1: Lithuania – a Past Not Forgotten
by Steve Felder
Given the Lithuanian heritage of the overwhelming majority of South African Jews, it is somewhat surprising that seemingly few have visited modern-day Lithuania. Bucking the trend, I visited during March with a small yet prominent delegation of Jewish business executives, on a “mission” arranged by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the largest Jewish humanitarian and welfare organization in the world.
The mission included Latvia, but owing to prior business commitments, I was only able to attend the Lithuanian component of the mission. The objectives of the mission included connecting with the local Lithuanian Jewish community and the Lithuanian government, exploring business opportunities, and viewing firsthand the work that the JDC is conducting to assist the Jewish community.
Our intense 48-hour agenda comprised a range of diverse activities, including a visit to the Jewish kindergarten and Jewish Community Centre, a tour of the Ponár Forest (where 100,000 perished during the Nazi occupation) led by an inspiring 91-year-old Jewish partisan, and constructive meetings with Prime Minster Andrius Kubilius, and Invest Lithuania — a government agency focusing on attracting foreign investment to Lithuania.
Among my myriad experiences during the mission, a few insights stand out: Lithuania has made substantial steps to acknowledge its wartime past and the role of Lithuanian collaborators in the decimation of 96 per cent of the country’s erstwhile Jewish community.
Such steps include the recent approval of a property restitution fund exceeding $50m over the next 10 years and earmarked funding for restoration of the Jewish quarter. There remain some unresolved issues, however the trend appears to be moving in the right direction.
The modern-day Jewish community in Lithuania is thriving, with Jews “coming out of the woodwork” on an ongoing basis. Although small in numbers (estimated around 4,000), the community boasts a multi-level community center in Vilnius which is the de facto hub of community life, a number of functioning synagogues and a strong and highly respected leadership team.
The community, like many round the world, however, has a number of challenges — many families require financial assistance and assimilation is high. In response, JDC has been working with the local Jewish community since the early 1990s to provide welfare for the needy — both elderly and young — and to implement a range of Jewish renewal initiatives, designed to strengthen the communities’ Jewish identity and young leadership, and ensure its continuity.
A strong relationship exists between the current Lithuanian government and the local Jewish community, which includes regular and consistent dialogue on a range of issues. As an example, our delegation was hosted by the local Jewish community at a dinner which was attended by no less than four Lithuanian officials, including the vice-minister of foreign affairs (herself a former ambassador to Israel).
Diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Israel are at a record high, which manifests itself in a number of ways, including diplomatic support in various forums and booming trade and tourism. Post-Soviet Lithuania, with a highly educated population and stable fiscal policy, represents a growth economy (5.8 per cent GDP increase in 2011, following a 15% decline in 2009 during the global financial crisis), and forms an important bridge between (among others) Russia and the West, with abundant investment opportunities in a variety of industries.
Lithuania is a beautiful country, with a lot to offer in terms of greenery, beaches and historical sites, many of which I would like to explore in future trips. The cost of accommodation, transport etc. is far lower than much of Western Europe.
A visit to Lithuania, whether of a tourist, “roots” or “mission” nature (like ours), is something I would recommend every South African Litvak should undertake. It is a vital opportunity to reconnect with the past, present and future.
Steve Felder is a dual South African/Lithuanian citizen, and is currently on international assignment with his company, Maersk Line, as MD responsible for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
2: Felder’s Whirlwind Lithuanian Tour was a PR Exercise
by Olga Zabludoff
A second opinion on Steve Felder’s enthusiastic article “Lithuania — A Past Not forgotten” (SAJR May 11):
As a SA-born Litvak now living in Washington, DC, I share that mystique and the yearning to love Lithuania, the land to which I can trace my ancestors into the early 18th century.
I have visited Lithuania four times between 1992 and 2003.
Felder’s 48-hour hyped-up whirlwind tour was a PR event staged by the Lithuanian government which is energetically courting South African Jews. Clearly the government is looking for SA Litvak investments to help revive their badly suffering economy.
Recently, to the horror of the tiny surviving Lithuanian Jewish community, an elaborate four-day chain of events in Vilnius (Vilna) and Kaunas (Kovno) was orchestrated and financed by the Lithuanian government. The ceremonies and conferences honored the memory of the 1941 Nazi-puppet Prime Minister Juozas Ambrazevičius (Brazaitis) who had fled to Germany and later to the US after the war. (He had changed his surname to “Brazaitis” to elude arrest.)
The signature of Ambrazevičius appears at the top of documents ordering the formation of the Kovno Ghetto, the withdrawal of all human rights for Jews, and other measures designed to persecute and annihilate Lithuanian Jewry.
Brazaitis died in 1974 in the US. Almost forty years later the Lithuanian government has had his remains exhumed, flown to Vilnius, and reburied with full honors. While the pomp and ceremony was going on for this “hero” who was responsible for thousands of Jewish deaths, Vilnius’ only functioning synagogue was desecrated with green paint.
A few of the issues that are currently plaguing Lithuanian-Jewish relations:
•Significant increases in antisemitism and antisemitic incidents. No arrests have been made.
• Annual massive neo-Nazi marches since 2008 in Vilnius and Kaunas on Lithuania’s independence days, fully sanctioned by the government.
• Not one Lithuanian war criminal has been punished. It is documented that a minimum of 15,000 Lithuanians participated actively in murdering Jews.
• Government prosecutors have harassed aging Jewish survivors in Vilnius and Israel with charges of “war crimes” because they had fought against the Nazis.
• The concept of a “double genocide” in Lithuania is marketed ad nauseam. This is one step up the ladder from Holocaust denial. The only genocide in Lithuania was the Holocaust.
The Lithuanian government is engaged in dual-track politics and policies. While it is trying to create the appearance that it is striving for reconciliation with its small Litvak community and larger world Jewry, it is simultaneously still intent on appeasing its ultra-nationalist faction. Contrary to what Felder claims, the country has failed to confront its brutal Holocaust past.
Is it any wonder that they would prefer to tune out their past? Yet other nations have managed to overcome their shameful pasts. But that requires sincerity and honesty.
Most certainly Steve Felder did not see the real Lithuania during his visit complete with welcomes from the Prime Minister and other elites. He and others who are similarly taken in must go beyond the PR duplicity and look through a wider lens.
Olga Zabludoff, Washington, DC
The letter has been slightly shortened. — Editor
3: We Were Not “Duped” to Write Pro-Lithuania Comments
by Steve Felder
While I respect the views expressed by Olga Zabludoff in her letter in response to my article “Lithuania — a past not forgotten”, I would like to address a number of inaccuracies therein.
Contrary to Ms. Zabludoff ’s impression that my colleagues and I were duped (?) by a “hyped-up whirlwind tour” in a “PR event staged by the Lithuanian government,” our Baltic visit — as noted in my article — was arranged by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which is instrumental in assisting the local Jewish community both financially and in terms of Jewish renewal activities.
The government played no part in arranging the visit, and our meeting with the prime minster was arranged as a courtesy by the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel (who is also accredited to South Africa) with the objective of rebuilding bridges with Litvaks.
As such, the agenda during our visit focused on connecting with the local Jewish community — our primary objective — and was augmented with two official meetings.
In my article, I pointed out that “there remain some unresolved issues” between the Lithuanian government and the local Jewish community, including some of those correctly pointed out by Ms. Zabludoff (whereas others she points out are unsubstantiated by any available data, such as a “significant increase in antisemitism”).
However, there are also immensely positive steps that have been taken to make amends, which deserve to be recognized. For example, it is quite remarkable that a small country with a consequently small economy has approved a 52 million dollar property restitution fund in an election year and in the midst of a European financial crisis resulting in severe austerity measures.
Moreover, the changes to the dual citizenship law that were implemented in 2011 have a potentially disproportionate benefit to Litvaks wishing to restore their citizenship.
Notwithstanding these positive developments, the leadership of the local Jewish community expressed much enthusiasm during our visit regarding the sincere and open dialogue that they have with the current government, including easy access to top officials, including the prime minister himself.
The issue surrounding the reburial of the Nazi-era prime minister, Juozas Ambrazevičius, has raised its head in the last few weeks and although some ceremonies were cancelled, others did indeed take place (and raised the ire of a number of government officials, academics and prominent citizens). I agree with Ms. Zabludoff that this is an indictment on the part of the government officials who authorized it, and is at odds with the many positive steps they have taken.
In my opinion, and as alluded to in my article, the most effective method of forming one’s own views about the past, present and future of Jewish Lithuania, is by visiting the country. I remain convinced that, in contrast with Ms. Zabludoff ’s experience, the visit will be overwhelmingly positive for most.
Being able to especially engage with the local Jewish community via JDC, to get involved in their efforts to re-establish and rebuild the community, to encounter young Jewish leadership who are committed to preserve Jewish history and memory, and to play a part in this process is meaningful and transformative. In addition, those who believe in the future of Jewish revival in Lithuania should arguably play an active part in building bridges.
Steve M. Felder, Herzliya Pituach, Israel
4: The Many Things Felder Left Out in his Lithuania Rebuttal
by Olga Zabludoff
Now it is my turn to address the “inaccuracies” Steve Felder perceives in my June 8 letter in response to his earlier article on Lithuania. I am fully aware that his 48-hour tour of Lithuania was arranged by the JDC. I am also well informed about the outstanding work of The Joint which has always maintained distance from local politics and refrains from falling into the trap of applauding a far-right government which dispenses little gestures for the benefit of naive foreign visitors.
Mr. Felder should realize that the prime minister who welcomed him and his group so cordially is the very same prime minister who signed off personally on the four-day reburial ceremonies last month honoring Nazi collaborator Juozas Ambrazevičius (Brazaitis).
Felder notes that my statement of “significant increases in anti-Semitism” is unsubstantiated by any available data. I refer him to the April 19 Simon Wiesenthal Report: Lithuania 2012: Holocaust Distortion as Background for Increased Anti-Semitism (see particularly page 8, “A Dangerous Increase in Antisemitic Incitement and Attacks”). A current SWC Report dated June 2012, “European Extremist Movements,” states that “the Continent’s oldest disease — Jew-hatred — is metastasizing…” (see page 12 for the focus on Lithuania).
I agree that Lithuania should be commended for its passage of the $53 million restitution package. However, here Mr. Felder is inaccurate in referring to it as a “property restitution fund.” The payments are to be made over 10 years, ensuring that Holocaust survivors receive almost nothing. The bulk of the funds, it would appear from his letter, are allocated to Jewish heritage/state heritage projects with a relatively small amount dedicated to communal property and nothing for private property. In reality the sum is but a tiny fraction of the true current value of the property that was confiscated from Jews.
And who will be the beneficiaries of the Jewish heritage projects? The goal is to increase tourism to boost the ailing economy. The expectation is that foreign Litvaks will pump dollars into Lithuania, a country whose government has invested heavily in the distortion of the history of the Holocaust.
Mr. Felder seems to be under the impression that I have suffered negative experiences during my visits to Lithuania.
On the contrary, during my four lengthy trips there I have wandered into the most remote villages, meeting and befriending delightful Lithuanian people. My judgment and my criticism of Lithuania is not the reflection of my personal visits to the country but the result of twenty years of following and studying the policies and politics, the attitudes and actions of the Lithuanian government.
I have not met with prime ministers or other elites, but I have spoken heart-to-heart in Yiddish with members of the Jewish community — from its leaders to those who depend on Rabbi Krinsky’s soup kitchen for their daily meals. Perhaps I have gotten a more realistic reading of how they feel and live.
Felder’s rather naive and exuberant evaluation of the country based on a mere 48 hours of being shuttled around to meet diplomats and selected members of the Jewish community seems to have left him clueless and even insensitive to the present and past suffering of the withering Jewish population. Which is why his article came across as little more than a PR-inspired narrative helpful only to the Lithuanian government’s PR projects.
Mr. Felder should also know that while he was well treated in regard to his request for Lithuanian citizenship, this is hardly a general trend. The country’s citizenship laws are still widely condemned as racist.
Olga Zabludoff, Washington, DC