Close Israeli-Lithuanian ties should not be held hostage to the dark days of the Holocaust, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told The Jerusalem Post during his two-day visit to the country this week.
“It is important to remember the past and to know what happened, but it is not less important to focus on the future,” he said during a conversation at the capital’s King David Hotel.
Lithuania has been a staunch diplomatic ally for Israel, particularly at the UN and the within the EU.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Linkevicius at the start of their meeting in Jerusalem on Monday, “You are a friend. Israel has had a long-standing connection with Lithuania – personal and national.”
Lithuania was one of six European Union countries that voted against UNESCO’s resolution disavowing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem resolution.
The former Soviet bloc country has been generally opposed to Palestinian unilateral moves in the international arena. It was one of 14 countries that were against UNESCO’s 2011 decision to recognize “Palestine” as a member state of its organization. In 2012 it abstained from the UN General Assembly’s vote to upgrade the Palestinians’ status at the UN to one of a nonmember state.
But it is often chastised within the Jewish world for not doing enough to recognize the role Lithuanians played in collaborating with the Nazis to kill Jews during the Holocaust. Jewish history in Lithuania dates back to the eighth century and the community was numbered at over 210,000 when World War II started.
A number of participants at a breakfast meeting with Linkevicius and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations were blunt in their criticism of Lithuania.
“When you talk about Lithuania, the one thing that comes to mind is the horror our people underwent because of collaborators in your country,” a participant told him, later asking if children in Lithuania were taught about it in history.
“I have two daughters and they have zero tolerance for any discrimination and racism, not only against Jews, but against everyone,” Linkevicius said.
“We condemn the Nazis and the collaborators,” he said, adding their actions “will never be forgotten or forgiven.”
But he said “there is a new generation coming. We should look to the future and we should trust that the new generation will never repeat what happened in that period.”
He later told the Post that he disagreed with those who believe Lithuania has not come to terms with its history during WWII.
“The situation is changing in Lithuania very rapidly,” he said. “The new generation does not share the aggressiveness, xenophobia or nationalism [of the past].
If something happens, we react immediately. I do not think that we are not reacting.
I disagree with those who think otherwise,” Linkevicius said.
He noted that among other measures, his country grants citizenship to the descents of those who left before 1990, allowed for property restitution and has recognized Jewish cultural sites, including the place where Vilna’s Great Synagogue once stood. Its remains are now being excavated.
Linkevius noted that the Jewish Lithuanian Diaspora is a particularly prominent one, particularly in Israel, where leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former presidents Shimon Peres and Chaim Herzog and former prime minister Ehud Barak all have Lithuanian ties.
As part of Lithuania’s efforts to pay homage its strong Jewish past, Linkevicius during this visit gave Netanyahu a miniature statue of a little girl. The original stands in the city of Seduva, in memory of the Jewish community that existed there before the war.
Herzog’s grandparents and Netanyahu’s great-grandmother are buried in Seduva’s Jewish cemetery, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
A veteran diplomat, who has also been his country’s defense minister and its ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Linkevicius was in Israel to bolster the economic and security ties.
The two countries established relations in 1991, but Israel only opened an embassy there in 2015.
Annual bilateral trade between the two countries stands at about €270 million, the majority of it being the security arena which includes cyber and military hardware. Israel exports some dairy products to Lithuanian and is also looking to start importing kosher beef.
Lithuania’s Jewish community today has around 3,500 to 4,500 members.
But Linkevicius said that his country’s believes Jews have had and always will have important status in his country.