by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He was such a quiet man, everyone said, but don’t they always say that? A quiet man, older fellow, kept to himself. And then one day, the Justice Department is banging on his door, and protesters are screaming on his lawn, waving photos of death, dismemberment, the most horrible evil a man can do. They are saying, years ago, the quiet man was a part of this. And he’s gotten away with it all this time. This is a pattern in the hunt for Nazi war criminals. It repeated itself last week, in the Boston suburb of Norwood, Mass. An 87-year- old Lithuanian immigrant. A quiet man. Been here since Eisenhower was president. And he’s now accused by the government of being “a senior-level perpetrator of the Holocaust,” a man who, during World War II, helped Nazis execute 50,000 Jews. Fifty thousand? Can you comprehend that evil? Think of it as 25,000 O.J. Simpson trials. Start counting now, and keep counting for 13 straight hours, from breakfast until after dinner, then imagine one person dying for every number you speak. This quiet man was in on all that? And he’s lived here, in our democratic country, holding a job, belonging to a church, all these years — we even gave him citizenship? And now TV trucks are parked on his lawn, and reporters keep a vigil, and neighbors look at the locked door and imagine the face that they knew, thinning white hair, glasses, they used to see him around the neighborhood — getting in his car, going to the store — that face, years ago, turning over families to be shot in cold blood and left in piles, like garbage. How could it be? Such a quiet man?Others have lived undetected

Whether Aleksandras Lilekis is ever found guilty or not — he yelled “No comment” before slamming the door on reporters last week, and has not come out since — his case raises a question almost as unsettling as the crimes. How could we not know? Shouldn’t evil wear some kind of face, a look that gives it away with the first glance? How is it possible that someone could commit such atrocities, then years later be shopping, going to movies, moving through life as if nothing happened? Mr. Lilekis even lived amongst Jewish neighbors, just a mile from a small Jewish cemetery. How could this happen? Well. The fact is, it has happened for years. Josef Mengele, the infamous
“Angel Of Death,” used to whistle opera while sending Jews to gas chambers. After the war, he lived as a free men in Brazil, undetected, unaccosted. Josef Schwammberger, a Nazi commander charged with murdering thousands of Jews
— sometimes letting dogs eat them alive — lived for decades in Argentina, free, unencumbered, working at a chemical plant outside Buenos Aries. Andrija Artukovic, dubbed the “Butcher of the Balkans,” came to the United States in 1948, and lived in Long Beach, Calif., worked as an accountant, free and clear, until they found him, nearly four decades later, in 1986. That was the same year they took John Demjankjuk, accused of being the barbarian “Ivan the Terrible” and charged him in the deaths of 850,000 people. He had been living in a Cleveland suburb, where he’d retired from Ford Motor Co. (Amidst storms of protest, Demjanjuk’s conviction was overturned last year by an Israeli court.) Until they were accused of crimes, none of these people seemed to be anything usual. They wore no signs around their necks, they had no devilish glow. Such quiet men. Lost in the crowd

There’s a scene in the old Dustin Hoffman movie, “Marathon Man,” in which a concentration camp survivor recognizes her ex-Nazi tormentor on the streets of New York, and begins to point, then yell, then scream in horror, “Somebody stop him! Stop that man!” He walks on with his collar up, looking straight ahead, until the old woman is lost in the crowd. The scene is terribly powerful, because it puts killer and victim in close proximity. And you find yourself saying, “This cannot be.” Either justice must intervene or the man’s conscience must drive him to confession. But while criminals are sometimes tortured by guilt, more often they are worried only about escape. At the beginning guilt haunts them, as time passes it annoys them, with the years, who knows, it may release them altogether. You wake up one day, the sun is out, you have a job, a new name, and you can almost pretend you never did anything. Most Nazi war criminals are either dead now or soon will be. They’re in their late 70s or 80s, in frail health if still alive. Still, the government is right to hunt them down, expose them, seek convictions, if only to remind us that evil doesn’t always fit a profile. There’s an old expression: A clear conscience can sleep through thunder. But the more we go on, the more we see that a guilty conscience can sleep as well, sometimes for years. Sometimes right next door.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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