NEW YORK (JTA) — Lithuania’s 800-year-old connection to its Jewish population broke down in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the country and murdered nearly all of its 200,000 Jews – often with the complicity of local Lithuanians.
This month, 70 years on, Lithuania finally passed historic compensation legislation to provide some $50 million in compensation to Jewish families whose property was confiscated during the Holocaust. Jewish groups hailed the move as a milestone for Lithuanian-Jewish relations.
But lingering bitterness on both sides over the discussion of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust remains an obstacle to better ties.
Some Jews are concerned that Lithuania has yet to confront its own role in the Holocaust.
“Relations have to be promoted within a context that is based on mutual respect and respect for historical truth,” said Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which was founded in prewar Lithuania. “Everywhere you go searching for the truth, the truth cannot be found without conflict.”
On the flipside, many Lithuanians say Jews focus too much on the Holocaust.
Three years ago, during negotiations over Holocaust compensation between the Lithuanian government and the Jewish community, a Lithuanian tabloid ran a cover featuring an oversized American Jewish official demanding money from a miniaturized Lithuanian prime minister. “Give it now!” screamed the headline.
The president of a Lithuanian museum in Chicago, Stanley Balzekas Jr., said Jews should not take Lithuanian anti-Semitic inclinations “personally.”
“The Jewish leaders have to be sensitive,” he said. “The terrible consequences that happened with the Holocaust aren’t going to go away. That shouldn’t be forgotten. But it shouldn’t cloud the future.”
Harley Felstein, an American Jew with Lithuanian roots who lives in Washington, wants to focus on positive aspects of Lithuanian-Jewish history. Last fall, he launched a campaign called the Sunflower Project to promote Lithuanian-Jewish events in the United States and organized Jewish trips to Lithuania, including exchanges of high school students between Israel and Lithuania.
Last week, Felstein convened a group of Lithuanian and Jewish community leaders for a discussion in Chicago focused on improving ties.
“If you’re going to do a reconnection between the Lithuanian and the Jewish people, you don’t want to enter into the situation through conflict,” Felstein said. “You want to do it through learning and nurturing. If our project is successful, there won’t be any negativity left.”
The idea for the project was born when Felstein’s 16-year-old, Benjamin, traveled to Lithuania in 2010, found Jewish cemeteries in disrepair and sent photos to his father. Felstein, who works for a cemetery as a funeral counselor, was inspired.
“We want to reconnect the Jewish world back with the Lithuanian people,” Felstein told JTA. “If we don’t take action now, the next generation won’t have that information available to them. Our time with survivors who have that linkage is limited.”
Lithuania has a rich Jewish history. The country’s capital — Vilnius, known to Jews as Vilna — was the center of Orthodox Judaism in Eastern Europe, home to the original YIVO and the hometown of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, the 18th-century Jewish sage known as the Vilna Gaon.
Today, only about 3,000 Jews live in Lithuania.
In recent years, ties between Lithuania and Israel have been improving. Between 2009 and 2011, Israeli and Lithuanian diplomats visited each other 20 times. Last year, Lithuania designated 2011 as the year of commemorating the Holocaust. And this month’s compensation decision will send a portion of the $50 million to support the upkeep of Jewish heritage sites in Lithuania, including cemeteries and synagogues.
The Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Zygimantas Pavilonis, said he believes that differences between the communities will dissipate as Lithuania, which has been independent for about 20 years, moves away from the anti-Semitic legacy of the Soviet Union.
Just as it took countries in Western Europe decades to examine their roles in the genocide of the Jews, so too it will take time in Lithuania, Pavolonis said. “It took some time to build from scratch, from the distortion of reality,” he said.
Already, Pavolonis said, the Lithuanian government is training teachers to educate schoolchildren about the Holocaust.
Alexander Domanskis, past president of the Lithuanian World Center in Chicago, said Lithuanians should learn about the Holocaust.
“I’m agonized because this is part of my own tradition,” he said. “This is not Lithuania as a people.”