Seven decades after the end of World War II, Lithuania is still struggling with its role in the Holocaust. German Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators killed over 90 percent of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish population of more than 200,000. Last month, a group of Lithuanian Jews, or Litvaks, demanded the government release a list of more than 2,000 names of Lithuanians who participated in the genocide.
“The Lithuanian Jewish Community believes refusal to release the list could have negative repercussions at the international as well as national level and could give rise to various theories that would damage the reputation of the Lithuanian state,” community leader Faina Kukliansky told the Jerusalem Post.
Lithuanian officials sidestepped those issues during a visit to Washington last week, focusing instead on tourism.
“We would welcome Litvaks to come and visit Lithuania because their roots are in different small towns,” Mantvydas Bekesius, vice minister in charge of Litvak community relations, told reporters on Feb. 24 during events at the Lithuanian Embassy commemorating the country’s 98th birthday.
There are perhaps 3,000 Jews living in Lithuania today. Evelina Petrone, a diplomat with the embassy, said the Lithuanian government has invested $40 million in a good-will foundation aimed at compensating Holocaust survivors and preserving Jewish culture.
Its latest effort is aimed at attracting tourists to key Jewish heritage sites like the Sugihara House in Kaunas – the residence of Japanese vice consul Chiune Sugihara, who issued 6,000 visas to Jews during World War II, allowing them to escape to Japan.
“The state finally understood that it’s very important to pay attention to the Jewish heritage and rebuild what has been lost,” state tourism director Jurgita Kazlauskiene said.
She added that Israel opened an embassy in the capital Vilnius last year, and Lithuania organizes tours for displaced Litvak Jews to tour their country of origin.
Bekesius said Lithuanians who grew up in the Soviet era likely did not learn about the Holocaust. Now more than 1,000 schools participate in a Holocaust observance day each year.
“During the Soviet times, there was no [acknowledgement of the] Holocaust,” he said. “There was no Jewish history about the Holocaust. There were never any books.”
Bekesius added that much of the history of Lithuania’s Litvak community has been preserved in the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which was founded in Vilnius in 1925 and moved after the Nazis invasion in 1941.
Bekesius said many of the records have been digitized, which he hoped will encourage Litvaks around the world to come to Lithuania to taste their heritage.
Leslie Weiss, deputy director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, said Lithuania has been late in acknowledging its painful past. But she thinks recent efforts to preserve the Litvak heritage are important for the Baltic region.
She added, “I don’t see a tremendous return of Litvaks to Lithuania to live there, but a lot of people want to return.”