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January|February 2003
License to Shill By Katherine Marsh
Liberals' Labors Lost By Robert A. Burt
Seeds of Discord By Bruce Barcott
Vilnius Lost By Paul Jaskunas

Vilnius Lost

Paul Jaskunas on why Lithuania's Jewish community may have lost more than reparations can give back.

By Paul Jaskunas

During World War II, the large Jewish ghetto in Vilnius included the Mefitze Haskole Library, which continued to operate as Jews were murdered by the thousands in and around the city. The building was a center for partisans conspiring against the Nazis; it was also the place where the doomed went to read. Residents of the ghetto consumed books voraciously, sitting two to a chair. In 1942, when the hundred-thousandth volume was loaned, what was known as the Ghetto Library celebrated with a concert.

Today, the tired two-story building is home to a branch of the Vilnius Conservatory, a music school, and parts of it have been converted into apartments. No sign announces the building's significance, and it doesn't stand out among the other buildings lining its shabby street. Not far from the library, nestled anonymously in Vilnius's cobbled Old Town, are what used to be a Jewish hospital, school, and youth club. But aside from the occasional plaque, there is little to commemorate the Yiddish-speaking society that existed here for 600 years.

In Lithuania, the Jewish populations of most towns were led by a board of rabbis typically called the kahal, an organ of self-government that, among other duties, built, owned, and maintained properties. Synagogues, hospitals, schools, libraries, and bathhouses all fell under the kahal's ownership. But when the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in 1940, the new regime banned non-Communist Party organizations and nationalized communal buildings, using some for government offices. After the Nazis occupied Lithuania in 1941, many of the Jewish communal buildings were reduced to rubble. Some Jewish communal property did survive the war, but most of the Jews did not. The Ghetto Library and other Jewish buildings fell back into state hands during Stalin's reign, where they remained until Lithuania declared its independence in 1990. The Third Reich and USSR robbed Jews not only of their lives, but also of the structures that had been most vital to their communities.

Starting in 1993, when Slovakia legalized the return of confiscated religious buildings, most Eastern European countries have slowly been returning communal property to Jews. Lithuania has been a conspicuous exception, but that could be about to change. Last spring, the Lithuanian Justice Ministry began negotiating with Jewish leaders about what property would be eligible for restitution and about the process for getting it back.

Spearheading the effort to reclaim the lost property is Simonas Alperavicius, a 74-year-old Holocaust survivor and the chairman of the Vilnius-based group called the Jewish Community of Lithuania. Housed in a cavernous Old Town building, the organization runs activities—a lecture series, a choir—and lobbies Lithuania's government on issues of interest to the country's 5,000 Jews. Alperavicius, a former law professor, is adamant about the moral necessity of returning property but is skeptical about the government's willingness to do so. Parliament, which was expected to vote before the end of 2002 on restitution legislation, can't be counted on for support, he said.

Politicians may not be as adversarial as Alperavicius fears, however. The legislative process has recently been accelerated by Lithuania's imminent integration into NATO. Resolving the question of Jewish communal property is not a prerequisite for NATO membership, but the U.S. State Department and American Jewish organizations have persistently "encouraged" the government to deal with the problem, according to Mindaugas Butkus, an official at Lithuania's Foreign Ministry. In October, Randolph Bell, the State Department's special envoy for Holocaust issues, paid visits to several government officials, including the deputy foreign minister, to discuss restitution of Jewish property. "If we want to be a full-fledged member of the Western community," Butkus said, "this problem should be fully treated and solved."

But there are practical, as well as political, obstacles. Much of the property in question—some 700 buildings and cemeteries around the country, according to a draft list—is currently owned by third parties. The government could offer the Jewish community money, or different property, but Lithuania, roughly the size of West Virginia, possesses neither in abundance. In 2001, the government ran a deficit of $180 million—a tenth of its overall budget. "If we had money like the U.S. it would be no problem to return property, and we could solve this in two years," said Justinas Karosas, a member of parliament. "But now we don't have money or space."

As early as the 14th century, Lithuania was the heart of a Yiddish-speaking civilization, which came to be known as "Litvakija" and included parts of present-day Poland, Latvia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. Vilna, as Lithuania's capital is called in Yiddish and Russian, enjoyed a reputation for being a great center of Jewish scholarship and Talmudic learning. The city produced a number of famous rabbis, including Elijah ben Judah Solomon Zalman, an 18th-century figure known as the Vilna Gaon ("genius"), legendary for memorizing the Torah and correcting errors in ancient Jewish texts made by scribes. Thanks to such rabbinical heavyweights and their disciples, Vilnius's yeshivas attracted Jews from across Europe to study, and the city became home to one of the continent's most distinguished Jewish communities. "For money, go to īLÓdīz," a saying went. "For wisdom, go to Vilna."

In the 19th century, the city's Jewish population soared from 6,000 to 80,000; by 1902, Jews accounted for half the city's population. Around this time, Vilnius had established itself as a hub for Jewish social movements. The Bund, a secular socialist party that spread throughout Russia and Poland, was founded in Vilnius in 1897, and Zionist associations, which sought to resettle Jews in Palestine, multiplied rapidly throughout Lithuania at the turn of the century, making Vilnius a center of the movement. The city also boasted famous publishing houses, including the one known as Widow and Brothers Romm, which supplied the Jewish world with religious and secular books, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, credited with printing the first Yiddish grammar.

If Lithuania was once known for the vitality of its Jewish community, however, it is now known for the thoroughness and efficiency with which that community was decimated during the Holocaust. The Nazis tested a hurried version of Hitler's final solution in the country, in part to see if the occupied people would collaborate. In the summer of 1941, as the German army swept into what was then Soviet Lithuania, bloody pogroms broke out across the nation. Though supervised by the Nazis, much of the killing was carried out by ethnic Lithuanians. Bands of German soldiers and collaborators traveled through the countryside, murdering and sometimes torturing Jews in villages and small towns. By September 1941, about 35,000 Jews had been taken to a nearby forest near Vilnius, shot, and buried in pits. Those who escaped such massacres were herded into ghettos. For two years, there were more mass killings. In September 1943, the Germans dispatched the survivors to concentration camps. By the time the war ended, the Nazis and their collaborators had killed about 90 percent of the country's Jews.

In 1940 and the years following the war, all of Lithuania's religious organizations lost buildings to the USSR, as did individuals and companies. When Lithuania gained independence in 1990, the new government was faced with the task of returning not only private property, but also property that had belonged to the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, the Jewish community, and other religious groups.

A law passed in 1995 established the right of all religious communities that had functioned prior to July 1940 to reclaim property confiscated by the state. The Catholic Church used the bill to acquire hundreds of buildings it had lost to the USSR, but the Jewish community couldn't follow suit: The government wouldn't recognize the Jewish Community of Lithuania, which was formed in 1991, as the heir to what had been taken from the dozens of prewar Jewish organizations. According to the law, property belonging to religious communities of the past could only be granted to a newly established entity if it had been recognized as the rightful heir by the religion's "supreme authority." No such authority exists in Judaism.

Paulius Koverovas, state secretary for the Justice Ministry, insists that this requirement wasn't included in the law to prevent Jews from reclaiming property. The government, he said, merely needed a means of determining how to return the property. That the law failed the needs of Lithuania's Jews, he claimed, was an honest mistake.

Koverovas has been tapped to rectify this mistake. A 32-year-old attorney who left a mobile phone company in May 2001 to work for the Justice Ministry, he had no experience in Jewish affairs when he was asked to revise the restitution legislation. Though he's come to consider restitution an important human rights issue for his country to resolve, he is quick to point out the political, financial, and practical obstacles that stand in the way. This October, he met with Alperavicius and envoys from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and U.S. State Department. The parties discussed the language of a proposed amendment to the 1995 restitution law that would allow Jews to claim extensive communal property in Lithuania.

The government has tried to protect itself by limiting the number of claims that can be filed. The 1995 law prohibits restitution to secular organizations. The government, for instance, only returned property to the Catholic Church that was clearly religious—cemeteries, rectories, and churches. According to Vilius Kavaliauskas, an advisor to Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, the government is intent on keeping this secular-religious division in the language of any future law. "If you can give evidence it is connected to a religious group, you'll get it back. If not, sorry," he said. If the government opened the doors to returning property owned by nonreligious groups, Kavaliauskas reasoned, the liability would be overwhelming. Prewar Vilnius was checkered with communal organizations, many of which belonged to the Poles, who annexed the city from 1920 to 1939. A Polish youth club, Kavaliauskas pointed out, once stood on the property now occupied by the U.S. embassy.

Representatives of Lithuania's Jews want the new amendment to allow for the return of all property owned by the Jewish community, whether it was religious or not. In Vilnius there were synagogues and prayer houses, but also quasi-secular institutions like hospitals, schools, orphanages, and nursing homes. Arie Zuckerman, a U.S. and Israeli citizen now working as a senior advisor to Israel's deputy foreign minister, represents Israel in restitution disputes worldwide, and he was one of the negotiators in Vilnius this October. He argued that dividing the religious from the nonreligious doesn't work for Jewish communities. They created a separate system for education and social services, a society within a society, and all of their institutions fed religious life. "The word 'religious' shouldn't be binding," Zuckerman said.

But even proving that a building belonged to the Jewish community can prove difficult. The current law demands that claimants produce documentary evidence of past ownership, but much of the documentation of Jewish property no longer exists. "The Jews didn't survive; the documents didn't survive," Zuckerman said, arguing for a relaxed standard, one that would take into account the work of historians and the living memory of survivors. As Koverovas envisions it, the commission that hears claims should rely on a variety of sources, from live witnesses to books to real estate deeds. In the end, no property is likely to be returned without strong proof that it should be. "I don't see the possibility to restitute property without any evidence it was owned by the Jewish community," he said.

Like the documents that chart their history, many buildings were destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators or by the Soviets in the years following the war. In Vilnius, the Great Synagogue was battered in wartime and dynamited by the Russians in 1953. Zuckerman has lobbied the government to amend the law to allow for compensation for such property. "Most of the synagogues were burned to the soil. Nothing remained," he said. But the government has said that no Lithuanian citizen has the right to demand compensation for destroyed property. "If we do it for the Jews, as I understand, we'll have an extremely negative public reaction," Koverovas said.

For a decade, Jewish communities throughout central and eastern Europe have been seeking lost communal property, and most of their efforts have led to some kind of legislation, though success has varied. In the Czech Republic, some formerly Jewish buildings remain in the hands of the state, but most communal property has been returned. Hungary has a communal property restitution law, but so far little has been given back.

Many of the problems Lithuania's Jewish community is encountering in theory, Polish Jews are confronting in practice. Poland established a governmental commission to hear Jewish restitution claims in 2001, and the country is currently sorting out some 5,000 communal property claims made by Jews. The six-member commission that hears these claims is made up of three Jews and three government officials. About 200 claims have been resolved, mostly in favor of restitution, according to Andrzej Zozula, executive director of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. But proving past ownership hasn't been easy. In Lublin, for example, there was a building used by the Jewish community for about 70 years before the war, but the last existing deed to the property, dated 1870, showed it belonged to the Lublin Province of Imperial Russia. The Union of Jewish Religious Communities' claim for the property was denied. "The majority of Jewish communities in Poland were killed and a big part of their archives was destroyed, and after this we have 50 years of communism," said Zozula. "We have big troubles with proving our right to the properties."

When Jews have won back land or buildings, money to rehabilitate them hasn't necessarily followed. In one town, for example, Jews received a former hospital. For two years the Union of Jewish Religious Communities looked for investors who would develop the building, with no luck. Maintaining the property proved too costly, so the community sold it, and the new owners razed the building.

In Lithuania, the new restitution law is still in draft form, and even if it's approved by the prime minister, Parliament must have its say. Karosas, who has been in Parliament for two years, believes that restitution has significant support in the legislature, but he is less optimistic about its prospects in practice. The government isn't meeting its responsibilities to the present, much less the demands of history. The average pension for the elderly was only $90 a month in 2001, and in the same year, when the unemployment rate reached 12.5 percent, only a fraction of the jobless received help from the government.

For a decade, Lithuanian citizens have made claims for individually owned land and buildings nationalized by the Soviets. The government has approved many such claims, but most of this compensation has yet to be paid. Karosas estimates that the tab for restitution of privately owned property could come to 5 billion litas, or $1.4 billion—about half of the country's annual budget. "This problem must be resolved, but I see reality, and I become angry when Jewish organizations say we must do it quickly and in certain ways," says Karosas. "One principle is clear: You can't solve the problem without an awareness of our limitations."

If scarcity doesn't foil the restitution effort, public opinion could. Protecting Lithuania's Jewish heritage is not a popular cause. The government is trying to keep the entire restitution process out of the media to avoid a scandal, according to Koverovas. Restitution, he said, is a lose-lose campaign issue: If politicians are publicly for it, they'll be attacked by voters; but if they come out against it, they run the risk of being scolded by the international community.

The political issue is further complicated by lingering anti-Semitism among the electorate. "Jews, I don't feel they belong here, even if history says otherwise," Gintar.e Gavelyt.e, a Vilnius University student, said recently when asked about restitution. "They want a lot of buildings in the center. I don't know what is going to happen if they take back everything. . . . If it's going to be in the center of Vilnius, we are going to make ourselves a Jewish town. This is not okay." In a 2000 poll measuring people's attitudes toward different nationalities, the Lithuanian public ranked the Jews 19th out of 20, favoring them only over gypsies.

Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, who came to Lithuania from the United States in 1994, runs the Chabad Lubavitch center, which offers courses on Judaism and runs a kosher kitchen that serves free meals for the hungry (Jew or Gentile). Krinsky said recently that even if the proposed law is enacted, the return of buildings alone could never restore the Jerusalem of Lithuania, as Vilnius was known before the war. For Krinsky, restitution is a means to a higher end, that of restoring the religious life of Lithuania's Jews. "Life was snuffed out here. How to return it?" he asked. "Not by returning empty buildings."

Endeavors like Krinsky's are reminding the city of its Jewish past with increasing frequency. Dovid Katz works at a cash-strapped Yiddish Institute that teaches Lithuanian and foreign students the language and literature of the city Lithuania lost. One weekend this summer, a Yiddish cabaret festival coincided with a Torah dedication, a religious ceremony held to welcome a new Torah into the community. "It's not possible to rebuild the same culture," says Spanerflig Chasia, a local Holocaust survivor. "But we are trying."

But for some Jews no justice will be possible without the return of property, and the quest for it is wearing them down. For a decade now, a Holocaust survivor named Solomon Develtov has been wading through red tape to get his grandfather's property back. Born in 1923 to a family that called Vilnius home for three centuries, Develtov first made his claim for what remained of his family's 5,000-square-meter complex of Old Town buildings in 1992. Countless bureaucratic demands, including a request for the death certificates of his father and extended family, who died in the Nazi pits outside Vilnius, have frustrated him. "Hope dies last," he said, "but the hope I have is very little." The government now wants translations of Polish documents into Lithuanian. Develtov isn't sure it's worth the trouble.

Paul Jaskunas is a writer who traveled to Vilnius on a Fulbright fellowship in 2001.

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