Lithuanian Jews indefinitely shut community center, lone synagogue after threats
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Community calls for extra security at Jewish cemetery

Lithuanian Jews indefinitely shut community center, lone synagogue after threats

Amid escalating controversy over national commemoration policies, Jewish leader demands government speak out, wonders ‘whether we are safe or not’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Lithuanian Jewish men pray, during a morning service in a Synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. (AP/Mindaugas Kulbis)
Lithuanian Jewish men pray, during a morning service in a Synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. (AP/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Citing threats and “incitement,” the Lithuanian Jewish community on Tuesday announced that it was shutting its doors, and that of Vilnius’s only functioning synagogue, for an indefinite period, in what appeared to be an escalating public debate over the way the Baltic state deals with its complicated history.

The Jewish community’s drastic steps came as Lithuanian nationalists fumed over decisions by the Vilnius municipality last week to rename a street that had been named after wartime diplomat and Hitler ally Kazys Skirpa, and to remove a plaque of Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika at the entrance to the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

Both men, who fought the Soviets after World War II, are revered as national heroes but were involved in anti-Jewish measures as well. Jewish historians and activists welcomed the municipality’s move as two steps in the right direction, while Lithuanians nationalists called for nationwide protests.

Jewish community head Faina Kukliansky said in a statement that the synagogue and Jewish center would be shuttered after the community had received threatening phone calls and letters.

Stanislovas Tomas smashes the plaque honoring Jonas Noreika in Vilnius, Lithuania, April 7, 2019 (Screen grab via Facebook)

“In this atmosphere of rising tension and incitement … neither the [Jewish center] nor the synagogue in Vilnius have the means to ensure the safety of visitors, including Holocaust survivors and their families,” she said.

To continue the safety of members and worshipers, the community “has been forced to make the painful but unavoidable decision to close the LJC building and the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius for an indeterminate period,” she said.

She also requested additional security for the capital’s Jewish cemetery lest it be vandalized in light of the current tensions.

Kukliansky said there had been no official reaction to what she described as “escalating discord,” and would make decisions about reopening the synagogue and Jewish center “based on the general atmosphere and the positions adopted and expressed by Lithuanian political leaders regarding these issues.”

“We would like to hear the opinion of the leaders of Lithuania and to hear a firm position on whether public propaganda in favor of honoring Holocaust perpetrators will continue to be tolerated in Lithuania,” she said.

Reached by The Times of Israel, the Choral Synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Sholom Krinsky, declined to comment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Vilnius’s Choral Synagogue on August 26, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

About 3,000 Jews live in Lithuania. Local Jews say they generally feel safe, but some have expressed unease over the government’s memorial policies, including naming streets and erecting monuments for anti-Soviet partisans who are commemorated as national heroes but who also collaborated with the Nazis.

After a yearlong campaign, the Vilnius municipality on July 24 renamed Skirpa Alley “Tricolor Alley,” in honor of the Lithuanian flag. Four days later it removed the place honoring Nazi ally Noreika. These steps were hailed by the Jewish community, but criticized by nationalist forces in the country, chiefly the country’s center-right Homeland Union party.

Accused Nazi collaborator, ‘General Storm’ Jonas Noreika (Courtesy)

“I am ashamed he [the mayor of Vilnius] is unable to separate oppressors and collaborators, who willingly handed freedom of our nation to Communists, from those who, under very complicated conditions, sought to retain our state’s independence and who have always been on the side of our state,” the party’s MP Laurynas Kasčiūnas wrote on Facebook.

Kukliansky in her statement Tuesday denounced the “continual, escalating publicly-expressed desire by one political party for recognizing perpetrators of the mass murder of the Jews of Lithuania as national heroes.”

The government in Vilnius is ignoring anti-Semitic comments made by political leaders, she charged, “which makes us wonder even more whether we are safe or not.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda last week weighed in on the rekindled debate over the way the country remembers anti-Soviet partisans who were also Holocaust perpetrators. In a statement posted on his website, Nauseda argued that local politicians should not be the ones to decide who’s a hero and who’s a villain.

Rather, he invited historians, political scientists and cultural heritage professionals to “come together in discussions that would serve as the basis for the formulation of the principles and regulation of a national commemorative policy.”

He urged the public to honor a “moratorium” on heated historical debates until such principles have been established.

Homeland Union chairman Gabrielius Landsbergis, who opposed the removal of the plaque honoring Noreika, praised Nauseda for his statement.

Meanwhile, the local Jewish community denounced it as a “call for maintaining the status quo for the last 70 years.”

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