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Overview

Lithuania was a significant center of Jewish cultural, economic, and intellectual life before World War II (WWII).  According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the pre-war Jewish population was approximately 160,000, or seven percent of the total population.  Vilnius, which boasted 106 synagogues and a population that was 40 percent Jewish, was known by some as the “Jerusalem of the North.”  Following the start of WWII in 1939 and the Soviet occupation and annexation of the country in 1940, Lithuania’s Jewish population swelled to approximately 250,000 persons due to the influx of refugees coming from German-occupied Poland.  In June and July 1941, Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania.  Once in control of the country, the Nazis and collaborators began the mass murder of the Jewish population, killing 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jews by the time Soviet troops reoccupied Lithuania in summer 1944.

Lithuania’s Jewish population as of mid-2019 was less than 4,000 and included many who came to Lithuania from other parts of the former Soviet Union.

In 2011, Lithuania passed important legislation for communal property restitution.  The legislation provided for a one-time direct payment to Lithuanian Holocaust survivors and allocated €36 million spread out over 10 years to establish the Good Will Foundation, which funds projects to benefit the country’s Jewish population.  Currently, no mechanism exists to provide private property restitution for persons who were only able to prove or reclaim Lithuanian citizenship after 2001 or who have not regained their citizenship.  Lithuania has no law for the restitution of Holocaust-era heirless property.

The Lithuanian parliament has dedicated the year 2020 to a commemoration of the legacy of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (a prominent 18th century rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon) and the history of Lithuanian Jews.  In its announcement, the parliament commended the significant contributions of Lithuanian Jews to the development of Lithuania’s statehood, history, culture, and scientific discoveries.  The government is collaborating with the Jewish Community of Lithuania and cultural institutions to design a year-long schedule of commemorative events, public lectures, and exhibitions to highlight the contributions of Lithuanian Jews and raise public awareness of Lithuania’s role in the Holocaust.

Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property

Lithuania’s private property restitution laws provided a mechanism through which individuals who were citizens as of December 31, 2001, could submit a claim for private property restitution or compensation.  Those who were only able to prove or reclaim Lithuanian citizenship after 2001 were not eligible to submit a claim.  Currently, no mechanism exists to provide restitution for these persons or those who have not regained their citizenship.  In May 2015, the Lithuanian government established a joint commission to evaluate, among other things, how citizenship adversely affected private property claims.  The Ministry of Justice produced a report looking at models from other countries, but the government later abolished the commission.  The current government is holding discussions with members of parliament and Jewish groups to find a resolution.

In 2011, Lithuania passed legislation for communal property restitution, known as the Law on Good Will Compensation for the Real Estate of Jewish Communities (Good Will Compensation Law).  This legislation was passed after 10 years of negotiations with the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and national Jewish Community of Lithuania during a period of extreme austerity measures.  The law established the Good Will Foundation and provided compensation for two purposes:  (1) to fund religious, cultural, health care, sports, educational, and scientific goals pursued by Lithuanian Jews in Lithuania; and (2) to provide a one-time payment of €870,000 (approximately $1.2 million in 2011) to be divided among approximately 1,550 Lithuanian Holocaust survivors.  The law allocated €36 million to the Good Will Foundation over a 10-year period to carry out the first goal.  The amount was based on the estimated value of the nationalized or confiscated communal property the government deemed eligible for restitution.  There were approximately 1,500 communal properties before WWII, but most were destroyed during the war and therefore not eligible for restitution or compensation.  The Jewish community submitted a list of 438 buildings for inclusion in a communal property list, but the government accepted only 152.  The Good Will Compensation Law prohibits any future claims from the Jewish community for communal property.

Every year, the Good Will Foundation receives around €3.6 million (approximately $3.9 million using an average 2019 euro to dollar exchange rate) from the Lithuanian government for the implementation of the goals identified in the law.  The Foundation (with joint membership of the WJRO and the Lithuanian Jewish Community) operates as a charitable organization.  Because it is subject to government procurement rules and oversight, it lacks the ability to independently manage its funds.  Jewish community representatives explained that, for example, although the Foundation has the legal right to purchase the state-owned Jewish Community center building in Vilnius, the law does not permit the Foundation to use its funds to carry out the necessary renovations.  Jewish community groups advocate for additional legislation to allow the Good Will Foundation to function more independently.

In 2014, Lithuania dedicated €2.6 million (approximately $3.458 million at the time) of European Union Structural Funds to renovate synagogues in the country through the year 2020.  There are 48 registered synagogues in Lithuania; the Jewish Community of Lithuania manages 14 of them, and municipalities throughout the country are responsible for preserving and renovating the remaining 34.  Lithuania has also used European Economic Area funding to support Jewish heritage restoration projects, and in 2019, Lithuania allocated €620,500 (approximately $683,000) from the government budget for the renovation of Jewish cultural and religious buildings and sites.  There are several examples of renovated synagogues throughout the country, including in the regions of Kedainiai, Pakruojis, Ziezmariai, and Joniskis.

The Great Synagogue of Vilna, the oldest synagogue in Lithuania, was damaged in WWII and subsequently leveled.  In 2015, historians, architects, and scholars from Lithuania, the United States, and Israel commenced a joint excavation project that identified 3,451 archeological artifacts and located the foundations of the bimah, or focal point of the sanctuary, as well as two ritual baths.  There have been ongoing discussions regarding what to do with the site.  An international group of experts advised against rebuilding the synagogue, instead recommending conservation and exhibition of the foundations and other elements of the structure that still exist; the Ministry of Culture is gathering views from stakeholders.  The Lithuanian government and Jewish heritage preservation groups in Europe have designated the few remaining wooden synagogues as cultural heritage sites.

In regard to protecting Jewish cemeteries, the government approved plans in 2019 to establish a permanent exhibition devoted to the history of the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.  In the 1970s, the Soviets constructed a sports palace above part of the cemetery, and in 2014, the Lithuanian government announced plans to turn it into a convention center.  The government stated that it would undertake the project in accordance with an August 2009 agreement between the Jewish Community of Lithuania, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Lithuanian Department of Cultural Heritage to protect the cemetery and its buffer zone, as well as related areas.  Construction of the convention center, including a permanent exhibition devoted to the history of the cemetery, is scheduled to begin in 2020.  In the interim, the Vilnius municipality has installed vehicle barriers and 10 information plaques around the sports palace in three languages (Lithuanian, English, and Hebrew) that read, “The Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius.”

Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art

The Central Archives of Lithuania, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, the Judaica Center at the Martynas Mazvydas National Library, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research are the institutional bodies in Lithuania responsible for preserving confiscated and looted art.  Lithuania has no legislation addressing the restitution of looted art.  As of January 2019, none of the known Lithuanian Holocaust survivors or their relatives had made claims for the return of looted art.

Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property

Lithuania has 35 museums, including eight national and 24 local museums responsible for preserving and researching Jewish heritage.

The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum is a consortium of museums in Lithuania dedicated to preserving, displaying, and informing the public about Lithuanian Jewish art, culture, and history.  In 2017, the museum opened an exhibition to commemorate the life and contributions of painter and Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak.  The Museum is establishing an international fundraising committee to renovate the former Vilna Ghetto library and transform it into a new Holocaust and Vilna Ghetto Memorial Museum that will replace the existing Holocaust Museum known as the Green House.

In 2021, the Lithuanian government intends to renovate a building in the former Jewish ghetto in Vilnius to create a separate Jewish Culture and Identity Museum.  The government plans to allocate approximately €5 million (estimated at $5.5 million in 2019) of EU Structural Funds to finance the renovation.  This new museum will become a branch of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum consortium.

Access to Archival Documents

Lithuania’s archival institutions, which cooperate with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, have begun digitizing all archival records.  The Lithuanian Central State Archives preserve the records of states, local governments, religious communities, organizations, other non-state institutions, and individuals, all of which are relevant to obtaining proof of property ownership.  The types of records the Archives maintain include civic registration records and birth, marriage, and death certificates.  The Archives will provide proof of Lithuanian citizenship for any individual born prior to June 15, 1940.  Interested parties can apply for a record by completing an online form.

In 1994, the Central State Archives, the Lithuanian Martynas Mažvydas National Library, and the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences signed a cooperation agreement with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to begin the “Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections” project.  The project aims to catalogue, preserve, and digitize Lithuanian Jewish records and books in New York and Vilnius.  YIVO was founded in Vilnius but relocated to New York City after WWII; its collections are divided between Vilnius and New York.  This project will unite the collections virtually, thus resolving contentious fights over who owns them and where they should be kept.  In 2017, the Martynas Mažvydas National Library opened the Judaica Research Center, to which the YIVO Institute contributed approximately 170,000 pages of previously unknown documents.  In 2018, the YIVO Institute also digitized more than 2.6 million pages of books and archival documents and more than 950,000 images.

Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites

In 2002, Lithuania became a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.  International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated on January 27.  Every year, the presidentially appointed International Commission for the Evaluation of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania (the Commission) organizes 10 to 12 conferences for students to present projects about the Holocaust and the role of Lithuanian Jews in their local communities.  The Commission stresses the importance of students learning local history, as well as providing the students with an opportunity to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland or Yad Vashem in Israel.  Although still a sensitive issue, the Lithuanian government has begun to openly discuss the roles of both Nazi collaborators and Lithuanians who saved Jews during WWII.

Since 2002, the Commission has implemented a teacher training program entitled, “Teaching the Holocaust, Prevention of Crimes against Humanity, and Tolerance Education.”  The program helps teachers incorporate the Commission’s research into their curriculum, design programs to discredit stereotypes about Jews, promote tolerance and mutual understanding between Lithuanians and Jews and other minorities, and increase contact between schools, teachers, and students from Lithuania and other countries.  The Commission has also established a network of 152 tolerance centers, which are small research libraries in classrooms to provide teachers and students with peer-reviewed resources about the Holocaust and lesson plans for monthly activities.  Much of the work of the Commission was performed by international scholars from outside of Lithuania, including from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The Commission is also engaged in Holocaust research, aiming to fill gaps in Lithuania’s modern history, publicize new research, and inform citizens about Lithuania’s role in the Holocaust and the impact of the Holocaust in Lithuania and abroad.

There are several memorial sites in the country.  The Paneriai Memorial is located outside of Vilnius at the site where the Nazis and local collaborators murdered 70,000 Jews during WWII.  Every year on September 23, government leaders, diplomats, and local and international Jewish communities visit the Memorial to recognize Lithuania’s Holocaust Memorial Day, which marks the anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto.  From 2015 to 2017, researchers conducted a three-part excavation of the Memorial, discovering new massacre sites, guard posts, sites of former buildings, and trenches for prisoners.  Researchers also found additional information about Paneriai in Lithuania’s archives, as well as in archives of the United States, Israel, and Germany.  In 2019, the Ministry of Culture agreed to invest €3.4 million (approximately $3.7 million) to implement a multi-year Paneriai Memorial project, which will include additional archaeological studies.

Beginning in early July 1941, German Einsatzgruppe detachments (mobile killing units) and their Lithuanian auxiliaries began systematic massacres of Jews around the Kovno Ghetto (present-day Kaunas, Lithuania), according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Today, the Ninth Fort Museum and Memorial at this location commemorates the victims of the Nazi and Soviet occupations.  The museum features a reconstructed cell, as well as a detailed timeline of the Nazi occupation, including the mass murder of Jews in the Kovno Ghetto.  There is also a memorial to the diplomats who saved more than 2,000 Jewish lives, notably the Japanese Consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara.

Lithuania requires primary and secondary schools to include lessons about the Holocaust in the history curriculum.  Instructors may also incorporate Holocaust topics in their ethics, religion, civic education, and literature classes.  Students are tested on their knowledge of the Holocaust during state exams, including the national history exam.  In addition, the Ministry of Education encourages schools to develop Holocaust-related activities for students, including essay competitions, extracurricular activities, projects that require students to collect information about Holocaust events, and volunteer days to care for local Jewish cemeteries and memorial sites.

As noted above, the Lithuanian parliament dedicated the year 2020 to the legacy of the Vilna Gaon and the history of Lithuanian Jews.  The government is communicating with the Jewish Community of Lithuania and cultural institutions to design a year-long schedule of commemorative events, public lectures, and exhibitions to highlight the contributions of Lithuanian Jews and raise public awareness of Lithuania’s role in the Holocaust.

There are several research centers dedicated to studying the Holocaust in Lithuania, including the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, the Lithuanian History Institute, and the History Department at Vilnius University.

The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution

Programs sponsored by the Jewish Community of Lithuania and funded via the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany provide assistance programs in Lithuania to the country’s Holocaust survivors.

Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report: Lithuania
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