OPINION | VILNA GREAT SYNAGOGUE | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE
VILNIUS—In the days following publication by Defending History of a report reacting to press releases about a (secret?) “memorandum” signed by the heads of the official “Lithuanian Jewish community” (LJC), the head of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the “Good Will Foundation” (GWF) and the Mayor of Vilnius, a number of conscience-stricken employees at LJC have been sending around copies of various versions of the memorandum, signed on 25 May, during the recent “Fifth Litvak Congress” here in Vilnius.
Update of 13 June 2022: One day following publication of this report, the “Good Will Foundation” published the signed English memorandum, using the wording “is now dying out altogether” to refer to today’s Jewish community in Lithuania, its hopes, and its dreams.
International members of the Good Will Foundation’s board contacted each confirmed they believed the document was made public. They all agreed that ethically speaking, “it is public.” In any case, it is in fact a public document signed by heads of public institutions, all of which are financed by the taxpayers of Lithuania. As the memorandum’s text has not (yet) appeared on the websites of the LJC, AJC, GWF or the Vilnius municipality, Defending History takes the opportunity, as a public service in a free, transparent and democratic society, to put public documents in the public domain:
(1) In Lithuanian: the actual Memorandumas document signed on May 25th by the LJC’s Faina Kukliansky, the AJC’s Andrew Baker, and Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius (along with the GWF’s Indrė Rutkauskaitė);
(2) In English: the English text provided for the parties’ beforehand as confidential draft prior to signing (no longer confidential, as superseded by the Memorandumas);
(3) In English: the English text translated from the actual signed-and-sealed Memorandumas by professional translators commissioned by Defending History.
[Update of 13 June: (4) In English: the official English text, published on the GWF website a day after this report appeared.]
The contents of the Memorandum match the press releases that appeared on the websites of the LJC, GWF, Vilnius municipality and other media. There will be a new building on the sacred Great Vilna Synagogue Square housing the official, undemocratic, restitution-fueled “Jewish Community of Lithuania” replacing the current elegant downtown Pylimo 4 headquarters (presumably continuing to exclude the democratically elected Vilnius Jewish Community, which is not mentioned, and which represents the vast majority of Lithuanian Jewish citizens here today). In fact, locals fear that the three or so thousand remaining Jews in Lithuania, and visitors in town sympathetic to them, would feel as unwelcome in the new premises as they do now at the current venue.
Then there is the major issue of this being one of the most sacred Jewish religious sites in Lithuania, home to the fabled Great Synagogue and over a dozen kloyzn (study and prayer houses). Alas, there was zero consultation with the great Lithuanian yeshivas and institutions worldwide (many of which proudly carry the name of their Lithuanian ancestral towns) or their rabbinic leaders, representing some million community members worldwide, some of whom have been actively building Litvak religious Jewish life here for years.
Moreover, it appears that the millions of euros for building the de facto power base for a lawyer, right on top of these holy sites, would be from the Restitution funds deriving from the religious Jewish communal properties of pre-Holocaust Lithuania, as explicitly clarified in the Restitution bill of 2011.
Turning to the wider heritage issues, there seems to have been total exclusion of all those who enabled the historic 2017 Vilnius conference on the Great Synagogue. Scholars from Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Vilnius University and others contributed learned papers. Leaders of the current local residents’ associations of Vilnius Old Town were generously spirited during the conference about possible loss of some green space and their children’s playground. Then there was the international youth workshop on the subject to whom the same mayor graciously presented a municipal award. The major international NGO Litvak World (also known as Jerusalem of the North), advocating a cultural space on the site that will be open to all, has been working for many years on the legacy and future of the Great Synagogue square in splendid Lithuanian-Jewish and domestic-foreign partnerships. All — shut out.
But nothing in the press releases or the rumor mill could have prepared the Jews of today’s Lithuania for the coup de grace. It is the sentence that appears in the municipality’s draft as follows: “After World War II, the Jewish community in Vilnius and Lithuania declined significantly and is now dying out altogether.” In the English translation commissioned based on the final signed document, the sentence reads: “After World War II, the Jewish community in Vilnius and Lithuania shrunk significantly and, by now, is becoming extinct” with a footnote to the word “extinct” that reads: “Translator’s note: The Lithuanian term used here in the original is nyksta, which can mean ‘disappearing, going extinct, withering, vanishing, dwindling’. The choice of the word here is somewhat strange, as nyksta would rather be said about animals or plants, not about a community of people. Plus, it has a connotation of irreversible processes that one has no power over.”
The three or so thousand surviving Jewish citizens of Lithuania, of a variety of ages, persuasions and interests, are known to be extraordinarily creative and deeply dedicated to their survival here. Deeply dedicated to continuing as best they can to carry on the legacy of their people. Taking some examples from this week alone: The Jewish youth group “Sababa” just announced that all 80 places for the 2022 Jewish summer camp were filled in the first days of registration (a waiting list has been set up). And just this weekend, the Vilnius Jewish Community had a three day Jewish event down south in Druskininkai; it too was filled to capacity. Like the creative work of many middle and older generation Litvaks here, they receive no support from the GWF. Post Holocaust numbers here are small but surely the very purpose of the 2011 Restitution Bill was to enable Jewish life to survive and flourish, even in the grand old Jewish, Litvak, and Lithuanian spirit of — “Small is beautiful.”
But they all seem to be regarded as “extinct” (or, in the municipality’s version, “dying out altogether”). The sentence occurs in juxtaposition to the view that there is no need for a reconstructed actual Great Synagogue, but its death sentence by decree in the face of such courageous efforts to maintain a small but vibrant community nevertheless remains excruciatingly painful to the Jewish citizens of Lithuania. Perhaps more so when it is proposed that instead the millions go for a new community center for an entity that excludes these “extinct” people. For whom is it to be, then?
Meantime, the tens of millions of euros of restitution funds are being allocated as per the Good Will Foundation’s allocations under its permanent (non-rotating) co-chairpersons. For its part, the democratically elected board of the Vilnius Jewish Community has issued its own heartfelt appeals for years, begging for simple justice, inter alia in 2017, in 2018 (followed by a street rally unique in post-Soviet space), and then again, in 2020. For many here, the central issue is the disenfranchisement of Lithuanian Jews’ voting rights (in their own community) in favor of a small board of sycophants, enacted via, literally, a change of rules smack in the middle of an election campaign that “was going the other way” (see JTA reports of 2017 and 2018, and DH’s section on the de-democratization process that has disenfranchised Jewish citizens).
One of the non-rotating GWF co-chairs, eminent attorney Faina Kukliansky, is also the head of the same official Jewish community which it finances, whose election was widely considered undemocratic, with calls for new externally supervised elections ignored. She is often considered to be the nation’s top lawyer on citizenship and restitution.
The other, the American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi Andrew Baker, in addition to co-chairing the Good Will Foundation from its inception, is a long-time member of the state’s “Red-Brown Commission” (that supports the Prague Declaration of 2008 and other Holocaust revisionist documents). He is the proud awardee of presidential crosses and medals. But two years ago, he finally replied to an anguished outcry from three elected board members of the Vilnius Jewish Community. To better fathom how he is presented locally, it can be instructive to see his titles in the pre-signing draft translation: “Director of the American Jewish Community; the founder of the GWF.” That detail was duly corrected in the final text.