NEW YORK (Dec. 20)
A list of hundreds of previously unidentified Lithuanian war-crimes suspects, as well as a precise accounting of the fate of Jews who were killed there, has come to light after 44 years, the Simon Wiesenthal Center said Tuesday.
The list was culled from 160 files of testimony from Jewish survivors taken after the war by a survivor of the Kovno ghetto, according to Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s office in Israel.
The survivor, Leib Kunichowsky, had visited 10 displaced persons camps, taking notes from eyewitnesses about events that occurred in 171 small towns and villages of Lithuania. Kunichowsky himself turned over the two briefcases of files to Yad Vashem three months ago.
Zuroff said in a telephone interview that the material “relates to numerous places about which there is very scanty material to date. We are certain that among these people are criminals that escaped to the West, and we plan to determine their post-war destination and submit the names to authorities to be investigated.”
The biggest unanswered question is why Kunichowsky, who lives in Florida, waited until now to turn over the documents. Zuroff speculated that Kunichowsky originally had wanted to get the files published as a book.
Realizing that there were no takers, and yielding to his advancing age, he finally decided it was better to have the names and files kept in a safe place.
Zuroff said he was aware of the files when he worked for the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the early 1980s. He had formally requested access to them then, but to no avail.
The 1,300 names on the list are Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis in 1941 and 1942, when wholesale mass killings of Jews took place, especially after Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
The 1,683 pages, handwritten in terse Yiddish with vowels, detail line by line the facts and names surrounding the deportation or murder of individuals and families.
The names of the Lithuanians are also written in English. In addition, Kunichowsky had witnesses sign their pages of testimony.
His documents are invaluable in that they provide rare historical documentation from the few Jews who survived the mass killings that took place in Lithuania.
Neal Sher, director of the OSI, said that in terms of prosecuting those Lithuanians who are still alive, “it might prove useful if it identifies people who are alive in the United States. It could be a useful source.”
Sher said the list, which he called a “unique holding,” includes names already known to OSI, as well as new names. The list will also help in identifying and prosecuting war criminals in Canada, Australia and Great Britain.
“We don’t know how important it will be just yet,” he said, but “it’s clearly a valuable addition to what we have, in terms of the plight of Lithuanian Jews — there’s no question. It adds to the history of crimes that took place in Lithuania.”
Raoul Hilberg, an eminent historian of the Holocaust, said he was very disturbed to hear that such a list existed and had not been given to OSI 10 years ago, when the agency was established.
10 YEARS TO CORROBORATE
“If a person had been going around a D.P. camp taking notes and didn’t give it in (to OSI), then your real story is not that such a list existed, but that someone could have been sitting on it for profit,” Hilberg said.
He said it takes a “major effort to verify one name,” let alone 1,300. Each name must be “subject to scrutiny, one by one, to find out if they’re alive and if any of them was in any battalion.”
The prosecution of the Lithuanians could prove difficult, Hilberg said. “You have to have clear evidence that they did something,” he said, as well as “corroborating witnesses — more than one.
“Corroborating such a list will take 10 years,” making prosecution impossible for the many more elderly perpetrators who will die off by then, he said.
“This almost makes me mad,” Hilberg said. “What good is all this? Why didn’t he hand in this list to the U.S. government? Was he waiting for someone to give him $100,000?”
Zuroff said Kunichowsky came to the United States in 1948 or 1949, then made aliyah in the mid-1970s. He lived in Bat Yam for 10 years before moving back to the United States.