by Vytautas Bruveris
How should the state and its politicians act when they come across some sort of passionate, sensitive issue, or one which causes controversy: should they stick their heads in the sand, or nonetheless speak and discuss it?
It seems as if it’s a lot more useful and clever to talk. This seemingly self-evident matter, though, seems to be a mystery to almost the complete majority of Lithuania’s political elite.
This eternal truth was again confirmed last week at a conference held by the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) and the Goodwill Foundation on restitution of Jewish property stolen during the Holocaust.
The Conservative Party Government in charge of the country from 2008 to 2012 came to agreement with the LJC and the major global Jewish organizations on the setting up of this foundation. Under the law adopted by the Lithuanian parliament in 2011, the Goodwill Foundation was to be transferred 37 million euros in compensation by 2023 to be used for Lithuanian Jewish religious, cultural, health, athletic, educational and academic projects in Lithuania.
Even then, when negotiations were on-going over compensation to the Jewish community in Lithuania almost wholly exterminated during the Nazi occupation, it was clear this process of coming to agreement wouldn’t end there, and that besides the issue of the return and/or restitution of communal property, that of private property would get its turn.
Truly, some politicians unofficially explained that “all issues” related to the consequences of the Holocaust in Lithuania had finally been solved, and that this “final conclusion” was also the main argument for setting up the fund. The problem of private property belonging to individuals, one was given to understand, was also “closed.”
Expecting this to be the case was naïve for at least several reasons.
First, simple logic. If the state had resolved to compensate looted communal property, then it would be logical to at least open discussions about the private property of Holocaust victims as well.
Second, for some time other Central and Eastern European countries where Jewish genocide was committed had already been confronting the issue.
Third, Lithuania exactly a decade ago and several dozen other countries had signed on to the so-called Terezin declaration which states it is important also to consider the interests of Jewish owners of private real estate and their heirs, and to compensate them.
Furthermore, the Lithuanian government had been called upon long ago by Lithuania’s and Israel’s main international partner, the United States, to engage this issue.
The current US presidential administration and parliament hasn’t shown decreased interest and perhaps has shown more interest in this than their predecessors. For instance, Thomas Yazdgerdi, the US State Department’s special envoy on Holocaust issues, visited Vilnius a few years back. In talks with top-ranking Lithuanian public servants and politicians the main topic was whether Lithuania was considering how to begin solving the issue of returning or compensating private Jewish property.
The reaction from Lithuanian politicians and public servants was similar to that of their colleagues in other countries in the region. The braver among them shot back laconically and categorically that this issue was not on the agenda, while the absolute majority of them simply kept silent as if their mouths were full and the issue was a dangerous fire. The leader of the current ruling majority Peasant Party, Karbauskis, for example, publicly said a couple of years ago that this Government wouldn’t take up the issue because it would sow discord in society. Prime minister Skvernelis also interjected that the Lithuanian state had already solved all Holocaust issues in general, so there was nothing to discuss.
Beyond that, there are formal legal obstacles as well. For instance, only Lithuanian citizens may apply for and get back surviving real estate, and only those who had or were returned Lithuanian citizenship by December 81, 2001, when the law on the return of real estate expired.
The LJC and other Jewish organizations asked if it were fair and well-founded to place such obstacles in the way of those who either for various reasons and obstacles were unable to get Lithuanian citizenship back before the deadline, or who simply don’t desire Lithuanian citizenship.
Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to change and improve these laws to make most important the rights of the people who have a basis for demanding their property back? And really, what difference does it make if the heir of a person murdered and robbed during the Holocaust has Lithuanian citizenship or not? After all, the important thing is the rights of the victim and his inheritors.
But the politicians, of course, are most afraid of the wave of anti-Semitic anger which would issue from this “kowtowing” to the Jews who again “are demanding something of us.” This fear is really the main thin stopping all of them–on the left, on the right and in the center. The sooner elections are coming, the stronger it becomes. Another argument is that this would open a Pandora’s box and provide a foundation for demanding new property and Lithuanian budget assignations for all Lithuanian inhabitants and their heirs of all ethnicitiies who suffered from the Soviet regime as well as the Nazis.
The counterargument is that the violence and exceptional nature of the Jewish genocide as well as the fact Lithuanians took part in it, and that the state could use this as a foundation for assigning priority to the victims of this genocide and their heirs. All the more so since this is extremely important for the country’s international reputation, and not just in Israel and the United States. Fears are further soothed with the statement that there really aren’t that many people with a real claim for the return of property or compensation.
Participants at the LJC conference spoke about the connections between the Jewish genocide and Lithuanian society last week, namely, renowned historians and experts on the Holocaust in Lithuania Tauber and Dieckmann. They stated the main responsibility for the mass murder and looting of the Jews fell to the German occupiers, but that a large number of Lithuanians also took part in their mass murder and the theft of their property. The historians said that between several thousand and twenty thousand Lithuanians were among the murderers, and that in any event locals inhabitants dominated in the ranks of the actual shooters because there were simply too few Germans.
At the same time, local public involvement in divvying up Jewish property took place on a much greater scale. Dieckmann affirmed the Lithuanian administration and their relatives stole Jewish property even out from under the Germans, who turned a blind eye to it. Why? Because they understood this was the best and most effective way to purchase loyalty. They said this corrupt practice was also practiced in other occupied countries.
So on the one hand there is apathy among the majority of the public on the mass murder of the Jews, while on the other there is mass participation in one form or another in the distribution of the property of the mass murder victims, and this is the main moral argument why the current ruling coalition should finally and seriously return to this unfinished problem. How should it be solved? What sort of instruments could be applied to solving it? Different countries have finally begun tackling this issue and apply different practices. The conference speakers spoke about this as well.
But they were talking to themselves. The only official government representative to speak at the conference, the Foreign Ministry’s ambassador for special assignments Junevičius, delivered an abstract speech about how much Lithuania had accomplished in terms of “historical justice.”
The LJC incidentally invited the heads and representatives of all major state institutions to attend the conference, including the parliament, the Government and the President’s Office, as well as Peasants Party leader Karbauskis and other MPs personally. Some of those invited laconically declined while others simply ignored the invitation. Honestly, this sort of behavior verges on an insulting lack of respect.
Of course it cannot be gainsaid that perhaps some of those invited actually did briefly pop in to the event, but even if that’s true, they did so in the manner of guerrilla fighters. And that says a lot. First, it not only demonstrates the cowardice of Lithuania’s political elite, but also their short-sightedness. After all, based merely on purely pragmatic and public relations considerations, attending this kind of conference and clearly stating one’s objections would strengthen the image of “courage” among constituents. But the fear, it seems, was so great that they avoided even appearing at such an event.
This fear, it appears, has also gripped the new president, Nausėda, who had promised to be the “moderator” for all of even the most complex problems in the country. But really perhaps we should not be too surprised, after seeing the head of state become one of the main enablers among the political elite of a new wave of anti-Semitism regarding a plaque commemorating Noreika, who sent Jews into ghettos. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces stood with those who “defend the nation’s heroes” from attack by different evil forces.
But the short-sightedness not just of this administration but of the whole of official Lithuania is demonstrated very much more by the fact they don’t understand you cannot succeed in just shrug this away. It will continue to be raised, not just by Lithuanian Jews and Jews abroad, but also by the Americans and other important partners in the West. So we will have to begin to discuss this more seriously, face to face. People say, better late than never. In this case, the later it’s postponed, the worse it gets.
Full text in Lithuanian here.