by the postcard-perfect scenes.
But behind Vilnius’s picturesque facade is something far less appealing to behold: Lithuania’s record of systematically ignoring a major element of its cultural heritage. Jews have lived in Lithuania for a millennium. Vilnius — or Vilna, as it was also known — was a major center of Jewish life and scholarship, boasting so many yeshivas and prominent rabbis in the 18th century that it was known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” By the 20th century one-third of the city’s population was Jewish. It was a world center of Yiddish culture and scholarship.
That ended with the Holocaust. The Nazis, with the assistance of Lithuanian collaborators, murdered 200,000 Jews, more than 90% of the country’s Jewish population.
Today, six decades later, the small, reviving Jewish community is seeking the return of former Jewish communal property as a means of restoring and preserving Jewish heritage sites and supporting its own limited religious and cultural needs. The Lithuanian Jewish community seeks to follow the paths taken by Jewish communities in neighboring countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, where community property restitution was implemented years ago.
In Prague the restored Jewish quarter, with its eight synagogues, is again the center of Jewish activity in the Czech Republic and a magnet for tourists. The Krakow neighborhood known as Kazimierz hosts an annual Jewish Cultural Festival that brings 25,000 people together for a week of concerts, films and lectures that display Poland’s rich Jewish legacy. In Slovakia a government-endowed foundation, created as a partial settlement for looted Jewish assets during the Holocaust, aids the elderly and restores cemeteries and synagogues.
None of this is happening in Lithuania. Instead, the Lithuanian government, for more than six years, has continually delayed an agreement on communal property restitution. Meanwhile, former Jewish properties have been privatized and the community lacks the most basic support for education and welfare.
Vilna’s historic Jewish cemetery, for example, was hundreds of years old, but in the mid-19th century tsarist Russia built a military fort on the site, and in the 1950s the Soviets replaced it with a sports arena. The pattern of disrespect continued under Lithuania’s post-Communist leadership. Despite promises that no graves would be desecrated under their watch, the land was privatized, sold to developers and, ignoring regulations to the contrary, city permits were issued to allow the construction of luxury apartments. Lithuania’s president promised in September 2007 to stop construction, but it has yet to be halted.
Holocaust knowledge also is wanting in Lithuania. The country was annexed by the Soviet Union before World War II ended, leaving no possibility of any critical, objective examination of Lithuania’s Holocaust history until it regained its freedom in 1991. A presidential decree created an international historical commission in 1998 to report on both the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Among its prominent members was Yitzak Arad, the founding director of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Arad was born in Lithuania. The Nazis killed his family, and as a teenager he fled and joined the Soviet Partisans. When the war ended he left for Palestine. Sixty years later a Lithuanian newspaper translated excerpts from his diary, describing the Partisans’ battles with Germans and Lithuanian collaborators. Last year Lithuania’s general prosecutor decided this was prima facie evidence that Arad might be guilty of war crimes and opened an investigation. The historical commission has published several scholarly works that detail the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust. But the actions of the general prosecutor now make a mockery of these findings.
In March, when Lithuania celebrated its independence from the Soviet Union, several hundred neo-Nazis and skinheads paraded along Gedimino Avenue in central Vilnius, walking past the Parliament and the prime minister’s office, waving flags with a Lithuanian swastika and shouting “Juden Raus.”
This was not the first neo-Nazi rally in Eastern Europe. Last November a similar group organized a march in Prague with the provocative goal of walking through the city’s Jewish quarter. But in the Czech capital the neo-Nazis were greeted by thousands of vocal counter-demonstrators and nearly all the country’s political leaders. In Vilnius, where incitement to ethnic hatred is a crime, police made no arrests while providing the marchers with an escort. Lithuania’s president, to be fair, did voice criticism — 10 days after the event.
Twisting Holocaust memory, desecrating cemeteries, ignoring antisemitism and refusing to return communal property — surely this is not the best cultural capital Europe can offer. The E.U. should reconsider the honor accorded Vilnius.
Rabbi Andrew Baker is director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee.