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Around the Jewish World One of Lithuania’s Few Jews Fights to Rebuild Vilna Ghetto

It’s a shivery winter Shabbat evening and Emanuelis Zingeris is immersed in a spiritual moment at Europe’s largest synagogue.

That would be normal enough, except that the Great Synagogue was destroyed decades ago and Zingeris, totally unfazed by the Baltic chill, stands outside facing the once-holy site, which now houses a Soviet-style kindergarten and a dilapidated playground.

“It’s like desert,” says the teary-eyed chairman of Lithuania’s Jewish Heritage Fund. “They finished us completely.”

Such dolorous pauses are rare for the stocky, bulldogged taskmaster. In September, Zingeris completed a four-year mission by rebuilding a Yiddish theater left in ruins after six decades of Nazi and Soviet rule. In August he founded the first World Litvak Congress.

His latest bid is a highly controversial, $32 million proposal that aims to rebuild the stone, Renaissance-styled Great Synagogue — built in the 1630s — and a portion of the 17th-century historic Jewish ghetto in Vilnius.

“As we go with cosmic speed into the 21st century, we’re burying the former Jewish ghetto,” says Zingeris, 44. “We have Italian, Indian, Chinese, Irish cafes here now, but no one space feels like Vilna 1939.”

That’s what prompted him to draw up his proposal. Under Zingeris’ plan, the state would donate three vacant plots of land to his Jewish fund, which would woo foreign investors — mainly from Israel, America and Germany — to reconstruct buildings to historical specifications.

In exchange for lucrative property in the city center, companies would leave some space on upper floors for Jewish communal institutions like a library, museum, and studios for Jewish artists.

The mixture — Yiddish on the outside and commercial on the inside — might be attractive to tourist-hungry businesses like restaurants, shops and hotels, Zingeris argues.

Zingeris will demand that companies donate a certain percentage of their profits to fund the synagogue and future Jewish endeavors. He plans to cull investors based on their willingness to finance his cultural agenda.

Despite his drive, Zingeris may never realize his dream. Like most government activity in Eastern Europe, red tape and clashes of interests have stalled the proposal.

A resolution to rebuild Jewish Vilna received sweeping approval in Parliament last year, but has been stalled in government ministries for the past 15 months, giving Zingeris “an uncertain ill” feeling about its future.

“It’s not Manhattan. We don’t have 250,000 Jews in power here,” he says. “I’m alone. Graves and history are not political powers.”

One foreign diplomat describes Zingeris as “a lonely bee swarming around with no beehive — and everyone is swatting at him.

“For a Jewish politician and a socially engaging person,” the diplomat notes, Lithuania “is not an easy environment.”

Vice Minister of Culture Ina Marciulionyte blames the delay on the country’s complex legal infrastructure. In addition, she says, Zingeris’s proposal isn’t well organized and contains many loose ends — an accusation many people confirm.

Marciulionyte says Lithuanian law prevents nongovernmental organizations like the Jewish Heritage Fund from owning state property. Amending the law is too demanding a task, says Marciulionyte, who says she will introduce another solution in early 2002.

One possibility, she says, is for the Vilnius municipality to own the land while allowing the Jewish Heritage Fund to operate it.

But Zingeris wants none of that. He insists that the land be donated to his fund as a “moral restitution,” like similar ghettos in the Czech Republic and other post-Communist nations where Jewish communities are putting returned property to lucrative use.

Meanwhile, Vilnius’s mayor, Arturas Zuokas, doesn’t want to loose his grip on the precious property. Although the proposed land composes only 10 percent of the historic Old Town, it is the last remaining underused territory in the commercial center of this rapidly Westernizing capital.

“Everyone wants this land,” Marciulionyte says bluntly.

Zuokas, who basically supports the project but wants to implement it differently, says Zingeris is unrealistic if he thinks investors will agree to turn over profits to the Jewish community.

One senior government official, who requested to remain anonymous, says the problems are deeper still.

“It’s like a fight over territorial issues. The mayor still claims it’s his city, and he can cause some problems,” the source said. “It simply could be that he promised certain building interests in these areas.”

Sixty years ago, Vilna — the city’s Yiddish name — was nearly half-Jewish. Then, in the Holocaust, Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered 94 percent of the country’s 250,000 Jews.

Today the remains are scarce — only one of Vilna’s 40 prewar synagogues, a handful of memorial plaques — most of which were erected by Zingeris — and the gentrified Zydu, or Jewish street, that slashes through the old town.

Zingeris’ plan calls for the reconstruction of 32 buildings in the Old Town. That means the return of archways and pastel-colored facades plastered with Yiddish inscriptions like the kind that once adorned tailor shops and food markets.

The Lithuanian government gave Zingeris $60,000 for extensive architectural research. Drawing plans, based on pre- war photographs and blueprints, are finalized.

Zingeris says the project would educate Lithuanians, most of whom are unfamiliar with Vilnius’s famed Jewish past. In fact, there are no obligatory Holocaust studies in Lithuanian public schools.

Plus, the project would open the doors for foreign investment, something Lithuania has sorely needed since gaining independence in 1991.

But Zuokas and Marciulionyte both wonder why the Jewish community, only 4,000 strong, requires more space and funding.

“The community is not big enough to have so many buildings,” Marciulionyte says. “It has to be for the Jewish community and everyone else. They can’t just have their own ghetto doing their own events. We are a multicultural city.”

Zingeris acknowledges that the community is quite small, but he wants extra space to host events like international Jewish conferences. Citing the Jewish quarters in Prague and Krakow, he predicts that the project would double tourism to Vilnius.

Even Zingeris’s supporters are critical.

“It will not be Jewish Vilna,” says Linas Vildziunas, chairman of the House of Memory, a Holocaust study center in Vilnius, who passively supports the plan. “It will only be reconstruction and memorials. Educational activities are what we need.”

Zingeris, a former member of the country’s Parliament who spent five years researching European Yiddish roots for the Council of Europe, is backed by Wilfried Seemann, general manager of the German-owned Vereinsbank in Vilnius. Seemann vowed “to force the Cabinet to sign this resolution in the nearest future.”

Zingeris also has received encouraging words from Israeli real estate moguls and Western diplomats.

But getting local companies to support Jewish affairs will be tough.

“There is no reason, business-wise, why we should care about the Jewish community,” says Antonio Meschino, an Italian-Australian man who owns five prominent restaurants in Vilnius. “But the Jewish business people will do it.”

The final barrier is anti-Semitism, which still runs strong in Lithuania. Some insiders say Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas is purposefully delaying approval because he knows that ratifying the plan won’t win him many votes if he runs for president next year.

The national press, meanwhile, have all but ignored the story. The only blurb came from one newspaper, which translated an article by a foreign journalist. Afterward, the newspaper’s Web site swelled with dozens of anti-Semitic comments.

One reader wrote, “I suggest a monument to Antanas Lileikis” — a Lithuanian Nazi collaborator accused of war crimes — “in the middle of the ghetto as a symbol of peace between Lithuanians and Jews. I think Lithuania will gladly contribute.”

Zingeris, in fact, long has been the target of anti-Semitic nationalists, thanks to his frequent demands over the past decade that Lithuania face its Holocaust history.

His less hardcore opponents say Zingeris is just blindly optimistic. Zingeris’s response? He nods toward his newly restored Yiddish theater, as if to say, “Don’t count me out.”

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