Vilnius: Israel’s prime minister said on Sunday that Jews were still at risk even decades after the Holocaust as he wrapped up a groundbreaking visit to Lithuania, a Baltic state once home to his forefathers.
“For the Jewish people, what has changed in these 75 years? Not the attempts to destroy us, they still seek to destroy us,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told around 300 Lithuanian Jews gathered in Vilnius’s Choral Synagogue.
The Israeli leader identified what he termed new existential threats facing the Jews, with Iran and the Islamist movement Hamas which runs the Gaza Strip being among them.
“What has changed is our ability to defend ourselves by ourselves… This is a magnificent change of history,” added Netanyahu, who is the first-ever Israeli premier to visit Lithuania, a Baltic EU state.
Pre-war Lithuania was home to a thriving Jewish community of more than 200,000 people, with Vilnius a hub of learning known as the “Jerusalem of the North”.
But historians contend that around 195,000 perished at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators under the 1941-44 German occupation, nearly the entire Jewish population.
Today there are around 3,000 Jews living in the EU and NATO member state of 2.9 million people.
Netanyahu said he spent Saturday touring the Vilna Ghetto and recalling Lithuanian Jews taken to Paneriai — also known as Ponar or Ponary — on the outskirts of the city, the site of the Ponar massacre.
– Distorted or ignored –
Up to 100,000 people including Jews, Poles and Russians were slain there by the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators during World War II.
“What a distance we have travelled in 75 years from the death pits of Ponar to a rising power in the world,” Netanyahu said.
His groundbreaking visit has not been without controversy and Netanyahu has come under sharp criticism from top Israeli Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff for warming to Lithuania.
Arguing that Vilnius has not done enough to come to terms with the role Lithuanians played in the Holocaust, Zuroff charged in a Sunday Facebook post “that to praise the Lithuanian government’s efforts to commemorate the Shoa is like commending the KKK for improving race relations in the US”.
A Lithuanian research centre has identified 2,000 Lithuanians suspected of taking part in the Holocaust, either by killing Jews, sending them to execution or by confiscating their wealth.
At the same time nearly 900 Lithuanians hold the honorary title of “Righteous Among The Nations”, awarded by Israel to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jewish neighbours.
The Holocaust was either distorted or ignored in Lithuania under five decades of Soviet rule that followed the war. An honest examination only began after it became the first republic to split from the USSR in 1990.