VILNIUS, Lithuania, July 9 (JTA) — A program offering $10,000 rewards for information that leads to the conviction and punishment of any Nazi war criminal worldwide is an effort to turn up credible witnesses on Nazi crimes before it’s too late. Such a witness — an essential and oft-missing ingredient in war crime trials — is a tough find some 60 years after the Holocaust, since most suspects and bystanders are elderly or already deceased. Also, most crimes were committed in remote locations to ensure secrecy. What’s more, national governments are often less than anxious to prosecute their own citizens because this could backfire in elections. Operation Last Chance is organized by Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, and funded by Targum Shlishi, a charitable foundation in Florida headed by Aryeh Rubin. Although an international program under the aegis of the Wiesenthal Center, this week’s announcement of the program was made in the Baltics — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In these countries, the topic is especially pertinent, and Zuroff expects the most responses from them. The Baltics had among the highest rates of local collaboration with the Nazis and among the highest murder rates of the local Jewish population during World War II. Still, not a single resident of the Baltics has served one minute in jail for Holocaust-related crimes since these post-Communist nations regained independence in 1991. “In countries that have never taken a proactive stance, we realized that we have to do much of the work,” said Zuroff on Monday in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. “If we find the criminals and evidence, it will be that much easier for the local prosecutors to handle such cases, cases they would never otherwise have done themselves. They don’t have the staff, and political will is in short supply here. We have to do the work basically.” During the past decade, that work has consisted of Zuroff’s relentless prodding of Eastern European governments and media and has hardly resulted in a satisfactory number of convictions. Now, he hopes money will talk. Anyone can anonymously submit information to either the Wiesenthal Center in Israel, the local Jewish communities in all three Baltic nations or to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which pledged to provide logistical support to the program. Zuroff invited each nation to contribute to the prize. Lithuania and Latvia never responded, while Estonia declined due to budgetary concerns. Lithuanian Special Prosecutor Rimvydas Valentukevicius released a statement this week that said he told Zuroff during a June meeting that “charges pressed on the basis of information provided for money could be dismissed by a court as ungrounded. Yet laws do not directly ban payment for information allowing to disclose crimes or bringing those guilty to trial.” In the end, he writes: “I believe it is not necessary to ignore participation in the project.” Zuroff and Rubin see the fight to prosecute war criminals as a victory not only for world Jewry but also for these growing democracies. “This is the last chance for people of Lithuania to redeem the injustice that has been done to the Jewish people,” said Rubin. “The stain upon the Baltics will last for a long time if some of these killers are not brought to justice.” Zuroff points to Croatia as a nation that benefited from a Nazi war crime trial. “A trial can be the best history lesson,” he says. “Under the Croatian fiat, with a Croatian judge in a Croatian courtroom, a Croatian was jailed with maximum sentence and it’s not the same country as it was before,” noting that an anti-fascist regime is now leading Croatia. Western governments, meanwhile, are carefully monitoring the Baltic nations as they prepare to join the NATO military alliance in November and the European Union by 2004. Zuroff expects the $10,000 pot will seduce some residents of the area to come forward. The average annual salary in Lithuania is about $4,500, and it is only a bit higher in Latvia and Estonia. Fellow war criminals are the most likely informers, says Zuroff. Many Nazi war criminals were convicted by Soviet authorities during communism, albeit for anti-Soviet crimes, and not killing Jews. Regardless, these criminals can testify today without fear of further prosecution. Zuroff says Operation Last Chance is the first program offering monetary rewards for leads on any Nazi war criminal. The German government, he said, has offered money for information on specific criminals. The plan is sure to rock the Baltic media and public. Every time the issue of war criminals is mentioned in the Baltics, Web sites that post reader reactions swell with harsh, anti-Semitic comments that demonstrate a lack of historical perspective as much as downright ignorance. Rubin, who accompanied Zuroff on this weeklong mission to all three Baltic capitals, donated $50,000 to implement the program, $24,000 of which is earmarked for an advertising blitz in Baltic newspapers. He notes that if it is successful, the program can redirect itself to other post-Communist nations and Latin America. The idea, Rubin’s brainchild, is rooted in urgency. “I called up” Zuroff “one day and said ‘the day is coming to hang up our hats and I don’t want these guys to sleep at night.'” They began discussing various ideas; the concept of monetary rewards was partly inspired by George Bush’s $25 million bounty for Osama bin Laden. Despite its noble intentions, Operation Last Chance has already caused concern in Baltic Jewish communities. Cilja Laud, who has chaired the Estonian Jewish community for the past seven years, is a bit torn. Her community in Tallinn, the country’s capital, has no security. Laud says that when Zuroff campaigned in Estonia last year, anti Semitic phone calls filled her phone lines. “I am happy because he’s very serious and does so much good, but in Estonia now it’s quiet and when we speak again about this agenda it will be very bad for the community. I am afraid, I am afraid.” Since Lithuania became independent in 1991, 11 Lithuanian war criminals who escaped to the United States after World War II returned to Lithuania after the U.S. Justice Department took action against them. Of this group only two individuals were indicted and one was convicted, but deemed too ill for punishment. In Latvia, only one Nazi war criminal was ever indicted but he died before he could be extradited from Australia to stand trial in Riga. Estonia has failed to take legal action against a single Estonian Nazi war criminal and has failed to initiate any investigations of Nazi war criminals upon its own initiative. More than 94 percent of the Jews in Lithuania and Latvia were murdered during the Holocaust. In many communities, Jews were physically attacked by their neighbors before the Nazis arrived. Only 5,000 Jews lived in Estonia before the war, and 4,000 escaped to Russia and survived. Of the 1,000 that remained, only seven survived. Today, there are approximately 3,000 Jews living in each of the three countries.