Chasing phantoms

  • 2002-08-22
  • Janis Bolsteins
You couldn't say the Baltics weren't warned, and by no less than Joe DeThomas, the U.S. ambassador to Estonia.

In late May, he authored an article in the Estonian daily Eesti Paevaleht titled "Past, Present and Future." Thomas's theme was that Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania by extension) was not paying enough attention to the Holocaust and was not putting enough effort into the pursuit of Estonians who might be Nazi war criminals. He lamented Estonia's overly vigorous pursuit of Soviet war criminals and posits that Estonian school books treat the Holocaust only "in about one-and-a-half pages."

DeThomas mostly argues from the Jewish perspective, although the inclusion of one short but startling phrase makes the article balanced beyond question.

DeThomas had the courage to write that in contrast to the Nazi occupation "the Soviet occupation did more direct harm in Estonia." That admission, that the Soviets were worse than the Nazis, is simply not made, most of all in American political circles — at least not without catching hell. To date, it appears he has not been admonished. Then again, perhaps Efraim Zuroff does not monitor the Estonian press.

Anyway, what did happen soon thereafter, proving the validity of De Thomas' warning, was that Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, announced a new scheme for catching the last remaining Nazi war criminals in the Baltics. He is offering $10,000 to anyone who provides information leading to the conviction of any Balt on war-crime charges.

Dubbed "Operation Last Chance," Zuroff has now turned the hunt for Nazis, legitimate at its core but with occasional traces of a witch-hunt, into farce.

It is not justice but revenge he is pursuing. His methodology in ferreting out Baltic war criminals may best be summed up in this casual statement from his July 12 press conference in Riga: "The number of Nazi criminals in Lithuania is larger than in Latvia, while in Estonia it is smaller." How's that for precision and exactness?

Further, he was quoted as saying that he "does not know the precise number of war criminals in Latvia, or any specific person that had participated in Nazi atrocities."

He also finds that the Baltics "had among the highest rates of collaboration with the Nazis" (How does Zuroff measure that? Where does France rank? Austria?)

Well, given the ambassador's comment noted earlier, it does seem to follow that there would have been more collaboration with the lesser evil against the greater.

This is the crux of Zuroff's drive for revenge.

What is of course at play here is an effort to thwart the Baltics chances of gaining membership in NATO. Invitations to join the alliance are expected later this year.

And this is just the prologue; merely a trial run for Zuroff. Wait until the U.S. Senate debate on NATO enlargement to the Baltics, now scheduled for early 2004, takes place. Then watch Zuroff in action. Perhaps by then he'll have some strong evidence and actual names.

Will the $10,000 offering lead to anything? Unlikely. It may at best produce unprovable accusations, finger-pointing and revenge-motivated sensationalism, but little that will stand as hard evidence. Although the definition of "Nazi" and "Nazi war crimes" is extremely broad, there probably aren't too many catchable fish left in the sea.

Zuroff's new scheme may not exactly qualify as a hoax, but he is chasing phantoms.

But, again, his main purpose is less the apprehension of specific persons than it is the defamation of all three Baltic states.

And with that said, let's close with this interesting bit of pertinent news.

The Israeli justice minister in July sent a letter to Lithuania's Prosecutor General's Office, stating that Israel would not extradite former KGB officer Nachman Dushanski, who is suspected of war crimes against Lithuanians during and after World War II.

Lithuania has filed formal charges against Dushanski, who emigrated to Israel in 1989. Israel, furthermore, has even refused requests to question him, arguing that Israel's statute of limitations applies to the charges against Dushanski.

Odd. And here we've been led to believe that there was no statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against humanity. Maybe if the Lithuanians offered some money?