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Lithuanian Jews want closer ties with SA Jews

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MOIRA SCHNEIDER

“I hope that we will have the chance to speak to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies about the need for co-operation between our two communities in a structured manner given the many natural links that exist,” he said.

“We have not had this to date and I think it’s long overdue – there is so much we can do in relation to heritage preservation, information for people to trace their roots and building Jewish life here.

“Litvaks who left for South Africa, carried the Litvak tradition with them that after the war, was not replenished.”

Jewish life in Lithuania today consists of the maintenance of Jewish traditions – keeping up with religious life, supporting the seniors and offering club activities for the children and youth.

“It’s a lot about loss, the community that perished, preservation of mass grave sites and Jewish cemeteries. Sometimes in this work, you feel that you are dealing with the past rather than the future and life,” he says.

“We want to change that – to bring more life to the community, more activities that attract members who don’t feel that the community is something that they want to be part of.”

Lithuanians who were there pre-war either perished during the Second World War or immigrated – 70 per cent of South Africa’s Jewish community traces its origins to that country. The Jews who are there now, are descendants of those who arrived in transit from other parts of the former Soviet Union, and stayed.

As for anti-Semitism, he says there are incidents of “serious concern” which the community follows closely and reacts to. But there is no mainstream political party in parliament that holds a blatantly anti-Semitic position.

“On the contrary, the political establishment has shown a lot of interest in promoting ties with Israel and acknowledges that the country’s Jewish heritage is something that it should be more sensitive to and through which it should be promoting the country’s image.

“This has opened many doors in the United States, Israel and South Africa, where Litvaks still recognise themselves as part of the country their ancestors once called home. They want to find themselves and their roots in that country.

“In my view, we’re experiencing a certain renaissance of interest in Jewish culture, life and traditions on the part of non-Jewish Lithuanians and we’re happy that the Lithuanian Jewish community can contribute to that.”

In pre-war times, almost 40 per cent of the country’s population was Jewish. “This is an incredible part of the society that has disappeared and the story needs to be told,” he adds.

The community has made “great strides” in its relationship with government over the years and the restitution of Jewish religious properties has been finalised. The government is fulfilling its annual commitment to contributing to a goodwill foundation that operates with “substantial resources” to support projects that promote heritage, culture and community life, of which the Jewish community is the main beneficiary.

“In the post-Soviet era, we have quite a privileged position in relation to the government,” he states.

It is “very easy” to be a Jew in Latvia, says the executive director of that community Gita Umanovska. “You can wear what you want – a Magen David, kippot…”

Numbering some 10 000 to 15 000, she says it is possibly the largest Jewish community in northern Europe.

A crisp “No” is her answer to whether there is anti-Semitism in the country. “But of course, we have people who don’t like Jews or write bad things about them. There are, there was and there will be – you can do what you want.

“Maybe once in five years, some teenage idiots will draw swastikas at the Jewish cemetery.” What is relevant is the swift reaction of the official structures to these incidents.

“We are absolutely satisfied,” she says. “The people who have done it, are always caught.”

Needless to say, the community enjoys very good relations with the powers that be, exemplified by the fact that after the fall of the Soviet Union, parliament decreed July 4 Holocaust Remembrance Day, the annual commemoration of which is attended by the top echelons of government as it is in Lithuania.

Half the community are descendants of survivors of the war, the other half came to the country from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine after the war, not only because of better development, but there was less anti-Semitism there than in other parts of the Soviet Union. “In Ukraine it was very problematic for a Jew to study in university, in Latvia not,” she states.

During Soviet times, the one remaining synagogue in Riga, the capital, was even allowed to function. Matzot were made there and distributed to the Baltic States and others. Today most of the community is based in that city.

Two years ago, the Norwegian and Latvian governments restored one of the oldest wooden synagogues in a small city, Rēzekne (previously Rejitsa), where 50 Jews reside. But it is not so simple to just take up where they left off all those years ago.

“They don’t remember, they don’t know the language – we brought talleisim and everything. They had only one Torah scroll which they put upside down in the Aron Kodesh.

“The Latvian people, who have never seen this, come every Shabbat to see how the Jews pray. The Jews are learning now and praying every Shabbat because the Latvian people are expecting it!”

Another synagogue was restored in Ludzin (now Ludza), where there are 12 Jews, last year. 

Before the war, Latvia’s Jewish population numbered 93 000; 73 000 were killed by the Nazis and local collaborators. Of the country’s 200 synagogues, a mere 17 remained.

Latvia today boasts two Jewish schools, three Jewish kindergartens, a Jewish museum and a kosher cafeteria. “Maybe 200 keep to the rules (observant),” she says.

“But of course, for the High Holidays, the synagogues are full.”

The three Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, organise youth camps and Limmud conferences together. These events have resulted in several inter-state marriages.

The only problem, she says, is that there hasn’t been restitution of most of the communal property – synagogues, clubs and schools built with Jewish money before the war. The authorities’ argument is that the local Jewish property owners were killed, so how does one establish ownership?

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Teddy Kellen

    Nov 26, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    ‘Although I now live in the U.S.A. I am very proud of my Litvack heritage’

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