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80 Years Later, Lithuania Honors Jews Who Fought for Independence

February 20, 2002
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Some 4,000 Jewish soldiers who helped defend Lithuania during its bid for independence from 1918 to 1923 have been honored by the government and the State Jewish Museum.

The ceremony took place last Friday to mark the eve of Lithuanian Independence Day.

Lithuania’s national army was left weak and poorly armed after World War I. But a crop of 15,000 volunteer soldiers successfully defended their homeland from the opposing armies of Poland and Bolshevik Russia, which were trying to conquer Lithuania.

More than 60 of the 4,000 Jewish volunteers died in combat. Their names were unveiled Friday on plaques at the newly restored Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Vilnius, the capital.

A replica flag, in both Yiddish and Lithuanian, of the Union of Volunteering Jewish Soldiers also was presented. The original flag rests in the Jewish Museum in Vilnius.

“We are one nation and we are citizens of the same state,” said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who attended the event. “We all have the same commitments to the state we live in.

“One of the most important factors when talking about a ‘United Europe’ ” is that “the Jewish community is an integral part of Lithuanian society, the Lithuanian state and Lithuanian cultural life,” Adamkus continued. “Your contributions, this flag, all the sacrifices you made and the Independence War showed that you are basing your lives on the same commitments as we are.”

The Lithuanian Defense Ministry last month donated $3,000 in honor of the volunteers. The money will be used to support Jewish cultural activities, including today’s event.

“When unveiling these plaques, we cannot claim the list is a final list of all Jews who suffered and died in thoughts of independence,” Defense Minster Linas Linkevicius said. “Rather, it’s a modest symbol of all those people who sacrificed themselves and believed in their culture and pride, and all of that made Lithuanian independence. We should be really proud of such people.”

State Jewish Museum Director Emanuelis Zingeris hopes the event will further integrate the Jewish community into Lithuanian life.

“Lithuanians think Jews are a fifth column, traitors,” he said. “They think Jews betrayed Lithuania in history. But Jews were loyal to this country and built this country for thousands of years. Jews built villages and 50 percent of the cities. And now non-Jews are living there and they should understand the Jewish contribution to Lithuania.

One of the conditions for entry to NATO and the European Union — which Lithuania is seeking — “is the human rights dimension,” Zingeris noted. “How well do they understand their past and include Jewish history in their own history?”

Detlof Fonberg, German ambassador to Lithuania, urged the Lithuanian government to act on a proposal to rebuild the former Jewish Ghetto in Vilnius. Parliament approved the masterplan a year and a half ago, but the project has been stalled in the various Cabinet ministries.

“Last century showed an example of singling out and separating and killing the Jewish population,” Fonberg said. “And so it’s only right to single them out by honoring them these days for their effort this century.”

Among the 4,000 honored were Isaac Shapiro and Lazar Beiles.

Shapiro was the leader of Union of Volunteering Jewish Soldiers. The Nazis ultimately hung him in the Vilnius train station in 1941.

Shapiro’s son Josef attended last Friday’s event.

Beiles was a soldier and Lithuanian patriot. In 1941 — like 94 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews — he was shot to death by Lithuanians who collaborated with the occupying Nazis.

Just minutes before his death, Beiles handed his World War I era medal to his son, Yehuda, who managed to hide it during his own five-year Holocaust ordeal.

Yehuda, who currently lives in Israel, presented the medal at the event.

A large exhibition documenting the Jewish contribution to Lithuania’s independence was unveiled and will travel throughout Lithuanian public schools this year.

Germany administered Lithuanian territory from 1915-1918. Before that, the country languished under czarist occupation for more than a century, following the partition of the joint Polish-Lithuanian Republic in the late 18th century by Austria, Prussia and Russia.

On February 16, 1918 the Lithuanian Council announced the reconstitution of Lithuania as a sovereign, democratic and independent state with Vilnius as its capital.

That same year, Jewish politicians urged their communities to volunteer for the country, and as a result, Jews from all regions joined the army. In 1920 the Jewish National Council called upon Jews to enroll to “increase the number of our defenders.”

In 1933, nearly a decade after independence was restored, Shapiro founded the Union of Volunteering Jewish Soldiers in the small city of Joniskis with the aim of reuniting the former volunteers. The Union boasted more than 2,000 members in its 43 regional groups.

The Union was officially shut down in 1940 when the Soviets invaded Lithuania. Months later, some of the Union’s leaders were exiled to Siberia.

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