Yona Bartal, deputy director general of Beit Hanassi, cancelled all her appointments in Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning. She needed to attend a meeting between President Shimon Peres and Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius.
To make that kind of effort for the presidents of Russia, the United States, France or Egypt or the prime minister of Britain, would be understandable. Lithuania though, while larger in area than Israel, has a smaller population and is not in that category of countries.
But Bartal had a personal reason for wanting to meet Kubilius. She was born in Vilnius (Vilna) and is the daughter of Lithuanian Holocaust survivors. She came to Israel at the age of three and never felt a desire to return. That is, until the beginning of this year when she accompanied Peres to Moscow for the 65th anniversary commemoration of the victory of the Red Army over the Nazis. Her father, who had escaped from his town on a bicycle and joined the Red Army, had been decorated with a medal for valor. And daughter, Yona, now felt a need to return to her roots.
Yona Bartal’s mother was a child Holocaust survivor who was at summer camp with both Jewish and non-Jewish children when war erupted. The youngsters were quickly taken to Russia where they were provided a haven. They returned after the war, but waiting on the platform to greet them were only the parents of the non- Jewish children; the parents of all the Jewish children had been murdered.
Her mother told the story in a documentary film of which Bartal has a copy, and which she screens for her own children every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Holocaust was very much on the mind of Kubilius who told Peres and other Israeli dignitaries that 2011 has been designated as Holocaust Remembrance Year in Lithuania, and that many commemorative events related to Holocaust history have been planned. “We shall try to revive Litvak heritage,” he said.
During his visit to Israel, Kubilius met with Lithuanian Holocaust survivors, participated in a memorial service at Yad Vashem, and attended the opening at Beit Hatefutsot of an exhibition of Jewish Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. The opening was attended by many from Israel’s Lithuanian community, including Holocaust survivors and offspring of Holocaust survivors. Kubilius described it as an important and emotional event and declared that it was "shameful” that some Lithuanians had taken part in the implementation of Nazi atrocities.
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Moving beyond the Holocaust, the Lithuanian PM expressed pride in what he termed "Litvak achievements” in Israel and reiterated this when he met with Peres.
Kubilius said that he was also happy to learn that Peres had “Litvak roots.” In fact, because of changing borders, Poland, Lithuania and Belarus each claim Peres as one of their own.
For his part, Peres said that many of his teachers – and many Israeli leaders – had come to Israel from Lithuania, and he was curious to know if Litvaks in Lithuania were as stubborn as those in Israel. “Your country is close to our hearts. For us it is not just a place on the map but a page in our history,” Peres told his visitor.
Two leading Jewish figures were in the delegation which accompanied Kubilius to Israel: Emanuelis Zingeris, a Hebrew-speaking member of the Lithuanian Parliament who heads its committee on foreign affairs, and prominent attorney Faina Kukliansky, who is head of the Vilnius Jewish Jewish community and vice chair of the Jewish community of Lithuania. (At Beit Hatefutsot on Sunday, Knesset member Zeev Bielski, who heads the Israel-Lithuania parliamentary friendship group, commented that Zingeris visits Israel so often that he must have countless frequent flyer points.)
The Lithuanian PM is open to restoring Jewish community property, and indeed, draft legislation to this effect has been prepared. However, both the Lithuanian Jewish community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization find the content of the draft to be inadequate. The issue of restoration or compensation has been dragging on for years and remains unresolved.
Progress on the issue, however, might be made if Israel makes it a condition for the strategic cooperation in science and technology that Lithuania seeks.
Kubilius, a physicist by training, is particularly interested in such cooperation and shared with Peres his thrill in going to Better Place the previous day and driving an electric car. “It was almost like flying,” he enthused, as he talked about the importance of being freed from dependency on oil and gas.
The Lithuanian PM is very keen to have Israeli high tech companies
invest in Lithuania, and told Peres that several are already operating
there, especially in the field of bio-technology.
And he wants Peres to visit Lithuania – upon which the peripatetic
President immediately asked his staff to look into the possibility.
Kubilius mentioned how impressed he had been by the people he had met
and sites he had visited in Israel, particularly those in the “very holy
city” of Jerusalem. On Sunday, he visited the Western Wall, where he
prayed for the Jewish people, and later on in the Old City, the
Lithuanian PM attended services at St Saviour’s Church.
And in keeping with a custom recently reintroduced, Kubilius visited Herzl’s tomb and placed a wreath there.
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