(August 27, 2018 / Israel Hayom) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, wrapped up their trip to Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday.
In the Baltic city, the Netanyahus visited the grave of the Vilna Gaon and the Martynas Mazvydas National Library’s Jewish Studies Center. At the library, Dr. Lara Lempertiene showed them antique books from libraries throughout Lithuania, including a commentary on the book of Psalms from 1512 and writings by the heads of yeshivahs, children’s books and Yiddish-language textbooks from before World War II.
Lemperiene also showed them some of the writings of Zionist visionary Zeev Jabotinsky, and Jewish poets Hayim Nahman Bialik and Saul Tchernichovsky.
“There is immense treasure here,” said Netanyahu. “Here you see how the Jews lived. There are Hebrew textbooks from 1937, a Shachar notebook; what excellent Hebrew. What a rich world this was. What has been lost!”
The Netanyahus also visited the Choral Synagogue, the only synagogue in Vilnius to survive the Holocaust. At the synagogue, they met with representatives of the local Jewish community, as well as Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicus and Lithuanian Parliament member Emanuelis Zingeris.
In a speech at the synagogue, Netanyahu called Linkevicus “a great friend” and thanked him for “standing up for Israel and the truth in European forums, for telling your colleagues the service that Israel performs in saving so many European lives by our resourceful and brave intelligence people. We have saved so many European lives in so many countries. Israel in many ways is the defender of Europe and it’s time that Europe understood this.
Netanyahu described walking through the streets of the Vilnius ghetto with his wife.
“We saw the ruins of some of the 100 Jewish synagogues,” he said. “We saw the barricade where Yechiel Scheinbaum and his brave colleagues fought to their deaths against the Nazi oppressors. We saw Jewish resistance in the heart of the ghetto. And we saw the courtyards where Jews were assembled before being carted off to Ponar [the Ponary Forest] where they were shot by Lithuanian collaborators and the Nazis and then thrown into the death pits. We saw all this. I saw their pictures on the walls of the ghetto. I heard their stories. I wanted to tell them: We are here. We are back. We are alive. Am Yisrael Chai.
“Yesterday we saw the glory of Jewish Vilna that was lost, and in this visit we see an expression of what has been retrieved—the rise of the reborn Jewish State of Israel. What a distance we have traveled in 75 years from the death pits of Ponar to a rising power in the world. What a distance we have traveled.”
Noting his family’s Lithuanian roots, Netanyahu said, “I come to Vilna, I return to Vilna as the head of a proud, strong, advanced Jewish state. For the Jewish people, what has changed in these 75 years? Not the attempts to destroy us. They’re still [trying] to destroy us. Iran says so openly. Hamas says so openly. And others.
“What has changed is our ability to defend ourselves by ourselves. We are no longer defenseless. We are no longer helpless. We are a power that controls our own destiny with the State of Israel and the army of Israel.
“And with this independence, we now have new friendships and we have such a friendship with the democracy of Lithuania.”
He said Israel and Lithuania were “two small democracies facing challenges but confident in our ability to seize the future, and we can seize it better together.”
Netanyahu thanked the Lithuanian government “for its strong stance against anti-Semitism and for standing up to the truth, a constant effort, constantly nurtured. We support you and encourage you to do more and more of this.”
His visit comes amid warming bilateral ties. Lithuania purchases weapons from Israel, while Israel hopes to use the increase in ties to advance its interests in the European Union.
While Lithuanians are coming to terms with their country’s past, with the government officially accepting responsibility for the mass murder of Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust and establishing the national library’s Jewish archive, there is room for improvement. Many of the country’s national heroes are figures who fought the Communist occupiers and as a result collaborated with the Nazis and in some cases murdered Jews without being ordered to do so. As a result, when either Israel or the local Jewish community wants to remove a statue or memorial plaque removed, the request can sometimes touch the most sensitive Lithuanian nerves. Israel is looking to increase Holocaust education and commemoration in the country but is wary of pushing the Lithuanians too far on the matter.
In a video posted to his Facebook page, Netanyahu called his visit to the Lithuanian capital “historic.”
“It’s the first time a prime minister of Israel is invited to a summit of the three Baltic nations,” he said.
Netanyahu said the death pits at the Ponary Forest, “where they threw the Jews and they were completely defenseless,” was the most emotional part of the trip.
“The Latvians, the Lithuanians and the Estonians admire Israel, our military, our technology, our spirit and our strength. And maybe this illustrates the historic change that has taken place in our people’s history,” said the prime minister. “From these blood-soaked forests here to the rebirth of the State of Israel, which every single one of you has a part in.”