Ex-communist Europe's pursuit of Holocaust justice stirs anti-Semitism
In January 1942, Hungarian Sandor Kepiro helped round up some 1,000 Jews and Serbs, who were later massacred. He denies, though, giving orders to kill them.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Kepiro later fled to Argentina, where he remained for half a century until Hungary allowed him to return. He was convicted in absentia in 1946, but his pursuers never relented: Any day now, the 92-year-old will learn whether Budapest courts will retry him for war crimes.
Six decades after World War II, the once-dormant pursuit of Holocaust-related justice is forging ahead in newly democratic central-eastern Europe. Yet the hunt carries a price: It has stirred resentment among a financially struggling populace, which bristles at the multimillion-dollar property claims by their Jewish communities, and sees the harassment of nonagenarians as unnecessary or even cruel.
"I would venture to say Holocaust issues are the major source of anti-Semitism in post-Communist Europe today," says Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, sometimes referred to as "the world's last Nazi-hunter."
Other activists disagree, asserting that anti-Semitism merely awaits a pretext to surface. However, there is consensus that the pursuit must go on.
"I understand when young people question: 'Why do you go after people who did something 60 years ago when they haven't done anything wrong [since]?' " says Kurt Schrimm, senior public prosecutor for Germany's Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes. "On the other hand, we have the duty regarding the victims and relatives of the victims, to know the facts of what was done 60 years ago and who did it. So maybe this is more important, to put a 90-year-old in jail."
The process of culpability began with the Nuremberg trials, but by the late 1940s, the cold war set in and eroded momentum. Jewish groups launched property-restitution efforts in 1951, creating the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference. And in 1960, famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal helped Israeli operatives capture high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. He was later convicted in Israel and hung.
But in Eastern Europe, where most blood was shed, the topic was taboo. Communist regimes described all victims as victims of Nazi "fascism," not singling out particular groups because of ethnoreligious hatred.
Yet when the system collapsed in 1989-90, dusty archives were pried open, and victims and activists found their voice, demanding justice.
Aided by researchers and archivists, advocates have built their cases. The US Office of Special Investigations (OSI) filed 10 new cases in 2002 alone, a one-year record, against American immigrants who hid a Nazi past. To date, the agency has won cases against 104 people and deported 63, says OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum.
"This sends a message to would-be perpetrators of crimes against humanity," says Mr. Rosenbaum. "If they dare to commit such crimes, there is a very real chance they will be pursued for however long it takes – even into their old age, even to sanctuaries they think they have found, thousands of miles away from the scene of their crimes."