The fireman's hall on Primorska Street, a crimson and white building with a large Croatian flag, is a centre of Pozega's community life, rented out for wedding parties and operettas.
On Christmas Day 64 years ago the hall was not a place to party. Around 150 of this country town's Jews were rounded up, penned here, robbed of their valuables, and put on cattle wagons bound for the concentration camps of fascist Croatia's Ustasha state. They all perished, along with hundreds of other local Jews and Serbs. By 1942 the town's entire Jewish community, the oldest in the central and eastern part of Croatia called Slavonia, were wiped out.
The police chief in what was then a small town of 7,000 was a young Zagreb-trained lawyer called Milivoj Asner. Now 92 and living in the southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt, Mr Asner both denies and indirectly confirms his role in the pogroms. "I was just the town police chief, dealing with traffic offences, petty crime, thievery," he told the Guardian. "I did not hate Jews as such. I have many Jewish friends."
But for Efraim Zuroff, the Israeli-American Nazi-hunter who has inherited the mission of the late Simon Wiesenthal, the Asner case is at the centre of his Operation Last Chance - his campaign, mainly in eastern and southern post-communist Europe, to bring ageing war crimes suspects to justice before they die. "As Simon would say," said Mr Zuroff, "he who ignores the murderers of the past paves the way for the murderers of the future. But it's very difficult in eastern Europe for these post-communist societies to face up to their complicity in genocide."
As head of the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Mr Zuroff is trailing dozens of Nazi suspects from Estonia to Romania to Australia. The copious documents unearthed by a young Croatian amateur historian on the Asner case, said Mr Zuroff, makes this case the most promising of more than 80 he has forwarded to authorities in nine countries. "This case is highly important," he said. "It's fully documented. There's an extradition request, there's an arrest warrant. It's the nearest we've got to a trial."
After heading Pozega's police in 1941-42 Mr Asner disappeared amid the chaos of the early post-war years, fleeing Croatia, where the victorious communist authorities quickly named him as a war criminal, to Austria where he obtained Austrian citizenship.
And that was that for the next 50 years until Alen Budaj, then a 19-year-old amateur historian from Pozega, started researching the fate of the town's Jewish community and obtained documents allegedly incriminating the former police chief. He discovered Mr Asner had been living prosperously in Austria since 1945, but had returned to his hometown, Daruvar, near Pozega, in the early 90s when the extreme nationalist President Franjo Tudjman was in power. Mr Asner felt welcome.
"It all started 10 years ago when I went to the Jewish cemetery in Pozega and saw what kind of wretched state it was in," said Mr Budaj. "What was awful was that no one talked about what happened to the Jews here. The final straw was that this cemetery was being destroyed. That stirred my emotions and I started digging. Everywhere I looked Asner's name kept cropping up in connection with the Holocaust. I was shocked when I found out that he was alive and living in Croatia."
Mr Asner blamed his current ordeal on the dogged young researcher. "Budaj is nothing but a vagabond, never done a day's work in his life. He's a Jew and because he's a Jew people think he's decent. He's an agent of Wiesenthal and Zuroff. These types don't impress me."
Mr Budaj compiled 100 pages of wartime documents, and hunted down contemporary witnesses. He has papers ordering deportations of Serbs and Jews from Pozega signed by Mr Asner. Asked about them, Mr Asner first said the signatures could have been forged. Then he said that he was only following orders.
"I couldn't have said no, otherwise I would have lost my job. It was mostly Serbs, not Jews. The ministry ordered them deported, my bosses at the interior ministry in Zagreb. If I had said no, I would have been on the street."
Hundreds of Jews and Serbs were herded into three collection points in Pozega before being sent to the camps. Most of the males went to the notorious Ustasha camp at Jasenovac, not far from Pozega.
"The Ustasha played their role in the Final Solution," said Mr Zuroff. "Asner was an important cog in the Ustasha administration which aimed to wipe out the minorities."
Armed with Mr Budaj's dossier, last year Mr Zuroff presented the evidence to Croatia's President, Stipe Mesic, himself a lawyer. According to those present the president ordered Mladen Bajic, the Croatian chief prosecutor, to look into the case and said that Mr Asner should not be allowed to leave the country.
The same day Mr Asner packed his car and fled back to Austria. Mr Asner's Pozega lawyer, Karlo Loncar, maintains this was coincidence, that Mr Asner was "on holiday". Mr Asner called this nonsense: "I got warnings from friends that they were trying to discredit me. I'm 92 years old and I just want to have peace and quiet. I was in Daruvar for 10 years and then all of a sudden this Jew comes along and because he's a Jew everyone believes him."
Mr Asner clearly feels safer in Austria. "Austria is a black hole when it comes to Nazi war criminals," said Mr Zuroff, They have not convicted a Nazi in 30 years. And it's not for a lack of Nazis."
After investigating for months prosecutors in Pozega are edging towards a trial, although no charges have yet been brought. The Croatian interior ministry has placed Mr Asner on its wanted list and recently asked Austria to extradite him. It refused because it does not extradite Austrian citizens, and officials there are conducting their owninquiry, albeit dragging their feet, claiming all the Croatian papers have to be translated. The Austrian justice ministry also said suspected crimes may have expired under statutes of limitations unless there is evidence that Mr Asner personally killed or explicitly ordered killing.
"There's a lot of evidence of war crimes in this dossier," said Zoran Pusic, head of a Zagreb human rights committee involved in the case. "But the extradition issue is a problem."
Mr Asner said he has been questioned by the Austrian authorities "at least 30 times". The Austrians received a Croatian warrant, but it has been declined, he added. Mr Zuroff said that if the Austrians neither try him nor extradite him, Croatia may try Mr Asner in absentia.
Given the advanced age of the 81 suspects identified by Mr Zuroff and his east European researchers, time is of the essence. In the three years since Operation Last Chance started two suspects in Latvia and Romania have died. "These people don't deserve a free pass, tending their roses, spending their retirement with their grandchildren," said Mr Zuroff. "With every day that goes by they are closer to escaping justice."
The Guardian, 25.11.2005