Balts under scrutiny at Holocaust forum

  • 2000-02-03
  • By Richard Lein, Baltic News Service
STOCKHOLM - Latvia and Lithuania came under renewed international scrutiny and occasional criticism for their record on prosecuting war criminals at an international forum on the Holocaust in Stockholm.

The gathering of 46 countries, including over 30 heads of government or state, at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust Jan 26-28 was convened to provide political will to further Holocaust education. But the real topics of talk were the possibility of the far right coming to power in Austria, the international community's failure to act to prevent other cases of genocide, and the need to bring remaining war criminals to justice.

"It is very important for the Baltic countries to bring their war criminals to justice," US Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat told journalists at the close of the forum.

The prosecution of war criminals was not mentioned in the final declaration as the forum was dedicated to education of the Holocaust, but Eizenstat said it was brought up in discussion in bilateral meetings with Latvia and Lithuania.

"We tried to elevate this issue in bilateral talks. I spoke with the Lithuanian prime minister [Andrius Kubilius] and urged him to bring the Lileikis case to trial," he told BNS, referring to the case against Aleksandras Lileikis, 92, the former director of the Vilnius security police, that was stopped to the defendant's poor health.

But with the case of Konrad Kalejs, the Latvian accused of having committed war crimes as part of a Nazi-backed unit, having only recently slid from international headlines, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was in for the most attention.

In repeated interviews with the international media and in her address to the forum Vike-Freiberga reiterated Latvia's commitment to bring all war criminals to justice "regardless of the ideology in whose name such crimes were perpetrated - whether Nazi or Communist - and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator."

Eizenstat praised Vike-Freiberga for taking "a step forward" in the prosecution of war criminals by agreeing that a meeting of investigators from six countries in February would review evidence against other suspected Latvian war criminals in addition to Kalejs [see related story].

But Vike-Freiberga came under blistering criticism from the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, Efraim Zuroff.

After a meeting in which Vike-Freiberga agreed to consider the evidence the Nazi-hunting organization has against Kalejs, and review the rehabilitations given to 41 individuals convicted by the Soviets for war crimes, Zuroff questioned Latvia's resolve to bring suspects to justice.

"There was an indication of a willingness [to pursue war crimes cases], but sometimes the gap between words and deeds is wide," he told reporters. Zuroff also criticized Vike-Freiberga and Kubilius for rewriting history in their speeches to the Stockholm Forum.

"It is a very sad occasion when a Holocaust education conference is used to rewrite history by Baltic political leaders," Zuroff was quoted as saying by The Jerusalem Post.

He also accused Vike-Freiberga of underestimating "many-fold" the number of Latvian war criminals.

Both Vike-Freiberga and Kubilius claimed their countries were tolerant of their Jewish minorities before the war, and that the Nazis bear the ultimate responsibility for the killings that took place, while admitting that locals who joined in should be condemned and prosecuted.

The statements that Latvia and Lithuania did not harbor antiSemitism before the war and there were few Balts who willingly joined the killing were questioned by Andrew Backer, director of European Affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

"If they could be found in France and Holland and Norway, they could certainly be found in Latvia and Lithuania, which - contrary to the speeches - were also fertile grounds for antisemitism long before Hitler," he told The Jerusalem Post.

The paper criticized the historical commissions that the Baltic states have created as they are charged with looking into both Nazi and Soviet persecution, but was trumped by the announcement that Israel's Yad Vashem has agreed to participate in the work of the commissions.

The lack of Jewish participation on the international commissions had undermined their credibility, but the decision by Israel's institute and monument to the Holocaust to join the Baltic historical commissions should reinforce their work.