Lithuania drags heels in Nazi hunt

Lithuania declared this year as one of remembrance for the country's holocaust victims. But that does not include focusing on the brutality that people endured under the Nazis, as the country seems to pursue the survivors instead.

­“Who wants to be known as a nation of killers?” asks Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Lithuanian is the only language in which there is even a special word coined, a noun coined for ‘shooters of Jews’.”

And in World War II those shooters wiped out 96 per cent of Lithuanian Jewry, among the highest rates in Europe.

But despite heavy pressure, the country has gotten away without punishing a single person responsible.

“They didn’t find because they don’t want to find [those responsible],” says Joseph Melamed, a Holocaust survivor and the head of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel. “If they would have wanted to find, it’s very easy to find.”

Joseph Melamed found a lot. Eleven years ago he published the names of thousands of Lithuanians implicated in the killing of Jews. At the time he sent the list to the Lithuanian authorities asking them to investigate as many witnesses as possible who were still alive.

The prosecutors have only now answered him and they want him to come to Lithuania.

“We do not consider Mr. Melamed a suspect,” said Lithuania's Prosecutors General's Office press secretary Ruta Dirsiene. “We are only summoning him to give testimony either to confirm or deny the statements he made.”

The statements, among others, detail a Lithuanian called Victoris Vikakous, who allegedly decapitated a rabbi and put his head on a window so everyone could see.

A man called Lusko, who reportedly imprisoned some 60 Jews in a garage, beat them with crowbars and forced fire hoses down their throats. Water was then turned on so their stomachs exploded – all of this captured by German photographers

The sources of the claims are eyewitnesses who survived the war.

"They are very competent people, [testimonies were] written in their handwriting,” Melamed says. “They were part in Yiddish, part in English.”

This is not the first time Lithuanian prosecutors have summoned Holocaust survivors who also took part in the resistance to give testimony. Critics complain it is a way for Vilnius to avoid dealing with its Holocaust history.

“This is a campaign of defamation against holocaust survivors, who are alive because they escaped the ghetto to join the Soviet partisans, the only people who were fighting Hitler in this part of the world,” explains Dovid Katz, a Vilnius-based Judaic studies professor. “It is part of a campaign to revise history in the direction of double genocide, the very far-right model that posits that communism and Nazism are equal.”

Lithuania officially recognizes that crimes committed by the Soviet Union and Nazi regimes are equal, and is urging other European states to do the same.

“The Nazi crimes should not be excused merely because, if you want, there were some crimes from the other side,” says Glyn Ford, a former member of the European Parliament. “They are incomparably worse and they were, again, genocide, they were trying to wipe out a whole people.”

And so, instead of focusing on an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, many say Lithuanian authorities should rather – at the very least – be opening an investigation.

And Joseph Melamed says he is willing to participate in an investigation. For all the reasons he believes the Lithuanians are trying to run from one.

“If they really are going to sue us, we will go out," he said. “We will bring out everything that the Lithuanians have done to us.”

And in the long run that seems the last thing the country would want.