Sensitive to history

When we lost Jews, we lost a big part of Lithuania, says Ambassador Lina Antanaviciene

 LITHUANIAN AMBASSADOR Lina Antanaviciene is greeted by President Reuven Rivlin in September.  (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
LITHUANIAN AMBASSADOR Lina Antanaviciene is greeted by President Reuven Rivlin in September.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
The memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem is taking longer than she anticipated, so Lithuanian Ambassador Lina Antanaviciene texts me not to hurry to our meeting place. She is both pained and fascinated by Lithuanian Holocaust survivors, whom she refers to as Litvaks, and with whom she converses in Lithuanian, although most have lived outside the land of their birth for far longer than they lived in Lithuania.
Unlike many of her diplomatic colleagues, Antanaviciene, who presented her credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in September of this year, is no stranger to Israel.
In previous positions in Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, she came to Israel several times with Lithuanian dignitaries including in 2015 with former president Dalia Grybauskaite, known as Lithuania’s “Iron Lady.”
The fact that Antanaviciene comes from Yad Vashem to our appointment immediately raises the question as to how much she knew about the Holocaust when she was growing up. Did she know that many of her countrymen collaborated with the Nazis?
Growing up in a Soviet country is different from growing up in the West, she replies.
Of course she knew that there had been a war, and that there had been many casualties, but not more than that. She certainly didn’t know about the horrors.
“My generation, as child[ren] in the Soviet Union, knew nothing. I knew some things about my family’s tragic history, but my parents were children during the Holocaust and my grandparents were afraid to talk about deportations and gulags.”
Such details were kept deep in the family, or they didn’t talk at all. It was not until Lithuania became a free country and she went abroad to Canada to study economics at one of the universities in Nova Scotia that she learned of the atrocities from her professors, most of who happened to be Litvaks. “They were my history teachers of my own country,” she says, the painful discoveries reflected in her voice.
She was shocked to learn about the mass killings.
After that she read a lot of literature on the subject. When she returned home she spoke to her parents, who by then, free of the Soviet yoke, were willing to talk to her about what they remembered.
“When we lost Jews, we lost a big part of Lithuania,” she says, conscious of the fact that Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of the North.”
In Israel she has made it her business to meet with Lithuanian Holocaust survivors. “It’s important to meet people and talk to them about their experiences, and not just learn from a textbook,” she says.
She still finds it difficult to absorb the fact that “people who lived side by side, shared bread and recipes and raised their children together,” could betray or even kill their neighbors.
Lithuania was occupied three times, but that is not an excuse for how people behaved, she says.
“FRANKLY, IT’S difficult for me to find words, and it’s not my responsibility to find out why they did what they did. It’s my responsibility to ensure that it won’t happen again, by educating my people to learn that all human beings are the same, and that there is no difference.”
Such education has to begin at home, around the dinner table, she says, where subjects should be discussed openly between parents and their children.
It seems that Lithuanian Holocaust survivors in Israel did not speak much about what happened to them, but Antanaviciene is eager to have them talk to student groups both in Israel and Lithuania under the auspices of Zicharon Basalon (“Memory in the Living Room”), in which survivors meet with groups of up to 50 people in someone’s living room to share their Holocaust memories in an intimate environment, in which people can spontaneously ask questions.
Israel is both Antanaviciene’s second and fifth ambassadorial posting. From 2011-2015, she served as Lithuania’s ambassador to China, Mongolia, Korea and Vietnam while residing in Beijing.
Before that she held a variety of positions which took her to many parts of the world, mostly for short terms, but in different environments with different customs, different mentalities and different time zones.
Since joining the Foreign Ministry in 1991, she has been third secretary of the European Integration Department; counselor at the Embassy in Norway; head of economic analysis and export promotion at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and later deputy director of the same department; then deputy director of the Department for the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Prior to her present appointment she served as chief adviser to the president of Lithuania, and headed the President’s Economic and Social Policy group.
Most of her predecessors in Israel were also accredited to South Africa where there are also many Litvaks, but in 2015, Lithuania opened an embassy in Pretoria, so Antanaviciene serves solely in Israel.
Exposed to many different cultures throughout her career Antanaviciene, when asked how she copes with all these differences, replies, “When you come to a new country as a diplomat, you tell yourself that for the time being this is your home with all its pluses and minuses. You learn to accept it as it is.”
Aside from her obvious mandate to boost bilateral relations – especially in areas of innovation, cybersecurity, hi-tech, energy, transport and tourism – she is currently engaged in plans for Lithuania’s 2020 Year of Jewish Culture. The celebration is being held as an extension of events marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, better known as the Gaon of Vilna. The Gaon was born on April 23, 1720, and was responsible for the migration of the forebears of President Reuven Rivlin, who has been invited to visit Vilna for the official ceremonies. Rivlin visited Lithuania as speaker of the Knesset in 2003 and addressed the Lithuanian Parliament.
When Antanaviciene presented her credentials to Rivlin in September, he told her, “You are almost my ambassador.” He spoke of his Lithuanian roots, his 2003 visit and his emotional meeting with the Jewish community.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, who happens to be a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, has also been invited. In August last year, Netanyahu visited Vilna to participate in a Baltic summit meeting with the prime ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and while there also visited the grave of the Vilna Gaon and addressed the Jewish community at a gathering in the Choral Synagogue. One of Netanyahu’s grandmothers was born in the Lithuanian town of Seduva.
Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister to visit Lithuania.
Another Baltic Summit was supposed to have taken place in Israel this year, but because of the political situation in Israel, said Antanaviciene, the meeting was postponed until next year.
If Rivlin accepts the invitation to the opening of the commemoration ceremonies of the birth of the Vilna Gaon, he will not be the first Israeli president to visit Vilna. Shimon Peres was there in July/August 2013. Antanaviciene, who met Peres personally, recalls him as “one of the brightest people I ever met in my life.”
Freedom has a price. After Lithuania regained its independence, there was a huge exodus from the country, whose population, even under Soviet, rule was less than three million.
To Antanaviciene, the exodus is understandable, considering that the Lithuanian people had been locked up for 50 years, unable to see the outside world. But now she says, there is more immigration than emigration, with Lithuanians returning home or at least asking to have their citizenship restored.
This includes Israeli offspring of Lithuanians who are entitled to citizenship if one or both of their parents or grandparents was born in Lithuania, which today is a member state of the European Union, where it often defends Israel. Between 700 and 800 Lithuanian passports are issued each year to Israelis of Lithuanian descent, she says.
Nonetheless, the shadow of wartime Lithuania still lurks in many Israeli minds, and Antanaviciene wants to show them the vibrant, modern, culturally and hi-tech oriented Lithuania.
Although she has been residing in Israel for only a short time, there’s still the obvious question relating to what she likes best about the country. “I won’t say food,” she responds. “The food is good, but so is the food in China.”
What she likes is the people and their curiosity, their forthright manner of asking questions and their willingness to help a stranger.
She also likes the hospitality. She and her husband, who is a transportation engineer, were invited to someone’s home for Rosh Hashanah. She mistakenly thought that it would be a quasi-diplomatic affair, but when they arrived, she saw it was a large family gathering at which she was the only diplomat. The conversation was interesting and fast-paced, the table groaned with food, and she had a most enjoyable time.
What does she want to see in Israel?
Mainly nature. She’s been to all the major tourist sites, accompanying Lithuanian dignitaries.
What she would like to do most is go to the desert to spend a night there.
After an intensive working day, she comes home and has to devote herself to her family.
“I miss the time being alone and in silence. Sometimes I want to be just me with my book.”
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference takes place on November 21 in Jerusalem.