Israel has a friend in Lithuania

Vilnius’s vote against Palestinian membership in UNESCO was one indication of a growing bond between the two countries.

LITHUANIAN PRIME Minister Andrius Kubilius at Yad Vashem 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
LITHUANIAN PRIME Minister Andrius Kubilius at Yad Vashem 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 Organization.
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.
Lithuania is 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 conversation.
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.
Starting 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 Lithuania.
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 Project.
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 Lithuania.
In September, the Embassy of Lithuania sponsored a Cantorial concert in Washington, DC, to benefit cemetery restoration.
This 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.
A 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 agenda.
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 Heritage Project.