After years of delays Lithuania officially passed a law on Wednesday that will give the local Jewish community $52 million in return for communal property lost or confiscated during and after World War II.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said the ratification of the bill approved in principle last summer acknowledged the suffering of the country’s Jewish community decimated during the Holocaust.
“These decisions are needed for all of us, needed for historic justice, and by doing this we have made a huge step forward to assuming our moral responsibility for history, sometimes difficult and tragic history,” Kubilius was quoted as saying.
The vast majority of the country’s estimated 220,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators during World War II.
Kubilius said the money will go towards supporting community centers, schools and other projects catering to the country’s remaining 4,000 Jews.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who was deeply involved in negotiations with the Lithuanian government, said he “wholeheartedly commended” the government for reaching its decision even though it was not the deal he initially hoped for.
“There’s a good side and a bad side,” he said. “The law we wanted would have resulted in a more substantial value being restituted or paid but it would have been a longer process.”
Baker said the first of the payments spread over 10 years will be used in part to compensate Holocaust survivors in the country.
But Efraim Zuroff, Israeli director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was deeply critical of the deal, and accused the government of intentionally ignoring the issue for years and paying nine times less than the worth of Jewish assets lost.
“This is a very bad deal but at least it’s something,” he said. “Unfortunately, the passage of the law was delayed for years during which most of the survivors passed away.”
Zuroff excoriated Baker personally for his part in reaching the agreement, saying the AJC official had been too accommodating towards the Lithuanians.
Baker responded to Zuroff’s accusations saying the agreement was the best that could be brokered at this time given the complexity of evaluating and returning Jewish property.
“This was not ideal,” he said, “but it’s easy to stand on the outside and criticize and Mr. Zuroff has done that [for] many years.”
The $52 million in compensation is in return for destroyed community assets like synagogues, schools and cemeteries. Private Jewish property, however, remains unaddressed, Baker said.
“Those Jews living in Lithuania received something,” he said. “Some claims of those living abroad have not been addressed.”
He said destroyed or appropriated private property was a more thorny issue and that most countries in Eastern Europe have still not fully solved it.