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Jews oppose Lithuanian plan

VILNIUS, Lithuania, Feb. 11 (JTA) — A small memorial plaque in a quiet residential courtyard in the heart of Vilnius is the only hint of the rich Jewish life that once revolved here in the city once called the Jerusalem of the North. But it is here, in the Lithuanian capital’s Old Town, that work is about to begin on a highly ambitious and controversial multimillion dollar project to rebuild Vilnius’ lost Jewish quarter from scratch. Before World War II, this Baltic city was a center of Yiddish learning and home to a thriving Jewish community that made up 40 percent of Vilnius’ population. The city boasted 100 synagogues and many Jewish business, community and cultural organizations. That all was lost during the Nazi occupation. First, a Jewish ghetto was set up in the city; then, 94 percent of the country’s 220,000 Jews were murdered. Most of the buildings in the Jewish quarter were devastated by the Nazis. The shells that remained were razed by the Communist regime during the 1950s. Now, 60 years on, an unprecedented project is underway to carefully reconstruct more than 20 lost buildings in the former Jewish quarter using old documents and photographs. At the heart of the plan is the rebuilding of the huge, 17th-century Great Synagogue, one of Europe’s largest, in the courtyard. The project is controversial not just for its cost — an estimated $30 million — but because it involves demolishing a large brick kindergarten built on the site after the war. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest opposition comes from Lithuania’s Jewish community, which insists that the money could be better spent helping the 5,000 Jews who live in Lithuania today instead of recreating history. “We are a very poor Jewish community, and this kind of money could do so much more good by supporting our members and helping to fund our cultural programs,” said Simon Alperovitch, the community’s chairman. Citing a rise in anti-Semitism in the former Soviet bloc state, Alperovitch said the funds also could be used to publish school books educating young Lithuanians about the Holocaust. Only one of the city’s 100 prewar synagogues survived, in a city that today has huge cake-like cathedrals and churches on seemingly every corner. Yet Alperovitch questions the need for more synagogues. “It is a lot of money, and I don’t believe that we need another synagogue or that we should destroy a school to build it,” he said. Roza Bieliauskiene, chief curator of the Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, agrees. “At the moment, there are between 10 and 20 people attending regular services at the synagogue. Why would we need another one?” she asked. The community claims there has been a lack of transparency in the planning process, and that they have been shut out. They also fear that commercial interests could lead to tasteless activities on a site fraught with painful history. Private developers will fund the construction costs and sublease commercial space within the buildings. The city council insists that the buildings’ exteriors be replicated exactly as they were, but is less strict about what the buildings may be used for. “We cannot agree to a plan whereby nightclubs, bars and restaurants would be set up on the site of a former Jewish ghetto, and turn it into an area for joy,” Alperovitch said. The decision to launch the work is a triumph for Emanuelis Zingeris, head of an independent non-governmental organization called the Jewish Cultural Heritage Support Fund. He has spent several years trying to win backing for the project. Under the plan, a small row of shops and houses which survived in Zydu — or Jewish — Street, next to the site of the Great Synagogue, also would be renovated and turned into a center for Jewish studies and exhibitions, Zingeris said. Lithuania’s expected accession to the European Union in May makes the project even more crucial, Zingeris argues. “We must build a proper memorial to Vilnius’ rich Jewish history so that people acknowledge the past,” said Zingeris, a former member of Lithuania’s Parliament. “How can we become a real part of Europe without clearly demonstrating our cultural diversity and heritage?” Zingeris, who lost 60 relatives in the Holocaust, says the project would educate Lithuanians about the country’s little-known Jewish history. “Most people know very little about how many Jews were killed and how extensive Jewish life was here,” he said. Before the war, Vilnius was acclaimed by Jews across Europe for its Talmudic scholars and its thriving Yiddish-language theaters, libraries and schools. The city boasted seven Yiddish newspapers. Vilnius — or Vilna in Yiddish — also was home to the famed Yiddish Institute of Higher Learning, or YIVO, and the Strashum Library, which housed the world’s largest collection of Yiddish-language books. Like most of the quarter, those institutions were destroyed by the Nazis. The city council has approved the reconstruction plan but has not committed any direct funding, choosing instead to seek private funding. The council has just held the first tender for a plot of land in the old Jewish quarter, which attracted keen interest from developers. The contract obligates leaseholders to rebuild the historic buildings as a residential area according to the original designs and to sublease commercial space on the ground floor of each building. “We support this project very much, but it is up to the Cultural Fund to raise the money through grants and private funds, as we just don’t have the many millions needed for it,” Dalia Bardauskiene, an adviser to Vilnius’ mayor, told JTA. Zingeris admits that securing private donations for the project is difficult. “So far we don’t have a single penny in our pockets,” he said. “But I am determined to see this through even if it takes 20 years or more to complete.” Zingeris laments that Jews from abroad repeatedly ask where the former Jewish quarter is. “This could never be a renaissance of the Jewish community when 94 percent were killed, but we must properly acknowledge the past and show just how important Vilnius was as a Jewish center,” he insisted. Public opinion on the project is divided. “Jewish life was so rich here before the war and it is so sad that there is almost nothing to see of it now,” said Vasilisa, a non-Jewish, female pensioner. “It is a good idea to give something back to the Jews and remind people of what was here.” The project will bring more tourists, helping local businesses, one shop assistant said. “Why not rebuild the synagogue and show people what used to be here, and at the same time attract more visitors from abroad?” she asked. But Darius, a student, disagreed. “What’s the point of spending so much money recreating something that is long gone?” he asked. “It won’t bring anyone back or change history.”