Late last year, beginning with a front-page article in The New York Times, a lively discussion began concerning the fate of a priceless collection of Jewish books in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Professor Amos Perlmutter contributed to this discussion in The Washington Times on Dec. 28, as did subsequent letters to the editor. I would like to add some of my own thoughts on this question.
The main point of contention is whether these books, which during the Holocaust and subsequent 50 year Soviet occupation of Lithuania had been saved and hidden by Lithuanians, Jews, and Poles, should remain in Lithuania or be removed to the United States or Israel. This collection contains about 51,000 books (three-fourths of which have already been inspected and catalogued) and 73,000 periodical items. Over 300 Torah scrolls and fragments have been removed from this collection, preserved, and put into special storage among other rare, invaluable items in the Lithuanian National Library. The books, unfortunately, are currently stored in less than ideal conditions, and there is indeed a pressing need to house them properly, make them more accessible to scholars. A number of ideas have already been discussed, and it has been decided, in principle, to build a library named in honor of the Gaon of Vilna, a famous Lithuanian Jewish scholar. We are very grateful for the sincere offers of support this project has received.
Unfortunately, legitimate discussion about the fate of the books is sometimes sidetracked by injecting the argument (as does Professor Perlmutter) that the role of Lithuanian Nazi collaborators in the Holocaust disqualifies any Lithuanian claim to the collection. Also stressed is that very few Jews are left in Lithuania; Jewish books, therefore, should also go elsewhere.
There were indeed some Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust, and their heinous crimes are a most shameful page of Lithuania's history. Since restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990, Lithuanian leaders have repeatedly and publicly condemned these crimes, and open discussion of the Holocaust, previously impossible under the conditions of Soviet occupation, is raising the Lithuanian public's awareness of this issue.
But it would be very unfortunate if the sum of the centuries-long coexistence of Lithuanians and Jews were reduced to its most tragic moment. …