MOSCOW, Feb. 22 (JTA) — Lithuania has long been accused of purposefully dragging its feet in Nazi-era war crimes cases.
But two recent events appear to show that the former Soviet republic is responding to international pressure and moving ahead with some prosecutions.
Last week the country saw its first successful World War II-era conviction since it earned its independence in 1991.
A court in the capital of Vilnius convicted Kazys Gimzauskas of collaborating with the Nazis.
Gimzauskas, 93, was found guilty of taking part in the Nazi killings of Jews and of handing over Jews to Nazi death squads while he served as deputy head of the Lithuanian security police between 1941 and 1944.
In the second instance, a Lithuanian court issued an arrest warrant for an 85-year-old man suspected of murdering Jews during World War II.
Now living in Scotland, Anton Gecas is alleged to have killed Jews and other civilians when he was head of a special Nazi police unit in a part of Lithuania that is now in the former Soviet republic of Belarus.
Gecas was the subject of investigations in 1987, but the case was later dropped.
The actions, say observers, are a direct reflection of international pressure on Lithuania.
“I believe that the perception in the media and among the politicians is that the Lithuanian public does not want any of this done, but they realize that because of Western pressure and their desire to get into NATO and the E.U., they have to do something in this regard,” Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, told JTA.
Despite the actions on Gimzauskas and Gecas, the Baltic nation’s record on prosecuting war criminals is far from exemplary, observers note.
Gimzauskas’s immediate wartime superior, Aleksandras Lileikis, was the first person Lithuania brought to trial for Nazi-era war crimes, but after numerous delays, Lileikis, 93, died of a heart attack last summer before the trial could be completed.
Indeed, even though Gimzauskas was convicted, the court refused to sentence him, saying he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
Observers in Vilnius drew attention to the fact that this degenerative psychiatric disease did not prevent Gimzauskas from publishing a book of memoirs, recollecting his wartime struggle against German and Russian invaders for Lithuania’s freedom.
And activists are still pressing Lithuania to take stronger action against other war criminals, including Vincas Valkavickas and Kazys Ciurinskas.
As Gimzauskas’ memoir indicates, Lithuania’s memories of Jewish behavior during the wartime years lie at the core of Lithuania’s long-time hesitance.
For many in Lithuania, Jews are strongly associated with Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic countries in 1940, when many Jews served in the Soviet Red Army — and even in Stalin’s secret police.
This was one of the reasons for violent anti-Jewish outbursts immediately after the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Lithuanian public opinion therefore viewed people like Lileikis and Gimzauskas not as war criminals or Jew-killers, but as freedom fighters against Russian oppressors and their Jewish collaborators, even after more than 90 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 prewar Jews died in the Holocaust.
Lithuania’s top Jewish official, Simonas Alperavicius, has acknowledged that there were high-profile Jews serving with the Soviet secret police during and after World War II, but said they were acting as Soviet officials, not as Jews.
The widespread, but tacit, grass-roots support for the alleged war criminals was the main cause behind the apparent unwillingness of the Lithuanian authorities to launch trials.
More generally, the government and the media react to this perception, according to Zuroff, by taking a low profile.
For example, there was little reaction to the conviction of Gimzauskas in Lithuanian newspapers, he said.
At the same time that some progress is being made on Nazi-era crimes, however, the current state of anti- Semitism appears to be getting worse.
Anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing recently, most notably in newspapers. And Vytautas Suskauskas, the mayor of Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, recently made anti-Semitic comments.
In reaction to these incidents, a group of legislators called on the government earlier this month to crack down on extremists.
But Simonas Alperavicius, a Lithuanian Jewish leader, is not optimistic.
“It is of course a positive development that at least one Nazi criminal case has been completed. It is important for the community. But the level of anti-Semitism stays the same,” Alperavicius told JTA.