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Litvak Jewish art gets first global show after almost a century

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON (Reuters) - Scenes from Jerusalem and 1920s Paris are among the rare works showcasing Lithuania's Jewish artists from the last century that are going on show as a collection abroad for the first time.

Lithuania, whose borders before World War 1 included parts of modern Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Russia and Latvia, was a major heartland of European Jewry, famed for its talmudical academies and bookish Jews known as Litvaks.

Looking to leave their traditional surroundings and soak up the creative atmosphere, many Litvak artists, including world-renowned painter Marc Chagall, converged on Paris at that time.

The result was a unique series of works, which became known as the Ecole de Paris, embracing multiple styles including post-impressionism, cubism and futurism. The Litvak artists also fused romantic and melancholic visions of their former Jewish small towns, known as Shtetls, into their work.

Visitors in London now have the chance to see some of the paintings from artists including Emmanuel Mane-Katz, Max Band, Pinchus Kremegne and Theo Tobiasse.

The works, being shown at Lithuania's embassy in London, were acquired mainly from private collections and auctions via the Vilnius-based Lewben Art Foundation, which had previously exhibited them in Lithuania.

The exhibition will move to Johannesburg in March and will include works by other artists including Chagall. South Africa became a home for Litvaks fleeing persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Other Litvaks emigrated to countries including Britain and the United States.

"The Lithuanian government has been putting a lot of effort into the preservation and promotion of the legacy of Lithuanian Jews," Lithuania's Vice Minister of Culture Romas Jarockis said on a visit to London last week. "The Litvak heritage is an integral part of Lithuanian culture."

Rita Valiukonyte of Lithuania's embassy in London said it had taken time after the country gained independence from Russia in 1990 for it "to fully embrace the Jewish heritage". Numerous government and private initiatives had helped showcase the role that Litvaks played.

"The contribution of Lithuanian Jews in Lithuania's cultural heritage is simply immeasurable," she said.

Lithuania's Jewish population numbered around 220,000 when the Nazis invaded in 1941. Just over 10,000 survived the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews across Europe were murdered.

Some of the Litvak artists, such as Mane-Katz and Band, moved to the United States before the start of World War Two. Others such as Kremegne stayed in southern France -- away from the direct Nazi occupation -- while Tobiasse survived by hiding with his family in Paris.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Catherine Evans)