A confluence of poor government policy implementation and underhanded representation of the Jewish community in Lithuania was until recently creating a toxic mix of frustration and tension with the Jewish diaspora. Considering the sizeable South African Jewish community that is of Lithuanian descent, this would be cause for alarm. But a string of recent court cases and a bold step forward by the Lithuanian government give hope that the project of reintegration of the Jewish diaspora in Lithuania is on track.
A strong Lithuanian heritage
Conservative estimates place the size of South Africa’s Jewish community at 67,000  – of these, 80% are of Lithuanian descent, effectively making it the third largest Lithuanian diaspora in the world.
In contrast, the Jewish community in Lithuania – the Litvaks, as they are commonly known – has shrunk dramatically from 220 000 in the 1930s, to 15 000 in the 1980s and a mere 5 000 today. The Lithuanian government, in a bid to restore the history and place of Litvaks in the country, has made special provisions for any Lithuanian diaspora wishing to return to the land of their ancestors.
To this end, members of the Jewish diaspora can apply for Lithuanian citizenship if they can prove that an ancestor fled the country under extraordinary circumstances. Considering the effect that the Second World War had on the Lithuanian Jewish community, such ‘extraordinary circumstances’ should not be hard to prove.
Benefits to citizenship
As a member of the European Union, Lithuania offers its citizens a European passport and all the benefits and access to the economic and political stability that the EU offers. Lithuania has also made special provisions for dual citizenship – which is usually not permitted under state law – for its Jewish diaspora.
However, until recently this was complicated by unclear and often unhelpful bureaucratic processes that made it difficult for the Jewish diaspora to successfully secure Lithuanians citizenship.
Caught up in red tape
Litvaks were seeing more and more of their applications for citizenship rejected by the Lithuanian Migration Department. Applications for Lithuanian citizenship made on the basis that the applicants’ parents or grandparents were forced to leave the country because of specific internal or external dangers were suddenly not approved.
According to recent news reports, the Lithuanian Migration Department had rejected 200 requests for citizenship, leading to ten of the parties initiating litigation to secure approval through the courts. When probed about the apparent resistance by government to approving requests for citizenship by Litvaks, the Lithuanian Interior Minister said simply they need to “follow court decisions”.
In light of the findings of these court cases – which have mostly been in favour of the applicants – the Minister’s comments are encouraging. Despite some frustration in the process of securing their citizenship, these recent court cases are laying a legal foundation that should expedite the approval of future applications. In fact, following pressure from opposition leaders, the Lithuanian Parliament’s European Affairs Committee recently decided to amend the law on citizenship and expand its definition. A working group has even been set up to prepare this amendment.
Signs of hope and resolution
Despite some reluctance in certain quarters of the Lithuanian government, and reports of unscrupulous and unethical behaviour among Jewish citizenship lawyers in Lithuania, the programme of historic redress is on track. Unhelpful bureaucracy would only serve to undermine the great forward strides that the country has taken in restoring its Jewish diaspora to their rightful place as true citizens of Lithuania.
Former diplomat Darius Degutis, who spent some time working in South Africa, says Litvaks he’s met usually want to return to Lithuania in order to honour, preserve and pass on their parents’ or grandparents’ nostalgia and sentiments for the land of their birth.
Not only that: returning Litvaks often make a positive impact on the country’s economy. Some, according to Degutis, decide to engage in business in Lithuania or move portions of their business abroad here. One such example is Brian Joffe, CEO of Bidvest, who acquired Nowaco’s Lithuanian business operations following a visit to the country.
After some questionable decisions and attitudes by officials, the Lithuanian government has recommitted to restoring the citizenship of its Jewish diaspora. This bodes well for the future of the country and its economic fortunes. But more importantly, it is a great step forward for all the Litvaks who wish to return to the land of their ancestors.
About Stefanie De Saude: Stefanie de Saude, Immigration and Citizenship Law Specialist of De Saude Attorneys. The firm specialises in South African immigration and nationality law.