Lithuanian, 93, Convicted of War Crimes but Spared Jail
A court convicted a 93-year-old former security police commander Wednesday of taking part in the mass murder of more than 200,000 Jews in Lithuania during World War II.
It was the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that a local collaborator has been convicted of a Holocaust crime in one of the now-independent former Soviet republics.
Kazys Gimzauskas, who doctors say has Alzheimer’s disease and is too ill to be incarcerated, will not be sent to prison for his crimes, the court ruled. Records show that Gimzauskas turned over at least three Jews for execution during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
Simonas Alperavicius, the head of Lithuania’s Jewish community, described the outcome as “better than nothing.”
“Unfortunately, he will bear no punishment as the doctors found him mentally impaired, and he will be left in the care of his family,” Alperavicius said. “If this verdict had been pronounced three years ago, when Gimzauskas felt much better, then he would have at least understood that he hadn’t managed to escape justice. . . . “
Gimzauskas, who pleaded innocent, was allowed to be tried in absentia because of his poor health. He continues to live in an apartment in Vilnius with relatives. His lawyers have 20 days to decide whether to appeal the verdict.
Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem office of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the verdict in Vilnius District Court a landmark for Lithuania in facing up to the active participation by many Lithuanian citizens in the World War II genocide of the country’s Jewish population.
But he deplored the fact that it had taken so long for the case to come to trial.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “the Lithuanian government has had very little political will to move forward on these cases.”
Lithuania once held a thriving Jewish community, and Vilnius was called “the Jerusalem of the North.”
Zuroff suggested that the “overwhelming majority” of Lithuanian Jews murdered in the war were killed by compatriots who enlisted in special units under the Nazis. He estimated that only about 8,000 of the 225,000 Jews who were in Lithuania at the time of the 1941 Nazi invasion survived the war.
He said he doubts that the case against Gimzauskas would have been pursued except for Lithuania’s eagerness to be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
Zuroff said that Gimzauskas should have been arrested and brought to trial in 1993 after he returned to Lithuania from the United States, fleeing U.S. investigators. Instead, no formal investigation was opened for three years.
A Lithuanian government spokesman, however, said the Gimzauskas verdict indicates a growing awareness among Lithuanians of the need to bring Nazi-era war criminals to justice.
“I think that more and more people in Lithuania, as civilized people in Europe, understand today that the tragedy of the Jewish people is incomparable with the tragedies of other peoples during World War II,” said Rimvydas Paleckis, spokesman for Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas.
“They understand that punishment of people who in some way helped the Nazis to exterminate Jews must happen sooner or later,” he said.
At least half a dozen other Nazi war crimes suspects are under investigation in Lithuania, but no trial dates have been set.
Sergei L. Loiko of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.