NEW YORK, Nov. 27 (JTA) — A reward for information on Nazi war criminals has led the Lithuanian government to investigate possible war crimes in two of the country’s villages. In July, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Miami-based Targun Shlishi Foundation launched Operation Last Chance, a program offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the conviction and punishment of Nazi war criminals. Ludvikas Sabutis, deputy to the senior prosecutor of Lithuania’s Special Investigations Service, received a phone call last month from an unnamed Lithuanian who provided the names of those suspected to be involved in the 1942 killings of at least 20 Jews in the southern Lithuanian village of Seirijai. Preliminary information suggests German soldiers killed Jews with assistance from local Lithuanian residents. Lithuanian prosecutors said one of the suspects was charged with war crimes during the Soviet era and later died in Siberia, while a second immigrated to the United States, where he possibly died. The prosecutor also said an investigation into the massacre of Jews in Gruzdziai, located in northern Lithuania, has been reopened. Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israeli office, says the program has turned up the names of 47 war crimes suspects in Lithuania, three Estonians and one Latvian. Ninety-four percent of Jews in Lithuania and Latvia died during World War II. Historians say the number of Jewish deaths would have been far lower had ordinary citizens not participated in the killings. None of the people who provided leads have asked for a reward, said Simonas Alperavicius, the head of the Lithuanian Jewish community, who has fielded the phone calls from informants. Zuroff expects the flow of leads to continue. Last week he ran ads in Lithuania’s largest dailies. “Jews of Lithuania did not disappear! They were mercilessly massacred in Vilnius, Kaunas, Siauliai and over 100 other places of mass murder,” read the text of the large black-and-white ad, featuring a photograph of Nazis beating Jews to death with clubs. Similar ads are slated to run in Latvia next week to coincide with the anniversary of the mass murder of 30,000 Riga Jews at Rumbula, and in Estonia before the end of the year. Zuroff said those ads are particularly important since fewer leads have emerged from those nations. “The most important thing at this point, while Nazi war criminals can still be brought to justice, is to give these cases the absolute priority that they deserve. Only in this manner will any measure of justice ever be achieved,” Zuroff said. Lithuanian Special Prosecutor Rimvydas Valentukevicius last month told Zuroff in Vilnius that approximately 20 percent of 97 suspected Lithuanian Nazi collaborators named by the center have already been confirmed alive and living abroad. Operation Last Chance was developed under the principal that the Baltic nations have been procrastinating in their administration of justice to Nazi criminals. In Lithuania, the accusation is backed by the fact that since regaining independence in 1991, the nation of 3.5 million vowed to try those who participated in the massacre of Jews. Several men in their 80s and 90s were charged — but only one was ever convicted. No suspects spent any time in prison. In Latvia and Estonia, not a single Nazi war criminal has been convicted since those nations regained independence in 1991. Prosecutors argue that some 60 years after the Holocaust, it is nearly impossible to gather credible witnesses and evidence.
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