January 10, 2008
Lithuanian festival excludes Yiddish dancers
But an innovative proposal to invite a group of Yiddish performers to participate as representatives of Jewish Lithuanian heritage was turned down by the folk dance organizing committee, resulting in the resignation of the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, the national nonprofit organization sponsoring the festival. Local chapter president Darius Udrys (photo), 35, made his proposal on Nov. 12. He envisioned the inclusion of a Yiddish song and dance as "a touching and powerful moment," and afterward, with the Yiddish troupe joined on the dance floor of USC's Galen Center by hundreds of Lithuanian dancers, a dramatic gesture of "openness and inclusiveness" that would help counteract the strained relations, both historic and current, between ethnic and Jewish Lithuanians.
Frank Joga, co-chair of the 2008 Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival Committee, informed Udrys that the committee felt that seven months was not enough time to modify the program, explaining that the agenda for the festival, which has taken place approximately every four years since 1957, is set up to two years in advance.
The committee also felt that if they included a Yiddish group, they would have to invite other Lithuanian minorities, and the festival would lose its "Lithuanian character." As a compromise, the committee suggested that Yiddish dancers participate by learning and performing one of the already designated ethnic Lithuanian dances.
"The way he presented his proposal was very unprofessional," said Joga, objecting to Udrys distributing an e-mail to 15 people from related organizations without initially discussing the idea with the dance committee.
Udrys is currently serving his third year as president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, a national organization with 60 chapters in 27 states that promotes Lithuanian culture, education and other activities. His resignation is effective Feb. 10, but he will continue as coordinator of the Los Angeles-Kaunas Sister Cities Program.
One of Udrys' major goals has been to foster better relations between the ethnic and Jewish Lithuanian communities in Los Angeles, where he estimates there are 7,000 to 9,000 people of non-Jewish Lithuanian ancestry.
In October 2006, the chapter sponsored a visit by Dr. Egle Bendikaite, adjunct professor of Yiddish language and Lithuanian Jewish history at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, to speak to Jewish and Lithuanian groups. Bendikaite, who is not Jewish, spoke at St. Casimir's Parish Hall in Los Angeles and at Temple Akiba in Culver City about the contributions of Lithuanian Jews to that country's independence.
Additionally, this past November Udrys arranged for Holocaust survivor and Lithuanian resident Dr. Irene Veisaite to speak to students at St. Casimir's Lithuanian School. And on Feb. 3, the chapter is sponsoring a concert by Lithuanian singer Marija Krupoves, who will present "Songs of Vilnius: Music of Lithuania's Ethnic Minorities."
Udrys also submitted a proposal and received a grant from the Lithuanian government's Department of National Minority and Expatriate Affairs to organize a symposium on Lithuanian-Jewish relations, to be co-sponsored by the Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, an independent, nonprofit educational foundation that supports the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and held at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. The symposium, however, has been postponed indefinitely.
"In many ways, feelings on both sides were too touchy to do this in exactly the right way," said Dr. Richard Maullin, Santa Monica resident and president of the Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. He explained that there are still many outstanding issues to be discussed and arbitrated between the Jewish community and the Lithuanian government, including property claims and restitution.
One major and ongoing controversy concerns the Lithuanian government's approval to allow construction on land thought to cover the part of the historic Snipiskes Cemetery, where an estimated 10,000 Jews are buried.
Another issue involves what many consider an "outrageous" request from Lithuania's chief prosecutor to question Dr. Yitzhak Arad, former director of Yad Vashem in Jersusalem, regarding the killing of Lithuanian civilians as a teenage partisan fighter in Lithuania during World War II.
The Jewish community is also upset that the Lithuanian government has yet to investigate or prosecute Vladas Zajanckauskas, a 91-year-old retired factory worker deported from the United States to his native Lithuania in August 2007, for participating in Nazi atrocities.
"Not a single Lithuanian Nazi war criminal sat one minute in jail in independent Lithuania [since 1991]," said Dr. Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel.
But the issue regarding Lithuania and the Jews is much larger, according to Zuroff. Of the 220,000 Jews residing in Lithuania under Nazi occupation in June 1941, 210,000 were murdered. Of those killed, almost 97 percent were murdered in Lithuania with the help of extensive local collaboration. Yet Zuroff states that the Lithuanians have been unable or unwilling to re-examine their role in the mass murder.
Lithuanians living in the Diaspora are even less willing.
"The emigre Lithuanian communities are generally far more nationalistic and rightwing than their counterparts in the homeland," Zuroff said, explaining that in many cases these are the descendants of Nazi war criminals.
Vytas Maciunas, president of the Lithuanian American Community, agrees that dialogue needs to take place between the ethnic and Jewish Lithuanian communities. And while he supported the proposed symposium, he opposed the inclusion of Yiddish dancers in the folk dance festival.
"There's a tradition, and we need to follow that tradition," he said.
Calls to Ambassador Jonas Paslauskas, who serves as Consul General of the Republic of Lithuania in New York, were not returned.
Still, Udrys does not believe that the current leaders of the Lithuanian American Community are themselves anti-Semitic.
"I think what is most lacking is leadership -- setting a tone and policy of inclusiveness that indicates to all who identify with Lithuania that they are welcome in our community," he said.
Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival
Lithuanian American Community
Los Angeles Lithuanian Community
"Operation Last Chance," a joint project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Targum Shlishi Foundation
Vilnius Yiddish Institute