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Last Effort to Hunt Down Nazis Seeks Help from Local Witnesses

When the hot line in Vienna rings, Christine Schindler steels herself. It could be a tip leading to an old Nazi who has escaped justice. More likely, it’s another crank caller making anti-Semitic comments.

“Why don’t you leave our grandparents alone? The Jews are guilty of everything,” Schindler has heard.

“There is one Nazi murderer: Ariel Sharon,” is another line, or, “Austrians have paid enough for the Jews.”

“Although I expected such calls, I did not know how stressful it would be,” said Schindler, a volunteer for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance. The program constitutes the center’s last-ditch effort to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals before they die.

Schindler works at the Vienna-based Documentation Center for Austrian Resistance, and she has been answering the hot line for several months. The Wiesenthal Center rewards successful tips — those that lead to a conviction — with $10,000.

Last Chance was launched in 2002 in the Baltics, was extended to Poland, Romania and Austria in 2003, and this June will expand to Germany, Hungary, Croatia.

“We are about to start the biggest push ever, the last push,” said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and coordinator of Nazi war crimes research. Zuroff launched the project together with the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami, Fla., founded by Aryeh Rubin, who had the idea for the program.

The project reflects the fact that the World War II generation is dying. Those behind the project say it aims to correct the injustice that perpetrators have gotten away with murder, while Holocaust survivors suffer a lifetime of anguish over their pain and the loss of loved ones.

Despite the obvious challenge, there have been some positive results.

So far, 198 leads have come in from Lithuania, 43 from Latvia, 6 from Estonia and 13 from Ukraine, where the program hasn’t even officially begun. In all, 72 cases have been submitted to prosecutors in Lithuania, Latvia and the United States, with nine murder investigations under way in Lithuania.

In Poland, an ad campaign for the program will be launched in June.

“This is a fight against impunity,” said Winfried Garscha, historian and archivist at the Documentation Center for Austrian Resistance.

“You can’t say it is so long ago and the murder is no longer a murder if it happened 60 years ago,” he said. “This is the wrong attitude for the societies that allowed those crimes to take place.”

“We have an obligation to the victims,” Zuroff said. “We are working against the clock.”

The program was started in the Baltics because those countries had the highest rate of victims during the Holocaust. There also was an extremely large number of local collaborators and police units sent from other Baltic countries who actively participated in the mass murder of Jews, Wiesenthal center officials said.

As each new country was added to the program, the rewards were announced in news conferences and were followed by local ad campaigns.

“We try to work with the Jewish communities but they are not always open to cooperation,” Zuroff said. In Germany, he said he was told, “This is not the time.”

“Like it is going to be ‘the time’ five years from now,” Zuroff said.

In Austria, the ad slogan was “The murderers are among us.”

In Lithuania, the ad campaign included a photograph taken by Nazis of an infamous 1941 pogrom in Kovno, where local gangs murdered 50 Jews. Some were killed when fire hoses were forced into their mouths and the water was turned on.

“Their stomachs exploded,” Zuroff said. “Women and children were among those who applauded at every murder, and then they took out an accordion and people sang Lithuanian songs.”

The ad said, “Lithuanian Jewry did not disappear. They were brutally murdered,” Zuroff said. “This is about your Jewish neighbors, the ones who were murdered nearby.”

Otto Adler, 75, is an Auschwitz survivor who leads the group Holocaust Survivors in Romania. A volunteer for the local Last Chance hot line, Adler said he’s used to getting crank calls.

“The first rule is to be very, very quiet when they are speaking,” he said. “This is very difficult: At my age, everyone becomes angry very easily. But we stop our anger and become quiet and explain that he is saying very, very bad things, and then I say that I am very sorry, with this kind of talk I cannot be his partner, and I break off the conversation.”

In Austria, some callers mistakenly thought the reward was coming from the local Jewish community, which they then accused of using reparation money paid to Holocaust survivors by Austrian taxpayers to go after “our grandfathers.”

Volunteers for the hot line say justice is a matter of principle, no matter the age.

Olaf Ossmann, 39, a Berlin attorney who works on reparations cases for Holocaust survivors in Germany, Israel and the United States, said it’s outrageous that former Lithuanian soldiers get German pensions because they worked for Germany in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Adler said the hot line also has brought in tips about Romanians who helped rescue Jews, which is a separate project of his survivors association. There is no reward money for that program.

“We found three people, but one is already dead,” Adler said. “We sent their names to Yad Vashem,” the Holocaust memorial in Israel.

Operation Last Chance also seeks to educate people about anti-Semitism, Zuroff said. The volunteers’ experiences indicate that much remains to be done in coming to terms with the history of local collaboration, he said.

In certain countries there was “extensive collaboration and relatively little effort to face that collaboration, and almost no effort to bring them to justice,” Zuroff said. “Even Austria has not had a successful conviction in 30 years, and it is certainly not for lack of suspects.”

“There are many of these people around,” he added.

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