NEW YORK (Sep. 5)
Jews around the world have reacted with shock and profound anger to revelations that the Lithuanian government has begun pardoning citizens convicted by the Soviets of collaborating in Nazi war crimes.
American Jewish groups mobilized quickly to protest the pardons, which were disclosed Thursday in a report on the front page of The New York Times.
The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council scheduled a Friday morning meeting with the Lithuanian legation in Washington. Participants were to include survivors of the Kovno and Vilna ghettos.
In addition, Jewish leaders in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York were to hold meetings Friday with officials of the three Lithuanian consulates in the United States.
In Moscow, the Vaad, the federation of Jewish groups in the Soviet Union, planned to make a “direct representation” to the Lithuanian government, according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
Steinberg learned this after telephoning Michael Chlenov, the Vaad’s co-president, who was “appalled” at news of the pardons.
Steinberg asked the WJC representative in Brussels, Maram Stern, to “contact the European Community leadership, both to raise our fervent objections to this very sorry development and to seek E.C. intervention in this matter.”
‘THE GOYIM KEPT QUIET’
According to the Times story, the newly independent government in Vilnius has been issuing certificates of exoneration to literally thousands of Lithuanians who were convicted as war criminals by Soviet courts.
Among those pardoned are people who confessed to mass murder of civilians, the report said. Moreover, those who served in prison are receiving compensation for that time.
The pardons are seen as part of the overall effort to shuck off more than 50 years of Soviet rule. The Lithuanians have long complained that their republic was overrun first by Nazis and then by Communists.
But Jews from the Baltic states remember with gruelingly painful memory that Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians were especially helpful to the Nazis in the mass killing of Jews.
One Lithuanian war crimes witness, Rabbi Ephraim Oshri of the Slobotka Yeshiva here, recalled how “the goyim kept quiet” during the war, while the Jews were killed. Oshri, a survivor of the Slobotka ghetto, near Kovno, wrote a book about the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry.
Another man who survived the Vilna ghetto and joined the partisans said the Lithuanians were for the most part “bandits and murderers. They killed most of the Jewish people.”
Holocaust survivors, Soviet Jewry activists and Jewish communal leaders alike expressed anger at the news Thursday and called upon the Lithuanian government to reverse the pardons.
Jewish groups are finding the news particularly disturbing, because Lithuanian officials had assured them they would under no circumstances pardon war criminals responsible for mass murder.
They recalled that in May 1990, Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis issued a proclamation condemning “without reservation” the “genocide executed against the Jewish nation during the Nazi occupation in Lithuania,” among whose executioners “there were Lithuanian citizens.”
SURVIVORS FEEL ‘ANGRY AND BETRAYED’
“For the crimes committed against the Jewish nation in Lithuania, and outside its borders, there is not and cannot be any justification or any statute of limitations on criminal prosecution,” Landsbergis said then.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Thursday that a Lithuanian law adopted last year “that annulled illegitimate convictions by Soviet authorities also specifically excluded genocide and the murder of civilians.”
“We would expect that (the Lithuanian government) would be acting in accordance with that law,” department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Neal Sher, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, was surprised at the Times report. He said he hoped the Lithuanian authorities would still cooperate with OSI’s investigations of war criminals living in America.
Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said the group’s members feel “angry and betrayed” by the Lithuanian action.
“We who survived can never forget that the Lithuanian guards stood arm in arm with Nazi soldiers in helping to execute masses of innocent Jewish men, women and children,” he said.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and acclaimed chronicler of the Holocaust, sent a cable to Landsbergis, conveying his feeling of “disappointment and deception and outrage” at the news and asking him to rectify “this mistake” immediately.
“Remembrance must be a very short thing in Lithuania,” remarked Elliot Welles, head of the Nazi task force of the Anti-Defamation League. “I am shocked, outraged.”
CONTACT WITH LITHUANIAN PROSECUTOR
In Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center said it had known about the pardons for some time and had sent an envoy to meet with the Lithuanian chief prosecutor.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the institution’s dean, said the center had received information a few months ago from Jewish activists in Lithuania that not only were war criminals “being exonerated for all the time they had spent in jail, they were being given back pay, and their property that was confiscated was being restored.”
“To my way of thinking, it meant people were being rewarded for killing Jews,” Hier said in a telephone conversation.
The center’s Israel representative, Efraim Zuroff, met with the Lithuanian prosecutor, Artusas Paulauskas, in June. The prosecutor told him that “anyone implicated in murdering civilians would not be exonerated,” Hier said.
About a third of those pardoned are still alive, the prosecutor indicated. But he turned down Zuroff’s request for a list of those pardoned, Hier said.
The center has since identified four people implicated in mass murder who were pardoned.
“In other words, what the prosecutor general told Zuroff did not square with the facts of what the Lithuanians were doing,” Hier said.
“Despite the reassurances of the prosecutor general, information which has now reached the center clearly proves that individuals convicted of active participation in the murder of civilians have in fact been granted rehabilitation,” he said.
Last week, the Wiesenthal Center asked Landsbergis to stop the rehabilitation process.
“We told the president we have additional information on at least 10 other cases of people implicated in crimes of murder who have been exonerated,” Hier said.
Hier said the Wiesenthal Center is going to approach members of Congress to raise the matter with the Lithuanian government.
“We basically feel there can’t be a commitment” to the Lithuanian government “without resolving this issue,” he said.
(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)