The World Jewish Congress said today that former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who is the front-runner for the May 5 Austrian presidential election, lied about his wartime Nazi past.
WJC President Edgar Bronfman charged in a statement that Waldheim carried out "one of the most elaborate deceptions of our time."
He added that it was "inconceivable that Waldheim would have been elected U.N. secretary general had the facts been known."
Waldheim served as U.N. secretary general from 1972 to 1982. In 1981, a group of American Jews told Waldheim that the United Nations risked losing public support in the United States because of a series of anti-Israeli resolutions under his stewardship.
Bronfman quoted from what he said was a brochure from Waldheim's unsuccessful election campaign for the 1971 Austrian presidential contest, which gave the official version of Waldheim's World War II activities.
" 'In 1942, after Kurt Waldheim was wounded, he returned home and resumed his studies. After his graduation in 1944, he had to return to the war front,' " Bronfman quoted the document as saying.
The WJC said it has proof that during the time he said he was studying, Waldheim actually served under Gen. Alexander Lohr in Yugoslavia and Greece. Lohr was hanged in 1947 for war crimes. Whole villages were wiped out by Lohr's men.
The WJC said it also has proof that Waldheim joined the Nazi Student Union on April 1, 1938, at the age of 20, less than three weeks after Germany annexed Austria.
In November of that year he became a member of the Nazi "Brownshirts," the WJC alleged.
Waldheim has consistently denied having any links with Nazi-affiliated groups.
The New York Times today quoted Waldheim as saying he has acknowledged serving in the military. But he said he played a minor role and did not know of the brutal campaigns against Yugoslavs or the mass deportation of Greek Jews from Salonika carried out by the units to which he was attached.
Waldheim also told the newspaper that he joined the Nazis to shield his family. His father, Walter, was a well-known opponent of the Nazis, who eventually stripped him of his job as a schoolteacher.
For his activities in Yugoslavia, Waldheim received the King Zvonmir silver medal with oak leaves from the Nazi puppet state of Croatia for "service under enemy fire." He told the newspaper that the medals were routinely given.
Waldheim said he committed no crime in Yugoslavia. "I sat there and the German command gave orders to the Italian units and the Italians gave messages back and they needed an interpreter," he was quoted as saying.
He said he analyzed enemy troop movements in Salonika. The paper described him as "visibly shaken" as he denied during an interview even knowing about Lohr's deportations from Salonika of nearly 43,000 Jews between March and May of 1943 to death camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Lublin. Waldheim was based in Salonika for part of that time.
An investigation into Waldheim's war background in 1946 and again in 1980 had failed to produce this material, both the New York Times and WJC said.
Bronfman said the organization was tipped off by a "friendly source."