LAST WEDNESDAY, exactly one year from the day that John (Ivan) Demjanjuk was released from an Israeli prison and allowed to return to the United States, the Justice Department moved to revoke the citizenship of Aleksandras Lileikis, an elderly Lithuanian immigrant who lives in Norwood, Mass. Perhaps the timing was a hint that the government will not let the outcome of the Demjanjuk case -- in which an indisputably guilty war criminal was set free on a technicality -- derail its efforts to root out Nazi collaborators living in America.
Like Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian, Lileikis is charged with having been one of the legion of East Europeans who willingly joined the Nazis in effecting the Final Solution, then immigrated to the United States under fraudulent pretenses. Unlike Demjanjuk, an ignorant peasant trained by the Nazis to kill Jews at the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, Lileikis was an officer and an intellectual, with power and prestige and scores of men at his command. The Demjanjuk prosecution turned on the testimony of aging eyewitnesses and evidence supplied by the KGB, but the case against the Lithuanian rests on a solid paper trail, with every damning document is signed by Lileikis himself.
A university graduate who earned a law degree and speaks several languages, Lileikis made his mark in the Lithuanian secret police -- the "Saugumas." By 1939, he was chief of the Saugumas in Vilna, Lithuania's largest city. When the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States in 1940, Lileikis ran away to Nazi Germany. He returned to his homeland after Germany invaded Lithuania in June of 1941, and was reinstalled by the Nazis in his former position.
The Saugumas was a major component of the Nazi killing operation in Lithuania, which began immediately following the invasion. The Germans relied on Lileikis and his officers to round up Jews and transport them to the Ponary Woods, a forest about six miles outside Vilna. There, they were stripped, robbed of their belongings, lined up 10 or 20 at a time at the edge of deep pits, and shot.
Jewish victims of mass murder in the Ponary Woods near Vilna, Lithuania
The killing was done by death squads called "Einsatzgruppen." The term is German. But the killers at the Ponary pits were largely Lithuanian.
For Lithuanians had welcomed the Nazi invasion, greeting the Germans with flowers and cheers. Many Lithuanians (like many Poles, Latvians, and Ukrainians) were anti-Semitic to the core, only too glad to participate in killing their Jewish neighbors. With the collaboration of the Saugumas and the Lithuanians who volunteered to commit mass murder at places like Ponary, the Nazis, in just three years, were able to exterminate 96 percent of Lithuanian Jewry.
Before the war, Vilna was a vibrant center of Jewish learning, culture, and literature, so renowned that it was nicknamed "the Jerusalem of Lithuania." Some 80,000 Jews lived in Vilna when the Nazis entered. By the time they departed, the Jerusalem of Lithuania was virtually Jew-free.
History books and Nazi records are replete with statistics: 5,000 Vilna Jews massacred at Ponary in the first 12 days of the German occupation; 35,000 in the first two months; 48,000 by the end of 1941.
Dr. Jacob Wigodsky was one of these statistics. A former member of the Polish Senate, a longtime leader of Vilna's Jewish community, he was arrested by the Saugumas, presumably at Lileikis' command, and shot at Ponary on Aug. 31, 1941. He was 86 years old, killed for the crime of being a Jew. Lileikis is 87.
Abba Kovner, a Vilna resident who survived the war, described two more of these statistics at the Eichmann trial in 1961:
"At midnight, I saw from the other side of the street, it was 39 Ostrashun Street, a woman was dragged by the hair by two soldiers -- a woman who was holding something in her arms. One of them directed a beam of light into her face; the other one dragged her by her hair and threw her on the pavement.
"Then the infant fell out of her arms. One of the two, the one with the flashlight, I believe, took the infant, raised him into the air, grabbed him by the leg. The woman crawled on the earth, took hold of his boot, and pleaded for mercy. But the soldier took the boy and hit him with his head against the wall -- once, twice, smashed him against the wall."
On Aug. 31, 1941, alone, according to the Nazis' meticulous bookkeeping, precisely 2,019 Jewish women, 864 men, and 817 children were shot at Ponary.
It is difficult, 50 years on, to see faces or recall names in these statistics. Far easier to see Lileikis' face -- to see the extremely old man he has become, with little left in this world but his thick glasses, his ailing wife, and his dilapidated house on Sumner Street. Why pursue him? Why dig up papers he signed long ago -- citing musty statistics, disturbing his peace - when the end of his life is so near?
Why? Because a man remains accountable for his life even at the end of his life. Because civilization depends on reinforcing the idea of justice, even when justice itself can no longer be meted out. Because only by keeping open the window of memory can we protect ourselves against the hells of our past.
If the Justice Department is correct, the man who helped turn thousands of men, women, and children into statistics entered the United States in 1955 and became an American citizen in 1976. The crimes he abetted in Vilna cannot be undone. But his presence in this country is one abomination that can still be reversed.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)