Lithuania’s sole functioning synagogue and its Jewish Community Center in Vilna has closed its doors indefinitely in response to a campaign of threats and harassment aimed at the Jewish community by nationalists in the country.
Tensions are rising in Lithuania along with a debate over a decision last week by the city of Vilnius (Vilna) to rename a street that was named originally after Hitler ally Kazys Skirpa, a national diplomat during World War II. The city also decided to remove a memorial plaque at the entrance to the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences honoring Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika as well.
Jewish activists greeted the moves with praise for the municipality that appeared to be moving away from an anti-Semitic past; both national heroes were known for their courage in fighting the Soviets after World War II, but had carried out anti-Jewish measures.
Outraged Lithuanians called for nationwide protests in response to the moves, and some Jewish community members received death threats via letters and phone calls.
“The continual, escalating publicly-expressed desire by one political party for recognizing perpetrators of the mass murder of the Jews of Lithuania as national heroes and the demand these people be honored with commemorative plaques and by other means, as well as the public call to attend protests to defend this shameful position on August 7 not only divide Lithuanian society, but actively set factions against one another,” wrote Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community in a public statement.
“Anti-Semitic comments and inscriptions which are posted to social media pages of political parties and their leaders are being tolerated and go unpunished (even calling the Christian Mary “Jew-girl”), which makes us wonder even more whether we are safe or not.
“In this atmosphere of rising tension and incitement to more tension, neither the LJC nor the synagogue in Vilnius have the means to insure the safety of visitors, including Holocaust survivors and their families,” the statement continued, with Jewish leaders pointing out that city leaders have not responded to the rising tensions, nor to the threats being leveled at Jews.
“We underline the fact that up to the present time we have not seen any reaction by any institution to the escalating discord. We would like to hear the opinion of the leaders of Lithuania and to hear a firm position on whether public propaganda in favor of honoring Holocaust perpetrators will continue to be tolerated in Lithuania.
“In order to insure the safety of members of the community and worshipers and without any indication that the proponents of this escalating provocation will be called to disciple or account publicly, in cases where the law provides for this, the LJC has been forced to make the painful but unavoidable decision to close the LJC building and the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius for an indeterminate period,” the statement read.
“We are also requesting additional security be provided at the Jewish cemetery on Sudervė road in Vilnius to prevent vandalism. The LJC will adopt future decisions based on the general atmosphere and the positions adopted and expressed by Lithuanian political leaders regarding these issues.”
The Choral Synagogue of Vilnius was built in 1903 and to this point has been the only active synagogue remaining in this majestic city that once boasted more than one hundred such synagogues.
Almost none of those houses of prayer survived World War II and its aftermath. After the Holocaust Lithuania’s Choral Synagogue of Vilnius was converted into a metalworkers’ shop, from which it sustained structural damage due to the vibrations from machines used in production.
In 2008 the World Monuments Fund became involved in a two-year project to refurbish, repair and restore the synagogue which the Vilnius Jewish community at the time said it planned to “restore … to its original function as a prayer hall and also use it as a yeshiva.”