Lithuanian Jews Cautious on Republic’s Independence

Lithuanian Jews are cautiously supportive of the Soviet republic’s declaration of independence, according to members of an American Jewish group that returned from there this week.

The majority of Lithuanian Jews view independence as better for them than Soviet rule, said Dr. Barnett Zumoff, who spent four days in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius as part of an eight-person cultural mission to the Soviet Union.

“They would prefer independence,” said Zumoff, a member of the Committee for the Revitalization of Yiddish and Yiddish Culture in the Soviet Union, which organized the mission. “I don’t think they love the Lithuanians more. They just love the Russians less.”

Some Jews have been active in the independence movement, such as Emmanuel Singer, the director of the Jewish cultural center in Vilnius and a deputy to Parliament representing Sajudis, the Lithuanian National Front.

Most Jews felt the Lithuanian community was friendly and cooperative toward them, Zumoff said, although many added that the Lithuanians were playing their “Jewish card” to seek international Jewish support for independence and to appear tolerant toward their minorities.

But some Lithuanian Jews, he added, expressed concern that “if and when independence occurs, the Lithuanians would revert to their wartime colors,” when Lithuanians often collaborated with the Germans.

Of a prewar population of 350,000 Jews in what is now Lithuania, only 12,000, mostly elderly Jews remain.

“You can’t make peace with this,” said Joel Litewka, a member of the cultural mission and a Holocaust survivor from Poland. “Everybody remembers what the Lithuanians did. From this point of view, you have to be against independence.

“But the Jews think an independent Lithuania will be democratic, free,” he said.

“None of them had good answers,” Zumoff said. “Why they stayed, I don’t know.”

While most Lithuanian Jews support independence, they are also alarmed by the growing level of open anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

“In the long term, they think there is no place for them in Lithuania,” Zumoff said.

The study of Yiddish language and culture has become popular among Soviet Jews, including those in Lithuania, although nowhere near as much as the study of Hebrew, Zumoff said.

“They’re both burgeoning now,” he said. “The Hebrew as a matter of preparing for aliyah, the Yiddish as a return to roots.”

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