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Rebuilding Jewish Vilnius -- and Lithuanian Civil Society

(Washington, DC--March 28, 2003) A leading expert on Jewish-Lithuanian relations told an RFE/RL audience last week that Lithuania's "renaissance" should be rooted in the history of all of its people -- Christian and Jewish.

Emanuelis Zingeris, Chairman of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania and Director of the Tolerance Center in Vilnius, believes that the restoration of the historic Jewish quarter of Lithuania's capital city, Vilnius, will help "to restore trust between Jewish and Christian Lithuanians" and lead to the strengthening of a modern democratic civil society.

Zingeris is spearheading a project, authorized by the Lithuanian government through the Lithuanian Jewish Cultural Foundation, to rebuild portions of the capital's historic Jewish ghetto. The district, long a center of Lithuanian Jewish life, was razed by the Soviet Union starting in 1948, when eight of the district's synagogues were dynamited. According to Zingeris, the Soviet occupation regime said the demolition was carried out to "clean up the holy area, meaning to cleanse the area of religion." Before the Soviets were done, Zingeris said, 80 synagogues had been destroyed, as were the district's "small streets with their Jerusalem-type arches."

Much of the land for the intended project is undeveloped, Zingeris said, but the foundation must raise private money to finance the effort, which must be completed within six years. The reconstructed buildings will represent a small, but important renewal of a once-vibrant 700 year old culture that was destroyed in the Holocaust during World War II. Zingeris compares the project to "putting back together the pieces of a mosaic," enriched with the diverse talents of a "Jewish Broadway and a Jewish Oxford" in the center of Vilnius.

Zingeris said that during the last 14 years of independence and democracy, Lithuania has made progress in building a "self-critical" civic society that practices goodwill towards its minorities. Zingeris cited the requirement that all Lithuanian Army draftees and officers participate in Holocaust education as one example of this progress.

To view the project and architectural plans, which include a historical/education sector, religious buildings such as the great 17th century baroque synagogue and commercial space, visit the foundation's website at

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