In one of the most important forms of Holocaust restitution, the Lithuanian government has turned over more than 300 Torah scrolls to world Jewry at a ceremony in Vilnius.
The sacred texts, from prewar Lithuanian synagogues, were accepted Wednesday by an Israeli delegation headed by Israel’s deputy foreign minster, Rabbi Michael Melchior, and one of Israel’s chief rabbis, Yisrael Meir Lau.
After the events, international Jewish leaders thanked Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas before returning to Israel with the scrolls, which are valued at $4 million.
“A Torah is not for a museum,” Melchior said. “It is for new life.”
Referring to the devastation of Lithuanian Jewry in the Holocaust, Melchior said: “They killed the rabbis and students but they could not kill the spirituality of the Jewish people, and it is back today in our eternal capital of Jerusalem. We are grateful to bring these books from Jerusalem of Lithuania to the holy city of Jerusalem, and we thank you deeply.”
The Torahs are among the last remains of a prewar Jewish community so strong it was dubbed Jerusalem of the North, or Jerusalem of Lithuania. Jewish life here essentially ended when the Nazis and their local collaborators murdered 94 percent of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust.
Israeli experts will examine the scrolls to see how many remain complete. It is believed that the collection consists of 31 complete scrolls and hundreds of fragments.
None, however, is kosher after six decades of abandonment under Nazi and then Soviet rule.
A seven-member committee — chaired by Melchior and representing various international Jewish organizations — will distribute the scrolls to synagogues, schools and organizations throughout the world, based on applications.
The transfer ceremony in Vilnius comes after a six-year delay born of Lithuanian bureaucracy and Jewish infighting. Lithuania’s decision to give up the Torahs was first reported in JTA last week.
Lithuania initially hoped to retain all the scrolls as part of its national heritage. When it did decide to let go of the scrolls, however, various Jewish groups struggled for ownership, paralyzing the Lithuanian government.
Rabbi Sholom Krinsky, Lithuania’s sole resident rabbi, first saw the scrolls in 1996, when the director of the national library falsely told him that Lithuanian Jews had a tradition of writing Torahs and donating them to the library before the war.
“He knew it wasn’t true, and today is a great day,” Krinsky said. “The Lithuanian government needed time to be educated.”
Despite the agreement, some controversy still persists. Lithuania decided to retain 13 complete scrolls as an “important part of Lithuania’s cultural heritage,” Brazauskas said.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, hopes those 13 will be made available for Lithuanian Jews’ religious use, rather than being put in libraries or museums.
“We are critical of the fact that some stayed behind,” Baker said. “But for 50 years no one could use any of these, and now they will be put to use.”
Baker also hopes the agreement will spur the Lithuanian government to restitute communal property, an issue it has neglected since the country gained independence a decade ago.
Wednesday also was an emotional day for the family of the late Antanas Ulpis, a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian who rescued most of the Torahs between 1945 and 1948.
The Jewish Heritage Fund in Lithuania unveiled a plaque today in Ulpis’ honor in the newly restored Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.
Underground Jewish movements saved the Torahs during the Nazi occupation. When the Soviets took control in 1945 and sought to burn religious objects, few Jews remained to protect their heritage.
Morta Ulpiene, Ulpis’ widow, told the story.
“In 1945 the Soviet army took books to the Vilnius outskirts. It was an unimaginably huge pile,” she said. “They tried to burn them but it was raining, and this natural element helped fight the fire. It was just smoke. Antanas took a truck and started to gather what he could. He took them back to a church because the Lithuanian Bishop gave him the key and said, ‘Put it here.’ Nobody else took an interest in books. They were only talking about disappearing persons.”
Melchior also lauded Ulpis and his colleagues.
“We are singing a song of praise for those brave Lithuanians,” he said. “Without the priest, without Ulpis, there would be nothing to bring back.”
Ulpis’ son Dainus, now 38, says his father showed him stacks of Torahs in the church annex. He recalled “Torah handles protruding from the shelves.”
“These books were thrown out of libraries” and synagogues “all over the country. People were afraid to keep them, and he was taking everything he could find,” Dainus Ulpis said. “He knew what was what, and he knew how to keep them. And there weren’t many people helping him, because this was dangerous.”
During the 1970s, when the Communist government fired many Lithuanian Jews from their jobs, according to Dainus Ulpis, his father was quick to hire Jewish friends at the Book Palace, the library he directed. The Book Palace later became part of the National Library.
“They worked with the Jewish literature, and put the collection in order,” Dainus Ulpis said. “Otherwise it would be unmarked piles.”
In fact, his father was so consumed with books that young Dainus earned an allowance by making bibliography cards for the family’s personal library.
“He was a passionate bearer of culture,” Ulpis’ widow said. “He even learned to read Yiddish. But he never imagined that this — among international ambassadors — would happen.”
Indeed, until today, few people could have imagined it.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.