NEW YORK (Nov. 14)
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis has agreed to set up a commission to resolve charges that his government exonerated war criminals involved in atrocities against Jews during World War II.
Landsbergis told American Jewish communal leaders here Thursday that his government is working to determine which cases should not have been rehabilitated in the mass amnesty.
He said he has invited the Israeli government and other organizations to work with Lithuania to reach accurate conclusions in cases where it is difficult to determine the extent of an individual’s participation in war crimes against Jews.
In a separate meeting here Tuesday with officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Landsbergis agreed to set up a special commission to investigate those cases.
He is proposing a joint parliamentary commission with Israel, an idea endorsed by Dov Shilansky, speaker of the Israeli Knesset and a native of Lithuania.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said that the commission would likely involve representatives from the Knesset, the Israeli Ministry of Justice, the Israeli police, the Wiesenthal Center and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, in addition to Lithuanian officials.
A proposal for the commission’s composition was worked out with Ramunas Bojdanas, Landsbergis’ foreign affairs adviser, in a follow-up meeting Wednesday, and is now under consideration by the Lithuanians, Cooper said.
An estimated 35,000 Lithuanians to date have been exonerated under the May 1990 Lithuanian rehabilitation law. The law absolves them of culpability for crimes they were accused of committing by the Soviet Union following the war, and provides them with restitution for their time in prison.
Many were declared guilty by the Soviets of crimes against the Communist government, and others of collaboration with the Nazis.
Those found guilty of the first charge have been rightly rehabilitated, Landsbergis said at an American Jewish Committee luncheon here Thursday. He said 500 of those found guilty of the second charge have been denied exoneration.
2,000 CASES MAY BE REVIEWED
But there is a third category, Landsbergis said, where it is not as clear whether rehabilitation is justified. This category includes Lithuanians who were members of military units that murdered Jews but about whom there is no evidence of personal participation in the killing.
Another example of a questionable case, he said, is if someone did not pull the trigger, but “escorted people to their execution.”
Landsbergis told Wiesenthal Center officials that 1,000 to 2,000 of the exonerations already granted may need to be reviewed, Cooper said.
Many more Lithuanians convicted of war crimes by the Soviets, or their children, are expected to still apply for rehabilitation, and Lithuanian estimates of the number of future applications runs “easily into the six figures,” Cooper said.
Even as Landsbergis pledged to “resolve this by concretely defining what problems exist and moving to deal with them,” he was defensive about the way that the Western media have portrayed Lithuanian responsiveness to the wrongful exonerations since they were first made public in a New York Times article Sept. 5.
“There have been unjust accusations and in accurate depictions of our history,” he said Thursday.
According to Mark Weitzman, associate director of educational outreach for the Wiesenthal Center, who participated in the meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, “Landsbergis’ father is honored by Yad Vashem as a righteous Gentile. He is not happy about his own or country’s name being dragged around in this issue.”
He said the Wiesenthal Center officials have the sense that the Lithuanian leader wants to resolve the issue soon.
‘MORE WORK TO BE DONE’
Landsbergis has pledged to vote for a repeal of the 1975 U.N. resolution denigrating Zionism as racism when it comes before the General Assembly, David Harris, executive vice president of the AJCommittee, announced at the luncheon.
But as to the extent of Landsbergis’ remarks, Harris said, “clearly there is still a good deal more work to be done in Lithuania. There are still definitional questions and procedural questions that remain ambiguous.
“But what we heard today,” he said, “was an important step toward recognizing that a serious problem remains that needs to be addressed.”
Not everyone attending the luncheon was satisfied with what Landsbergis said.
“What was unequivocally missing was a statement of apology and regret that the people of Lithuania took part in the killing of Jews,” said Abraham Bayer, director of international concerns for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
“There were pogroms (by Lithuanians) before the Nazis entered. Vilnius,” he said, “and there has never been a full-fledged apology to the Jewish people.”