Vilna Gaon commemoration sparks debate among Jews

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NEW YORK — A Lithuanian Talmudic scholar is stirring up controversy among Jews 200 years after his death.

September marks the 200th yahrzeit of the Vilna Gaon, renowned commentator on the Talmud and the Torah and in his time a major opponent of the Baltic region's burgeoning Chassidic movement.

A split has emerged among American Jewish organizations over the six-day commemoration of the Gaon, being organized by the Lithuanian Jewish community.

The event provides an opportunity for Lithuania's Jewish community "to claim some of the glory that was historical Vilna," said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, a member of the honorary committee for the Sept. 9-15 commemoration.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, meanwhile, has called for a boycott of the event, believing that participation would be seen as support for a Lithuanian government that has not yet atoned for the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry. Nearly 94 percent of the country's Jews perished in the Holocaust, a tragedy that local Jews say is not widely known in Lithuania.

Lithuanians have not "become aware of the extent of the Holocaust in this country," Israelis Lempertas, the co-coordinator of the Gaon commemoration, said in Vilnius, formerly known as Vilna.

"But you cannot make the entire people repent using such methods as the boycott."

The Jewish community has received more than $100,000 from the Lithuanian government for the event, according to Simonas Alperavicius, Jewish community chairman.

The commemoration has also received funding from UNESCO.

The Lithuanian government has assisted with promotional materials and has helped to clean up Vilnius' only functioning Jewish cemetery, site of the Gaon's grave.

It plans to issue six stamps featuring the Vilna Gaon and has commissioned a Lithuanian composer to write a commemorative work to be performed by the national symphony.

The parliament's first session after its summer recess will be dedicated to the Gaon's legacy.

Parliament Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis told an Anti-Defamation League delegation visiting Lithuania in August that the Gaon commemoration will help promote mutual understanding between Lithuanians and Jews.

Indeed, the government has been so eager to help with the event that it surprised the local Jewish community by deciding to build a sculpture of the Gaon on the Vilnius street that bears his name.

The community has not decided how to respond to this initiative, which contradicts the Jewish tradition of avoiding portrait images.

Still, local Jews are enthusiastic about the upcoming events.

"We believe the commemoration will draw world attention to Vilnius and the Jewish community here, which before the war numbered nearly a quarter of a million and now consists of approximately 5,000 people," said Lempertas.

Opponents of the commemoration, however, are not impressed by the government's efforts.

Such activities are attempts "by the Lithuanian government to gain publicity and earn points in the West," said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center's Israel office.

During a visit to Israel in 1995, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas publicly apologized for his country's involvement in the Holocaust.

Lithuania has established a national day of mourning for Holocaust victims on Sept. 23 — the date of the Vilna Ghetto's liquidation in 1943.

But no legal action has been taken against five alleged war criminals who were stripped of their U.S. citizenship and deported to Lithuania in recent years.

Zuroff believes the Lithuanian government is trying to disguise Lithuania's wartime past by supporting the Gaon commemoration.

Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis is "not pleasant to Lithuania," said Zuroff. "It is something they are trying to hide."

Some Lithuanian Jewish leaders believe the proposed boycott could harm their community.

"We do not agree with the boycott. The memory of the Gaon has nothing to do with the Nazi collaborators," said the Jewish community's Alperavicius.

After Zuroff's remarks were published in the Lithuanian press earlier this month, a synagogue in Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city, received an anonymous letter accusing Jews of seeking to destroy Lithuania's well-being.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said Jewish organizations and the Lithuanian government have many differences, "but these issues should be dealt with separately."

They should not be connected to Lithuania's desire "to recognize and celebrate its Jewish heritage," Foxman said in Vilnius.