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Lithuania marks 70 years since Nazis wiped out Vilnius ghetto

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Lithuania on Monday marked 70 years since Nazi Germany wiped out the Vilnius ghetto, all but obliterating the vibrant Jewish culture of a capital once known as the "Jerusalem of the North".

State officials and Holocaust survivors attended a memorial service honouring the tens of thousands who died, while national flags with black ribbons dotted the Vilnius skyline.

"A grim and terrible reality can never be left in the past -- it must forever remain in our memory," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said at the ceremony.

She praised those who saved Jews as "icons of humanity to be role models for us all".

The city's Jewish community dates back to the 16th century.

By World War II, it stood at around 70,000 people or one third of the city's population, and was a hub of Yiddish intellectual life. But the war saw its near-total destruction.

More than 90 percent of Lithuania's 200,000-strong pre-war Jews died at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators during the German occupation.

The Holocaust remembrance group Yad Vashem has awarded more than 800 Lithuanians the title of Righteous among the Nations for having sheltered and saved their Jewish neighbours.

On Monday, members of Vilnius's tiny Jewish community gathered at the city's sole surviving synagogue -- of more than 100 before the war -- to read out the names of the ghetto victims.

Survivor Fania Brantsovskaya, 91, recalled her lucky escape on September 23, 1943.

"It was a matter of five minutes. As we left the ghetto, we saw the military coming. But at that time, we didn't think it would be liquidated," she told AFP.

Brantsovskaya read out the names of her late father, mother and sister. She said she is just one of five ghetto survivors who remain in Vilnius today.

A few others are abroad, including Simon F. Malkes, who has lived in France since the 1950s but flew back to Vilnius for the anniversary.

The 86-year-old survived by hiding for 48 hours in the cellar of a Nazi labour camp where he was moved just weeks before the ghetto liquidation.

"The hiding place was built by my father and some friends in the cellar. It was made for 12 to 15 people. In the end there were 37 of us. You had no air, you had no water, it was just horrible," a teary-eyed Malkes told AFP.

He then hid in a corn field and a local hospital for weeks before the Soviets ousted the Nazis from the Baltic states in July 1944.

Being an anti-Communist, he fled to the West and only returned for a visit after Lithuania broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1990.

Today, some 5,000 Jews live in the Baltic nation of three million people, which joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130923/lithuania-marks-70-years-nazis-wiped-out-vilnius-ghetto-0