Rosh Hashana 5763  

It is very rare, if not unprecedented, for an American ambassador to write an op-ed piece in a local newspaper severely criticizing the country he is serving in for failing to take sufficient measures to prosecute local Nazi war criminals, but that is precisely what Joseph De Thomas, U.S. ambassador to Estonia, did in late May this year. In a pointed op-ed piece which appeared on May 28 in the Estonian daily Eesti Paevaleht, Ambassador De Thomas took his host country to task for its failure to adequately deal with three major issues relating to the Holocaust and suggested the following practical steps to help remedy the situation. In his words, Estonia had to “Do justice where justice is needed,” i.e. take a proactive stance on the prosecution of Estonian Nazi war criminals, not a single one of whom had been brought to trial since Estonia obtained its independence from the Soviet Union (as opposed to Communist criminals many of whom have been brought to trial); “Recognize the Holocaust is part of Estonia’s history,” i.e. observe Yom Hashoa in a dignified and significant manner and mark all the sites in the country in which the crimes of the Holocaust were committed; and “Teach our children about the past,” i.e. make sure that the subject of the Holocaust is adequately covered in Estonian textbooks, which as far as Ambassador De Thomas understood is not currently the case.

The article by Ambassador De Thomas aroused a flood of angry responses from Estonian officials, local journalists and irate Estonian citizens, practically all of whom defended their country’s record in dealing with Holocaust issues. Some pointed out that Estonian textbooks have more than a page and a half on the Holocaust, as Ambassador De Thomas alleged, while others responded that his focus on the prosecution of Nazi, rather than Communist, criminals constituted a discriminatory application of justice which was a violation of Estonia’s constitution (not to mention American principles of law). And then there were the accusations made by prominent columnist Eerik-Niiles Kross, son of the famous Estonian novelist Jaan Kross and former director of the Estonian Secret Service, who had the audacity to suggest that if Estonians have not rushed to cherish the memory of Estonian Jews who perished during the German occupation it was primarily dire to the “ridiculous exaggerations of Efraim Zuroff [regarding the complicity of Estonians in the crime of the Holocaust]

and the activities of Estonian Jews in the Soviet destroyer battalions [KGB operatives who took harsh measures against thousands of Estonian citizens, among them hundreds of Jews, in 1941 and after World War II].” In short, the Estonian response was essentially one of denial, especially in regard to the issue of the prosecution of Estonian Nazi war criminals.

As someone who has followed this issue closely for many years and has actively sought to bring Estonian Nazi war criminals to justice, I think that Ambassador De Thomas’ article not only accurately reflected the Estonian reality, but focused on the heart of the problem – the refusal of Estonians to fully acknowledge and internalize the fact that numerous Estonians participated in the crimes of the Holocaust. And although the amnesia regarding the role played by local collaborators in implementing the Final Solution is endemic throughout the Baltics, the situation in Estonia is particularly difficult for several reasons. The first is the extremely small size of the prewar local Jewish community which only numbered approximately four thousand five hundred Jews. The second is the fact that close to eighty percent of Estonian Jewry succeeded in escaping to the Soviet interior before the Nazis arrived in the country, leaving behind only about one thousand local Jews in Estonia while it was under Nazi occupation. The third factor is that numerically speaking far more foreign Jews were murdered in Estonia than local Jews, which makes identification and/or sympathy with the victims, as well as assuming responsibility to punish the perpetrators, more difficult. The last factor is that many of the crimes committed against Jews by Estonian police battalions, both inside Estonia but especially outside the country (in Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania) were virtually unknown to the Estonian public which only recently found out that they had transpired.

All of these factors led many Estonians to believe that unlike their Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Latvia, who have been forced to deal with the issue of local collaboration with the Nazis from the moment they obtained their independence, that question was virtually irrelevant in Estonia. The historic facts, however, clearly prove otherwise, as has been unequivocally demonstrated by the findings of the International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity established by Estonian President Lemart Meri in 1998 to investigate the crimes committed during the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Estonia. According to the summary findings of the commission which were released in January 2001, numerous Estonians bear at least a share of the responsibility for:
1. the murder of virtually all the Estonian Jews who were living in the country when it was occupied by the Nazis;
2. the murder of approximately 3,000 Jews deported in 1942 from the Theresienstadt Ghetto to the Jagala labor camp who were killed at Kalevi-Liiva;
3. the murder of thousands of Jews deported to the Vaivara camp complex who were killed prior to the Russian advance into Estonia;
4. the persecution and/or murder of thousands of Jews in Estonia, Belarus, Poland and Lithuania by members of the Estonian Legion and various Estonian police battalions.

Yet neither these events themselves nor their revelation by the commission have ever been translated into practical legal action against a single Estonian Holocaust perpetrator (living in the country or abroad) during more than a decade which has passed since Estonia regained its independence. In fact, throughout this period, the Estonian authorities have failed to launch a single such investigation on their our initiative. In this regard, Estonians like to point to the numerous prosecutions of local Nazi collaborators carried out by the Soviet authorities immediately after World War II and well into the early seventies, which ostensibly rid the country of any and all unprosecuted Holocaust perpetrators.

The fact remains, however, that Estonia could have taken legal action against numerous Nazi war criminals since it obtained independence, but there was no political will to do so. The most blatant examples of Estonia’s failure to take action against Estonian Nazi war criminals are the cases of Evald Mikson and Harri Mannil, both of whom escaped overseas during World War II and were discovered living in Iceland and Venezuela respectively. Mikson had been the leader of the Omakaitse (a group of Estonian nationalists who volunteered for security tasks and served as vigilante squads during the initial weeks following the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Baltics) in the Vonnu district and later served as Deputy Chief of the Estonian Political Police in the Tallinn-Harju district. In both capacities, he actively participated in the persecution and murder of numerous civilians, primarily Jews. Mannil served under Mikson in Tallinn and was an active participant in the arrest of many civilians who were subsequently murdered by the Estonian police.

Rather than actively seek the extradition of these two criminals, the Estonian authorities initially chose to provide support for Mikson and to ignore Mannil. Thus, for example, after Mikson’s presence in Reykjavik was exposed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which demanded that Iceland take action against him, the Estonian Foreign Ministry published a communiqué claiming that Mikson “was not guilty of any crimes, and least of all against the Jewish people,” and accused Soviet officials of trying to frame him, despite the existence in the Estonian archives of highly –incriminating documents clearly proving Mikson’s involvement in serious crimes.

In Mannil’s case, it was only after the Wiesenthal Center submitted an official request for his case to be investigated by the Estonian authorities that such a step was finally taken last year. In that regard, the fact that Mannil is reputedly not only the world’s richest Estonian but also a very generous contributor to local cultural institutions undoubtedly reinforced the general reluctance of the Estonian authorities to actively pursue the cases of Estonian Nazi war criminals. (Such reluctance, it should be noted, has never been the case in Estonia as far as Communist criminals are concerned, many of whom have already been put on trial.)

Following the revelations last year by the International Commission of the participation of members of the 36th Estonian Police Battalion in the murder of approximately 2,500 Jews on August 7, 1942 in Nowogrudok, Poland and the active involvement of Estonian Police Battalions in genocide and crimes against humanity in Estonia, Poland and Lithuania, I urged Prime Minister Mart Laar to establish a special unit to investigates Estonian Nazi war criminals. To my surprise, Laar responded by informing me that such a unit had already been set up in the framework of the Security Police. Under such circumstances, one would imagine that for the first time, Estonia would initiate investigations of Estonian Nazi war criminals which might result in prosecutions. Yet almost a year later, not a single such investigation has been launched and we can only hope that some action will be taken so that at least a few of those Estonian murderers who committed the crimes of the Shoa will indeed be held accountable for their crimes. And this is precisely why Ambassador De Thomas’ article was not only accurate in this regard, but was long overdue and badly needed by a society in deep denial of the complicity of its nationals in the Holocaust.