|Last Chance in Warsaw ?|
|By Dr. Efraim Zuroff|
Readers of SHALOM are already acquainted with “Operation: Last Chance,” which was launched by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Targum Shlishi Foundation to maximize the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice by offering financial rewards for information which would facilitate prosecution and punishment. Since we had limited time and resources, it was clear from the outset that the project would focus only on countries in which the local population had actively participated in the murder of Jews, i.e. in Central and Eastern Europe, as opposed to Western Europe, where the locals indeed helped round up the Jews and transport them to the death camps, but did not carry out the murders themselves.
Thus in July 2002, “Operation: Last Chance” was officially launched in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia based on the assumption that the likelihood of success in those countries was probably the highest in Europe. This assessment was based on three key factors:
1. Local collaborators in all three countries were fully integrated by the Germans into the system created to implement the Final Solution – both locally and in other countries. Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian Security Police units (and in some cases organized fascist militias) actively participated in the mass murders at home and many were subsequently sent to other countries to perform similar operations.
2. The large number of local Holocaust perpetrators in these countries.
3. The relatively large percentage of Nazi collaborators who were prosecuted by the Soviets during the initial decade after World War II, had already served their sentences, and could now provide invaluable testimony regarding the identity of those responsible for the crimes, without fear of self–incrimination (due to “double jeopardy”).
After the project was successfully launched in the Baltics, we sought to expand it and the possibility of bringing it to Poland was discussed. On the one hand, Poland was an obvious candidate for inclusion, since the overwhelming majority of the Jews murdered during the Holocaust were killed there, all six Nazi death camps [Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno and Sobibor] were located there, and an extremely high percentage of Polish Jewry were murdered, in many cases with the assistance of Poles. On the other hand, in contrast to the Baltics, the Poles were never given an opportunity to actively participate in the systematic annihilation of European Jewry. The Nazis never established a Polish Security Police which was integrated into the apparatus of mass murder, nor did they draft Poles into the Waffen-SS or create a local SS Legion as they did in Latvia. In addition, Poles were not recruited to serve as guards in the death and concentration camps on Polish soil (or elsewhere).
Yet extensive historical evidence – documents and testimonies – point to numerous cases in which individual Poles murdered Jews, informed on Jews in hiding, turned Jews over to the Gestapo, often in return for rewards, prevented Jews from joining partisan units an/or denied them opportunities to hide, all of which paint an unequivocal picture of complicity by individual Poles in the murder of their Jewish neighbors, which ultimately convinced us to launch “Operation: Last Chance” in Poland.
In this regard we planned to follow the modus operandi developed in the Baltics. The first step would be a press conference in Warsaw to announce the project and the reward, which would be followed by ads in the national and local press. Thanks to the assistance of local Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, we were able to obtain the cooperation of the Jewish community, and we scheduled the press conference launch at the Nozyk Synagogue conference room for the afternoon of September 10, 2003. Yet contrary to our experience in the Baltics (and our subsequent efforts in every country in which O:LC was launched), our initial press conference in Poland was an abysmal failure, with only a single local journalist in attendance.
The reason for the poor turnout and lack of media interest was that the Poles did not generally identify themselves as among the guilty parties of the Holocaust. If anything, the dominant perception in Polish society was of their own victimhood by the Nazis during World War II. This position was forcefully emphasized by prominent public figures, but only nine months later, in June 2004, when we announced that we had installed a toll-free “hotline” in order to facilitate the receipt of information regarding Poles suspected of murdering Jews. Ironically it was this news, rather than the initial launch of “Operation: Last Chance,” which sparked a vociferous public debate on the validity of our project in Poland. Among the participants were several prominent Jews or Poles of Jewish origin, whose involvement was no coincidence. Thus, for example, among those bitterly attacking “Ostatnia Szansa” was Prof. Bronislaw Geremek, a former Foreign Minister and recently elected member of the European Parliament, whose grandfather, a rabbi, was murdered in Auschwitz. In a radio interview, he expressed a “deep distaste” for the project, which he said, filled him “with disgust and anxiety.” Geremek preferred that “the whole world be informed abut how many good things were done by Poles” [to save Jews – EZ], and therefore was “very surprised” by our initiative.
Geremek’s interview on “Radio Zet” was followed by a front-page story on June 16, 2004 in Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest and most important daily, which was accompanied by an op-ed comment by its editor Adam Michnik, a Pole of Jewish origin. Entitled “Wrong Idea,” the article attacked O:LC for singling out the victims of the Holocaust for special treatment as opposed to others who have been victimized, or in his words, “I do not understand the logic which advocates killing only Jews or the logic which advocates chasing only their killers.” In addition, Michnik expressed his concern that the rewards offered would open the gate to “the hell of vengeance, false accusations and demagogic generalizations,” and moreover, in his opinion, chasing elderly suspects would cause more damage than good. Thus although he had great respect for Simon Wiesenthal, Michnik firmly believed that the Center was making a big mistake.
Ironically, it was these sharp criticisms which struck a deep nerve (over 650 postings in response to the lead story in Gazeta Wyborcza) and finally provided the project which the badly needed public exposure that we had hereto lacked in Poland. It was the number one story in the electronic media and numerous requests for information regarding the hotline and the project were received. Perhaps just as important, the controversy focused intense attention on the issue of Polish complicity in crimes against Jews and the role played by Poles in the fate of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust. Thus I was able to publish a lengthy op-ed in Gazeta Wyborcza in which I explained the rationale and motivation for launching O:LC in Poland and attempted to refute the criticisms leveled by Geremek, Michnik, and Righteous Gentile, and former Polish Foreign Minister, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski who opined that the project was “worthless” and would badly damage the reputation of Simon Wiesenthal who had contributed so much to tolerance and coexistence. My bottom line was that “while Poles can be extremely proud of the activities of Zegota, a Polish organization especially founded to save Jews, and the heroism of the other Polish Righteous Among the Nations, the sad truth is that many Poles participated in the murder of their Jewish neighbors and others assisted the Nazis in doing so and that truth must be confronted honestly. Of course Polish leaders would prefer that their country be regarded exclusively as a victim of the Nazis, but that is not the entire truth and it is extremely important that the whole historical picture emerge clearly and be visible to all. I sincerely believe that one of the ways to help do so, is to bring the guilty to justice in Poland, and in that regard we hope that O:LC will not only succeed, but that even its current detractors will ultimately recognize its importance and value for their country.”
The polemic sparked by the launching of O:LC had the desired effect of initiated an intense public debate on the issue of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust but also was instrumental in significantly increasing the flow of information to our hotline. As expected, almost all the suspects were individual Poles who had murdered Jews, in some cases people whom they had initially undertaken to hide but later killed, ostensibly for mercenary reasons.
Not long after the polemic regarding the project received prominence in the media, we encountered a potentially serious problem in the form of a government investigation of O:LC. According to a letter from Elzbieta Ostrowska of the Office of the Inspector General for Personal Data Protection, a complaint had been submitted against the project and an official investigation had been initiated. The allegation was that by sending information about Polish citizens overseas without their permission, we were violating the local data protection laws, and the authorities demanded the name and address of the person in charge. The letter did not identify the individual who submitted the complaint, but this clearly was the work of political opponents of the project and we had no intention of complying with the request or in any way jeopardizing our local worker.
In the meantime, we encountered another obstacle when Fakt, a popular tabloid refused in principle to publish our ads announcing O:LC. According to the newspaper, they had the right to reject any ad which was against the character of their publication or “against the law or social standards.” In this respect, Fakt was no doubt responding to the overwhelmingly negative response in Poland to “Operation: Last Chance.”
Matters in both regards worsened in the fall, as the Inspector General for Data Protection refused to meet personally to discuss the problem and instead threatened legal action, while our efforts to publish ads encountered one technical problem after another. This latter problem was a major impediment to our efforts, although by the spring of 2005 we had already received over fifty phone calls on our hotline, with the names of twenty bonafide suspects. In June, however, the legal front heated up again, as the person handling our hotline was summoned to the Office of the Inspector-General for Data Protection for questioning. It was then that we learned that the original complaint against “Operation: Last Chance” had been submitted by Polish senator Adam Biela of the League of Polish Families, an extreme right wing, nationalist party. A week later Rabbi Schudrich, in whose office the hotline was located, was also summoned for questioning, an encounter which finally convinced the Polish authorities to drop their inquiry.
At this point, in July 2006, we have received the names of twenty-three suspects, almost all of whom fit the profile we expected of people who murdered Jews they had either agreed to hide or had previous contact with. In the meantime, however, we have learned that several of the most promising suspects are no longer alive and it has proven extremely difficult to confirm the allegations against the others. In fact, the only suspect whose name we have hereto submitted to the Polish Institute for National Memory with a request for prosecution, has been that of Erna Pfannstiel Wallisch, a German woman currently living in Vienna, who was a guard at Majdanek.
In terms of complicity in Holocaust crimes, Poland is clearly not Lithuania or Latvia, but “Operation: Last Chance” has exposed the deep denial still widespread in Polish society regarding the role played by individual Poles in the murder of Jews during the Shoa. Obviously, if any Polish Holocaust perpetrators will ultimately be prosecuted thanks to O:LC, that would be a significant victory, but forcing Polish society to face the complicity of individual Poles in the crimes which contributed to the annihilation of one of Europe’s largest and most important Jewish communities is also a worthwhile achievement.