Diplomacy: In Lithuania, Jews are ‘cool’

Jews are now very much ‘in’ in the country in which 200,000 Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust, as such, so is Israel. The country’s ambassador, Darius Degutis, explains why.

July 11, 2013 23:22
Israeli Independence Day Choir in Lithuania.

Israeli Independence Day Choir in Vilnius, Lithuania 370. (photo credit: Relationer)

The “warm sympathy” toward Israel in Lithuania today is reminiscent of the sympathy that many in Western Europe felt for Israel a few decades ago, when Germans and Scandinavians flocked to kibbutzim to help and support the plucky little Jewish state.

That, at least, is the way Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Darius Degutis sees things. In his home country, indeed in many other former Soviet bloc countries, Jews, Jewishness and Judaism are cool, attractive and desirable.

And, by extension, so is Israel.

Placed in historical context, this “Jew is cool” phenomenon is a mind-boggling turnaround. Some 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust – about 95 percent of the prewar Jewish community, making it according to some scholars the highest ratio anywhere – with the Nazis often aided by eager Lithuanians citizens.

And placed in present context – where Israel is so uncool in many corners of Western Europe – it is no less staggering.

Yet there it is. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post coinciding with Lithuania’s Statehood Day celebrated on July 6, as well as Lithuanian’s assumption of the EU’s rotating presidency on July 1, Degutis discussed this phenomenon.

“For us, and I think probably for all Eastern Europe, Jewishness is something very attractive,” the convivial ambassador said, in his 12th-floor office in a Tel Aviv office building that commands a spectacular view of the city. “We had a lot of it [Jews and Judaism], then it was gone. Then again we started to hear about it; then we had to recognize our fault, our shame, the Shoah, the Holocaust. And then it was like, ‘Yes, I heard something from my grandmother about gefilte fish, I heard of the word kosher, but what does that mean.’” “The best gift I bring to my friends in Lithuania is something kosher, kosher wine, kosher anything,” he said with a chuckle. “They don’t understand, but it is good. It is a romantic affiliation with Israel. You bring a Star of David, a shofar. It is not only Christianity and Jerusalem, it is Jewishness. ‘Yes, Yes, I remember.

My parents had so many friends who are Jews’. This is very interesting.”

In Degutis’s telegraphed Lithuanian timeline, there was the prewar Litvak (a term denoting Lithuanian Jews) glory days. Then there was the Holocaust. Then the Soviet occupation. Then Independence.

Born in 1963, at the height of the Cold War and Soviet domination of his country, Degutis said he did not hear of the Holocaust until he was a teenager, when his grandmother spoke of it.

“I went to a Soviet school,” he said, “and heard nothing about the Shoah. Nothing was ever told officially in the studies or in the history classes, to anyone in the Soviet Union, or in any of the other socialist countries. They deliberately omitted anything linked to Jewish history, good or bad, or anything linked to our [Lithuanian] prewar history.”

“The Shoah, the Holocaust, the Jewish tragedy did not exits, even the word Jew was not common,” he said. “The Soviets didn’t want it to be heard.”

Yet, Degutis recalled, he grew up with Jews in his Vilnius (Vilna) neighborhood, and played football with them. He also remembered meeting Jewish boys from Moscow summering with their families on Baltic Sea beaches.

“Thirty percent of the kids in my neighborhood were Jews, and this was in the 1970s. Then they were gone,” he said, explaining that this was a time of USSoviet détente when some Jews were given exit visas.

“We didn’t know what happened, they left to Israel in the ’70s, but it was hush-hush style. They got the permission to leave, but no one was saying anything, because they were considered to have betrayed the Soviet system and state.”

Degutis, who speaks perfect English, grew up on a steady diet of propaganda, rich in the depiction of Israel as the ally and slave of American imperialists bent on subjugating the poor countries in the region.

Then, suddenly, in 1990 the Iron Curtain fell, Lithuania gained independence, and the blinders fell off.

“After we regained independence, when we looked into our history, we looked into the parts we are proud of, the bright side, the courageous side of Lithuania, indeed there are very nice and romantic elements,” he said. “But we also looked at our very tragic history – the Holocaust, the Shoah.

“When the archives were opened, and the society and public received this information, there was a big shock that 200,000 Jews died in Lithuania, and that there were a number of Lithuanians involved in this.

This was a big shock for us.

“But eventually we managed with partners from Jewish communities, Jewish organizations in the world, to build a new Lithuania, and of course by admitting that terrible things had happened, and that we had a fault in it.

“The next step was the ability that opened in front of us to remember the Jews that were in our neighborhood.”

HOW COULD it be that all of a sudden there was a “big shock” when the population learned that 200,000 Jews were killed, Degutis is asked? Didn’t people wonder what happened to their neighbors, who were such an integral part of their country? “You have to understand that the issue was taboo, no parent would ever dare to say anything, even if they knew anything, because they would be immediately persecuted by KGB or the party, and would be expelled from work,” the ambassador explained.

Degutis said he heard about the Holocaust from his grandmother, because “she had nothing to lose.”

“She told me she remembered how many Jews lived in Lithuania, and she remembered dramatic pictures of Jewish people being taken away. She told me when I was a teenager. That was my only source.”

As if to warn against sitting in judgment, the ambassador continued: “The system that we lived in was the system of the Lie and the Fear. They made us lie and made us be afraid. Certain information was taboo, it was not good to discuss prewar history, or show sympathy to the West. Or if the Soviets played Americans or Canadians or Germans, you would not dare show that you were supporting someone other than the Soviets. If you did, you could get in deep trouble. So you had to keep your mouth shut.

“There was a huge destruction of our mind during those 50 years [of Soviet occupation]. It was an Orwellian situation. We were in an Orwellian world; we were kept in a square box, and controlled by outside forces – brutally controlled.”

Degutis told a tale of a friend, a famous Lithuanian athlete, who bemoaned that he lost the opportunity to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games because of the US boycott.

“I told him another story,” he said. “There was a Lithuanian canoe rower who became an Olympic champion in Munich, of course under the Soviet flag, and he defected. He was traced down by Soviet agents, sedated, and smuggled back into East Germany.

Then he ended up being an Olympic champion in the psychiatric hospital – that was the way of dealing with all the disobedient citizens, to put them in psychiatric hospitals. People were afraid to talk and discuss things.”

AND THEN, with independence in 1990, “everything opened up.”

“Not only did we become free, we were allowed to think and do whatever we wanted. We were able to travel, we were finally allowed to communicate with our families from whom we were separated.”

And that meant, he said, also reconnecting with former Jewish neighbors and friends. “We had many of them, and then they left, and then there was this natural interest to reconnect with them.”

“When we became free,” he said, explaining what he described as his countrymen’s nostalgia and fascination with Jews, “we asked, ‘Where are they? They are our friends.”

Indeed, he made clear, it was Lithuania’s fraught history with its Jews – the heyday, the Holocaust, the Soviets, the new found freedom – that animated the country’s positive sentiment toward Israel today, and explained the “warm sympathy” to Israel, reminiscent of what existed in Western Europe five decades ago.

The phenomenon Degutis described is well-known in Jerusalem. Indeed, it goes a long way toward explaining that along with Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, Israel’s strongest supporters inside the EU are the former Iron Curtain countries.

A look at last November’s UN vote on granting the Palestinians nonmember statehood status tells the story. The 27 EU countries split on that vote. The only EU country that voted for Israel, and against the motion, was the Czech Republic. Of the 12 EU countries that abstained, however, nine of them – including Lithuania – were former Soviet bloc countries. Not one of these countries joined 14 other EU states in voting for the resolution.

Lithuania was also one of only four EU countries, and 14 overall, who voted against admitting the Palestinians to UNESCO in 2011.

“It is natural,” Degutis said about this against-the-mainstream voting pattern on Israel. “It is not only a romantic approach. We understand what it is to be small; we understand what it is to be living in a different environment. We had a gap of 50 years in the relationship, and for us it is a natural situation that we are finding each other again.”

But how long will the luster last? Some in the Foreign Ministry say that the longer the former Iron Countries are in the EU, and the more they are exposed to a pro- Palestinian bent in Brussels, the sooner will the romance fade.

Degutis believes those concerns are overblown.

“Our interest in Israel is growing,” he said, adding that this interest does not “have a direct link with EU membership.” He said the interest is seen everywhere, in the growth of tourism and trade, and the huge increase in the number of high-level political visits.

Equally overblown, he indicated, were warnings that Israel will face a boycott from Europe if it does not make progress on the diplomatic track with the Palestinians. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who also heads Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians, issued such a warning two weeks ago to an accounting conference in Eilat.

Asked if he could foresee a European boycott if the peace process does not progress, Degutis – reflecting the sentiment heard over the last week by two other ambassadors – said, “I wouldn’t see anything like this happening in Lithuania. There is no such thing like discussing boycotts of Israel. On the contrary, today our agenda– supported by the people and the government – is building up the relationship, strengthening it. The relationship has never been as good as it is today.”

One sign of the growing ties, he said, beyond trade that has doubled over the last two years to 60 million euros, and tourism that has also doubled during this time period to 20,000, is the number of Israelis who have taken out Lithuanian passports.

In addition to some 200,000 Litvaks living in the country today, and some 4,000-5,0000 Jews living in Lithuania, Degutis said there are 5,000 full-blown Lithuanian citizens in Israel, “Israelis or descendants who came to Israel before 1990.”

According to Lithuanian law, anyone who left Lithuania under the Soviet occupation until the country’s independence in 1990, and their descendants to the second generation, are eligible for citizenship.

“This is a huge activity in our embassy,” he said. “We have hundreds of people every day. We are happy, we are happy that our family here grows, that we have people who want to come and rediscover Lithuania.”

Reminded that these people are probably not motivated by any deep affinity or attachment to Lithuanian culture or the country’s Grand Duchy, but rather by the prospect of securing an EU passport that will make it easier to work, travel and study in Europe, the Israel-friendly Degutis replied, “That’s OK. These are not numbers that would create any issue. It is good for us, because there is additional incentive and motivation for them to look back at the roots of their families, and to reconnect.

It is normal.

“They are part of us.”

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