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.

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."

Both countries and corporations have been forced to confront their pasts. The year 2000 saw two landmark settlements: 10 billion deutsche marks ($5 billion) from Germany for surviving slave and forced laborers exploited by the Nazis, and $1.25 billion from the Swiss banks for assets looted from Jewish clients.

By now, much has been settled. Only a few choice targets remain, such as stolen artwork. Last January, a Vienna-born woman won back a batch of family paintings, including a Gustav Klimt, valued at $200 million. And two months ago, a returned Expressionist sold at Christie's for $38 million, reportedly setting off a panic within German museums that prized possessions may be in the crosshairs. One victims' archive identifies some 100,000 missing pieces.

Another target is Poland. Roughly 90 percent of 3.5 million Polish Jews were killed during the war. Warsaw has yet to address the staggering property loss.

"All we seek is the return of that which was taken," says Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. "It's important for people to understand the settlements are not an attempt to do perfect justice and right all the wrongs that took place. Rather, many of these agreements are symbolic in nature."

However, his and other groups say they're pushing Poland and others to expand restitution to include Communist confiscations as well. Thus, it's not only "a Jewish issue." Others point out that making amends for past abuses would bolster respect for property rights and the rule of law in the newly democratic countries.

For those stalking war criminals, though, time is running out. To speed the process, Mr. Zuroff and the Simon Wiesenthal Center launched "Operation Last Chance" in 2002, offering $10,000 rewards for information leading to convictions, while ratcheting up the rhetoric against reticent governments.

That has made some local Jews squirm. In Lithuania, where nearly 95 percent of its 220,000 Jews were killed and fewer than 5,000 remain today, many Jews say that each time a Holocaust-related issue hits the media, it sparks a backlash.

"I understand it's the right thing to do," says one young Jewish woman in Vilnius, the capital. "But I sometimes wonder whether it's worth it, since it'll cause another conflict with the people."

Zuroff, who himself has been accused by fellow Jewish groups of inciting trouble, acknowledges that his methods are controversial. He typically flies in, calls a press conference, and rips into those dragging their feet.

"The critics are right; our methods sometimes arouse anti-Semitism," he says. "I'm aware of it, and not happy about it. But in the long run, this is the best way to fight against anti-Semitism: by having trials that expose the horrific results of this hatred, and punishing the perpetrators of these deeds."

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