Lithuania Anxious for Yivo to Return Jewish Documents

A slew of documents chronicling Eastern European Jewish life — sent to an American Jewish institution from Lithuania for cataloging — is at the center of an international dispute.

In a recent Lithuanian newspaper article, archival officials in the Baltic nation charged that the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research does not want to return the documents, which were loaned from Lithuania’s Central State Archives beginning in February of 1995 for arranging, preserving and microfilming.

YIVO officials say they just need more time to work on the documents, which were left behind, along with thousands of others, when the institution moved to New York from Vilnius in the face of the Nazi invasion at the beginning of World War II.

“They are very mistrustful of us,” said YIVO’s chief archivist, Marek Web.

The documents, which mostly highlight the lives of Polish and Lithuanian Jews, were flown from Vilnius to New York in early 1995, after nearly three years of negotiations between YIVO and Lithuanian archival officials.

The event, which was broadcast on CNN, was one of the few times since the immediate postwar years that a Jewish institution had been allowed acess to some of its original collections from Eastern Europe.

An agreement signed between the two institutions called for YIVO, which was founded in 1925, to return the archives by the end of February 1998.

According to the article, which appeared in Lithuania’s leading newspaper Lietuvos Rytas: Only about a third of the archives has been returned; the documents that have been returned were sent back in poor condition.

YIVO officials refute both of these claims.

They say that approximately half of the documents have been returned to Lithuania, and more will be shipped out next month.

The reason for the delay is that the amount of time necessary to complete the work was underestimated, and that some of the archives require specialists who are difficult to find, according to YIVO’s executive director, Tom Freudenheim.

As for the condition of the documents, YIVO’s head archivist said they arrived that way in New York.

“What we got here was indescribably bad. It was not just poor; it was unacceptable,” said YIVO’s Web.

Freudenheim said that Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas verbally agreed to an extension when he was in New York in January.

He mentioned this agreement when he wrote to the director of Lithuania’s Central State Archives on Feb. 11 asking for an extension. Lithuania’s consul general in New York, Petras Anusas, who describes the conversations with YIVO as cordial, says that neither he nor the president have the authority to make such an agreement.

YIVO is currently waiting for a reply for the archives’ director.

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