By ED STODDARD* with TONY SEED
Shunpiking Magazine, February-March 1998, Volume 3, Number 18
THEY COMMITTED unspeakable atrocities in Nazi-occupied Europe, writing the most horrific chapter into the brief history of Hitler's "Thousand-year Reich" of a "chosen people." They ruthlessly terrorised, tortured and murdered Communists and other political opponents and prisoners, along with Jews, Gypsies and other nationalities classed as "Subhuman" on the Nazis' twisted racial scale. After the war, many of them sought refuge abroad. Canada was one of the countries that laid down the welcome mat for them. While many of them landed at Pier 21 in the port of Halifax or in Saint John, New Brunswick, and then moved west or down south, some settled in out-of-the-way places in the Maritimes, where they have worked and lived in comfort for decades and now draw government pensions. Some were given military-naval appointments, including instruction at military and coast guard academies.
Last-ditch efforts are now under way to bring them to justice. The task is an arduous one. And the biggest hurdle is not the passage of time, but resistance on the part of Canadian authorities - and those in the countries where the genocide occurred - to prosecute Nazi war criminals. As of last year (1997) Canada had deported only two alleged Nazi war criminals in the preceding four decades (the _rst was only in 1982), even though the token Deschenes Commission in 1987 recommended action be taken against 20 and said another 218 cases needed further investigation. In both Canada and Europe, this judicial foot-dragging betrays a reluctance to come to terms with shameful episodes from the past. Recent revelations that many of Hitler's willing executioners have lived in Canada for years have cast an unwelcome spotlight on our government's role in aiding and abetting their flight from justice.
Shunpiking magazine has discovered one of the suspected Nazis in our midst, a former Latvian security policeman, who has lived in Nova Scotia for almost 50 years.
The Scene of the Crime
By ED STODDARD* in Riga and Vilnius
ACCORDING to the historian Christopher R. Browning, about 75 to 80 per cent of the victims of the Holocaust were still clinging to a precarious existence in mid-March, 1942. Only eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the figures were grimly reversed. By then, 75 to 80 per cent of all the Jews murdered during the war were dead.
Even by the chillingly efficient standards of the Nazi murder machine, the Holocaust in Latvia occurred at a horrific pace. By mid-December 1941, a mere six months after the German army had swept into the country and three months before the genocidal turning point highlighted by Browning, over 90 per cent of the Latvian Jews trapped behind German lines were killed.
Many were murdered by their Latvian neighbours.
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, launched on 22 June 1941, unleashed an orgy of killing in Latvia and its Baltic siblings Estonia and Lithuania, historically once provinces of Russia, which had been annexed by the U.S.S.R. the previous year as a preventive measure against Hitlerite aggression. In 1919 the Baltics had been used as a staging base for Western armies of intervention following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In 1940 the Nazi invasion plan code-named "Operation Barbarossa" laid out a line of march through Poland and the Baltic states against Leningrad. The Baltic States had traditionally been claimed by pan-Germanism. Lithuania had already been penetrated.
Greeting the advancing Wehrmacht as liberators, thousands of Balts turned on their Jewish neighbours. In Lithuania, pogroms erupted in at least 40 towns and villages before the arrival of German troops. It was an unprecedented act of collective violence in a region where Jews had lived in peace for centuries.
The Latvians were somewhat slower to rise up against the Jews, but the Germans soon found plenty of local collaborators to assist their special Einsatzgruppe battalions, mobile killing units responsible for the elimination of Jew and Communists. The most infamous Baltic killing units were the Lithuanian 12th Battalion and the Latvian Arajs Kommando. Historians estimate that Arajs men, who toured the countryside in a sinister blue bus, killed at least 26,000 of the more than 85,000 civilians, mostly Jews, who were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Latvia.
Their task typically involved machine-gunning large groups of terrified civilians in front of huge pits in secluded wooded areas.
The biggest massacres took place in the forest of Ponary, a village just 3.7 miles outside Vilnius, and at Rumbula, near the Latvian capital Riga. Between late 1941 and September of 1943, when the Vilnius ghetto was closed down, as many as 100,000 civilians are believed to have been shot in the pine forest by Ponary. At Rumbula on 30 November and 8 December 1941, 12 German machine gunners shot about 25,000 Jews who were marched to their death from the Riga ghetto by Latvian police.
Countless other sites have passed from memory and lie unmarked. The fact that many of the killing grounds are now forgotten testifies to the ubiquity of the Holocaust on Baltic soil. A friend of mine stumbled across one in a forest on the outskirts of Vilnius. There, in what at first glance appears to be a natural ravine by a pleasant walking trail, dozens of human bones lie scattered among the leaves.
After the initial outburst of killings, the Nazis' Jewish policy in the Baltics followed the familiar pattern of ghettozation and exploitation. Local police units played a key role in ensuring that these policies ran smoothly, and kept the grave diggers busy with periodic actions to weed out the aged, the sick, children and other Jews deemed unworthy of serving the Reich's wartime economy.
But it would be wrong to paint all the Balts with one brush.
At the other end of the moral spectrum were countless Balts who, at great risk to their own lives, sheltered and saved Jews. "One coward with a gun can kill hundreds of people. But it takes the actions of many brave people to save one life," one Jewish woman, who was saved by Lithuanians, once told me.
When the Red Army returned in 1944, a once-thriving Jewish community, with roots stretching back 700 years, was gone. Around 94 per cent of Lithuania's prewar Jewish population of 220,000 was killed. The Jews of Latvia, once numbering 86,000, were virtually wiped out.
Today, little of this past is evident. The capital of Vilnius was once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. A focal point of Jewish culture, sacred and secular, it boasted 94 synagogues and the world's greatest Yiddish library. It has only one synagogue left, attended by a few old men in worn skullcaps.
It is eerie to walk the cobble-stoned streets of Vilnius and Riga and realize that these communities have vanished. "I always find it strange to return to Vilnius," Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, told me in 1996 after he delivered a reading at Vilnius University, where he was a student in the 1930s. "The buildings and streets are all the same, but I have no hope of ever meeting any of the people I knew here." For him, this city of 620,000 is a ghost town, its Baroque and stucco-roofed buildings mute witnesses to a past that will not rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Holocaust.
* * *
ONE of the alleged Latvian perpetrators of this genocidal nightmare has been living in Nova Scotia for almost 50 years. He is one of several war criminals brought to this province.
Nazi hunters allege that he participated in the round up and slaughter of Jews in the southeastern Latvian city of Daugavpils (see map), where he served as a member of a Latvian fascist volunteer unit.
The actions near Daugavpils (Divinsk) included a massacre of 400 children on 18 and 19 August 1941, who were dragged from an orphanage and shot.
Our man's alleged participation in some of these actions are mentioned in a Soviet pamphlet, published in the early 1960s in Latvia, called Daugavas Vanagi (Who Are They?). He later became an officer in the Latvian SS.
There is considerable dispute about the value of Who Are They? It was written by KGB investigators, who certainly had motives for discrediting the Baltic èmigrè community. Andrew Ezergails, a Latvian-American historian whose 1996 book, The Holocaust in Latvia, is the best work on the subject, claims that only a fraction of the allegations in Who Are They? are true. But Nazi hunters point out that it - and a similar publication that appeared in Lithuania in the early 1970s - have yielded numerous promising leads. "Subsequent investigation into the activities of many of the people mentioned in both books has unearthed a lot of solid evidence, and several have had their US citizenship revoked," says one Nazi hunter.
"The KGB did a lot of nasty things, but like the FBI, they were very good and thorough investigators," Saul Littman, an investigator with the Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, told me. "These pamphlets are relatively reliable sources."
After the war, our man wound up in a Displaced Persons' (DP) camp in Wurzburg, Germany, where his ID card # was c.255008. "He was initially expelled by a (DP) screening board," says Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Jerusalem branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. "This means that his wartime activities were already known by the authorities that dealt with DPs." And that means that it was not only the KGB which had suspicions about him.
He was not the only DP whose dubious past was uncovered by screening authorities and subsequently swept under the rug. "They knew what my position was during the war... that was why they took away my DP status. I had to reapply for it through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva," 89-year-old Kazys Gimzauskas told me in his austere Vilnius flat as he pulled out a battered folder containing the form he sent to Geneva to reapply for his DP status. Attached was a letter from Lithuanians, already in America, saying that the allegations about his wartime activities were "Bolshevik lies."
Gimzauskas was the number 2 man in the Vilnius branch of the Lithuanian Security Police. Historians say the unit's main job was hunting Jews. The US Justice Department revoked his US citizenship on the grounds that he lied about his wartime past - which DP authorities clearly had an inkling of - when he entered America.
His former boss in the security police, 91-year-old Aleksandras Lileikis, spun a similar tale in a series of interviews in the Lithuanian daily Respublika. The reclusive Lileikis, who returned to Lithuania in June of 1996 after losing his citizenship, told the paper that US authorities knew about his position during the war. He said that the FBI had even sought his help in its investigation of the Rosenburgs, who were executed for treason in the 1950s.
In Canada, the investigative CBC show The Fifth Estate reported a few years ago that the RCMP used a Serbian war criminal to spy on members of his community.
Nazi-hunters say that hundreds of known war criminals were quietly granted safe passage to Canada, Australia and the United States. In 1950, the US Displaced Persons Commissioner redefined the Latvian and Estonian SS units as movements not hostile to the United States, a move which opened up the flood gates to all kinds of dubious characters. (These Baltic SS units, it should be noted, did not take part in any known atrocities against civilians, and were formed in 1943, long after most of the Jews in the region were killed.) But several of their members, like the war crimes suspect shunpiking has uncovered, are alleged to have been involved in massacres before they donned the SS insignia). The late 1940s and the 1950s witnessed the start of the Cold War and, as former Nazis minions, their anti-Communist credentials were beyond reproach.
Now Canada and the US say they will deport war criminals for concealing their past from immigration officials - though it appears that they were well aware of that past in at least a few cases.
Our man - after regaining his DP status - slipped out of Europe on 22 June 1949, aboard a ship named the General McRae. He landed in Halifax at Pier 21 and has been living in Nova Scotia ever since. At least three other suspected war criminals currently reside in Nova Scotia, not all of them Latvian. "At least one of them is a unique nationality," one Nazi hunter told me.
And given Canada's record, they will probably live here till they die.
Since 1994, when Imre Fintra, a former Hungarian police chief accused of authorizing the deportation of Jews to death camps, walked out of a Canadian court a free man, the Canadian government has focused its attention on expelling people for "immigration violations." Only two have been deported since the end of World War II. The current government has launched cases against 14 suspected war criminals since it came to power in 1993, three of whom have died.
In an attempt to save face, the government in December last year went head-hunting south of the border and hired Neil Sher, an aggressive US Nazi hunter.
Ottawa's recent actions on this score seem to have been motivated by embarrassing revelations. In 1996, a freelance American private investigator named Steve Rambam announced that he had uncovered scores of suspected war criminals in Canada. Masquerading as a doctoral candidate from a fictitious university, he interviewed (and secretly taped) dozens of them. Seven confessed to mass murder.
Rambam's work has done much to draw the public's attention to the issue of war criminals in Canada. But some professional Nazi hunters and Jewish groups privately admit that they fear that his grand-standing tactics may, in the long-term, do their cause more harm than good. "Rambam has stirred up a lot of publicity, but none of the confessions he recorded can be used in a court of law," one American-based Nazi hunter told me. "His past is also mixed," he said, without elaborating. "Even the Canadian Jewish groups that funded him are now trying to distance themselves from him."
Rambam has also made the startling claim that Canada is sheltering 1,000 to 3,000 war criminals. This echoes a similar claim made by Simon Wiesenthal himself in the 1980s. To the embarrassment of the Canadian Jewish Congress at the time, he subsequently failed to provide the Canadian government with evidence to back up his figures.
However, the names of over 200 suspected war criminals living in Canada were given to the government in the mid-1980s by the Wiesenthal Centre. The Deschenes Royal Commission investigating the issue at the time said most were red herrings. A decade later, some of those herrings have washed up on shore of our justice system.
Take Antanas Kenstavicius, who was part of a unit that killed over 5,000 Jews in the Svencionys region of Lithuania. He was not a minor functionary but deputy chief and then chief of police in Svencionys between 1941 and 1943. He bragged about his murderous exploits to Rambam. "Pow, pow, and they fall in the ditch. All day," he said, with no apparent remorse. A longtime resident of Hope, BC, the 90-year-old Lithuanian died of a heart attack in January 1997 en route to his deportation hearing. Yet the justice department in Ottawa knew about him long before that. His name together with documentation was first submitted to the RCMP by the Candian Jewish Congress in 1949 - forty years ago. A Lithuanian prosecutor told me in October 1995 that the Canadian government was investigating him. And the Simon Wisenthal Centre say his name was passed to Ottawa in 1985. Which raises an obvious question - why was nothing done before?
Even if Canada manages to deport some of these men back to the scene of their crimes before they die, justice is unlikely to be served. Local collaboration in the Holocaust is a thorny issue in the Baltics. "The Balts," says Zuroff, "Simply do not want to come to terms with what happened during the war."
* * *
ON 1 March 1995, Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas gave a speech to the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem in which he apologized for Lithuanian collaboration in the Holocaust and vowed to bring war criminals residing in his country to justice. I was in the Knesset when Brazauskas delivered his speech, and some of my Lithuanian colleagues were clearly uncomfortable.
"Why must we apologize," one snapped, "When the Jews have never apologized to us for the communist crimes they committed." Brazauskas' words did not reflect public opinion back home.
The knee-jerk Baltic line on the Holocaust goes roughly like this: the Jews chose Stalin, we picked Hitler. It was an unfortunate clash of two nations caught in the vortex of a Great Power struggle.
Some Balts, taking their cue from Mein Kampf, go one step farther and say "the Jews had it coming to them" for being a pack of commies. Some Jews respond that every last Balt was a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Semite and homicidal maniac with an unquenchable thirst for Jewish blood.
History, of course, is never so tidy. But when stripped of the facts and reduced to fiction, it becomes a powerful polemical tool.
The Baltic Jewish communities actually bore a disproportionate brunt of the initial repression. Of the 21,000 Lithuanians packed into cattle cars and deported to Siberia in June 1941, one-third were Jews, who comprised only about eight per cent of the country's population.
Wealthy and religious Jews could hardly be expected to greet the Soviet tanks with flowers. The Jewish communities, like the Balts themselves, were also deeply divided.
These divisions go a long way to explaining why the image of the Jewish Communist continues to enjoy wide currency here. Many Balts applauded their countries' absorption into the Soviet body politic - a fact that has been air-brushed out of local history. For small nations reasserting their independence, it is always better to blame others for their misfortunes. The Lithuanians have also been victims themselves. And victims, ergo, cannot be villains.
Indeed, the Balts have appropriated the vocabulary of the Holocaust in casting themselves as victims on the stage of history. The Vilnius-based institute that studies the crimes of the Soviet era is revealingly called the Genocide and Resistance Centre. Lithuanians did suffer under the Russians, as the displays in the Centre's museum, housed in the headquarters of the former KGB building, make clear. Hundreds of thousands were deported or murdered. But to call it genocide - which refers to the explicit attempt to completely eliminate an ethnic group - robs the word of its meaning.
Five decades of ensuing Soviet distortions did little to clear the fog. In the Soviet Union, Jews, Gypsies, and other groups singled out for extermination by the Nazis were not classified as "ethnic" victims. On Soviet soil only "Soviet citizens" were killed, and they died at the hands of "Fascists". Period.
This does not excuse some Baltic èmigrè groups, who perpetuated the myth of the Jewish Communist and continue to twist or overlook inconvenient facts. Last spring, the Association of Latvian Canadians wrote an open letter to Alan Rock, Canada's former Justice Minister, which was printed in several newspapers, including the Halifax Chronicle Herald and Mail Star. It complained about a "double-standard" of justice. It said that no attempt was being made to investigate former "Soviet agents" (code for Jews) in Canada who persecuted Balts, while Baltic Nazi collaborators were being hounded.
What the letter failed to mention was the "double-standard" of justice being meted out in the Baltics.
In both Latvia and Lithuania, several key Soviet-era officials have been imprisoned. In the summer of 1995, Latvia's last Soviet-era boss, Alfred Rubiks, was sentenced to eight years in prison for backing a January 1991 Soviet putsch and the coup attempt against Gorbachev the following August. In December of 1995, 87-year-old Alfons Noviks, the former head of the Latvian NKVD, the KGB's predecessor, was sentenced to life for "genocide." Both men were ethnic Latvians.
They probably got their just deserts. Hitler's local helpers will not. Authorities have not tackled Nazi-era criminals with the same relish. Not a single case involving a Nazi collaborator has come before a Baltic court in the six-and-a-half years since they regained independence. Five Lithuanians lost their US citizenship and returned to their homeland. None have been brought to trial and one has already died.
"We don't think that any of these (Nazi-era) criminals are left in Latvia," says one Latvian prosecutor. They certainly aren't turning over any stones.
The Lithuanians - under intense US pressure - have recently taken a few halting steps in this direction. Prosecutors have reopened an investigation, closed in 1994, into a June 1941 pogrom in the country's second city of Kaunas, in which over 70 Jewish men were beaten to death in a garage. They have also initiated a case against Gimzauskas, and in late December, the Lithuanian parliament passed a law enabling war crimes suspects to be brought to trial regardless of their state of health. (The case against Gimzasukas' boss, Lileikis, has been held up on the grounds that he is seriously ill). Almost two years after his return to Lithuania, it appears that his trial will go ahead in March or April of this year - thanks to a lot of diplomatic arm-twisting by Washington.
This US pressure - aside from being self-righteous and hypocritical, coming as it does from a country that welcomed these men with open arms - may also prove to be counterproductive. Some US lawmakers have explicitly linked Lithuania's bid for NATO membership to the war crimes issue. Such tactics play into the hands of anti-Semites, who claim that unnamed groups (meaning Jews, communists, and their cronies in the Kremlin) have orchestrated an international smear campaign against Lithuania designed to keep it in Moscow's sphere of influence.
Even some Baltic Jews are less than enthused about the idea of seeing their former tormentors in the dock.
"Anti-Semitism here is greatly exaggerated," says one Lithuanian Jew, who is surely in the best position to judge. "But the Balts have a phlegmatic character that sometimes only needs a spark to ignite. Trying the old Nazis would do just that."
But if the air is not cleared, a cloud of suspicion may linger over the majority of elderly Balts who have no blood on their hands. Many war criminals landed in Canada. That does not mean that most of the Baltic men who immigrated after the war were Nazis. Failure to recognise this fact is unfair and plays into the hands of the anti-immigrant lobby.
In the end, it should simply be a question of justice - a concept which, is these cases, has not been served in Canada or the Baltics.
*Ed Stoddard is an international journalist with over 10 years' experience specialising in political, current and environmental affairs. At the time of writing, he was based in Lithuania. As a correspondent based in Lithuania,where he reported on many of the profound changes that swept over the former Soviet Union and the the Baltics in the post-Gorbachov era, but now works and lives in South Africas. A native of Dartmouth, NS Mr Stoddard is a Masters' history graduate of Dalhousie University and an avid fisherman.
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