Fighting to preserve a nation’s heritage
By Abdul Turay
First Published July 09, 2008
When Tobias Jasetas was a small child, his family emigrated to England. One summer his mother decided to go back to Lithuania for an extended holiday to visit relatives. She took Jasetas, who was then nine years old, with her.
It turned to be one of the saddest decisions made by anyone, anywhere, ever. The year was 1939 and within a few months of arriving war had broken out. The mother and son were stranded in a country under Soviet occupation. The Soviets deported Jasetas’ relatives to Siberia. Then the Nazis came and things got even worse.
Jasetas is now 87 and still lives in Vilnius in a run down apartment with basic utilities. He doesn’t like to reflect on what might have been. He is the ultimate survivor. He lived through the first Soviet occupation, the Ghetto, the murder of his mother and other relatives. He escaped from the Ghetto just before the “Child Achtung” in 1944 when Ghetto children were singled out and slaughtered. He was hidden by a Lithuanian family.
He lived through the second Soviet occupation when Jewish culture was crushed. Today Jasetas is struggling to get by on a meagre pension and allowance that he gets from the Lithuanian government as a survivor of the Jewish Ghetto.
However, there is one fight left that that this old warrior would like to see resolved before he passes on. It is a struggle that faces all of Lithuania’s 3000 strong Jewish community, all that is left of a once thriving population.
They want the Lithuanian government and people to recognize the enormous contribution that Jews have made to the Lithuanian nation.
Practically this would partly be achieved by returning property stolen by the Soviets from people murdered by the Nazis. (See page 1 story).
“This is where I was born, this is where I married and this is where I will stay because this is my country,” Jasetas said.
Jasetas is now one of the leaders of the 800 survivors of the Holocaust of which 109 survived the Ghetto and concentration camps.
The average age of the survivors in 78 and 30 percent of these people cannot take care of themselves.
“They need medicine they need food. A big part of the need is to allow them to have a normal existence,” Simon Gurevicius, executive director of the Jewish community of Lithuania said.
Gurevicius explained that the elderly Jewish community has suffered three types of occupation: Nazi, Soviet and what he called, “a poverty occupation.”
Survivors of the Ghetto and concentration camps receive 200 litas (57 euros) a month. A tiny sum compared to what the Soviets stole.
The people in the Ghetto or camps were murdered and most of the survivors alive today, hid outside, often helped by kindly Lithuanian families. They get nothing.
Now with their families dead, it is the younger members of the community, and not blood relatives that they rely for any kind of support.
“We are trying to make them so that they wouldn’t feel lonely. We try to provide as much as possible.
“There are a lot are lonely people, especially lonely women. They don’t have family in Lithuania,” Gurevicius said.
He explains that as a young community leader he faces tough challenges.
“We feel bad because we have a choice between whether to give food or whether to give medicine because we have a limited budget,” he said.
In general, things are not looking good for the Jewish community. Not only has the government failed to make any attempt to return stolen property but neo-Nazi skinheads were allowed to march openly through the streets of Vilnius. It took the government 10 days to condemn the march.
Yet many young Jewish people chose to stay rather than emigrate to the U.S. or Israel. They are motivated by a sense of patriotism and duty.
“We look to Lithuania as our country. We are ready to stand and defend the independence of the country when needed.
“I believe a lot in fighting for the country, in defending family and community. We are responsible for building a monument for people who passed away, a monument not of stone but of ideas,” Gurevicius said.
Lithuania used to be a centre of Jewish and Yiddish culture in Europe. Vilnius was once known as the Jerusalem of the North. There were Jews in the country for a thousand years.
Jewish leaders around the world have come together to demand that something of that culture is restored.
“The Jewish community that remained in Lithuania struggles hard to revive Jewish life and even convert it into a centre of Jewish culture for the entire region.
“Amid much hardship, the local community has managed to rebuild Jewish life in the country in just a few years. It is now becoming a Jewish centre for the Baltic region,” Michael Thaidigs-mann a representative of the world Jewish Congress said.
He explained what Vilnius means to the Jewish community worldwide.
“It’s a huge historical tragedy. A whole world disappeared… It is heart wrenching,” he said
He added that Lithuania had much to gain by celebrating its Jewish heritage instead of rejecting it.
“Cities in Europe that have addressed this issue has become tourist hotspots. The festival of Jewish culture in Krakow attracted 25,000 people. The Jewish museum in Prague had three quarters of a million visitors,” he said.
Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International the oldest Jewish service organization in the world said:
“There is a great attachment for Jewish people all over the world to Lithuania. One does not have to have family from Lithuania to feel that attachment.”
Ultimately the Jewish community can’t wait forever for the government to do something. With each passing year, more of the survivors are dying off.
“Time is passing away, people are passing away. This a big moral issue. It is still possible to ensure dignified living conditions for them,” Gurevicius said.