An exemplary life shadowed by Nazism

July 02, 1992|By David Lee Preston | David Lee Preston,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Jonas Stelmokas definitely was not hiding.

So why did it take the U.S. Justice Department 43 years to find him and accuse him of complicity in the Nazis' murder of Lithuanian Jews?

This, after all, was a man who stepped off the boat in 1949, earned a master's degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and joined the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects a year later.

Here was a man who flew the Lithuanian flag in front of his suburban Philadelphia home and kept a high ethnic profile: as president of the local chapter of the Lithuanian Engineers and Architects Association; as chairman of the local chapter of the Lithuanian-American Community of the U.S.A. Inc.; as chairman of the Lithuanian Cultural Center; as a member of the executive committee of Ramove, a Lithuanian veterans association.

Here, indeed, was a man who seemed to seek the spotlight: He even went back to Lithuania last year with a film crew from a Philadelphia television station.

So why are charges -- which Mr. Stelmokas vehemently denies -- being brought after all this time?

Ironically, the answer lies in large part in the success of the Lithuanian cause that Mr. Stelmokas and his compatriots worked so fervently to achieve.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the declaration of an independent Lithuania, long-closed archives are being opened. In this new climate, war-crimes researchers and Holocaust historians alike are getting more access than ever before to Nazi-era documents in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states.

But the charges against Mr. Stelmokas -- particularly in the wake of the Justice Department's mishandling of another accused Nazi war criminal, John Demjanjuk -- resurrect questions about the pursuit of justice after so much time has passed: Should the fact that a man may have lived an exemplary life in the United States absolve him of guilt for what he may have done 50 years ago?

"I don't believe that time eradicates certain guilt," replied Mark Weitzman, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York. "We're not dealing with victimless crime," he said. "We're dealing with the denial of the most basic human right of all -- the right to breathe, to exist."

The Wiesenthal center in Jerusalem says the Justice Department has had Mr. Stelmokas' name for several years, but only within the last few months was enough documentation obtained to enable authorities to act.

They acted on June 15: The Justice Department filed a complaint in federal court in Philadelphia accusing Mr. Stelmokas, 75, of hiding information and lying about his background when he applied for a U.S. visa in 1949 and when he applied for citizenship in 1954.

In its request for denaturalization -- revocation of citizenship -- the department charged that Mr. Stelmokas had "advocated, assisted, participated or acquiesced in the murder and other persecution of Jews and other unarmed citizens."

The case is based on his alleged participation as a high-ranking officer in a volunteer unit that helped the Nazis murder Lithuanian Jews and other unarmed civilians in 1941 and 1942.

Mr. Stelmokas has denied the allegations against him, saying they were fabricated by the Soviet KGB.

Neal M. Sher, director of the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, said the Stelmokas case was just the first of several he expects to file this summer. In fact, newly acquired access to archives in Riga, Vilnius, Kiev and Moscow will enable the office to file more cases in 1992 than in any previous year, Mr. Sher said.

Ironically, it was the relaxed access to Ukrainian archives in the former Soviet Union that produced the information that eventually may support Demjanjuk's claim of mistaken identity and give him a chance at freedom.

Demjanjuk is a retired Cleveland auto worker accused of being "Ivan the Terrible," operator of the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp in Poland.

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