Lithuania’s new Holocaust fund sparks a row

Foreign Ministry calls 36-million Euro allocation an ‘important step of historical justice,’ but PMO’s restitution task force says it’s too little, too late

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius visits Yad Vashem in 2010. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius visits Yad Vashem in 2010. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Foreign Ministry has welcomed Lithuania’s recent decision to create a compensation fund for Jewish property confiscated during World War II, but leading Israeli Holocaust restitution officials criticize the effort as being too little, too late. The argument highlights the tensions between the diplomats’ pragmatism and restitution officials’ feelings of justice and entitlement.

Last week, the government in Vilnius announced the establishment of a fund that, over a period of 10 years, will give 36 million Euros to Jewish education, as well as to religious and cultural institutions and projects.

“The decision implements the law approved by the Lithuanian parliament on this issue, and constitutes an important step towards providing historical justice for the Lithuanian Jewish community,” the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem announced.

The Lithuanian government likewise spoke of a “historic decision,” with Prime Minister’s Chancellor Deividas Matulionis saying that it “might become a model of sorts for other states having historical conscience problems.”

But for Bobby Brown, the director of the government-sponsored Project HEART — which stands for Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce — the deal between Vilnius and Lithuania’s Jews is less than satisfying, since only Lithuanian citizens benefit from the fund.

A joint initiative of the Israeli government — under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office — and the Jewish Agency, Project HEART seeks to identify Jewish property lost or stolen before or during World War II, with the goal of obtaining restitution for survivors or their heirs.

“We want a wholesome process where every Jew of Lithuanian heritage who has ancestors who lost property during the Holocaust can file a request that will be examined if found to be valid, that restitution or compensation be granted,” Brown told The Times of Israel. “We are requesting from the Lithuanian government the implementation of a process that allows Holocaust survivors and their heirs everywhere in the world — whether they live in Vilnius, Ramat Gan or Chicago — to be able to make a claim over a reasonable amount of time.”

Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, was also critical of the deal, which the government in Vilnius struck with the local Jewish community, with the help of the director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, Rabbi Andrew Baker.

“There are several problems with this arrangement: first of all, the sum is much too low. Secondly, the discussions about it — until a deal was signed — took too long, so that most Holocaust survivors who could have benefited from it have died in the meantime,” Zuroff said.

Zuroff is one of the most outspoken critics of Jerusalem’s increasingly friendly diplomatic relations with Lithuania, lamenting that the Baltic nation is actively involved in marginalizing the Holocaust and is not tough enough on anti-Semitism.

“The deal is entirely in line with the bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel and the Foreign Ministry’s refusal to hold Lithuania responsible for their systemic campaign of Holocaust marginalization,” Zuroff said.

Tensions between the Foreign Ministry and people involved in Holocaust restitution efforts are not new: Out of political pragmatism, Israel’s diplomats are interested in good relations with Eastern European nations and are thus wary of demands they feel are unrealistic and may turn sour bilateral cooperation. Those demanding reparations reject such considerations as opportunistic and unfair in the face of the injustice done to Jews during the Holocaust.

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