Lithuanian leaders laud legacy of 18th-century Jewish scholar

MOSCOW, Sept. 10 (JTA) – Commemorations marking the 200th yahrzeit of the Vilna Gaon began this week in Lithuania amid criticism from some Jewish leaders that the country had failed to bring alleged war criminals to justice. This week’s opening session of Parliament, which was attended by Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas and Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius, was devoted to speeches praising the legacy of the Vilna Gaon, the renowned commentator on the Talmud and Torah. In his speech, the chairman of the Parliament, Vytautas Landsbergis, said the Gaon is a source of pride not only for Jews but for everyone in Lithuania. “The sage Gaon, revered by Jews throughout the world, was a part of Vilnius’ age of enlightenment,” he said, referring to the modern name of the Lithuanian capital. Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania, Oded Ben Hur, and Haifa Chief Rabbi Sha’ar Yishuv Cohen both told Parliament that it was the duty of Lithuania’s leaders to prosecute alleged war criminals. After declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuania issued certificates of exoneration to more than 50,000 Lithuanians who were convicted as war criminals by Soviet courts. Among those pardoned were people who allegedly helped the Nazis kill Jews. In addition, five individuals who were stripped of their U.S. citizenship and deported to Lithuania have yet to be prosecuted for alleged war crimes. Some Jewish groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Israel-based Association of Lithuanian Jews, are boycotting the commemoration, saying that participation would be seen as support for a government that has not yet atoned for the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry. Nearly 94 percent of the country’s prewar Jewish community perished in the Holocaust.

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