MOSCOW, Sept. 28 (JTA) – Lithuania has observed its annual commemoration of Holocaust victims by honoring Christians who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas last week decorated 27 Lithuanians with the Life Rescuer Cross, which was established in 1992, soon after Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union. The commemoration came amid ongoing tension over Lithuania’s role during the Nazi occupation. The Israeli ambassador to Lithuania, Oded Ben Hur, recently sparked controversy when, in a speech to the Lithuanian Parliament, he criticized the Baltic country for not vigorously prosecuting its war criminals. In an apparent response to Ben Hur’s remarks, a Lithuanian extremist group recently demanded that Jews working in governmental institutions be fired and that the Israeli ambassador to the Baltic country be declared persona non grata. The group publicized its statement in a leading daily newspaper, Kauno Diena, which is published in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city. The Lithuanian Freedom Union said its statement was prompted by a desire to put an end to accusations that Lithuanians are a “nation of murderers of Jews.” It also urged that the Jewish community of Lithuania demand that Israel extradite to Lithuania former Jewish collaborators of the KGB who “carried out genocide against the Lithuanian people” and stressed that it would take action unless the Jewish community does not adequately rebuff “all these phenomenal [speeches] coming from Israel.” During World War II, Nazis backed by Lithuanian collaborators exterminated virtually the entire local Jewish population, wiping out 94 percent of a prewar community that numbered 250,000. Some 50,000 Lithuanians who were convicted as war criminals by Soviet courts were exonerated by the Baltic nation after it gained independence in 1991. Among those pardoned were people who allegedly helped the Nazis kill Jews. Holocaust survivors, American Jewish leaders and the Lithuanian Jewish community have called upon the Lithuanian government to reverse the pardons. Lithuania announced last week that it had posthumously annulled pardons granted to five of the alleged war criminals. Earlier this month, the Lithuanian Supreme Court annulled one of the pardons for the first time. That pardon was also annulled posthumously. Chief prosecutor Kazimieras Kavarskas said recently that another 200 pardons will be re-examined soon. The 27 recipients of the Life Rescuer Cross award bring the total number of Lithuanians who have received the award to approximately 150. More than 300 Lithuanians have been recognized as Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. According to Viktorija Sakaite, an employee with the Jewish Museum located in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the museum has collected information about 2,300 Lithuanians who rescued Jews from the Nazis and will soon publish the first volume of a projected 10-volume series telling their stories. The commemoration occurred on Sept. 23, the 54th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto.
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