Lithuanian synagogue reopens after government vows to guarantee security

Lithuanian synagogue reopens after government vows to guarantee security

Local Jewish community leader praises Lithuania’s president, PM for promising to protect house of worship after spate of threats

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

The Lithuanian Jewish community reopened the Vilnius synagogue on Thursday, after top politicians vowed to guarantee security there in response to a spate of threats that led to its closure earlier this week.

The tensions come amid a highly charged public debate over commemorations to wartime officials who the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) says were either involved in the Holocaust or openly anti-Semitic.

Vilnius authorities recently removed a plaque to one of the men and renamed a street named after another — sparking a backlash that the LJC claims has been stoked by some politicians, who have called for protests.

Jewish community leader Faina Kukliansky praised Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis on Thursday for their security assurances and messages of support.

Lithuania Jewish community president Faina Kukliansky. (Screen capture/YouTube)

“We do not see the threat at this moment and we trust the state leaders who offered security assurances,” she told AFP, confirming that both the synagogue and the Jewish community headquarters had been reopened.

Two days earlier she announced their indefinite closure after receiving “threatening telephone calls and letters.”

The move angered other Jewish organizations in Lithuania who insisted that they felt safe and had not been consulted about the closures.

Nauseda on Wednesday vowed tolerance for all Lithuanian citizens regardless of ethnicity, while Skvernelis pledged to combat hatred.

Before World War II, Lithuania’s 60,000-strong Jewish community accounted for around one-third of Vilnius residents, but most of them perished under Nazi Germany’s 1941-1944 occupation.

Lithuania’s Jewish community now numbers around 3,000 people out of a total population of 2.8 million, and anti-Semitic attacks are very rare.

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.

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

Vilnius officials removed a controversial memorial plaque to Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika on July 27 from the library building in the city center.

The move was ordered by Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius, who said it was done because of Noreika’s approval of the Nazi administration’s decision to establish a Jewish ghetto and seize their property.

It came after the Vilnius City Council on July 24 decided to rename a small street in the city center named after Kazys Skirpa, a 20th-century Lithuanian diplomat and Hitler ally, due to his declared anti-Semitic views.

The decisions were hailed by the Jewish community.

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.

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