THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Letter from a Lost Shtetl
PRIME MINISTER ALGIRDAS BUTKEVICIUS
By Grant Arthur
Lithuania is changing. Clearly, my Grandfather would be proud to be here.
Nothing stays the same. Lithuania is experiencing a defined period of rediscovering its roots as an open and tolerant society. However, there is still a long way to go.
As I write on this crisp autumn morning, standing in the gentle sunlight, amongst recently restored Jewish tombstones of a lost shtetl in Northern Lithuania called Seduva, I am struck by the societal changes I see evolving.
While Samuel Gochin’s family faced death from starvation in Ukraine, his right to return home after the war, was repeatedly questioned by the then government of the newly independent Lithuania, It took three years for him to establish his right to come home. He returned to a country that while tolerant, viewed Litvaks as an alien intrusion into the nationalist vision of a culturally homogeneous state. However, throughout its long and storied history, Lithuania had never actually known homogeneity. Sadly for him and all Litvak’s, Lithuania of the 1920s had become a place where he no longer felt comfortable. Like thousands of other Litvaks, he left for South Africa. My father and I were born in South Africa. An estimated 90% of South African Jews have Lithuanian heritage, the largest intact Litvak community in the world.
We all know nationalism can be a powerful force for survival and advancement. On this point, Jews and Lithuanians are extremely clear. However, when nationalism becomes exclusionary and self-destructive, when it fails to take into account and respect diversity, it has reached the limits of its usefulness and becomes pernicious. Nationalism turned deadly in
By sheer luck, my ancestors avoided the fate of those that remained behind. I harbor great respect for Litvak heritage, and in many ways, I also sought to “come home”, to become a Litvak citizen of Lithuania, as my grandfather had been. Lithuania’s Migration Department and Courts created extremely petty, dishonest and incomprehensible obstacles, (including questioning the identity of my own grandfather), to recognizing my citizenship. After years of efforts and litigation (a combination of persistence and indignation on my part), Lithuania’s Supreme Administrative Court finally ruled in favor of truth. I detailed the insulting and embittering experience in my book Murder,
I serve as Chair of an organization called
Lithuania is changing for the better. The attendance of Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, the Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as other Lithuanian dignitaries, civic leaders and ordinary citizens at our dedication of the restored cemetery and monuments, is evidence of a changing society. Their words of remembrance, coupled with regret, and their promises of “never again”, illustrate a dawning appreciation for the memory and tragedy of our people.
I have proposed to the Lithuanian government that they make a
There is work to be done. Some Lithuanian leaders pursue remembrance,
I am confident that my grandfather would have been proud of what we have been creating in
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