Lithuanian citizenship law part of ‘healing process’ for Litvaks

While a sudden influx of Jews to Lithuania is not expected, the government’s amendment has multi-faceted ramifications.

Lithuania skyline (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lithuania skyline
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There has been a surge in applications for Lithuanian citizenship by South African Litvaks in recent weeks, according to immigration lawyers in Cape Town. This follows a recent amendment to the citizenship law that removes obstacles for Lithuanians who left the country between the two world wars – and their descendants – to restore their citizenship.
South Africa has one of the largest Lithuanian diasporas in the world; 90 percent of its Jewish community of 80,000 trace their ancestry back to Lithuania.
Stefanie de Saude, a Cape Townbased immigration attorney, told The Jerusalem Post that the formalizing of this amendment has generated a spike in interest and inquiries into applying for Lithuanian citizenship. She also noted that since the new change in law came into force, she met with a citizenship specialist at the Migration Office who confirmed that many of her clients would now be granted citizenship.
The key difference the amendment makes is that instead of having to prove that their families “fled” Lithuania between 1919 and 1940, applicants now need to prove only that they “left.” The previous requirement was in some cases a very difficult clause to meet, described as “illogical” by former Lithuanian ambassador to Israel and South Africa Darius Degutis.
About 95 percent of Lithuanian Jewry were murdered in the Holocaust. Critics of the previous citizenship policy argued that those who left in the decades prior to World War II were fleeing a dangerous environment.
“If they hadn’t left Lithuania, they would have died in the Holocaust,” Degutis remarks.
De Saude stresses that the previous Lithuanian restrictions were not “a plot against Jewish people,” but rather stemmed from national security concerns, which she likens to the driving forces behind Brexit or the tightening of South African immigration policy.
Indeed, it is rare for Lithuania to allow dual citizenship. “As a rule, we do not allow dual citizenship,” explains Degutis. “We are are a small nation. We have many nations around us who in our history haven’t necessarily been friendly – so in a way this was a way to protect ourselves.”
Nobody expects the amendment will lead to a sudden influx of Lithuanian descendants returning to live there, but it is expected to have meaningful ramifications on a number of other levels. “I have not met one client who wants to move back,” says South African immigration attorney Gary Eisenberg. “But Jews are sentimental creatures and they are interested in knowing where they came from, in retracing their steps to their houses, towns, graveyards – to where their forefathers come from.”
Both Eisenberg and Degutis point to Litvak projects to revive their Jewish heritage in Lithuania. “There are many cases of former Lithuanian citizens whose descendants have returned, invested here, and are very active in rebuilding cultural Jewish heritage,” Degutis observes. “Prominent businessmen from South Africa are rebuilding the shtetls where their ancestors lived, rebuilding cemeteries, synagogues, Jewish libraries – it’s a way of protecting their heritage.”
He opines that easier access to a Lithuanian passport for Litvaks will enhance motivation to visit the country and increase efforts to rebuild Jewish heritage there.
He also considers the unanimous bipartisan approval of the citizenship amendment – which he stresses is very unusual for the Lithuanian government – to be a final step in removing barriers between the Lithuanian and the Litvak community.
“We know how harsh the Lithuanian history was for them, the tragedy of the Holocaust. We know how rich the Jewish community was in every sense,” he adds, expressing hope that they will seize the opportunity to “reconnect with the homeland of their ancestors.”
Of course, the appeal of a European Union passport is also a major factor in Litvaks’ desire for a Lithuanian passport. “People aren’t comfortable with the South African government, people want the safety of a second passport,” says Eisenberg. “So people are waking up and saying ‘let’s take zayde’s [grandfather’s] passport out of the drawer’ – it’s a good time to apply.”
“Most individuals who seek to acquire Lithuanian citizenship do not desire to live and settle in Lithuania,” agrees de Saude. “Most are doing it for the purposes of having an EU passport and I believe the Lithuanian government is aware of this, however, it wants to address and correct the wrongdoings of the past.”
Degutis echoes this, noting that an EU passport eases travel, the purchase of property, business and the acquisition of education in Europe.
Vice President of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Zev Krengel, however, emphasizes that for South African Litvaks a Lithuanian passport is by no means a necessity, but rather a symbolic benefit. “It’s part of the healing process – you’re getting back the Lithuanian citizenship which your father or grandfather had to give up.” He asserts that there hasn’t been enough discussion about Lithuania’s past with regard to its previously large Jewish community.
He says the overwhelming vote in favor of the citizenship amendment was of symbolic importance: “It was the Lithuanian government almost admitting to a certain agree that it needed another mechanism for Jews who had to leave Lithuania due to anti-Semitism and the rise of Hitler.”
“We don’t need citizenship. We lead good, open lives as South African citizens,” he stresses. “And we also have Israel as the final protector. So it’s not something we need, but it’s a sign of friendship which has massive ramifications.”