In a serious effort to move forward from a complicated and often shameful past,
the Republic of Lithuania recently voted against the Palestinians’ request for
admission to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Only 14 countries in the world joined Lithuania in
supporting Israel that day. The vote was but one of the many ways Lithuania’s
government has begun to consciously seek to improve relations with its own
Jewish diaspora as well as Jews across the world.
Equally importantly, at
the same time Lithuania seeks to be a partner to Israel, the country is
beginning to acknowledge the harsh realities of the past and the potentially
permanent damage such a history has wrought on this Baltic nation. Lithuania now
wants to address directly – not to ignore or evade – two issues that have
plagued the repair of relations with the Jewish community.
The first is
the way it has celebrated its early freedom from the Soviets – the first time –
in 1941. That freedom came at the hands of Nazi control – and consequently, at
the peril of the Jewish community. The second is that in recent years, the
Lithuanian government has reportedly initiated investigations into now elderly
Jewish Holocaust survivors for connections to the Soviets.
one of many Eastern European countries whose 20th-century histories have been
often caught in the middle between the Soviets and the Nazis. Today’s Lithuanian
authorities and citizens must, therefore, grapple with these two difficult, yet
very different parts of its past, come to terms with each, and move forward.
These complicated and often terrible eras will not disappear; they must be
examined and understood and in fact, passed on to the next generation so history
does not repeat itself.
While Lithuania does not deny the blemish of such
serious unresolved issues, the Lithuanian government has made a number of
significant steps to repair its relations with its own Jewish community and
around the world, especially in Israel. In 1995, the president of Lithuania
visited the Knesset to formally apologize for his country’s role in the
Holocaust. Lithuania named 2011 the Year of Remembrance for the Victims of the
Holocaust and has held memorial events across the country. And in June, the
Seimas, Lithuania’s parliament, announced a plan to deliver monetary restitution
for Lithuanian Holocaust survivors. Every year, on September 23, Lithuania
recognizes an official Memorial Day for Holocaust victims.
Lithuania is a
young country, only becoming fully independent in 1991 after a half-century of
Soviet control. During the Soviet occupation, World War II history was taught
from a revisionist Soviet perspective that failed to cover the painful realities
of the Holocaust. And because schools were forbidden to cover that topic, many
of today’s Lithuanian teachers – who came of age during the Soviet era – now
have little or no background on the history.
THE DARK record of WWII left
its mark on Lithuania, but today the government is making an active effort to
ensure that such history is taught – and taught truthfully. With the help of
people like US Ambassador to Lithuania Ann Derse, the US and Lithuanian
governments are working together to bring educators from the US Holocaust
Memorial Museum to Lithuania not just to train teachers, but to restart the
Through ExCEL, the American Embassy partners with the
Lithuanian Ministry of Education to bring Lithuanian high school students to
study in the United States.
Though many Lithuanians still suffer from a
dearth of understanding, through concentrated efforts and interest such as
these, over time, that will change. But these things take time.
today, let’s commend the American- Lithuanian-Israeli bond, as proven by last
week’s UNESCO vote. Of course, that bond could be stronger. The Lithuanian and
Jewish communities in all three countries must address their differences by
engaging in consistent and ongoing dialogue. There is hope. Recently, Lithuanian
Ambassador Zygimantas Pavilionis hosted two roundtable discussions as first
steps in confronting head-on the Jewish community’s criticisms of
The first meeting was a discussion with major American Jewish
organizations; the second meeting invited both Jewish and non-Jewish
representatives of grassroots groups to discuss the novel and unprecedented
Sunflower Project, proposed by the Jewish Lithuanian Heritage
The ambassador expressed support for the Sunflower Project and
its three goals: strengthening communication between Jewish and non-Jewish
communities, educating and engaging youth, and reviving Jewish- Lithuanian
heritage projects, including the restoration of Jewish cemeteries in
In September, the Embassy of Lithuania sponsored a Cantorial
concert in Washington, DC, to benefit cemetery restoration.
December, in the spirit of sharing traditions, Ambassador Pavilionis will host
the Lithuanian Embassy’s first joint Hanukka and Christmas holiday party. Truth
be told, these initiatives are revolutionary in Lithuania’s history.
new generation of youth, teachers and government leaders in Lithuania is being
cultivated, and though it may take more than just one generation, we are
confident that the true version of Lithuania’s troubled past is now being
conveyed to the younger generation. The past cannot – and should not – be
forgotten, but nor should it be revised or amended to suit anyone’s
We are proud that the Sunflower project can support Lithuania in
its quest for an accurate sense of its own history and appreciation for the
better future that surely lies ahead.
Israel has a friend in Lithuania.
Let’s be honest about the value of that friendship.
The writers are,
respectively, chairman and advisory board member of the Jewish Lithuanian