Freed Torahs signal hope for exodus of Jewish texts

For the first time, the Lithuanian government has agreed to release four Torah scrolls from its library to two Lithuanian Jewish communities.

The move raises Jewish hopes for a new willingness to negotiate the ownership of thousands of pre-Holocaust Jewish secular texts sought by American Jewish organizations.

An order to transfer the pre-World War II Torahs from the Lithuanian National Library to the Jewish communities in Kaunas and Vilnius (known as Vilna) came on April 18, just days after two separate visits by several top Lithuanian government officials with Jewish leaders in Washington and the ultra-religious community of Lakewood, N.J.

The meetings, which included Lithuania's Chairman of Parliament Vytauta Landsbergis, were arranged to show the Lithuanians how Vilna's Jewish legacy is thriving in America, said Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, a New York City businessman and Jewish troubleshooter.

"We wanted them to see the continuity," he said, after showing them young Talmud scholars learning in Lakewood.

Greenwald also arranged for Landsbergis to meet with Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), who chairs the House International Relations Committee.

Landsbergis asked Gilman about joining NATO, the U.S.-Europe security organization. In response, "Gilman asked Landsbergis about the Jewish texts," Greenwald said.

Several days after returning to Lithuania, Landsbergis, who is running for president against President Algirdas Brazauskas, directed the minister of culture to release the Torahs, a fraction of the more than 300 religious scrolls held by the national library.

Allan Nadler, director of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, hailed the release of the Torahs as a "precedent-setting move."

"This signals their acknowledgment of the proper use of these ritual items," said Nadler who has been battling with Lithuanian officials for several years to return texts that belonged to YIVO when it was headquartered in Vilna before World War II.

But other participants cautioned that the release may mean that the Lithuanians are willing to return religious items but hold onto the collection of more than 50,000 Jewish secular books and records, some of which date back to the 16th century.

The collection of Hebrew and Yiddish texts contains early 20th-century children's books, classroom texts, Hebrew Bibles and prayerbooks — many of them with yellowing, brittle pages .

The issue of transferring more Jewish texts to American Jewish groups is a political hot potato in Lithuania.

In fact, some politicians continue to sharply criticize a 1994 decision by national archives officials to release several boxes of documents to YIVO in New York for preservation. The backlash led to the resignation of the chief of archives.

As recently as Jan. 28, Lithuania's U.N. ambassador, Alfonsas Eidintas, said Jewish books "must stay in Lithuania, despite a strongly diminished Jewish community and the complicated common history of both nations."

Eidintas argued that removing the texts "will add to erasing of Lithuanian Jewish history."

Lithuanian officials support building a special research center to house the Jewish texts in Vilna, a seat of European Jewish learning for hundreds of years before the Holocaust.

The N.Y. Jewish Week reported last month that a coalition of Jewish communal leaders working with YIVO and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture are pushing for an international committee of scholars and government officials to negotiate the collection's final resting place.

A team of Jewish scholars who inspected the texts last month is expected to release an official report soon.

The team made a significant discovery — many books contained stamps on the inside cover bearing the names of the Jewish organizations that once owned them.