SUNDAY, 19 MARCH 2006  

Shameful truth must be told


Some will say it is futile to continue chasing old men for crimes committed 60 years ago. This is a shallow and, it must be said, an inhuman view. Genocide does not disappear with the passage of the years. The six million dead have not merely drifted into oblivion. They are, as philosopher Claude Lanzmann once put it, the "presence of an absence". They are a multitude of dead souls who reproach us with their loss. They require us not merely to remember them, but to demand justice on their behalf. If we turn our backs on their appeal, we turn our backs on humanity, on pity, on decency.

Genocide, as Stringer says, is still with us. His files remind us what genocide means. It means the reduction of other human beings to the level of animals, the necessary prelude to their mechanised slaughter. If our enemies are wolves and hyenas, we may kill them with impunity. That deep human habit, of bestialising and demonising the other, has not gone away. It led the 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion to crowd naked women and children into the pits and butcher them like cattle. Pukas claimed, unconvincingly, to have not taken part in those massacres. His vivid description of the killing - the Jews "screamed like geese" -testifies eloquently against him.

A lack of witnesses prevented his case going to court. But if New Zealand had adopted the American model - of denaturalisation and deportation of immigrants who lied to the authorities - Pukas would have had to face at least a form of justice. Some will say the revelations should have been kept quiet to avoid embarrassment and trouble to his family. It is true that Pukas's children and grandchildren are victims in all this. A shocking wave of ugliness has broken over them, years after Pukas's death. They deserve, and they have, our sympathy. But it is also true that history demands that the truth about Pukas be told.

Politicians in nearly all countries have been reluctant to pursue alleged war criminals, and unwilling to prosecute them when they were found. Australia shut its special investigations unit prematurely for reasons of odious expediency and "unnecessary" expense. This meant that one well-founded case, against a former member of the Latvian Police battalion, was abandoned, and the man died untroubled by the authorities. But the issue refuses to go away. The Wiesenthal Centre's Operation Last Chance has revealed two promising Australian cases now the subject of extradition proceedings. And hundreds of other cases are under investigation around the world. Not all the old murderers have died, despite what many think. Not all hope for justice has died.

Attorney-General Paul East seemed relieved when the Crown Law Office advised him in 1992 that no prosecutions could be brought. Amazingly, the office even claimed there was not "prima facie" evidence of guilt. Pukas's case is stuffed with such evidence. In the event, New Zealand missed the opportunity to do anything about the suspected murderers in our midst. That is a dreadful loss. Stringer, though, has shown us how serious the case was and why it should not be forgotten. For that, we are all in his debt.

Fairfax New Zealand Limited, 19.03.06