Lithuania – a past not forgotten

Eastern European country has made significant efforts to acknowledge its role in Holocaust.

lithuania holocaust 311 (photo credit: German Federal Archive)
lithuania holocaust 311
(photo credit: German Federal Archive)
Given the Lithuanian heritage of an overwhelming majority of South African Jews, it is somewhat surprising that seemingly few have visited the Eastern European country.
Bucking the trend, I visited during March with a small delegation of Jewish business executives, on a “mission” arranged by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the largest Jewish humanitarian and welfare organization in the world.
The objectives of the mission included connecting with the local Lithuanian Jewish community and the Lithuanian government, exploring business opportunities, and viewing firsthand the work that the JDC does to assist the Jewish community.
Over 48 hours, there was a visit to a Jewish kindergarten and Jewish Community Center, a tour, led by an inspiring 91-year-old Jewish partisan, of the Ponar Forest in which 100,000 people died during the Nazi occupation, and constructive meetings with Lithuanian Prime Minster Andrius Kubilius.
Amongst my myriad experiences during the mission, a few insights stand out:
Lithuania has made substantial effort to acknowledge its wartime past and the role of Lithuanian collaborators in the decimation of 96 percent of the country’s Jewish community. Such steps include the recent approval of a property restitution fund exceeding $50m over the next 10 years and earmarked funding for restoration of the Jewish quarter.
Some unresolved issues remain, but the modern-day Jewish community in Lithuania is thriving, with more Jews regularly emerging. Although small in numbers –estimated population around 4,000 – the community boasts a multi-level community center in Vilnius which is the de facto hub of community life, a number of functioning synagogues and a strong, highly respected leadership team.
The community, like many around the world, however, has a number of challenges. Many families require financial assistance, and assimilation is high. In response, JDC has been working with the local Jewish community since the early 1990's to provide welfare for the needy, and to implement a range of Jewish renewal initiatives, designed to strengthen the communities’ Jewish identity and young leadership, and ensure its continuity.
A strong relationship exists between the Lithuanian government and the local Jewish community, which includes regular dialogue on a range of issues. As an example, at a dinner hosted by the local Jewish community, there were a number of government officials in attendance, including the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs (herself a former ambassador to Israel).
Diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Israel are at a record high. This means diplomatic support in various realms and booming trade and tourism.Post-Soviet Lithuania, with a highly educated population and stable fiscal policy, represents a growth economy (5.8 percent GDP increase in 2011, following a 15 percent decline in 2009 during the global financial crisis), and forms an important bridge between Russia –  among others – and the West, with abundant investment opportunities in a variety of industries.
Lithuania is a beautiful country, with a lot to offer in terms of greenery, beaches and historical sites, many of which I would like to explore on future trips. The cost of accommodation, transport etc. is far lower than much of Western Europe.
A visit to Lithuania, whether as a tourist or as part of a “roots” or “mission” expedition, is something I would recommend to every South African Litvak. It is a vital opportunity to connect with the past, present and future.
The writer is a dual South African and Lithuanian citizen, and is currently on international assignment with his company, Maersk Line, as Managing Director responsible for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.