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Arson Victim Blames Attack on Rival Community Members

February 9, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A fire that damaged the apartment of a prominent member of the Jewish community in Lithuania has thrown the spotlight on a property conflict that has been tearing the community apart since 1993.

Last week, the apartment of the chairman of the Choral Synagogue in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, was burned by what fire officials are calling an act of arson.

Hatzkelis Zakas, 70, and his wife were not injured, but their property suffered $7,500 worth of damage.

A few days before the attack, Zakas, a Holocaust survivor, informed police that he has been repeatedly threatened over the phone. One night caller advised him to “buy a coffin,” Zakas said in an interview.

Zakas charged the Kaunas Jewish community with responsibility for the attack, a charge denied by the chairman of the 500-member Jewish community, Simonas Davidavicius.

The story began in 1992, when local authorities returned two buildings to the Kaunas Jewish community, angering a small group of elderly Jews, mostly Holocaust survivo???, who run the Choral Synagogue and see themselves as successors to the prewar Jewish community.

The Choral Synagogue was Kaunas’ one functioning synagogue during the Soviet years.

The group of elderly Jews eventually filed suit against the city Jewish community, but a Kaunas court has yet to make a decision on the property dispute.

The community has been renting out the recently recovered synagogues and is using the income to fund activities for the city’s Jews.

Kaunas, previously known as Kovno, was one of the major Jewish centers in Eastern Europe before its destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Most of the city’s prewar Jewish population of 40,000 was killed in the Holocaust.

The small organized Jewish community was re-established shortly before the Baltic nation gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Lithuania’s Jewish community has been one of the most successful in all of the former Soviet Union in reclaiming Jewish communal property.

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