WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (JTA) — Nazi hunters from around the globe are keeping a wary eye on Latvia.
While they welcomed Latvia’s announcement that it is committed to investigating suspected Nazi-era war criminals, they are cautioning that they have heard such promises before.
Latvia’s announcement came at the end of a two-day conference held last week in Riga, the country’s capital, where government officials from the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany and Israel discussed the Baltic nation’s failure to convict any suspected Nazis since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
U.S. officials pressed for the conference amid recent publicity surrounding Konrad Kalejs, who for years has faced charges of being involved in the slaughter of civilians when he served as an officer in Latvia’s notorious Arajs Kommando unit.
The militia is held directly responsible for the deaths of some 100,000 civilians, including 30,000 Jews, between 1941 and 1943.
About 75,000 Jews, or more than 90 percent of Latvia’s prewar Jewish community, were murdered by the Nazis — with help from local residents.
Kalejs, 86, has said he was ordered by German officers to head an Arajs Kommando unit, but he has denied being present when civilians were shot.
U.S. and Jewish groups pressured Latvia to extradite Kalejs for trial after he was found by Nazi hunters in a retirement home in Britain late last year.
Kalejs, who was deported from the United States and Canada in the early 1990s for lying about his wartime record, fled in January from Britain to Australia, where he has had citizenship since 1957 and where he is still living now.
During the conference, Latvia’s prosecutor general, Janis Skrastins, pledged Latvia’s “readiness and commitment” to “investigate Nazi-sponsored crimes committed on Latvian territory during World War II and to prosecute persons who have committed these crimes.”
Latvia agreed to update all of the countries in three months about the progress its investigations. The other countries pledged to assist Latvian authorities in the investigations, and Latvia and Australia agreed to negotiate an extradition treaty, which could lead to Kalejs’ being tried in Latvia.
Eli Rosenbaum, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, welcomed the developments.
But in an interview with JTA, he said the Latvians have not kept their promises in the past.
“Obviously the U.S. was very disappointed with what it learned about Latvia’s failure to seriously investigate these cases during its nine years of independence,” said Rosenbaum, who did not attend the conference but sent two aides.
“This failure undermines Riga’s public announcement over the years that they were in fact investigating these cases.
“This is the last moment in history” for Latvia to prosecute aging suspected Nazis, he added.
Rosenbaum would not go into details, but suggested that Latvia will reconsider evidence gathered by the United States as part of their investigation into Kalejs’ activities during the war.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, suggested that the Latvian pledge could be a “positive step,” but said they must now follow through.
“We are waiting to see what happens in actual terms,” he said in an interview from Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Jewish activists in Riga, where 90 percent of Latvia’s 12,000 Jews live, were disappointed that they were not invited to last week’s conference.
“The conference went nearly unnoticed, because only officials were invited,” said Michail Avrutin, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews’ representative in Riga. “It is regrettable because it should have been a major event for the Jewish community.”
Grigory Krupnikov, a leader of the Latvian Jewish community, called the conference a “positive event,” saying what is most important is not the issue of whether Kalejs will be brought to justice, but raising “public awareness of such phenomena as fascism and Nazism.”
Grigory Bikson, a teacher at a Jewish high school in Riga, shared this sentiment, particularly because he feels that anti-Semitism in Latvia is rising.
“We have every year more and more fascist publications here spreading allegations that Jews are guilty of crimes against the Latvian people,” he said.
He noted that the fascist organization Perkoncruss — or The Cross of Perkun, a Latvian pagan deity — published a book “The Gruesome Year” about the participation of Jews in anti-Latvian crimes during Stalin’s regime.
Because some Jews served in the Soviet secret police in Stalinist times, Latvia’s nationalists have frequently scapegoated Jews, charging them with taking part in Soviet atrocities against the Latvian people when Russia occupied the country between 1940 and 1941.
To these nationalists, Kalejs is nothing less than a national hero for fighting alongside with Nazis, who overran Latvia in 1941, against Communist domination.
During last week’s conference, the nationalist newspaper “Latvians in Latvia” published an article headlined “Hands Off Kalejs.”
(JTA correspondent Lev Gorodetsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)