Lithuania easing restrictions for Jews to reclaim citizenship

South African Jewish community – home to tens of thousands of former Litvaks – lauds government decision.

Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
South African’s Jewish community lauded a recent move by the Lithuanian government to make it easier for Jews descending from Lithuania, Litvaks, to gain citizenship there.
Earlier this month, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite signed the Citizenship Law amendment which removes obstacles for Litvaks who left the country between the two world wars – and their descendants – to restore their citizenship.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) on Wednesday welcomed the measure, after having worked closely with the Lithuanian government to this end. Most of South Africa’s 80,000 Jews trace their families back to Lithuania.
The amendment lifts a stipulation based on case law that voided such eligibility for many Jews whose ancestors left Lithuania during its pre-Soviet period of independence, from 1919 to 1940. The courts had ruled that those who left during those years were not considered political refugees and therefore could not benefit from a naturalization policy that aimed to restore Lithuanian nationality for dissidents who fled communism.
Critics of the policy argued that because 95 percent of Litvak Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust, those who left in the two decades leading up to the genocide should be considered political refugees because they were fleeing a dangerous environment.
The parliament adopted the amendment following a vote which saw 98 in favor, four abstain and none against.
Lithuanian Jewish Community Chairwoman Faina Kukliansky told the BNS news agency “I very much welcome the change in the law, and I am certain the Lithuanian state has lost nothing at all, and on the contrary, has received much more, a good name and living potential.”
Having been heavily involved in bringing about the amendment, former Lithuanian ambassador to Israel and South Africa Darius Degutis, described it as a “true breakthrough” in reconnecting Litvaks, particularly the South African Litvak community, with the homeland of their ancestors. “It is truly amazing to see the passion of South African Litvaks to their Lithuanian heritage, their desire to preserve Lithuanian Jewish legacy and traditions,” he said.
“During my tenure as Lithuania’s ambassador to Israel and South Africa between 2009 and 2014 I was deeply touched to meet hundreds of South African Litvaks, who yet maybe had never visited Lithuania, but share the incredible life stories of their ancestors, showing to us old prewar Lithuanian passports, other family documents, photographs so well preserved over 100 years.
It was very emotional to listen to their life stories, often tragic and dramatic, but, still, tremendously optimistic. I am sure the possibility to restore Lithuanian citizenship will become an important factor in bringing us closer together.”
Zev Krengel, vice president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies commended the “goodwill shown by the Lithuanian government” in making it possible for South Africans of Lithuanian descendant who wish to return to Lithuania, to do so.