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Lithuania approves compensation for confiscated property

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BERLIN (JTA) — Lithuania’s parliament agreed to pay $52 million over 10 years to compensate for properties confiscated from Luthianian Jews by the Nazis and Soviets.

International and Lithuanian Jewish organizations have been pushing for compensation since 2002.

The bill, which was passed by the parliament on Tuesday and still must be signed into law by the president, would make Lithuania one of the few countries with a restitution law on the books. Outside of Germany and Austria, European countries have been slow to sign on to any kind of agreement that would involve restituting property taken illegally from Jews during the Holocaust years. A compensation deal in Poland fell apart in March.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius praised the bill’s passage in a radio interview, calling it a demonstration of goodwill and "understanding of the tragedy the Jewish community suffered during the Holocaust," Reuters reported.

The properties in question are currently in the hands of the Lithuanian government. The government reportedly would begin paying into a special compensation fund starting next year. The funds will be used in part to restore Jewish heritage sites. In addition, $1.25 million would be paid directly to Holocaust survivors next year.

Faina Kukliansky, deputy chair of Lithuania’s approximately 3,000-member Jewish community, told Reuters that the spirit of the bill was more important than the amount. "This is what the state can afford at this stage," she said.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization, which is charged with securing restitution in countries other than Germany and Austria, said that the law offered “a small measure of justice.”

“While the amount which will be paid over the next decade represents only a small fraction of the value of the communal and religious property which was owned by the Jewish community prior to World War II, the passage of the law is historic, reflecting the Lithuanian government’s recognition of its moral obligation to return or provide compensation for stolen Jewish property,” the organization said in a statement.

The American Jewish Committee, which supported the Lithuanian Jewish community in its quest for compensation, greeted the bill as "a hard fought victory."

Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s director of international Jewish affairs, said that delays were largely due to concerns over domestic politics and nervousness about a populist, anti-Semitic backlash. Baker cited the efforts of U.S. Ambassador Anne Derse and her predecessors as instrumental in winning over Lithuania’s legislators.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Lithuania’s prewar Jewish population was about 160,000, some 7 percent of the country’s total population. Lithuanian Jewry was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust, and Lithuanian perpetrators as well as German killing squads were key to the genocide.

Today’s bill was supported by 81 of 141 legislators; 8 abstained. The parliament’s move comes days before the visit to Vilnius of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the meeting for foreign ministers of the Community of Democracies, over which Lithuania is presiding.

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