Around the Jewish World: Commemoration of Vilna Gaon Prompts Debate over Lithuania
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Around the Jewish World: Commemoration of Vilna Gaon Prompts Debate over Lithuania

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A Lithuanian Talmudic scholar is stirring up controversy among Jews 200 years after his death.

September marks the 200th yahrzeit of the Vilna Gaon, the renowned commentator on the Talmud and the Torah and the major opponent of the burgeoning Chasidic movement in the Baltic area during the late 18th century.

A split has emerged among American Jewish organizations over the six-day commemoration of the Gaon, which is being organized by the Lithuanian Jewish community.

The commemoration provides an opportunity for Lithuania’s Jewish community “to claim some of the glory that was historical Vilna,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, a member of the honorary committee for the Sept. 9-15 event.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, meanwhile, has called for a boycott of the event. It believes that participation would be seen as support for a Lithuanian government that has not yet atoned for the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry.

Nearly 94 percent of the country’s Jewish community perished in the Holocaust, a tragedy that local Jews say is not widely known in Lithuania.

Lithuanians have not “become aware of the extent of the Holocaust in this country,” Israelis Lempertas, the co-coordinator of the Gaon commemoration, said in an interview in Vilnius, the modern-day name of Vilna.

“But you cannot make the entire people repent using such methods as the boycott.”

The Jewish community has received more than $100,000 from the Lithuanian government for the event, according to Simonas Alperavicius, the chairman of the Jewish community.

The commemoration has also received funding from UNESCO.

The Lithuanian government has assisted with promotional materials and has helped to clean up the only functioning Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, the site of the Gaon’s grave.

It plans to issue six stamps featuring the Vilna Gaon and has commissioned a Lithuanian composer to write a commemorative composition to be performed by the country’s national symphony.

The Parliament’s first session after its summer recess will be dedicated to the legacy of the Gaon.

Parliament Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis told an Anti-Defamation League delegation visiting Lithuania in August that the Gaon commemoration will help promote mutual understanding between Lithuanians and Jews.

Indeed, the government has been so eager to help with the event that it caught the local Jewish community by surprise in deciding to build a sculpture of the Gaon on the Vilnius street that bears his name.

The community has not decided how to respond to this initiative, which contradicts the Jewish tradition to avoid portrait images in art.

Still, the local Jewish community is enthusiastic about the upcoming events.

“We believe the commemoration will draw world attention to Vilnius and the Jewish community here, which before the war numbered nearly a quarter of a million and now consists of approximately 5,000 people,” said Lempertas, co- coordinator of the commemoration.

Opponents of the commemoration, however, are not impressed by the government’s efforts.

Such activities are attempts “by the Lithuanian government to gain publicity and earn points in the West,” Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

In 1995, during a visit to Israel, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas publicly apologized for his country’s involvement in the Holocaust.

Lithuania has established a national day of mourning for the victims of the Holocaust on Sept. 23 — the date of the Vilna Ghetto’s liquidation in 1943.

But no legal action has been taken against five alleged war criminals who were stripped of their U.S. citizenship and deported to Lithuania in recent years.

Zuroff believes that the Lithuanian government is now trying to disguise Lithuania’s wartime past by supporting the Gaon commemoration.

Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis is “not pleasant to Lithuania,” said Zuroff. “It is something they are trying to hide.”

Some Lithuanian Jewish leaders believe that the proposed boycott could harm their community.

“We do not agree with the boycott. The memory of the Gaon has nothing to do with the Nazi collaborators,” said the Jewish community’s Alperavicius.

Lempertas said, “This campaign is making the life of the Jewish community here very difficult. It raises the wave of anti-Semitism.”

After Zuroff’s remarks were published in the Lithuanian press earlier this month, a synagogue in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, received an anonymous letter accusing Jews of seeking to destroy Lithuania’s well-being.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said Jewish organizations and the Lithuanian government have many differences, “but these issues should be dealt with separately.”

They should not be connected to Lithuania’s desire “to recognize and celebrate its Jewish heritage,” Foxman said in an interview in Vilnius.

While Lithuania now has a very small Jewish population, Vilnius was once a vital center of Jewish life and study.

The city’s historical role is evidenced not only by its famous Talmud scholar but also by the recently discovered collection of Hebrew and Yiddish books, Torahs and Judaica languishing in a church in Vilnius.

The 52,000 books — many written by the Gaon himself — and other items are now in the hands of the Lithuanian National Library, making the collection another source of conflict between the Jewish community and the Lithuanian government.

Lithuania claims these items as part of its national heritage and considers the books valuable research materials. Jewish groups, however, assert that these materials belong to the Jewish community.

An international effort is under way to return the items to the Jewish community. Still being debated, however, is whether they belong to Jews in Lithuania or in the United States.

A coalition formed under the auspices of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture has agreed that the “materials ought to go to their rightful owners where ownership can be established,” said Jerome Chanes, the foundation’s program director.

Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Culture Ministry said that four of the six Torah scrolls held in the library will be returned to synagogues in Lithuania at the time of the Gaon commemoration.

The library also holds 365 fragments of Torah scrolls that are to be buried in accordance with Jewish law. The Lithuanian Jewish community has asked rabbinical authorities in Israel for advice on the burial procedure.

Although the coalition members are experiencing difficulties with the Lithuanian government, they have no plans to boycott the Gaon commemoration, Chanes said.

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