South African Jews praise move to ease path for Litvaks to reclaim citizenship

Marcy Oster

(JTA) — The South African Jewish community praised amendments made by the government of Lithuania to its citizenship law that will make it easier for former Lithuanian citizens and their descendants to reclaim citizenship in the country.

In a statement released Wednesday, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies welcomed the amendments that it had worked on with the Lithuanian government. The majority of South African Jews are originally from Lithuania, according to the board.

The amendment signed earlier this month by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite removes obstacles for former citizens who lived in Lithuania between 1918 and 1940 to reclaim their citizenship.

Prior to the amendment, the country’s Migration Department and the courts had begun to demand that Litvaks provide proof that they or their ancestors were persecuted in Lithuania between the world wars. The new language makes it explicit that “withdrawal” or “flight” from Lithuania and “leaving the country” are all used synonymously and people in both categories have the right to citizenship restoration.

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The amendment went into effect on July 7 after being unanimously passed in Parliament.

Lithuania’s former ambassador to Israel and South Africa, Darius Degutis, called the amendment “a true breakthrough” in reconnecting all Litvaks, especially the South African Litvak community, with Lithuania, the homeland of their ancestors.

“It is truly amazing to see the passion of South African Litvaks to their Lithuanian heritage, their desire to preserve Lithuanian Jewish legacy and traditions,” said Degutis, who served as envoy between 2009 and 2014.

“I was deeply touched to meet hundreds of South African Litvaks, who maybe had never visited Lithuania, but share the incredible life stories of their ancestors, showing to us old prewar Lithuanian passports, other family documents, photographs so well preserved over a hundred years. It was very emotional to listen to their life stories, often tragic and dramatic but still tremendously optimistic.

“It is great to see many Litvaks visiting Lithuania, doing business here, investing, engaging in rebuilding unique Lithuanian Jewish heritage. I am sure the possibility to restore Lithuanian citizenship will become an important factor in bringing us closer together.”

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