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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Frontline Scotland: The Forgotten Nazi
The following is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's The Forgotten Nazi broadcast on Tuesday 10 April.
Ross McWilliam: Over half a million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered when the Germans invaded Lithuania and Belarus during the Second World War.
The mass killings weren't carried out by Nazi guards in concentration camps, but by locals who turned on their neighbours.
Mary Gotler (Speaking through interpreter): Every stone here is soaked with blood. There is no place where someone wouldn't have been murdered.
Ross: Mary Gotler shivers, but it's not the bitter Baltic wind that has chilled her. This is the first time she's returned to the place where her father was shot and killed - one of the thousands murdered by fellow Lithuanians, like Antanas Gecas - a Nazi collaborator who, after the war, found safe haven in Scotland. But now Mary, and Lithuania want Gecas to answer for his crimes.
Eli Rosenbaum (US Department of Justice): The evidence against Gecas is overwhelming. There are testimonies of so many of his men, some of whom are still alive, recalling that he was their commanding officer, recalling the company's participation in mass murders of Jews, and others - this is the company that Gecas commanded - and recalling his personal involvement in these crimes.
Ross: While thousands of victims lie in mass graves across parts of the former Soviet Union Antanas Gecas has, for almost 60 years, been living a comfortable life here in Edinburgh.
But now, the Lithuanian state prosecutor wants him brought back to his homeland to stand trial for war crimes. It's an embarrassment to Britain, who turned a blind eye to Gecas' past, and gave him shelter despite the secret services MI5 and MI6 knowing about his involvement with the mass murder of Jewish civilians.
Stephen Dorrill (author of MI6 Special Operations in Britain): It was, and it remains a deep embarrassment, I think, to the government, to the Civil Service, and to the intelligence agencies that they did recruit quite a number of these collaborators and war criminals.
TITLES: "The Forgotten Nazi"
ROSS: In 1941 the Nazis launched a ferocious assault on the Soviet Union, which included Lithuania. Gecas, like many other Lithuanians saw the Nazis as liberators after years of Russian oppression. They were welcomed with flowers and open arms. Now organised genocide was the order of the day. Gecas and other volunteers in this police battalion, the 12th Auxiliary, relished the task ahead of them.
Professor David Cesarani (Historian): Those who volunteered for the police units were very often motivated by a hatred of communism, and a hatred of Jews. Others joined because they thought that they could get the property of the Jews. And for all of these reasons the Germans never suffered from a lack of volunteers.
Anthony Gecas held a position of command and responsibility. He was a platoon commander. He, therefore, knew what was planned, he gave the orders.
In case of a killing operation there's absolutely no doubt that he would have known that the unit was going to engage in a murderous enterprise, and that it depended on him to function effectively. He was a vital part of the killing machine.
Ross: The battalion's first base was here in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. Antanas Gecas, or Gecevicius as he was known then, joined as a junior lieutenant. Eager to please their new Nazi masters he and fellow volunteers immediately began arresting and shooting Jewish civilians. Mary Gotler, her parents, and three sisters were among the families rounded up.
Mary Gotler: They wore white bands on their arms, and they brought us here to this civil fort. There my three little sisters, my mother, my father, and me. Father was separated from us and put elsewhere.
There were a lot of Jewish girls here in the civil fort. They used to well abuse them, and then shoot them, shoot the young girls, it was really horrible. A lot of young girls and women were killed here.
They put us on a lorry and we were sitting in the open back, and we could hear guns firing. It was early in the morning and my mum said: "Well children we don't have our daddy any more." We didn't understand what was happening, but everybody was shot. All of the men that had been with us, everybody was killed.
Ross: Mary, who was just 12 at the time, survived. But the rest of her family perished along with thousands of others.
Walls scarred by bullet holes are a grim reminder of the atrocities carried out by Gecas and his men.
It's records in the former KGB Headquarters here in Vilnius that provide some of the most damning evidence against Antanas Gecas. His name appears on countless occasions in a chilling tale of how he, and the men he commanded, travelled through Lithuania and Belarus killing hundreds of thousands of Jews.
The files include testimony against Gecas given during the 1960s at a trial of former battalion members, and have been open to public scrutiny for many years. Researcher Alicia Zukauskaite says anyone wanting to find evidence against Antanas Gecas wouldn't have to look very hard.
Alicia Zukauskaite (archive researcher): Files shows us that he participated in all actions of second and 12th Battalion. It was the same battalion. And more shootings, and that he gave commands, he organised, he participated starting from the 7th Fort in Kaunas . . .then some small places in Vilnius, and then he participated in the killing of 300,000 people in Belarus, mostly it was Jewish.
Ross: One eye witness, Jonas Neremas, tells of Gecas, or Gecevicius, organising this public hanging.
(Voice of Jonas Kngrimas): We found gallows set up in the city park. Lieutenant Gecas assigned the soldiers who were to act as hangmen on the way. We were to place the noose around the necks of the condemned.
Alicia: All people in these files are telling about Gecevicius, all people. He was on view . . .how to say . . .
Ross: He was an important man in the battalion.
Alicia: He was important man, and I think he was cruel, very cruel. It's why people remember him. I think they enjoyed killing.
Ross: Gecas, seen here in his Nazi uniform, and the 12th Battalion were proving to be invaluable as the Germans carried out the genocide of Jews in Lithuania and neighbouring Belarus.
It was a brutal campaign that was carried out relentlessly across the former Soviet Union. Meticulous records were kept by the Nazis, and Antanas Gecas is clearly named as a member of the battalion sent to Minsk to clear out the Jewish ghettos. The number of innocent victims continued to rise, and the Germans with their ghoulish fascination for detail kept count as the 12th Battalion carried out their killing spree.
There's no shortage of eye witnesses to the part Gecas played. We tracked down former battalion members still living in Lithuania. Edvardas Guoga, like many battalion members, plays down his role, but he admits serving at the execution pits.
Edvardas Guoga (12th Battalion member), speaking through interpreter: We were standing on guard. On one side of the camp there were Germans, and on the other us guards. There were also soldiers forcing people to the pits. Some lost their minds at the pits, they would throw off their clothes and start jumping around and start to dance, go crazy. They could not run, they would have been shot if they had attempted to.
Ross: He recalls one of the young officers, Lieutenant Antanas Gecas, standing over the victims with a gun in his hand.
Edvardas: There were all the Schutz Polizei, the SS men, and our officers working amongst and next to the pits. They all carried pistols. I could not tell if he was aiming at the people or just firing aimlessly, but he did have a gun in his hand.
Ross: There are other battalion members who have even more vivid memories of Gecas' murderous past. Former corporal, Juozas Aleksynas, lives on a small farm on a remote part of Lithuania. He's a frail old man whose sight is failing, but he told me he can still see Antanas Gecas in action.
Juozas Aleksynas (12th Battalion member), speaking through interpreter: Our direct commander was Gecas. He could speak German, and he used to get orders from the Germans, and then he gave orders to us. Then the battalion started going to the small villages and towns and began exterminating the Jewish people.
Ross: What would have been his role in those executions.
Juozas: Well he was in direct command of our platoon, and he was our direct superior. After the execution he was to check the pits and with pistols finish off anyone still alive.
Ross: So during these killings, after giving the order for the soldiers to open fire and shoot and kill the Jews, if there was anyone left alive Antanas Gecas would then finish them off.
Juozas: he only checked the pits after the last people had been shot so that many people were pressed down by the weight and suffocated underneath each other. There were a few layers of them, about one and a half metres of layers of corpses. So he could not check everyone.
They used to bring people in small groups. The people stood half a metre away from the soldiers so that two or three people were lined up in front of each soldiers. When they had been shot they brought others. Nobody checked to make sure everyone was dead. And after each line had been shot they, the officers, only gave orders to bring people and line them up, and then the soldiers did the shooting in their own time.
Ross: And how do you think Antanas Gecas felt during these killings?
Juozas: Well who knows about his feelings. I only know that he sacredly obeyed all the German orders. He warned us not to fool around with the Germans, and not to resist them.
Ross: Aleksynas recalls a massacre at Slutsk, a town whose population was predominantly Jewish. Almost all the men, women and children were round up and killed. Even by the 12th Battalion standards it was a brutal operation.
Male voice: Slutsk was a big town. There were more of them, Jews, there so we stayed for two days. The soldiers, we had to sleep over on the floor on the school building and the shooting continued the next day.
Boris Phalevitch speaking through interpreter: I remember the Lithuanian battalion coming on 27 and 28 October in 1941. I was in the ghetto right behind me which was the army barracks.
Ross: Boris Phalevitch was one of the few survivors. He remembers the terror that spread through the town when the Lithuanians set up base in the local barracks.
Boris: People were very frightened. Some tried to run away and hide. So one young man hide under a bridge but a Lithuanian soldier came up and shot him as I watched. He was just left lying there. The rest didn't even try and run away, they were too frightened. It was impossible to escape.
My grandmother was very old and the Germans didn't keep anyone like her alive. Only the young and skilled were kept. The like of my grandmother were thrown into the lorries by their hands and feet and taken away to be shot.
Ross: Another of those who lived to tell the tale of Gecas' battalion was Rochelle Pickholz. She escaped by hiding in a barrel.
Film footage of Rochelle Pickholz: I will never forget . . . as long as I live. When I walked out of the kitchen and I saw my family, my little children, and when my little sister was little at the time, came out with arms like this, and starting screaming to me, "Help me, Help me", I was running to her like anything, there was nothing to . . . I didn't even see how I was running. About the age of 16, 18, 20, usable for work . . . they left them there.
And the ones who were unusable, like small children, or women with children, or older people, they were put on the slot to be killed, and taken away. I wanted to see . . to help, to see what I would maybe take out my children, they did not let me in, and I was watching . . . they were going and going and going . . I would tell you, one after another one, all Jewish people that I knew, that we grew up with them. But I was looking for my children all the time. I didn't see my children again after that.
Ross: After a short but terrifying journey the Jews of Slutsk were brought to sites like this, a small wood on the outskirts of town. They were lined up, shot, and then thrown into death pits, layer after layer of bodies. The memorial says that in this pit 8,000 Jews died.
Velena Sinitskaya (speaking through interpreter): We were in the fields picking potatoes. They kept on shooting and shooting, and they kept on falling and falling. It was no laughing matter when they starting firing. We were on our way from the fields so we went to have a look. We saw them lying in the pit. There were no survivors.
They brought them in vehicles. There was one pit but a very long one. They just took them to the pit, and shot them there. Everybody - children, men, Jewish men and women, all of them.
Ross: The cold-blooded slaughter of civilians in Slutzk shocked even the Germans. A local Nazi commander wrote to his superiors afterwards to complain.
Voice of Nazi commander: "The action bordered on sadism. Everywhere in the town shots were to be heard and on different streets the corpses of shot Jews accumulated. The battalion has looted in an unheard of manner.
"Watches were torn off the arms of Jews in public on the street, and rings were pulled off fingers in the most brutal way. Shot persons have worked themselves out of the graves some time after they have been covered. I beg you to grant me one request. In future keep this police battalion away from me."
Ross: So how did a man who took part in killings that shocked even the architects of genocide find shelter and security in Britain after the war. For someone as devious as Antanas Gecas it was relatively simple.
As the tide of the war changed so did he. Gecas shed his loyalty to the Nazi and pulled on a new Polish identity, ending the War fighting for the allies. As a reward he was welcome to this country and was made a UK citizen in 1956.
It proved to be a good move, while Gecas remained safe from prosecution in this country, the other two platoon commanders in the notorious 12th Battalion were less fortunate.
Lieutenant Jonas Plunge was put on trial by the Russians and executed. Lieutenant Jurgis Yuodis was prosecuted by the United States, but he died on the eve of his trial. The Americans prosecuted other former battalion members and the name of Antanas Gecas kept cropping up. It prompted American investigators to travel to Edinburgh in 1982 to interview him.
Eli Rosenbaum: Gecas made some extraordinary admissions. He admitted that he served in the infamous 12th Lithuanian Battalion. He admitted that he went with the battalion to Belarus, which we knew was a killing operation.
And then, finally, he admitted that, what his battalion did among other things was to shoot Jews, and he specifically recounted for us being present when members of his battalion killed some 150 Jews in the town of Dukara near Minsk. He insisted that he personally had had nothing to do with it, but he was there.
Ross: That information was passed on to the British Government but, again, it chose to do nothing. This may have had something to do with the fact there was very little appetite in official circles for a lengthy and costly war crimes trial. Also Britain had not only used men like Gecas for intelligence about Russia, but had blocked moves to let them stand trial in the Soviet Union for atrocities committed there.
Stephen Dorrill: Some of the collaborators and war criminals were highly prized by MI6. They were protected. The Soviet Union had started as early as 1946 requesting the extradition of certain people. MI6 wasn't going to allow this and they protected them, giving them a form of immunity.
They allowed them a safe haven. They allowed them to travel around. They provided them with funds. And they provided them with passports. If the Soviets asked about certain people the initial inquiry was rebuffed by saying: "These people don't exist, we don't know anything about them."
If the Soviets provided evidence the next stage would be: "We don't know where they are". If they continued the next stage might be: "This is pure Soviet propaganda, we can ignore it."
Ross: Britain's involvement with war criminals from Eastern Europe isn't something to be proud of. The Intelligence Services, MI5, and MI6 recruited and protected mass murderers, although claims of immunity have never been proven.
Despite various inquiries there are fears that important secret documents remain hidden in the headquarters of MI6 here in London. There are also fears that those documents may indeed have been destroyed.
David Cesarani: It's deeply frustrating to historians that many of the crucial records about men like Gecas remain under lock and key. But we know enough from similar cases that immediately after the war the intelligence services intervened to protect men who fought for the Nazis, men who were accused of war crimes, and we have specific examples of Lithuanians who were protected in this way.
There is some evidence that Gecas had links with the intelligence services in Britain after he came here in 1947.
Stephen Dorrill: It was, and it remains, a deep embarrassment, I think, to the government, to the Civil Service, and to the intelligence agencies that they did recruit quite a number of these collaborators and war criminals, and I think it's one reason why we've never had a sustained and systematic deportation or trials of these war criminals.
Ross: Finally, in 1987 Britain bowed to pressure from Jewish organisations around the world, and set up a War Crimes Inquiry to unmask people like Antanas Gecas. But it failed to deliver.
Despite a list of 301 potential war criminals, and an investigation lasting several years, only one successful prosecution was ever brought. John Kingston had given evidence to the inquiry, and has spent the last 10 years sifting through claims made against Gecas, and others. He's critical at the lack of action.
John Kingston (Witness War Crimes Inquiry): It was just a public relations exercise really that Britain mustn't be seen as a haven for war criminals. I think the most important thing that he should be shown for what he is, and that people should see that if you commit terrible crimes that something's going to happen to you, someone's going to come after you, that there is no hiding place, no resting place. And that's how I think it ought to be.
Ross: Some of the evidence against Antanas Gecas did get a public airing in a television documentary, and newspapers articles. Gecas took out a libel action against Scottish Television. He lost, and the judge's verdict was damning.
"He committed war crimes against Soviet citizens who were old men, women, and children. He participated in many operations in which innocent civilians, and Jews in particular, were killed."
Ross: Amazingly, no criminal prosecution followed. The official reason - still not enough evidence. But, we've discovered many witnesses were ignored. Twelve former battalion members living in Britain weren't even interviewed by the police. They would have provided vital information about Gecas' past.
Eli Rosenbaum: The prosecution, of course, never failed because it was never attempted. The evidence was overwhelming years ago. It's still overwhelming although the passage of time always makes it more difficult to prosecute these cases.
But only governments can bring these cases obviously, and they have to have the political will to do so. All the evidence in the world is going to be meaningless unless the political will is there.
Ross: Britain, despite the weight of evidence against Gecas, refused to be moved. Lithuania, ashamed of its support for the Nazis, had also been reluctant to prosecute war criminals like Gecas. But political and moral pressure has been building, and now this fledgling Baltic democracy has decided that it must deliver justice.
If Antanas Gecas is brought back to stand trial here in Vilnius he'll find a very different Lithuanian to the one he left just after WWII. There is a very real feeling here that if the country is to become part of a modern western society it has to be seen to be punishing those who carried out war atrocities.
The official request from the Lithuanian prosecutor to extradite Antanas Gecas is in the hands of the justice department at the Scottish Executive. Frontline Scotland understands an arrest is imminent. Gecas will certainly fight the move. But if he is taken back to his former homeland the Lithuanian authorities believe 13 written statements, and five living witnesses will be enough to convict a man who, up until now, thought he was above the law.
Rimvydas Valentukevicius (Lithuanian Chief Prosecutor) speaking through interpreter: After analysing this material I and my colleagues have no doubt about this case. I can say from experience of similar cases that the evidence in this case is strong enough to be acted upon, and to get a verdict. I hope there will be a criminal punishment. It is especially important to bear in mind that however some may try to deny the past, and the fact that some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis, the facts are impossible to deny.
One can't contradict history. Cases like that of Gecas which end with a guilty verdict make society face the past whatever the past was. We must be strong and wise enough to understand those events.
Mary: I feel so very sad. My heart is aching with pain. Such people need to be punished. Well, he might be 70 or 80 by now, but one must carry out the punishment.
Ross: But back in Edinburgh, Antanas Gecas is keen to see out his final years in comfort.
Ross questions Gecas in Edinburgh:
Ross: Mr Gecas, I'm Ross McWilliam from BBC Frontline Scotland. I wondered if I could ask you a few questions please?
It's regarding the extradition which the Lithuanian Government are pushing to make you stand trial for war crimes, how do you feel about that?
Gecas: (Doesn't comment)
Ross: And as a member of the 12th Battalion you didn't carry out war crimes, you didn't shoot Jewish civilians.
Gecas: No. No.
Ross: Witnesses will say that you did, are they lying.
Gecas: Oh, they make stories
Ross: There are documents that your name appears in.
Gecas: Aye . . .after 60 years¿.
Ross: More records will show that the 12th Battalion weren't involved in fighting soldiers, they were involved in travelling through Lithuania and Belarus and clearing Jews out of various towns and cities. You were a member of that battalion. What was the role of the 12th Battalion Mr Gecas?
Gecas: It was to beat Russians . . . the Russians to pulp.
Ross: And did that involve Jewish civilians?
Gecas: No, not really, we had nothing . . . Jews, nothing against the Jews.
Ross: You didn't witness or take part in any killing of Jewish civilians during your time with the 12th Battalion?
Gecas: Never seen any. Never seen any.
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