February 2004  
“Operation: Last Chance” - Update # 1


A. Rationale

While the necessity of bringing those who committed the crimes of the Holocaust to justice is patently obvious, the practical difficulties of achieving this goal are becoming increasingly difficult as time goes on. Although there are at least many thousands of individuals who actively participated in the implementation of the Final Solution who have never been prosecuted for their crimes, the chances of their being held accountable are rapidly diminishing due to several obvious factors:

1. the advanced age of the suspects
2. the advanced age of the potential witnesses (survivors, bystanders, and/or fellow perpetrators)
3. the difficulty in obtaining credible witnesses for crimes which were committed many years ago, often in remote and/or inaccessible locations chosen to insure secrecy
4. the lack of political will to prosecute local Nazi collaborators in numerous post-Communist societies
5. the lack of political will to prosecute immigrant Holocaust perpetrators in some of the countries of refuge

Under these circumstances, the Simon Wiesenthal Center decided about eighteen months ago that special innovative methods were required to maximize the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. In July 2002, therefore, the Center – together with the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami, founded by Aryeh Rubin, who conceived of this project – officially launched “Operation: Last Chance,” a special program designed and coordinated by its Israel director Dr. Efraim Zuroff, which offers financial rewards to informants with evidence and/or information which can facilitate the prosecution and conviction of Holocaust perpetrators. As a first step, the Center decided to launch “Operation: Last Chance” in the Baltics.

B. Why “Operation: Last Chance” Was Initially Launched in the Baltics?

There are numerous reasons why the Baltics were chosen as the first place to implement “Operation: Last Chance.” While several relate to the specific nature of the events of the Holocaust in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, others were a product of practical and technical considerations. The most important are the following:

1. These countries had the highest victimology rate in Europe during the Holocaust. Not only were the local Jewish communities almost completely annihilated, but many thousands of Jews from other countries (Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and France) were deported to the Baltics and murdered in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
2. The extremely large number of local collaborators who actively participated in the mass murder of the local Jewish communities and Jews deported to these countries.
3. The fact that local police units from each of the Baltic countries were sent abroad, where they actively participated in the mass murder of Jews (especially in Belarus and Poland.)
4. Following the occupation of the Baltics by the Soviet Union in 1944, many Nazi war criminals were prosecuted and convicted by the Soviet authorities. These individuals can testify regarding crimes committed during the Holocaust that they personally witnessed without fear of prosecution.
5. The fact that there has not been a single prosecution of a local Nazi war criminal – in which the defendant was healthy enough to attend the trial and bear punishment if convicted – in any of the three Baltic countries since regained independence in 1991, makes the efforts to bring the guilty to justice of unique significance for Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian society.
6. With all three countries on the verge of membership in NATO and the European Union, and the European Union, there will be special interest in the attitude of the Baltic republics to this important subject.

C. Implementation

In July 2002, the Wiesenthal Center officially launched “Operation: Last Chance” in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia with press conferences in Vilnius (July 8), Tallinn (July 10) and Riga (July 11). At the press conferences, the Center announced its willingness to pay ten thousand U.S. dollars ($10,000) to anyone who would provide information which would lead to the prosecution and punishment of a Nazi war criminal. These press conferences were followed by imaginative ads which publicized the reward offer, while highlighting the active participation of local Nazi collaborators in the mass murder of the Jewish community.

D. Results To Date

During the initial year and a half of “Operation: Last Chance,” the Center received the names of a total of two hundred and fifty-six suspected Nazi war criminals according to the following breakdown by country of origin:

Lithuania 196 names
Latvia 41 names
Ukraine 13 names
Estonia 6 names

Each of the names and all of the accompanying information were investigated by the Center to evaluate their validity and relevance. At the end of this process, the names of fifty-five of the suspects were submitted to local prosecutors as worthy of further investigation, according to the following breakdown by country of origin:

Lithuania 44 names
Ukraine 13 names
Latvia 13 names

In the wake of the launching of “Operation: Last Chance” and the submission of the names of the suspects to local prosecutors, eight official murder investigations have already been opened in Lithuania by Special Prosecutor Rimvydas Valentukevicius against approximately three dozen suspects and we expect additional investigations to be initiated elsewhere. Several of the suspects identified escaped many years ago to other countries such as the United States (at least 15 suspects), Canada and Sweden

E. Expansion of “Operation: Last Chance”

Given the encouraging results achieved in the Baltics, the Center decided last summer to expand the project to several additional European countries. Thus in the fall of 2003, “Operation: Last Chance” was launched in Poland, Romania and Austria. The reasons these countries were chosen is as follows:

a. Poland

As the site of all six Nazi death camps, Poland was the country in which the majority of European Jewry were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators during the Holocaust. In addition millions of non-Jewish Poles were persecuted and murdered during the Nazi occupation.

Under these circumstances, it is only natural for the Wiesenthal Center to initiate “Operation: Last Chance” in Poland in order to help facilitate the prosecution of those responsible for Nazi crimes during World War II.

In that context, it is important to note the important work already being done by the Institute of National Memory under the leadership of its president Prof. Dr. Leon Kieres. Since the establishment of the Institute, Poland has made significant progress in the investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals, especially in comparison to other post-Communist and post-Soviet countries. Thus the conviction in 2001 of Henryk Mania for crimes committed at the Chelmno death camp and the recent investigation of the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne are concrete examples of the existence of political will in Warsaw to investigate the cases of Holocaust perpetrators and bring them to justice, and the ability of the Institute to do so successfully.

The Center expects to work together with the Institute to help maximize the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and is hopeful that the results achieved by “Operation: Last Chance” in Poland will expedite the efforts of the Institute. To help achieve those goals, the Center has maintained close cooperation with Prof. Dr. Kieres and his staff and hopes that this cooperation will be enhanced by the successful implementation of “Operation: Last Chance” in Poland.

b. Romania

During World War II Romania was a satellite state of Nazi Germany and actively participated in the implementation of the Final Solution in Romania and in the territories it annexed, as well as in the Ukraine. In fact, the Romanian government under Marshal Ion Antonescu played a leading role in the mass murder of Romanian Jews, and tens of thousands of Jews in the Ukraine.

Despite the active complicity of Romanians in the crimes of the Holocaust, Romania has had considerable difficulty in facing its World War II past, as clearly evidenced by the following facts:

1. Not a single Holocaust perpetrator has been investigated, let alone prosecuted, in post-Communist Romania;
2. The lack of a special unit to investigate and prosecute such cases;
3. The numerous instances of the commemoration and glorification of fascist Romanian leader Marshal Antonescu who committed terrible crimes against civilians, primarily Jews, during his rule as leader of Romania during World War II;
4. Recent comments by prominent Romanian leaders and officials, including President Ion Iliescu, minimizing the severity and scope of the crimes of the Holocaust and the complicity of Romanians in these crimes.

Under these circumstances, the Wiesenthal Center believes that the implementation of “Operation: Last Chance” in Romania can have a beneficial effect both in terms of facilitating the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators and the sensitizing of Romanian public opinion regarding the severity of the crimes committed by Romanians during World War II.

c. Austria

While Austria has made considerable progress in facing its Holocaust history during the past two decades, one major area in which it has been terribly deficient has been the investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Despite the existence of numerous Austrians who actively participated in the implementation of the Final Solution, not a single Austrian has been convicted of Holocaust crimes during the past quarter of a century.

Austria’s failure in this respect has been reinforced by recent research carried out the Wiesenthal Center which has shown that numerous Austrians served in German police battalions which committed the mass murder of civilians, primarily Jews, in Eastern Europe during the years 1939-1944. (The research in question was carried out in conjunction with German Labor Ministry by the Center’s researcher Dr. Stefan Klemp as a part of a project designed to cancel the special disability pensions of individuals who violated the norms of humanity, in accordance with a law passed by the Bundestag in January 1998.)

Under these circumstances, the Center hopes that the launching of “Operation: Last Chance” in Austria will help facilitate the investigation and prosecution of Austrian Holocaust perpetrators, and educate the Austrian public regarding the important role played by numerous Austrians in the implementation of the Final Solution.

F. Implementation and Results

The project is still in its initial stages in Poland, Romania and Austria. Initial press conferences were held with the participation of local Jewish leaders in Warsaw (September 10), Bucharest (September 12) and Vienna (September 15) and special “hotlines” have already been installed in Austria and Romania. Our ad campaign was initiated in Austria in December and will be launched in Romania and Poland in March.

To date we have received the names of more than a dozen suspects in these countries but until the ad campaigns are launched and completed, we will not be in a position to gauge the success of the operation

G. Future Expansion of “Operation: Last Chance”

During the coming six months, we plan to launch the project in Hungary, Croatia, the Ukraine and Germany and possibly in Belarus. Depending on our fundraising efforts, we are also considering initiating it in several South American countries known as havens for escaped Nazi war criminals (Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay).

H. Conclusion

During the past three years (2001-2003), more than two-dozen Nazi war criminals have been convicted in six different countries all over the world. During 2002, the United States alone filed ten new indictments against Holocaust perpetrators. These statistics clearly prove that it is still possible – even in 2004 – to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, but time is rapidly running out, which is the primary reason why “Operation: Last Chance” is so important.