Lemkin and Trifa: memory and justice

Sometimes a person's name permanently enters our vocabulary and is used to describe an entire class or group of people. We often forget that there really was a World War II Norwegian traitor named Vidkum Quisling, that Nicolas Chauvin was a 19th-century French super-patriot, and that the Marquis Donatien de Sade took delight in cruelty.

In our own day the name ''Trifa'' may become the term given to war criminals who illegally entered the United States after 1945.

Just last week, Valerian Trifa, the best-known war criminal living in our midst, left the US and turned up in Portugal. The Portuguese authorities claim they did not know who he was when he entered the country, and he claims the accusations against him are false. Just how Trifa was able to enter Portugal is still a mystery, but one thing is clear, the charges are not false.

Because Trifa is the archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, his case has attracted worldwide attention. In 1975 the Justice Department began legal action to strip Trifa of his naturalized US citizenship. The government charged that he had lied when he became a citizen. At that time, the archbishop swore he had never been a member of any Nazi or Fascist organization, including the Iron Guard, a Romanian Fascist group that carried out murderous attacks against Jews during World War II. Membership in such groups prohibits a person from acquiring US citizenship.

In 1980, after a half decade of legal maneuvers, Trifa's legal defenses crumbled. The evidence showed that he had been a member of the Iron Guard. The evidence also directly linked him with the infamous January 1941 anti-Jewish pogrom in Bucharest. As many as 6,000 Jews were murdered during that attack.

To avoid a court trial Trifa surrendered his US citizenship four years ago and remained in the US as a stateless person, until he suddenly appeared in Portugal.

Why should the case of Valerian Trifa concern us, nearly 40 years after the end of World War II? Why has the Justice Department, with congressional prodding , established a special office to prosecute Nazi war criminals who reside in the US? Why has the American Jewish Committee, along with others, been involved in the Trifa case? The answer is a single word of compelling power: justice.

There must be justice for the murdered victims of the Holocaust, men and women who cannot offer testimony on their own behalf. They cannot press their case in a court of law, but we can and must do so to honor their memory. And US citizenship is too precious to be granted to people like Trifa, who lied to obtain it.

Portuguese authorities are investigating how the archbishop entered Portugal so easily. His presence in that country is an embarrassment to the Portuguese.

Trifa will likely be deported to his native Romania and placed on trial in Bucharest, the scene of his crimes. Ironically, in 1946 Trifa was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by a noncommunist Romanian government. One wonders why the present communist government in Romania, a self-proclaimed foe of all forms of Nazism and fascism, is reluctant to claim and try Trifa. Only the Bucharest authorities can write a just ending to Trifa's unredeemed case.

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