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2013 07 31

Israeli President Shimon Peres says Vilnius gives him with mixed feeling

Israeli President Shimon Peres says he came to Vilnius with mixed feelings, as the once wealthy Jewish culture in the city was ruptured by the Holocaust, which annihilated nearly all Jewish population in Lithuania.
Shimonas Peresas ir Dalia Grybauskaitė
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė welcomes Israeli President Shimon Peres / Irmanto Gelūno / BNS nuotr.

After meeting with Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaitė in Vilnius on Wednesday, the Israeli leader said that the past should not be forgotten when building the future.

"I am coming to Vilnius with really a mixed feeling," he told a news conference.

"Vilnius for us and for me was the cultural center of Jewish life for generations. You have really enabled the large, vibrant Jewish society to live here in peace, to pray to our Lord, to speak our language. On the other hand, the Jewish community was massacred here by the Nazis and some local people," Peres said.

"We cannot change the past so we don't have to forget it. But we can change the future and that we should always remember," the Israeli president told journalists in the Lithuanian capital.

Grybauskaitė emphasized Lithuania's efforts to take an appropriate stance on the Nazi crimes.

"Lithuania is continuing its studies on the Holocaust and the evaluation of Nazi crimes: the International Commission for Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes has resumed its activities, and the National Holocaust Education Program has been approved. Some 90 tolerance centers set up in schools and local communities are actively engaged in educational activities. A law has been adopted on compensation for property of Jewish religious communities," the president said.

Grybauskaitė noted that the agenda for Thursday will include a visit to the Tolerance Center in Vilnius, followed by a ceremony to honor the victims of the Holocaust at the Paneriai Memorial.

The first Jews settled in Vilnius back in 1500s, the city later grew into a prominent Jewish spiritual and cultural center, which was referred to as the Jerusalem of the North. Before World War II, Jews accounted for about a third of the population of the Lithuanian capital.

About 90 percent of the pre-war Jewish population of more than 200,000 were annihilated during occupation by Nazi Germany in 1941-1944. About 5,000 Jews live in Lithuania today.

Peres said he thanked the Lithuanian administration for its efforts against anti-Semitism, expressing gratitude for the Lithuanian liberation efforts.

"Lithuania has shown her greatness both in the domain of culture and the domain of history by fighting courageously to win your independence and become a member of the European Union, which is a historic change," said the Israeli president.

He also applauded Lithuania's presidency over the EU, saying it is "better that small countries will preside over large countries than large countries will rule small countries."

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