Trial Starts for Accused WWII Nazi
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) _ Day after day during World War II, Jews were hauled out of Vilnius’ ghetto, marched to a forest, stripped naked and shot to death by Nazis. The head of the city’s security police at the time was Aleksandras Lileikis.
Those facts are not in doubt _ but whether they are connected has been disputed for years. On Wednesday, a Lithuanian court begins hearing the case against the 91-year-old Lileikis, the first Nazi war crimes trial in the former Soviet Union.
Lileikis, who lived in the United States for 40 years after World War II, returned to Lithuania in 1995 as the United States was moving to revoke his citizenship.
The former Boston-area resident is charged with genocide for allegedly taking part in one of World War II’s most grisly execution campaigns _ the deaths of an estimated 70,000 Lithuanian Jews.
The killings during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation wiped out one of Europe’s liveliest Jewish communities, renowned for its culture and scholarship. At one time Vilnius was nicknamed ``Jerusalem of the North.″
Today, only a few traces of that heritage remain: faded Hebrew letters on a back-alley wall, a single synagogue. About 90 percent of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish population of 240,000 was killed during the war.
Prosecutors, basing their case on documents discovered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, say Lileikis ordered scores of Vilnius Jews arrested and handed over to a Nazi squad that slaughtered them amid the tall pines of the Paneriai forest.
The United States said the documents form a ``shockingly complete paper trail.″
Lileikis’ attorneys are expected to argue the documents could have been forged, that he never pulled a trigger himself, never commanded an execution squad and, even if he did turn over Jews to the Nazis, didn’t know that meant sending them to near-certain death.
That’s impossible, according to Svetlana Shatalova, a researcher at Vilnius’ Jewish Museum. Within months of the Nazi occupation, virtually everyone in Vilnius knew of the executions, she said.
Edvard Jankovski, who grew up at the edge of the blood-drenched forest, is so distressed by the memory a half-century later that he pulls at his shirt and stares at his hands when he recalls it.
``We could hear them shooting people at the front of the line, while hordes of people at the back were still filing in,″ said Jankovski, 63. ``It was horrible.″
Jankovski cannot forget, but many Lithuanians say there’s no point in remembering.
``I think it’s absolutely wrong what they are doing to Lileikis,″ said Stanislava Jevseyeva, 62, selling flowers on a Vilnius street corner. ``If they put him on trial, what about all the Soviets who killed and deported people?″
That attitude was criticized by Shatalova.
``They’re afraid that if Lileikis is found guilty, then Lithuania itself will be seen as guilty by the world,″ said Shatalova. ``So the reasoning is, well, then we have no choice but to defend Lileikis.″
Some Jewish groups have accused Lithuania of being unwilling to face its past, noting that even though Lileikis returned to Lithuania in 1995, he was not charged until this year and his trial has been postponed several times. The delays show authorities hope Lileikis will die before testimony can begin, the groups say.
Even if the trial opens on schedule, it’s doubtful Lileikis will appear: his attorneys say he is bedridden by a stroke in his downtown apartment building. Guards there refused to let a reporter see him.
President Valdas Adamkus says holding the trial is critically important to Lithuania.
``We have to show the world that we are not justifying these crimes and that we will have nothing to do with people who committed them,″ he said. ``However painful these issues are, we have to deal with them.″