Lithuanian capital to rebuild Jewish ghetto

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The Independent Online

Lithuanian officials said yesterday that a planned reconstruction of the capital's pre-war Jewish ghetto was finally under way, and the first phase would be completed by next year.

Plans to rebuild the district in Vilnius, devastated during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation, were approved by the Baltic state's parliament in 1999, but were delayed by financial and legal problems.

Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, said yesterday that public bids from builders would be announced soon. Construction of the first building could start in June and was expected to be finished by the middle of next year, he said.

"Finally we have found a way to start things moving. This has already taken too long," Mr Zuokas said.

Before the Second World War, Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of the North, celebrated for its Yiddish-language theatres, libraries and schools. Jews made up half of the city's 130,000 inhabitants.

When legislators approved the 440m litas (£78m) project, the government said it could pay only a fraction of the bill.

A Jewish Cultural Fund was set up to seek private donations, but it too failed to raise sufficient money. Complicated property issues concerning the land where the Jewish landmarks once stood also stalled the project.

But Mr Zuokas said private firms would get land on which to build plus rights to use most of the premises commercially in return for funding the costly reconstructions.

Builders would have to turn a third of the completed space over to the city, which in turn would give it to the Jewish Cultural Fund.

Officials and Jewish groups say the restoration will be a fitting memorial to the 240,000 Lithuanian Jews killed by the Nazis.

"It's a matter of honour to rebuild the Jewish quarter, which was once one of the most beautiful parts of Vilnius," the mayor said.

He said the sites could also become tourist attractions.

The Soviet army occupied Lithuania and the other Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, in 1940. It retook them after a three-year German occupation. The states regained independence during the 1991 Soviet collapse.

* About 2,000 Jews from across the world retraced the steps of Auschwitz victims in Poland yesterday, remembering the Holocaust in an annual march. "We are here to help commemorate the atrocities... to show the world that we have not forgotten, that we have not been destroyed," said Mike Colton, an American marcher.