Menu JTA Search

After Years of Bickering, Lithuania Releases Hundreds of Historic Torahs

Lithuania has ended six years of controversy by deciding to turn over more than 350 Torah scrolls and thousands of holy books to world Jewry, JTA has learned.

The Lithuanian Cabinet was to approve the agreement on Jan. 25, according to an adviser to the Culture Ministry, Rolandas Kvietkauskas, and the Israeli ambassador to the Baltics, Avraham Benjamin.

The much-anticipated accord will be signed Jan. 30 at Lithuania’s National Library in Vilnius, where the Torahs have been stored for years.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, is expected to attend, as are officials from international Jewish organizations.

Following the event, the books and Torahs — all from prewar Lithuanian synagogues — will be sent to Israel for evaluation.

“It’s Lithuania’s cultural heritage, but we understand the real importance of these Torahs for Jewish culture, so the Lithuanian government managed to complete this process by giving the scrolls to Jewish communities, which can use them for the purpose they were created for,” Kvietkauskas said.

Today’s decision culminates six years of negotiations for Jewish officials like Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

“There are numerous Jewish cultural assets in Eastern Europe, but none have the emotional resonance of Torah scrolls that were once used in vital congregations in a part of the world that probably pains Jews everywhere,” Baker said from his Washington office. “There is an enormous symbolic value in seeing ritual objects returned to use elsewhere in the Jewish world.”

Experts in Israel will determine how many of the scrolls remain complete after being confiscated by the Nazis and concealed for decades by the Soviets.

Rabbi Aba Dunner, executive director of the Conference of European Rabbis, studied the scrolls last year and reported that “at best, a few dozen” remain complete.

After the evaluation, the Torahs will be distributed to Jewish communities, organizations, libraries and museums around the world, mostly in Israel and the United States. Those decisions will be made by a seven-member, ad-hoc committee headed by Melchior and representing seven Jewish organizations from Israel, America, England and Lithuania.

“These were never books with call numbers. They are books with a call to God,” said Emanuelis Zingeris, a Lithuanian Jewish activist who sat on a Lithuanian Culture Ministry committee that examined the issue and will take part as well in the ad-hoc committee that will determine the scrolls’ fate.

“When people read from these scrolls they will be united” against the “results of the Holocaust, against organized silence,” Zingeris said. “We are uniting children with our history.”

The Torahs served a Lithuanian Jewish community that numbered 250,000 before World War II. Some 94 percent of these Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

When the Nazis occupied Lithuania in 1941, they oversaw the confiscation of all Torahs and Jewish religious books. Thousands of religious objects were burned. But Antanas Ulpis, a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian, and seven colleagues made daring journeys to the countryside to rescue holy objects, and secretly saved some.

The books and scrolls were nationalized by the Soviets in 1945. For years they were thought to have been lost, until a 1996 New York Times article revealed that they were stored in a church annex used by Lithuania’s national library.

The delay in deciding their fate can be attributed both to Jewish bickering and Lithuanian bureaucracy.

Lithuanian officials originally insisted that the scrolls were part of Lithuania’s national heritage — in fact, they were placed on the National Culture Heritage Register — and could not be taken out of the country.

Under Western scrutiny, however, Lithuania — which aspires to join the European Union — slowly relaxed its stance.

“We raised this issue half a dozen years ago with several different prime ministers,” the AJCommittee’s Baker said. “It’s taken a lot longer than anyone had imagined. I don’t attribute it to any malicious or sinister motives. The legal process in Lithuania seems complicated and at times confusing to an outsider — and, I gather, even for those inside too.”

In 1997 the government returned four Torahs to the tiny Jewish communities in Vilnius and in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city. In accordance with Jewish law, the communities buried several damaged scrolls.

When word got out that the National Library held hundreds more scrolls — the oldest dating to the 15th century — international Jewish organizations fought to obtain them.

The Jewish in-fighting intensified in October 2000 when Zingeris, then a member of Lithuania’s Parliament, pushed through a law mandating that the Torahs be given to Jewish communities around the world.

“As usual, when there’s a war among Jews, you don’t see success,” says Arie Zuckerman, a senior adviser to Melchior. The issue “was frozen for a long time, and even Lithuania thought about just leaving the books there. The unity we achieved is a greater achievement than the restitution.”

Last year the Lithuanian government received 19 applications for the scrolls, mostly from Israeli and American organizations. Acknowledging its ignorance of Jewish religious objects, the Culture Ministry formed a committee to approve the Jewish ad-hoc committee, which will distribute the Torahs to applicants.

“Israel has the capability and expertise to take care of the scrolls,” said Moni Mordechai, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “It’s a mitzvah to take care of the scrolls. We really appreciate that the Lithuanian government took this decision, and it’s very important for us.”

Zingeris says applicants will be culled, in part, based on their Lithuanian roots. For example, one likely recipient is a yeshiva of Lithuanian origin that now operates in Cleveland, he said.

He also hopes Torah recipients will help support Lithuania’s small but cohesive Jewish community.

“We want them to send us librarians and academics to work with us, to make exhibitions and strengthen our social life and establish a normal kosher kitchen here,” he says. “We have no financial magnets here. No Jewish people have money here.”

And, Zingeris said, he hopes to name the ad-hoc committee after Ulpis, the librarian whose bravery during World War II made all this possible.

NEXT STORY