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Lithuanian Jews Look to U.S. for Help in Recovering Property

The president of Lithuania has promised a top U.S. official that he would try to advance efforts to restore Jewish communal property.

President Valdas Adamkus made the promise to Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs, who was in the Baltic nation last week to discuss U.S.-Lithuanian economic relations.

Local Jewish leaders had asked Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on restitution issues, to intervene on their behalf.

During his visit, Eizenstat traveled to Ukmerge, a small town previously known as Vilkomir, that was home to his ancestors who emigrated to the United States around the turn of the century.

Lithuania’s Jewish community of 5,000 has been one of the most successful in the former Soviet Union in reclaiming communal property.

Since Lithuania regained independence seven years ago, the state has returned several synagogue buildings, including two in the capital city of Vilnius and five in the second-largest city of Kaunas, formerly known as Kovno.

But Jewish leaders here say that problems persist because a 1995 restitution law narrowly defines communal real estate as property that originally had been used for religious purposes.

Jewish leaders believe that not only synagogues should be returned but also former schools and old-age homes, as well as private property formerly owned by Jews.

Meanwhile, the return of former synagogues in Kaunas has led to a bitter dispute within the city’s small Jewish community.

A court in Kaunas ruled last month that all five synagogues previously returned to the Jewish community should now be transferred to their previous owners.

Kaunas was one of the major Jewish centers in Eastern Europe before its destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Most of the city’s prewar Jewish population of 40,000 was killed during the Holocaust.

After local authorities returned the first two synagogue buildings to the Jewish community in 1992, a group of elderly Jews who see themselves as the successors to the prewar Jewish community sued the city’s Jewish community.

The elderly group has long run the Choral Synagogue, the city’s only functioning Jewish house of worship under Soviet rule, and wanted to take control of the other synagogues.

The community, which has been renting out the recovered synagogues and using the income to fund activities for the city’s Jews, plans to appeal the court’s decision.

Simonas Davidavicius, leader of the local Jewish community, said the property dispute has put the city’s 500 Jews into a “difficult and strange situation.”

In a telephone interview from Kaunas, he predicted that because of the internal Jewish dispute, state officials would now think twice before returning property to the community

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