A Lithuanian devoted to Jewish heritage in his homeland

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Although Lithuanian Antanas Zabulis is not Jewish, he is chair of the board of Litvakworld, a non-governmental organisation that preserves and commemorates Jewish history in Lithuania. Zabulis devotes much of his time and energy to this worthy cause.
by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | Apr 12, 2018

“It is so unusual in Lithuania to care about Jewish heritage, especially if you are not Jewish,” he says. “Many people suspect I have some hidden motive.”

Despite this, he considers the fact that he is not a member of “the tribe” irrelevant, saying he has a far broader vision – one that’s inspired by a time “when all nations were living in peace and prosperity”.

Zabulis, 55, is referring to a timespan of 600 years, which ended in the 1930s with the events leading up to World War II. During the 600-year period, he says, Lithuania was a force in European politics, and religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence were hallmarks of the country.

As part of his efforts to portray the country’s rich Jewish heritage, it is this atmosphere that he is attempting to recreate.

“I believe we Lithuanians need to commemorate the Lithuanian Jewish heritage even more than the Jews, in order to break the false master narrative that prevails,” he says.

A graduate of Vilnius University’s faculty of physics, Zabulis has worked as a management consultant, attracting foreign investment to Lithuania and the Baltic States. He has also served as CEO of Omnitel, which became the largest mobile operator in Lithuania, and currently serves on the boards of Invest Lithuania and the Baltic Management Institute.

Zabulis has also been an adviser to three of the country’s prime ministers.

A major project being undertaken by Litvakworld – a joint venture between Jews and Lithuanians – is the restoration of the site on which the Great Synagogue of Vilna once stood. This is being done “as a tribute to one of the greatest Jewish communities in history”, says Zabulis.

The capital city of Lithuania, Vilna (now Vilnius) was one of the largest Jewish centres in Europe and was known for generations as “the Jerusalem of the North”.

“For many years I have been involved in several charity projects that focus on creating a more cultural Lithuania,” says Zabulis. “This project is a very special one as it also has huge educational value for our society.

“We can’t consider ourselves a truly cultural society if we deal only with our ethnic Lithuanian heritage, pretending that there was no diversity in our country in the past. We need to understand the benefits that diversity brings. For many reasons, after the Holocaust and during Soviet times, the Jewish history in Lithuania was a taboo topic. Centuries of the vibrant and rich Jewish culture that thrived in Lithuania were simply ignored.

“All traces of it were wiped away, and the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna is a symbolic example of that. This was the heart of Jewish life here, and commemorating it is our priority.

“I love my country. My plans for the future are here, in Lithuania. This project that I am working on is aimed at creating a humanistic learning centre based on the history of the site. I believe that it will teach my compatriots and others to recognise the dignity of every human being. We have not done so since World War II and the totalitarian state that followed.”

So, what do his compatriots feel about his activities in this regard? “The traditions of charity are very young in modern Lithuania,” he says. “But more and more people are joining in our activities and it serves as a wonderful example for others.”

Work on the structure that was to become The Great Synagogue began in 1633. By 1876, 47% of the city’s residents listed their first language as Yiddish, and the Jewish population was at its highest, at 55 000, by 1931.

Vilna was the centre of the Yeshiva movement and a major centre of Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment. Its Roma printing house was the largest and most important Jewish publisher in the world.

The Great Synagogue became the main spiritual centre among more than 130 other synagogues and prayer houses. The Soviets partly destroyed it in World War II and proceeded to completely demolish it in the 1950s, setting up a kindergarten on the site.

As part of his Litvakworld activities, Zabulis wants to hear from Litvaks around the world about how the site – which forms an integral part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site making up the Historic Centre of Vilnius should be commemorated.

“To this end, we arranged a big international conference in September last year which included key Lithuanian politicians and guests from the US, Austria and Germany.”

Construction of the centre will start in 2021 and it is scheduled to open in 2023, to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the establishment of Vilnius.

Zabulis has just returned from the US and says the project was well received by key players in New York, such as the American Jewish Committee and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

He is also gratified to have the “full support” of the Vilnius municipality and the Lithuanian government.

A letter from the mayor of Vilnius to the Lithuanian Jewish community and others reflects Zabulis’ enthusiasm for the project. “I would like to rejoice about our co-operation in 2017, when we managed to remind our society in a sound and dignified manner about the important object of the city’s history and culture – the Great Synagogue of Vilnius.

“I believe that through sincere co-operation we will implement this project and turn a significant new page in the history of the multicultural, tolerant and interesting city of Vilnius.”

At the 2017 conference, it was decided that the commemoration structure should take the form of a learning centre as this would represent a place that would attract people to return on a regular basis. “Our aim is that it should not just be a site to see, but a site to experience and learn and feel the values that existed throughout the centuries in Lithuania,” Zabulis says.

Zabulis plans on visiting South Africa to promote the undertaking. “I can’t imagine working on this project without sharing this information with the Litvaks in South Africa,” he says of our community, made up as it is largely of Lithuanian ancestry.


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