US officials: Lithuania must step up Jewish property accord

5th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

Under draft rules yet to be put to parliament, Lithuania aims to begin paying compensation for Jewish communal property in 2012 -- it had planned to start in 2011, but last month said it would push back the date.

Vilnius -- Visiting US lawmakers pressed Lithuania last week over a long-delayed compensation plan for Jewish property seized by Nazi Germany in World War II and later kept by the Soviet regime.

"I understand that economic times are difficult, but property must be returned to its rightful owners," Senator Benjamin Cardin said in a statement after meeting with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus.

"Given the human slaughter that took place here, this is a clear matter of justice and morality" and "timely and fair settlement" was essential, Cardin added.

"It is urgent to begin disbursements while Holocaust survivors are still alive," he said.

Under draft rules yet to be put to parliament, Lithuania aims to begin paying compensation for Jewish communal property in 2012 -- it had planned to start in 2011, but last month said it would push back the date.

The debate has been running since Lithuania broke from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1990.

"It would be a shame for the country to become known as the last hold-out nation to provide compensation to its decimated Jewish community," said Congressman Alcee Hastings.

The two lawmakers were in Vilnius with the US delegation for a session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

In March, Lithuania pledged to pay 113 million litas (33 million euros, 46 million dollars) -- around a third of the value of expropriated property -- from a special government fund up to 2022.

Lithuania is struggling to keep its finances afloat, with the economy expected to shrink by 18 percent this year.

The government has said it hopes legislation can be passed this autumn but says the crisis cannot be ignored.

Lithuanian Jewish community leader Simonas Alperavicius last week said that while he was prepared to accept a delay, the sum was insufficient. Cardin called for a deal respecting "true property valuations".

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

But 95 percent of them perished during the 1941-1944 German occupation, at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators.

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

Today, some 5,000 Jews live in Lithuania. Synagogues were returned to the community several years ago, but there was no blanket deal for dozens of other buildings, including former schools.

AFP/Expatica

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