In Other Words

In Other Words: Baltic Ghosts

Lithuania is investigating Jewish Holocaust survivors as war criminals -- and using their own memoirs as evidence against them.

Yitzhak Arad escaped to the forest at the age of 16, days before the Jews in his native Lithuanian village were massacred. He is proud he joined the Soviet partisans to fight the Nazis and their collaborators. For a Jew, just to survive the Holocaust was a victory, he says; to tell about it was an obligation. That's why Arad wrote his memoir, The Partisan: From the Valley of Death to Mt. Zion, published in English in 1979.

The book is a raw account of an orphaned teenager fighting the Nazis in desperate conditions after the murder of 40 members of his family. Arad describes his main activities with the Soviet partisans as blowing up German military trains, and he also details some of the grislier aspects of forest warfare. In one passage, he describes a "punitive action" against the village of Girdan, where two partisans had been killed: "We broke into the village from two directions, and the defenders fled after putting up feeble resistance. We took the residents out of several houses in the section of the village where our two comrades fell and burned down the houses. Never again were partisans fired on from their village."

"It was a cruel war," the 82-year-old Arad recalled recently. "We did the best we could to survive." He dedicated his memoir to those who fought with him and died along the way -- his "heroic friends."

But when Lithuania's chief war crimes prosecutor, Rimvydas Valentukevicius, read Arad's book, nearly 30 years after its publication, he didn't see a hero. He saw a possible war criminal. And in September 2007, when the prosecutor's office publicly announced an investigation into Arad, it was clear The Partisan would be Exhibit A against him. More war crimes investigations of Lithuanian Holocaust survivors have followed, and in each case, memoirs are playing a central role.

These events are all the more shocking to those who remember that the country was once a sort of Jewish promised land. Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, was known as "the Jerusalem of the North." About one third of its population in the 1920s and 30s was Jewish. Yiddish was in the air then. Synagogues welcomed the faithful. Cafes overflowed with young Jewish painters, writers, and poets. Vilna, as the city is called in Yiddish, was the seat of intellectual, spiritual, and artistic life for Eastern European Jewry.

All of that is long gone, destroyed by the Nazi war machine with the active assistance, in a dark chapter for Lithuania, of many local collaborators. Vilnius today has only one synagogue. Lithuania's once flourishing community of more than 200,000 Jews -- over 90 percent of whom were annihilated during the war -- is now about 4,000. All that is left are the Holocaust survivors' stories, and now those, in the case of Arad and several others, are being used against them.

How a country that was once a center of Jewish life has now begun targeting the few remaining victims of history's worst crime is a story of foreign occupiers, former Jewish partisans, and modern-day Lithuanian ethnic nationalists. But more broadly, it is a story of books, memory, and a small country's ongoing struggle to make sense of its tangled, bloody historical narratives -- a struggle facing all of Eastern Europe.

In a strange twist, this whole affair began with a good-faith effort to heal those deep, lingering ethnic divisions. In 1998, President Valdas Adamkus created a high-level commission to try to establish the "historical truth" about Lithuania's horrific occupations during the 20th century: first by the Soviets from 1940-41, then by the Nazis from 1941-44, followed again by the Soviets from 1944-90. The commission attracted a prestigious collection of international scholars, including Arad, who had gone on to become a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and director of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust remembrance center. However, as the commission began excavating the layered narratives of guilt and suffering from this period, ethnic tensions flared.

The biggest obstacle for Lithuanians in confronting their history is the now well-established fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of Lithuanians voluntarily participated in the Holocaust. Many of the country's Jews were shot by local police and by a special unit of Lithuanian killers incorporated into the Nazi SS. Since its independence in 1990, only three Lithuanian collaborators have been charged with war crimes, and none was punished.

"The genocide of the Jews is the bloodiest page in the country's history," said Saulius Suziedelis, a Lithuanian historian and member of the presidential commission. But for many Lithuanians, he said, "just to mention that obvious fact turns them off because they want to talk about their own victimization."

That victimization came during the brutal Soviet occupation. It was marked by the repression of Lithuanian culture, the deportation of many thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia, and the murder of Lithuanian independence fighters. The Soviets strictly controlled information and wrote Lithuania's history books. Today, as the country struggles to write its own narrative, most Lithuanians see the Soviets as the real villains of World War II. "The Spielberg view of the war is totally irrelevant to [Lithuanians] because that was not their experience," Suziedelis said. Instead, Lithuanian Jews, who allied with the Soviets to fight the Nazis, are today often regarded as deserving of punishment for Soviet crimes.

This is certainly the view of many Lithuanian "ethno-nationalists," according to Antony Polonsky, professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University. In 2006, after the presidential commission published interim findings for a report that Polonsky called "a devastating account of the Lithuanian involvement in the mass murder of the Jews," these firebrands mobilized, he said. They took to the pink-tinted pages of the right-wing Respublika newspaper -- Lithuania's second-leading daily, which has been sanctioned for running anti-Semitic material. Their target was Yitzhak Arad. In an April 2006 article, Respublika published portions of his memoir and denounced him as a murderer and war criminal. The following month, Lithuanian prosecutors opened their investigation into Arad.

Some might dismiss this timing as coincidence. But not Rytas Narvydas, head of special investigations for the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, which investigates and memorializes past state crimes. He and the lead prosecutor, Valentukevicius, acknowledge that the Arad investigation started in response to the Respublika article. When asked whether anti-Semitic elements in Lithuania had manipulated the war crimes prosecutor's office, Narvydas conceded, "It does happen from time to time."

Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Secretary Oskaras Jusys criticized the prosecutor for getting pushed around by "outside" elements and said the investigations never should have been opened. "The mistake was made by the prosecutor's office from the very beginning," he said. "Their mistake was to go ahead without clear evidence."

The Arad case "created so much damage" for Lithuania, Jusys said, referring to the significant diplomatic pressure imposed by the United States, the European Union, Israel, and international Jewish groups. Lithuania's foreign minister and president appealed personally to the prosecutor to drop the Arad investigation, Jusys said, and in September of last year the case was closed. But in the meantime, prosecutors had opened investigations into several other Holocaust survivors. "We have been able to clean one mess," Jusys said in frustration, "and now other things are happening again."

The most public of the ongoing investigations involves Rachel Margolis, an 87-year-old former biology professor living in Israel who joined the Soviet partisans after escaping the Vilnius ghetto. Here, too, a book is at the heart of the case. In Margolis's memoir, published in 2005 in Polish (and later in Russian and German), she recounts a partisan raid on the village of Kaniukai on January 29, 1944. Facts about the raid are heavily disputed, including whether the villagers were acting in concert with the Nazis, but the war crimes prosecutor alleges that 46 people were murdered, 22 of them children.

According to Margolis's memoir, she did not take part in the Kaniukai raid, but her longtime friend and fellow partisan, Fania Brancovskaja, did. Now an 87-year-old librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, Brancovskaja was attacked in print last year by the ultraright-wing nationalist newspaper Lietuvos Aidas. It labeled her a murderer, called on investigators to charge her with war crimes, and demanded they summon Margolis as a witness. And, last May, Lithuanian prosecutors publicly announced they were seeking to question the two women.

The heightened scrutiny of these investigations clearly frustrates Valentukevicius, the prosecutor, as does having to defend himself against accusations of anti-Semitism. When asked about it recently, he raised a copy of Lithuania's procedural code and said he's just doing his job -- investigating all war crimes allegations as the law requires. But with dozens of potential cases of Lithuanian collaboration yet to be examined, the decision to focus on Jewish Soviet partisans has attracted suspicion.

So has the very public nature of the prosecutor's investigation. Faina Kukliansky, Brancovskaja's attorney and an ex-prosecutor, complained that the former partisans are being tried by "innuendo" in the court of public opinion because prosecutors lack any evidence to try them in a court of law. "Everything has been done with a wink and a nod," she said.

Many critics agree and say it is no coincidence that nationalists sought out Margolis's memoir, a light seller at best. Prior to its publication, Margolis had detailed aspects of Lithuania's history that many would rather ignore. She helped publish works on the Holocaust, including the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a searing account of the heavy participation of Lithuanians in the murder of 50,000 to 60,000 Jews in the Ponary forest outside Vilnius. The 2005 English edition of the book, for which Margolis wrote the foreword, was edited by Yitzhak Arad.

Margolis has not returned to Lithuania since prosecutors came looking for her. Brancovskaja met with prosecutors last May to explain that she was recovering from an operation at the time of the Kaniukai raid and had not taken part in it. Margolis sent her old friend a letter backing up Brancovskaja's account, and said her memoir should be regarded as literature, not historical fact. That may be true of all memoirs, but the distinction takes on a special significance in the context of the Holocaust, where survivors write to bear witness and deniers have long seized on small inconsistencies to discount the larger event.

For his part, Arad stands by the accuracy of his account as vehemently as he denies committing any war crimes. "I am proud of what I did during the wartime," he said. "If I would feel I did something not to do, I wouldn’t write a memoir."

As during the Arad affair, the world is watching Lithuania's investigations of the elderly Jews who fought with the Soviet partisans, and Brancovskaja and the others will likely escape war crimes charges. But charges may never have been the point. The prosecutor's simple act of initiating the Arad investigation was enough to derail the half of the presidential commission researching Nazi crimes and Lithuanian complicity in them. It has not published anything since 2006. This may be the investigations' most enduring harm.

"You have to do what's right, not what's easy," said David Crane, a law professor at Syracuse University and founding chief prosecutor for the U.N. war crimes court in Sierra Leone. "Some people in society may not want these things found, and in the short term, that may seem like a solution. But in the long term, 25 years from now, they'll still be arguing about this."

Other consequences are more personal. The relationship between Brancovskaja and Margolis, a friendship that started before the war, has suffered. The two women have been divided by a 65-year-old memory and a passage in a book. "It is very painful what they are doing," Brancovskaja said, sitting in the Yiddish library surrounded by the many volumes she tends. But then she added, "I have lived through so much. This is not the worst."

In Other Words

In Other Words: Mob Rule

Italy is becoming the failed state of Western Europe, but do Italians even care that the mafia is running the show?

Vincenzo Guida is the notorious crime boss of Naples, and in 2006, he and his Camorra clan were well on their way to infiltrating Milan, using a construction business as a front to launder more than $25 million of dirty money. By late fall, however, Italian authorities were on Guida's trail, tapping the phones of his lawyer, Barbara Sabadini. That's when Sabadini called Rep. Francesco De Luca, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's party, urging him to use his sway to help her criminal clients. De Luca seemed only too happy to oblige, alluding to a "friend," a judge who was about to take over Guida's trial. As Corriere della Sera reported last year, the Italian police were listening to all of this.

Investigators must have thought they hit the jackpot -- that is, until they realized they were listening in on an elected representative's conversation. At the time, Italy's Boato Law conveniently required Parliament's permission to intercept the phone calls of elected officials. So the wiretap was cut off. Before the police could get clearance to investigate, Parliament was dissolved and elections held. De Luca was reelected and only a few members of the Guida clan were arrested last year.

Stories like this are no exception in Italy. No doubt, the mafia has been powerful in Italy for a long time. But as a series of insightful books published there over the last year documents in vivid detail, Italy is now becoming a mafia-sponsored state. Its powerless judicial system, corrupt politics, and bloated but weak bureaucracy are enabling the mafia to take over the world’s sixth-largest economy -- from construction to agriculture, waste management to manufacturing, small-time loan-sharking to high-end finance.

According to Confesercenti, the Italian association of small-business owners, the mafia's activities account for nearly one tenth of Italy's GDP. Corruption is finally starting to repel foreign direct investment, which in 2008 plunged more than three times as much in Italy as in the rest of the European Union. Indeed, in the World Bank’s 2008 "Doing Business" report, the efficiency of Italy's justice system ranked 156 out of 181 countries -- below Iraq and Pakistan, and just above Afghanistan.

This troubling picture is one that Italians don’t like to confront. But the recent publication of no fewer than six books -- from insider accounts of mafia investigators to the sober investigations of intrepid journalists -- has rejuvenated a decades-long national debate about the health and future of Italian democracy. At the heart of this debate, and running throughout these new books, are devastating questions: Is Italy becoming the failed state of Western Europe? Is the mafia running the show? And do Italians even care?

Roberto Scarpinato, a deputy district judge in Palermo's anti-mafia division, and Saverio Lodato, a journalist, offer the most comprehensive account of the behind-the-scenes dealings between the mafia and politicians. Their Il Ritorno del Principe (The Prince's Comeback) has the grand sweep appropriate to a social history of organized crime in Italy. The term "mafia" -- likely from mafiusu, 19th-century Sicilian slang connoting swagger or a kind of fearless, bullying arrogance -- has become a catchall term around the world. But the mafia actually comprises many organizations controlling separate territory, five of which are remarkably high profile: the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in and around Naples, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, and the Basilischi in Basilicata. And as Scarpinato and Lodato show, Italy's mafia cartels are not simply violent, drug-dealing gangs; they are 21st-century corporations with an integrated system of governance, blurring the line between licit and illicit activities.

Scarpinato and Lodato argue that there are two faces to the mafia: the more visible military component -- the low-ranking foot soldiers who rob, kill, and deal drugs -- and the white-collar mafia, or "mafia bourgeoisie." These professionals, entrepreneurs, and academics are not necessarily involved in criminal activity directly, but they are tied up in it nonetheless, and they manage the mafia's relationships with Italy's political class, which have recently grown much closer. Politicians let the mafia go about its business in exchange for votes and a cut of the illicit multimillion-dollar action. In turn, the mafia relieves the state of its duty to provide public goods. Take pizzo, the money for protection from rival clans and petty criminals that mafia bosses extract from business owners. The annual pizzo take is now estimated at nearly $19 billion.

Despite thousands of high-profile arrests and legislative attempts to conquer the mafia's influence, Italy's crackdowns raise their own suspicions. As Scarpinato and Lodato document, these intermittent efforts often coincide with attempts by the mafia's armed wing to override its bourgeois counterpart. Any real progress is conveniently stopped just short of exposing the role of the white-collar mafia. It is unclear who really works for whom. And as the bond between politicians and the mafia deepens, Italy's democratic state is hollowed out even more.

Indeed, many Italian politicians are not only themselves compromised, but as Bruno Tinti charges in Toghe Rotte (Broken Robes), they actively work to undermine the few parts of the Italian state that still have some integrity. Italian politicians chronically underfund the country's traditionally independent judiciary and enact reams of legislation to debilitate it, like the Boato Law on wiretapping. Tinti, a former deputy district judge in Turin, writes, "If one examines the activity of the Parliament and the majority of the ministers of justice over the course of the last 20 years, one will discover something incredible: Not only has nothing been done to increase the efficiency of the justice system, but serious efforts have been devoted to further weaken it."

Toghe Rotte offers a crash course on Italy's dysfunctional justice system, and many of its stories and anecdotes should be filed under "funny if it weren’t true." For example, there is the case of a 2002 law that Italy's Parliament passed to try to neuter the judiciary. The measure dealt with prescrizione, or statutes of limitations. It shortened the so-called "period of prescription" for crimes -- an allotment of time, now either five or 7½ years, in which Italy's police and judges must discover the crime, investigate it, try it, and complete three layers of sentencing and appeals before a final verdict can be reached. If they fail to do all of this in time, the crime is expunged, regardless of its nature, and the accused is acquitted of all charges. What this means, according to Tinti, is that the penal procedures for 95 percent of all crimes committed in Italy expire before justice runs its course.

One man who is smiling because of all this is Prime Minister Berlusconi, who has been tried on 12 occasions for various alleged crimes, but has been acquitted eight times on grounds other than his proven innocence. The reason? In most cases, an expired statute of limitations, which Berlusconi's government reduced even further in 2002 while some of his verdicts were pending. And if you were wondering how deep this scandal goes, according to Se Li Conosci Li Eviti (If You Know Them You’ll Avoid Them), written by Peter Gomez and Marco Travaglio and published in 2008, 100 of Italy's 945 currently serving parliamentarians have been indicted, tried, convicted, or are awaiting appeal for crimes that will likely disappear because of laws they wrote.

As Italy's democracy grows more corrupt, the mafia fills the void, operating more freely and in more places than ever. Two recent books document the mafia's expansion well beyond its traditional stronghold in southern Italy and toward a growing penetration of northern Italy, where its presence was once minimal.

Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah tells the southern half of the story, providing a gripping picture of the magnitude of the Camorra empire in Campania. Saviano, a journalist who grew up in the Naples projects, recounts how the Camorra's activities now encompass every sector of the economy, even Italy's trademark fashion industry.

One of the book's stories is that of a tailor named Pasquale, whose factory on the outskirts of Naples is one of the Camorra's many phantom operations -- front businesses that the mafia has taken over using generous loans and extortion. The workers, like Pasquale, toil for punishing hours and little reward. Saviano writes that Pasquale was watching television one day in his tiny apartment, and he saw Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards wearing a white satin suit -- that he had made. The mafia knew exactly where the suit was headed, but no one told Pasquale. Such is life in what are essentially the mafia-run sweatshops of Western Europe.

Similar stories are now unfolding in northern Italy, too. This comes to life in Polo Nord (North Pole), written by two young Italian journalists, Fabio Abati and Igor Greganti. They began covering crime around Milan and noticed an increasing number of violent murders in what were once peaceful suburban communities. This discovery led the authors into the dark new world that the mafia runs in northern Italian cities such as Milan, Turin, and Verona, which are becoming hubs for the global drug trade.

Here, too, the mafia is taking over once legitimate businesses and twisting them to their illicit ends, corrupting everyone in the process. The authors tell one such story of a construction entrepreneur from Lake Garda named Giuseppe. He got wrapped up with the mafia when they made him an offer he couldn't refuse to use his construction businesses to launder money and invest it in local nightclubs. Before long, Giuseppe was helping the clan run a prostitution ring, shuttling Eastern European girls and their wealthy clients between the clubs and hotels. "In Garda’s nightclubs I saw society turn into sewage," Giuseppe told Abati and Greganti, "and tons of people swim in its crap."

Despite mounting evidence of Italy's growing mafia problems, public outcry has been limited, or at least ineffective. To be fair, some have worked courageously, often under threats of violence, to expose the mafia's penetration of Italy and pressure the state to do more about it. Still, they're a minority. Many Italians comfortably tolerate the mafia's presence. Others, because of their deep distrust of the corrupt and feckless Italian state, even support some mafia-wrought changes to their communities -- so much so that, at times, they resent the efforts of crusading public servants to crack down.

One Italian who tasted this resentment firsthand is Raffaele Cantone, a former judge in the anti-mafia division of the Naples courts, who recounts his ordeal in Solo per Giustizia (Only for Justice). When Cantone first moved to Giugliano, a city just north of Naples, he received a chilly welcome. In addition to cracking down on the Camorra clan, which was seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday life in Naples, Cantone supported police efforts to do small things such as regulate traffic and fine drivers who displayed fake insurance tags. Tensions really peaked when the police decided to check public licenses and discovered that most businesses were, in fact, illegal. The police promptly shut them down, and the locals became enraged, blaming Cantone for disrupting the peace. "I kept wondering," he writes, "if a similar reception would have been thinkable had a Camorra boss moved to Giugliano instead of me."

These truth-telling books are receiving a warmer reaction in Italy than Cantone did in Giugliano, but that’s not saying much. Saviano’s Gomorrah rose to international acclaim. It was made into a movie in 2008 and won lavish praise, including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. But soon thereafter the Camorra clan made death threats against Saviano. Polo Nord sparked real controversy by exposing the infiltration of northern Italy by southern criminal cartels. This is a development Italians don’t want to hear about.

Still, whatever debate is now stirring in Italy is mainly confined to a relatively small circle of intellectuals, activists, and avid readers. Italy's democracy remains immobile when it comes to stemming the country's corruption. These books have come nowhere close to rousing Italians to demand better governance and a rejection of illegality and organized crime. Instead, as the authors show, too many Italians have been settling for a mafia state for a long time now, and they appear content to continue doing so.