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Around the Jewish World Lithuanian Jews Disappointed by Delays on Property Restitution Bill

November 30, 2006
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Simon Gurevichius dreams of opening a yeshiva in Vilnius for students from across the Jewish world. “What could be a better monument to those who had to leave or perished than a living, vibrant Jewish community?” asked the 25-year-old executive director of the Jewish community of Lithuania.

But Vilnius today doesn’t even have a kosher shop, restaurant or mikvah. The community would like to offer 150 more spaces in the 250-student Jewish school, but there’s no money to expand the cramped apartment rooms where pupils study.

The makeshift, 46-student Jewish kindergarten also is in desperate need of new quarters.

Ask Gurevichius for five minutes and he’ll spend an hour telling you of the social services and educational activities Lithuanian Jews have thought up but cannot implement.

Gurevichius is angry that the community’s aspirations have been put off again as a long-awaited restitution bill for communal property sits on Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas’ desk.

“We have heard one too many times that this bill is coming, and we’re tired of waiting,” Gurevichius said.

In September, the prime minister publicly announced that he was ready to send the bill for a vote to Parliament — but no such vote has occurred.

The bill to return or provide compensation for up to 500 properties over 11 years would begin the process of restoring the Vilnius Jewish community, once a leading light of Jewish thought that now is home to only about 5,000 Jews.

The government put the cost of the bill at $57 million, though Gurevichius said the origin of that figure is a mystery, as the final agreement over what will be returned and paid for will come only when a joint Jewish-government commission reviews properties after the law is passed.

Communal property includes hospitals, schools, foundations and clubs that belonged to Jewish organizations. In Lithuania before World War II, even many privately run Jewish enterprises were placed in communal ownership.

Money gained through the proposed bill would go to a foundation formed by the Jewish community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which has been helping the community negotiate with the government for several years.

In September, Kirkilas told Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, that the bill would be presented to the Parliament by October and would be supported by the opposition. The news was widely reported by international news agencies. But there’s still no sign that the bill is going anywhere.

Neighboring Latvia is in a similar bind. A $58.7 million communal restitution bill did make it to the Latvian Parliament but was roundly rejected Nov. 23.

“After seeing what happened in Latvia, maybe we need to prepare better to pass such a bill,” Vilius Kavaliauskas, an adviser to the prime minister, told JTA.

Latvian lawmakers rejected the bill over concerns about its legal merits. Others expressed incomprehension that a single, unified Jewish entity could be entitled to money from the Latvian government due to a catastrophe, the Holocaust, that was not perpetrated by Latvians.

Kavaliauskas raised concerns over details of the Lithuanian bill, especially the issue of how properties are valued.

He cited a five-star hotel in Vilnius that belonged to the Jewish community before World War II. Privatized 12 years ago, the state got about $5,000 for it; privately funded renovations have raised its value to an estimated $1.5 million.

“According to how the proposed law stands, we would have to pay the community $1.5 million, and that’s the problem,” Kavaliauskas said.

Gurevichius said the Jewish community has its own issues with the bill.

“The government wants to deduct investments made into properties, but it’s not like we are charging them rent,” he observed.

Reached in Washington a day after the Latvian bill’s rejection, Baker said he was troubled by Kavaliauskas’ comments.

“We are close to a point that the Lithuanian government will live up to its promise that it has been making for several years now,” he said. “If an adviser says otherwise now, this calls into question the reputation of the prime minister and the entire government.”

Just after World War I, Jews comprised more than 40 percent of Vilnius’ population of 140,000. There were 110 synagogues and prayer houses at one time. Three were returned to the community after 1989; only one is functioning.

Despite its decimation, the community is known for its emotional and spiritual commitment to the faith in a region where Communist-enforced secularism made it hard to revive Jewish traditions.

Vilnius was the home of the Vilna Gaon, the 18th-century rabbi who was one of the world’s greatest Talmudic scholars.

“Restitution could help us to at least put a plaque to show where the Vilna Gaon studied, and even start up a Jewish heritage route for tourists,” Gurevichius said.

There still is a twice-daily minyan in Vilnius, and 1,500 people show up for the annual Chanukah celebration put on by the Jewish community.

With help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Claims Conference, the community sponsors a summer camp for 600 kids. In February it will host a Baltic version of the Limmud educational conference, which is expected to attract 1,000 people.

Gurevichius said the government and the Jewish community have very minor disputes over the bill, which he hopes might be submitted to Parliament in February after municipal elections.

“Nobody wants to be responsible for giving away state money to Jews before elections,” he said.

That sentiment, he believes, is the real holdup for the bills in both Lithuania and Latvia, among the last two former Soviet-controlled countries to provide compensation for communal property taken by the Nazis and then the communists.

In 2004, the most widely read Lithuanian magazine, Veidas, featured a picture of Gurevichius and his wife on its cover. The caption read, “The Jews, they want to take their property back.”

Gurevichius said he was bombarded with questions from university friends who thought “the Jews wanted to take the entire city into their hands. This is what the politicians are up against.”

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