Lithuania offers too little, too late for seized Jewish property, says Jewish group

26th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Lithuania aims to start paying compensation for Jewish communal property seized during World War II in 2012, a year later than planned.

Vilnius -- Lithuania's compensation plan for Jewish property seized by Nazi Germany in World War II and kept by the Soviet regime is too little, too late, a senior American Jewish leader said Thursday.

"What has been proposed we think is far too little and also far too late," Rabbi Andrew Baker, head of international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said after talks with Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius.

"It's not only far too late if it would be implemented tomorrow, but even if the law is written, nothing would be implemented for another three years," Baker told reporters.

Under draft rules yet to be put to parliament, Lithuania aims to start paying compensation for Jewish communal property in 2012, a year later than planned.

The debate has endured since Lithuania broke from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1990. On Wednesday, 25 US lawmakers urged it to settle the issue this year.

In March, Lithuania pledged to pay 113 million litas (33 million euros, 46 million dollars) -- then around one third of the value of expropriated property -- from a special government fund from 2011 to 2021.

But Lithuania is struggling to keep its finances afloat as the economy shrinks by an expected 18 percent this year. Kubilius said he hoped legislation could be passed this autumn but that the crisis could not be ignored.

"Talking about the sum -- it can be discussed, but we should keep in mind that the price of the property has strongly fallen because of the crisis," he said.

"We say clearly that the compensation should be paid when Lithuania recovers from the economic and financial crisis," he added.

The government has vowed to return some buildings in kind, after Lithuanian Jewish groups criticised the cash-only offer.

"The process has been far longer, far more difficult, far more frustrating than this issue has been in virtually every other country," Baker complained.

He said compensation must "support Jewish life here in Lithuania" -- where Jewish groups rely heavily on outside funding -- and aid Holocaust survivors in Lithuania, Israel and elsewhere.

"Holocaust victims are themselves elderly so the likelihood that they benefit from this (compensation) becomes even smaller," he said.

Until World War II, Lithuania was home to 220,000 Jews. Vilnius was a cultural hub known as the "Jerusalem of the North."

Ninety-five percent perished during the 1941-1944 German occupation, at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators.

Jewish community buildings seized by the Nazis remained in state hands during almost five decades of post-war Soviet rule.

Currently around 5,000 Jews live in Lithuania, which joined the European Union in 2004.

Synagogues were returned to the community several years ago, but there was no blanket deal for dozens of other buildings, including former schools.


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