VILNIUS, Lithuania (Jul. 28)
A program offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of Nazi war criminals has incited a heated dispute in Estonia that could hinder the country’s bid to join NATO.
Two days after Operation Last Chance was announced July 8 by the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, director of the center’s Israel office, received a tip about the wartime crimes of the 36th Estonian Police Battalion.
The battalion was a 16-member unit that Zuroff says helped murder Jews in Nowogrudok, Belarus, on Aug. 7, 1942.
Zuroff handed a list of 16 participants to the Estonian Security Police Board and requested an investigation. He was left aghast when the board, in charge of prosecuting war criminals, responded swiftly by denying the battalion’s participation in the killings.
“We found no evidence against these men. There was also no evidence that the 36th Battalion took part in any crimes,” said Henno Kuurmann, spokesman for the Estonian Security Police.
Meelis Ratassepp, deputy director of the Security Police, added that the Security Police didn’t find any authentic documents proving the participation of the 36th Police Battalion.
But according to a report from the Estonia International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, a group of historians founded in 1998 by former President Lennart Meri, “The 36th Police Battalion participated on Aug. 7, 1942, in the gathering together and shooting of almost all the Jews still surviving in the town of Nowogrudok.”
Ratassepp, however, said “a historical commission is one thing, and a criminal investigation is another.”
Nine of the 16 men on Zuroff’s list died during or immediately after World War II, he said, and the whereabouts of the other seven couldn’t be ascertained.
Zuroff demanded a retraction from the Security Police, while the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn also contacted the Security Police about its hasty response.
“Our wish is to understand how the Security Police could arrive at such a different conclusion” than the International Commission, said Thomas Hodges, public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn.
“We understand the historical commission surely consulted evidence and historical documents to arrive at their conclusion,” he said. “We seek to understand from the Security Police if they consulted the same material. We have no answer yet.”
During the past year, Western diplomats have closely tracked Jewish-related issues in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the three Baltic states prepare to join NATO in November.
Though NATO is a defense alliance, aspirant countries are expected to maintain shared values about the treatment of religious minorities. They therefore have prioritized Jewish issues such as Holocaust restitution, Holocaust education and honest evaluations of their history.
NATO entry also requires two-thirds approval in the U.S. Senate. Bruce Jackson, president of the U.S. Committee for NATO, says Holocaust issues have topped the NATO agenda over the summer in a handful of Central and Eastern European aspirant nations.
“These issues still need work,” said Jackson, who plans to meet with the Estonian prime minster in Washington in September.
“It does not surprise me that we hit this pothole,” he said. “It’s clearly something that over the next 18 months, through reforms and ratifications, Estonia will be working on. But we’re going to get it solved.”
The issue is sensitive in the Baltics, where rates of local collaboration with the Nazis were among the highest in Europe. The region also had one of the highest Jewish population extermination rates during World War II.
More than 94 percent of the Jews in Lithuania and Latvia were murdered during the Holocaust. 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.
About 3,000 Jews live in each of the three Baltic states today.
The countries have struggled to confront their Holocaust history since gaining independence in 1991.
Though governments recently have tried to increase sensitivity to ethnic minorities, anti-Semitism still runs strong. In addition, citizens here are intensely nationalistic after emerging from Polish, German and Russian occupation during the past century.
Some wonder how well Estonia is able, even today, to look objectively at its history.
“The unprofessional and incompetent results of the investigation carried out in this case raises serious doubts as to the ability of the Security Police Board to properly investigate the cases of Estonian Nazi war criminals,” Zuroff said. “Under these circumstances, one can only doubt whether any Holocaust perpetrators will ever be held accountable in Estonia.”
Operation Last Chance, meanwhile, has dominated the Baltic media. Editorials have blasted Zuroff’s program as immoral because it offers monetary rewards for criminal information.
A news Web site that posts reader reactions swelled with more than 1,600 messages, many of them anti-Semitic.
Other articles have sought to deflected blame by suggesting that Jewish KGB agents who deported Balts to Siberia after the war be prosecuted.
An Estonian man said he would reward $20,000 to anyone with information on Jewish KGB officers involved in oppressing Estonians.
“The Nazi and Soviet occupations are mixed together immediately,” said Simonas Alperavicius, the chairman of Lithuania’s Jewish community, whom the media has criticized for assisting Zuroff.
“I think it’s because the burden of guilt is so big and they don’t want to accept it, so their counter reaction is such,” he said. “There’s a lack of education, a lack of understanding about what happened.”
In Lithuania, meanwhile, Parliament member Egidijus Klumbys said Zuroff should possibly be banned from the country.
Thus far, Operation Last Chance has turned up more controversy than incriminating leads. About 18 tips have been filed via telephone and mail, none of which will serve as concrete evidence for trial.
Most of the tips have been from people “who have been witnesses in one way or another,” said Alperavicius, who took more than a dozen of the calls in his Vilnius office.
The callers were “very angry about history, angry with people who committed the crimes. They were crying when talking about that,” he said. “But there’s very little concrete information.”