Justice Department Nazi-hunters moved Wednesday to strip U.S. citizenship from a Massachusetts man on the grounds that he hid his role in the mass murder and persecution of Jews while heading a unit of the Nazi-sponsored Lithuanian Security Police during World War II.
The Justice Department action, portrayed as “one of the most important Nazi cases brought anywhere in the world in recent history,” illustrated the crucial value of records that had been under Soviet control and out of the reach of federal investigators for decades.
Aleksandras Lileikis, 87, who allegedly ran the Saugumas--or security police--in Vilnius Province of Lithuania, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1955 under the Refugee Relief Act and became a naturalized citizen in 1976.
Eli M. Rosenbaum, acting director of the Justice Department’s office of special investigations, described Lileikis, a retired publishing company employee, as “a senior-level perpetrator of the Holocaust.”
Rosenbaum said that before the Lithuanian records became available, the Nazi-hunting unit had been looking into whether Lileikis had lied in denying his wartime role, but they had been “stymied by the inability to get hard evidence.”
Opening of archives in Eastern and Central Europe in 1991 produced “a veritable treasure of evidentiary riches,” Rosenbaum said. “We’re able to make cases that would have been impossible to put together.” The Lileikis case is a “prime example of what access has made possible.”
At his Norwood, Mass., home, Lileikis repeatedly told reporters “no comment” Wednesday, then slammed the door, the Associated Press reported.
In a denaturalization complaint filed Wednesday in federal court in Boston, the government claimed that from August, 1941, until the German occupation of Lithuania ended in July, 1944, Lileikis directed his security force to seek out and arrest Jews who violated Nazi anti-Jewish decrees.
The more than 100 Saugumas plainclothes officers under Lileikis’ command focused on Jews who escaped or attempted to escape from the barbed wire-enclosed ghettos in which they had been interned under “catastrophically inhumane” conditions, according to the complaint.
The complaint cited several instances in 1941 when Lileikis turned over Jews to the so-called Lithuanian “special detachment,” with full knowledge that the unit served as an execution squad. The allegations are based on captured Axis documents currently located in the Lithuanian State Archives.
“The best evidence against Mr. Lileikis is his own signature on one after another captured Nazi document,” Rosenbaum said.
The genocidal campaign launched by the Nazis in the summer of 1941 killed at least 55,000 of Vilnius’ 60,000 Jewish residents. During much of the 19th Century and continuing until the Nazi invasion, Vilnius and Warsaw were Europe’s two preeminent centers of Jewish cultural, intellectual, religious and political life, the Justice Department noted in its announcement of the action against Lileikis.
Most of the victims were forcibly transported, often on foot, to the Paneriai woods about six miles outside of Vilnius, where large pits were used for mass executions, according to captured records preserved at the archives. There the Jews were shot to death, usually by special detachment members.
The complaint cited Lileikis’ written “decision” on Gita Kaplan, a Jewish woman, and her 6-year-old daughter, Fruma, who were arrested on Dec. 1, 1941, for having fled and hidden outside the Jewish ghetto along with two non-Jewish Lithuanians who assisted them.
After questioning them, Lileikis allegedly ordered that “the Jew Gita Kaplan, who is being held in my custody, born in 1896, and her daughter Fruma, be turned over as of Dec. 2 to the German Security Police Chief” with full knowledge that such Jews were “almost invariably taken to Paneriai for execution,” the complaint said.
German occupation records report the mother and daughter were executed on or immediately after Dec. 22, 1941.
“It is, tragically, too late for the victims of Paneriai,” Rosenbaum said. “But it is not too late to pursue some measure of justice on their behalf.”
Lileikis succeeded in entering the United States after failing twice in attempts dating to 1950. He was admitted despite suspicions about his past. The U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, for example, wrote that he was “possibly connected with the shooting of Jews” in Vilnius.
When questioned before being granted a visa, however, he lied about his wartime duties and activities, the complaint alleges.
If Lileikis is stripped of citizenship, the Justice Department then would likely seek his deportation to a country he would select if it would accept him. These are the maximum remedies available under U.S. law.