How should the state and its politicians act upon facing a sharp, sensitive and controversial in society question – shove their heads in the sand or do discuss and speak about it, Jewish property in Lithuania, Vytautas Bruveris asks in lrytas.lt?
It would seem that the wiser and more useful choice is discussion. However, such a seemingly obvious matter is not a self-evident truth to the absolute majority of Lithuania’s political elite.
This unchanging truth was reaffirmed by the conference organised by the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LŽB) and the Good Will Foundation, dedicated to questions of Jewish property taken during the Holocaust.
The Conservative government that ruled the country in 2008-2012 agreed with the LŽB and the most important world Jewish organisations over the establishing of this fund.
As per a law passed by Seimas in 2011, by 2023, the Lithuanian state budget was to transfer a 37 million euro compensation to the Good Will Foundation, which was to fund Jewish religious, cultural, healthcare, sports, education and science projects in Lithuania.
Already when negotiations were ongoing regarding these compensations to the nearly decimated during the Nazi occupation Jewish community, it was clear that the process would not conclude with that agreement and not just the question of communal property returns and compensation awaited, but also private property.
That said, some politicians unofficially would say that this way “all matters” regarding the consequences of the Holocaust in Lithuania were finally concluded and namely this “conclusion” was the best argument to establish the foundation. Take it that the question of private individuals’ property was also “concluded”.
To hope that this would be the case was naïve for at least a few reasons. The first is the standard logic.
Decision by the State was made
If the state has decided to compensate for the robbed communal property, it is logical to begin discussions about the private property of Holocaust victims at least.
Second, other Central and Eastern European countries, where Jewish genocide was perpetrated have been faced with this question for a time now.
Third, Lithuania precisely a decade ago with tens of other countries signed the so-called Terezin Declaration, where it was recognised that it is vital to consider the interests of Jewish private real estate owners or their inheritors to regaining the property or to compensations for it.
Furthermore, the Lithuanian government has long been urged to take up this matter by both Lithuania and Israel’s leading international partner – the Americans. The current US presidential administration and parliament dedicate no less and perhaps even more attention to this matter than their predecessors.
A few years ago, the US Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Th. Yazdgerdi visited Vilnius. The main topic of his conversations with the country’s top officials and politicians was namely whether Lithuania is considering to begin somehow resolving the question of returning Jewish private property or compensating for it?
The reaction of Lithuanian politicians and officials was akin to their colleagues’ in the region’s other countries. The more courageous laconically and categorically respond that this question is not even up for discussion; meanwhile, the near-absolute majority remain silent and avoid the problem like the plague.
For example, the current ruling “Farmers’” leader R. Karbauskis has publicly stated a few years ago that this government will not deal with this question because it “would antagonise the public.” Prime Minister S. Skvernelis also noted that the Lithuanian government has already settled accounts regarding the Holocaust and there’s nothing to speak of.
What about the Government?
Furthermore, there are formal legal obstacles. For example, returns of property rights to remaining real estate are allowed only for Lithuanian citizens and only those, who regained their citizenship by December 31, 2001, when the real estate rights to remaining real estate restoration law expired.
Representatives of the LŽB and other Jewish organisations ask – is it just and justified to pose such challenges to those, who due to various obstacles were unable to regain citizenship by the deadline or simply don’t want it? Perhaps the legislation should be changed and improved so that the rights of the people, who have a basis to demand for the property, would be most important?
Indeed – what does it matter whether the descendant of an individual robbed and murdered during the Holocaust has Lithuanian citizenship? After all, what is most important is the deceased and their descendants’ rights.
However, politicians are of course, most afraid of a wave of anti-Semitic anger, which would be incited by “pandering” to the Jews, who “want something more again.” This fear is the actual obstacle the right, left and centre faces. And the closer the elections, the stronger it is.
Opening a Pandora’s Box?
The second argument is that it would open a Pandora’s Box, granting a basis to make property or compensation demands from the Lithuanian budget for Lithuanian residents of all nationalities and their descendants, who have suffered not just from the Nazis, but also the Soviet regime.
A counter-argument – it is the Jewish genocide’s brutality and exceptionality of how Lithuanians also participated in it that the state could base that it prioritises the victims and descendants of the victims of this genocide. Especially given that it is crucial to the country’s international prestige, views of it not only in Israel but also the USA.
Furthermore, there are assurances that there wouldn’t be that many seeking to regain property or compensations for it.
It was namely the link between the Jewish genocide and the Lithuanian public that was recalled by the participants of the LŽB conference. Firstly – famous historians and Holocaust in Lithuania experts J. Tauber and Ch. Dieckmann.
They concluded that the primary responsibility for Jewish massacres and robbing them is with the German occupiers; however both Jewish massacres and the pillaging of their property featured a significant number of Lithuanians. According to the historians, among the murderers, there were from several to a dozen thousand Lithuanians – in either case, among the direct murderers, it was namely residents that were most numerous because there were too few Germans.
Meanwhile, public involvement in the sharing out of Jewish property was far more widespread.
Ch. Dieckman stated that pillaged Jewish property would be stolen away from even the Germans by the Lithuanian administration and its relatives and the Germans would close their eyes to it. Why? Because they understood that buying loyalty in namely this way is best and most effective. This German corruption practice was apparently employed in other countries occupied by them.
Thus, on one hand – the indifference of most of society to Jewish massacres, one the other hand – mass participation in one way or another in the sharing out of the property of the murdered, these are the main moral arguments as to why the contemporary society and government should finally seriously turn to this unfinished question.
How should this be resolved? What mechanisms could be employed? Various countries, which have finally taken to this task, apply multiple practices. The conference’s participants also discussed them.
However, they discussed and spoke among one another. The only representative of official Vilnius speaking in this event, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ambassador At Large D. Junevičius made an abstract speech about how much Lithuania has already done “for historical justice.”
No doubt, the LŽB invited representatives and leaders from all the country’s leading institutions – the Seimas, Presidential Palace and the cabinet, also R. Karbauskis and other parliamentarians.
Some laconically rejected the invitations; others simply ignored them. Truth be told, such behaviour is even akin to insulting disrespect.
Well, of course, it cannot be dismissed that some among the many invited did visit at least briefly, however, if this was the case, it was done quite covertly.
Well then, that’s eloquent.
Firstly, it shows not only the Lithuanian political elite’s cowardice but also short-sightedness.
After all, operating even based on purely pragmatic public relations calculations, visiting such an event, clearly expressing one’s disagreement could build a “fearless” image in the eyes of one’s supporters.
However, fear appears to be so strong that due to it there is a wariness of looking in even such an event. This gear seems even to have taken hold in the new Presidential Palace, whose new owner G. Nausėda promised to be the “moderator” of all, even the most challenging problems and discussions in the country.
On the other hand, perhaps it should come as no surprise, seeing that it was namely the head of state that became one of the legitimisers among the political elite of the new anti-Semitic wave linked to fighting for the memorial plaque to J. Noreika – General Storm, who blessed the moving of Jews to ghettoes. After all, the supreme commander of the armed forces openly took to the side of those, who “defend the country’s heroes” from the attack of various evil forces.
However, far more than just this government’s and in fact, all of official Vilnius’ short-sightedness is displayed in the failure to understand that this question cannot be postponed forever. It will keep being brought up by not only Lithuanian and foreign Jews but also the Americans and other critical Western partners.
Thus at least start talking about this more seriously, face to face. They say better late than never. In this case – the later, the worse.