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Sustaining Renewed Tolerance in Context: Reflections on the Holocaust in Estonia

Thirty-six years ago, I first learned about the perpetration of the Holocaust in Estonia when I, as the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, played a small role in the ultimately successful efforts to have a war criminal from the World War II era, a man named Karl Linnas, deported from the United States to that country.

I want to lay out the case, including some of the gruesome details, regarding Karl Linnas not because I would ever suggest that he was representative of the Estonian people or Estonian society during the years of the Holocaust. He was not. I am doing so because he and a host of other Nazi collaborators like him are very much a part of Estonia’s recent past, a past that must be confronted and cannot be ignored or glossed over. His case serves as a starting point for placing the Holocaust in Estonia into a broader historical context, especially in light of today’s International Conference 105-75-35 in Tallinn, Estonia, marking the 105th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 35th anniversary of the rebirth of Jewish life in Estonia. (See related author’s note at bottom.) The conference is organized by the Jewish Community of Estonia, an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress for which I work.

Linnas had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1951, when he was in his early 30s, under the Displaced Persons Act, a statute enacted by the U.S. Congress shortly after the war to enable eligible European refugees who had fled from or been driven out of their countries of origin to enter the United States. The key word here is “eligible,” in that individuals who had participated in the Nazi atrocities against Jews and others during the Second World War were not covered by the Displaced Persons Act.

In his application, Linnas claimed that he had been a university student and a technical artist in Tartu, Estonia, between 1940 and 1943, that he had never served in the German military, and that he had not been a member of any political group or organization. On May 21, 1945, in Munich, Germany, and then again on August 17, 1951, upon entering the United States, Linnas twice stated in writing that he had “never advocated or assisted in the persecution of any person because of race, religion or national origin …”

Linnas then went on to live on Long Island, New York, with his family, working as a land surveyor. In 1960, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

A Murderous Nazi Collaborator

In fact, Linnas did not study at the University of Tartu – or anywhere else for that matter – between 1941 and 1943, and during those years he did much more than merely participate or assist in the persecution of people. In the early summer of 1941, he was an officer in the paramilitary organization known as the “Omakaitse” that assisted the troops of Nazi Germany in arresting, imprisoning, and executing unarmed civilians in German-occupied Estonia. And from August 1941 until May 1942 he was the commandant of the Tartu concentration camp.

There is no question or doubt regarding Linnas’ actions in that capacity. As I wrote in The New York Times on March 31, 1987, Linnas was a “brutal murderer” who “directed and participated in numerous mass executions of Jewish men, women and children.”

In 1979, a U.S. federal court stripped Linnas of his American citizenship on the grounds that he had lied on his visa application. In upholding an order for Linnas to be deported to the Soviet Union, which had sought his extradition and where he had previously been tried and convicted in absentia for war crimes, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that:

“Linnas’ duties as a concentration camp chief were such as to offend the decency of any civilized society. Eyewitnesses testified that Linnas supervised the transportation of prisoners from his camp to a nearby anti-tank ditch. On such occasions innocent Jewish women and children were tied by their hands and brought in their underwear to the edge of the ditch where they were forced to kneel. The guards then opened fire. The ditch became a mass grave. “There was also eyewitness testimony that Linnas on at least one occasion announced his victims’ death sentence at the side of the ditch and gave the order to fire. Linnas was also said to have then personally approached the edge of the ditch and fired into it.”

On one occasion, Linnas told a group of Jews at the camp that they would be leaving by bus for Riga in Latvia and therefore had to take all their belongings with them. The historian Anton Weiss-Wendt wrote in “Murder Without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust,” his book examining the Holocaust in Estonia, that “Linnas said the same thing to a little girl with a life-size doll, whom he helped onto the bus.” Later that day, Weiss-Wendt continued, a witness saw that same bus back in the camp, “yet empty; one of the guards had the doll.”

I became involved in the case of Karl Linnas in the winter and spring of 1987, when the Reagan administration was under pressure from Estonian and other émigré groups in the United States not to deport Linnas to Estonia – that is, in those days, to the Soviet Union. These groups objected on two grounds: they considered the anti-Communist Linnas and others like him to be heroic figures regardless of their collaboration with the Nazis; and they objected on principle to anyone, even a murderer, being extradited to a Soviet bloc country. Linnas’ lawyer and supporters were trying to find another country, possibly in Latin America, that might agree to give him sanctuary.

Need for Accountability

My firm position, and that of Holocaust survivors and their families generally, was that it was unacceptable for anyone who had brutally shortened the lives of thousands of Jews to be allowed to live out their days in comfort surrounded by family and friends. Linnas needed to be deported and held accountable for his crimes. “Anything less,” I wrote in my New York Times article, “would blatantly mock justice.”

On April 15 that year, the second day of the Jewish festival of Passover, I received a call from Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman that the government of Panama had publicly announced that it would take in Linnas. Presumably, the expectation was that because it was a Jewish holiday, Linnas could have been spirited out of the country before anyone had the time or opportunity to object.

I called the Panamanian Embassy in Washington, D.C. from my office in New York City and succeeded in reaching the ambassador’s deputy, who told me politely but firmly that his country had agreed to grant Linnas asylum on humanitarian grounds.

When I asked why they would help a war criminal who had been committed atrocities in a Nazi concentration camp, the diplomat replied that the Panamanian authorities had not been told anything about this.

I immediately telephoned a colleague at my law firm’s Washington office and asked him to copy and hand deliver two lengthy U.S. federal courts decisions regarding Linnas to the Panamanian diplomat. I did not want the Panamanians to be able to say that no one had provided them with evidence of Linnas’ crimes.

I then traveled to Washington with District Attorney Holtzman and Eli Rosenbaum, the general counsel of the World Jewish Congress at that time, to meet with the Panamanian ambassador to the United States, who assured us that indeed, they had not previously been advised of Linnas’ true history and that his government was reconsidering the matter. By the time we left the embassy, we were assured that Panama had withdrawn its offer of asylum.

Less than a week later, on April 20, I was at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and watched as Linnas, 67, was put on a plane on his way to Tallinn, where he would die several months later in a prison hospital.

I felt a need to see for myself that a murderer of Jews was being brought to justice, a justice he had denied his victims 45 years earlier.

From Tolerance to Complicity

Estonia is different from other European countries, including other Baltic countries, in that it did not have a large, deeply rooted Jewish presence before the outbreak of World War II. The Jewish community of Estonia was only established in 1830, and between 4,200 and 4,500 Jews lived in the country in 1939, in contrast with more than 200,000 Jews in Lithuania and over 90,000 in Latvia. It must be emphasized here that government and civil society of the inter-war independent Republic of Estonia were extremely tolerant of their Jewish minority, and the Estonian Jewish community enjoyed substantial cultural autonomy under law after 1925.

All this changed drastically after the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, followed by the German occupation beginning in 1941. An estimated 400 Estonian Jews were arrested and deported as class enemies during the Soviet occupation, and several thousand more fled as the Germans advanced eastward in the summer of 1940. Then, German SS and police mobile killing units, the so-called Einsatzgruppen, assisted by Estonian auxiliaries, methodically murdered most of the country’s remaining Jews so that by the Wannsee Conference on Jan. 20, 1942, at which the implementation of the Nazi Final Solution of the Jewish Question was formally set in motion, Estonia was the only German-occupied country declared to be Judenfrei, that is, free of Jews.

It did not remain so. In 1942, the Germans proceeded to deport tens of thousands of Jews from other parts of Europe to forced-labor camps inside Estonia, where many of them perished. As we have seen from the case of Karl Linnas, these camps were staffed by Estonians who zealously aligned themselves with the Nazi cause.

They were not alone. Many Estonian anti-Soviet — that is, anti-Communist — partisans adopted the Nazis’ toxic conspiracy theory — more accurately, false conspiracy myth — that Stalinist Bolshevism was in fact a Jewish-run and Jewish-dominated threat to both Germany and Estonia. Perhaps as a result, Estonian Jews were arrested in the summer of 1941 by members of the Estonian Omakaitse home guard or of the Estonian Security Police. Many, if not most, were executed almost immediately. Any purportedly political or ideological motivation fades rather rapidly when one realizes that children were among the murdered.

Let us also not lose sight of the fact that Estonia provided SS chief Heinrich Himmler with an Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade that eventually became a full-fledged Waffen-SS division, the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian).

A Different Estonia Today

In sharp contrast, Estonia today is at the forefront of Holocaust awareness and education in Europe. Speaking at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism in October 2021, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said:

“Crimes against humanity must be remembered and addressed so that future generations would know how to prevent them from happening again. The Estonian people have also suffered due to the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes and that is why we understand the victims of the Holocaust well. Learning from each lesson from history is important and as they say: those who do not remember the past live without a future. Often, however, someone’s personal experience or story is what has the largest impact – this is why we pay increasingly more attention to addressing the issue in Estonia in public spaces, exhibition halls, museums, and classrooms.”

There is little antisemitism in modern-day Estonia. The Jewish Community of Estonia enjoys strong support from its government, and we are grateful to the Estonian authorities for their support and protection of Jewish institutions in their country.

I want to commend Prime Minister Kallas and her government for their commitment to fighting manifestations of antisemitism in all parts of Estonian society. We are confident that they, working closely with the leaders of the Estonian Jewish community, will affirmatively and fully implement the pledges made in this regard at the 2021 Malmö Conference. The World Jewish Congress for its part will do all it can to help ensure that antisemitism, the hatred of Jews, is not able to spread in Estonia ever again.

Worrisome Signs

And yet, there are worrisome phenomena that we must not ignore.

What are we to make of the fact that Alfons Rebane, an Estonian army officer who fought in both the Wehrmacht’s 658th Eastern Battalion and the already mentioned 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian)? We know, of course, that Rebane was for many years after the war in the service of British intelligence, but that makes his glorification as a heroic figure no less troubling. As Alla Jakobson, the chairperson of the Jewish Community of Estonia, correctly noted when the plaque was unveiled in 2018, even though there is no evidence that Rebane murdered Jews, anyone who served in the SS in any capacity “is hardly worthy of commemoration.”

And by the way, Rebane was hardly some random apolitical soldier. In the 1930s, he was an Estonian military informant providing strategic information to the Abwehr, the Nazi German intelligence Service.

And then there is the bust of Harald Nugiseks in a school in the Estonian town of Bauka. Nugiseks was a decorated Oberscharführer, or squad leader, of the same Estonian 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.

We know from similar glorifications of Nazi collaborators in other European countries that they are far too frequently exploited by neo-Nazi and other extreme-right movements to promote antisemitism and other forms of bigotry and xenophobia.

In this context, it is worth noting that both Rebane and Nugiseks are prominently featured on Metapedia, an online encyclopedia that promotes fascism, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, white supremacism, white nationalism, anti-feminism, Islamophobia and Holocaust denial, among other bigotries.

Which brings us to a far-right former member of the Estonian parliament named Ruuben Kaalep who used to be an editor of the Estonian language section of the aforementioned Metapedia encyclopedia. In one of his entries, he argued that the term “Holocaust” “is commonly used to refer to the alleged systematic extermination of Jews in World War II-era Germany,” and that “Zionists” are using these “allegations . . . to subjugate the peoples of Europe through a lasting sense of collective guilt.”

According to a 2019 article in the Eesti Ekspress, Kaalep maintains contact with a host of international white supremacist personalities like the American Richard Spencer and refers to himself as a “fascist non-Jew.”

Kaalep is dangerous for other reasons. He is a fascist who promotes fascism as a political ideology. “Supranational institutions like the EU,” he wrote in 2022, “are like parasites feeding off the life energy of a nation. When a nation is isolated from its roots it is no longer capable of resistance, then begins the actual extinction process. The Great Reset comes together with the Great Replacement.”

I focus on Kaalep because he and others like him are the symptom of a virus that in many ways is as dangerous as the Covid-19 pandemic, only there are no effective vaccines to counteract it. He reminds us that antisemitism and fascism go hand in hand – they are two faces of the same coin – and we have seen the result of this particular virus. Eighty years ago, Karl Linnas epitomized it. Today we see the same dangerous mindset in the Ruuben Kaaleps in our midst.

If we do not want the past to become prologue, we ignore him and his ilk at our peril.

(Author’s Note: This article is based on the keynote address I planned to give today at the International Conference 105-75-35 in Tallinn, Estonia, marking the 105th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 35th anniversary of the rebirth of Jewish life in Estonia. When the organizers of the conference asked me not to address the period of the Holocaust in Estonia, I declined on principle, and they cancelled the speech, which had been scheduled – and the subject of which had been known – for weeks. Just Security has agreed to proceed with the planned publication of this article based on the speech.)

 IMAGE: The only remaining survivor of Convoy 73, a train that left German-occupied France in May 1944 carrying 878 Jews, Henri Zadjenwergier (center), with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet (third from right), Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo (second from right) and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar, as they unveil a monument in Tallinn on June 2, 2010, during a ceremony honoring the memory of hundreds of French Jews who were killed by Nazi Germany in Estonia during the Holocaust. “Here, before this memorial, I am torn with feelings of unease because I survived, and by sadness in the face of the pain of the families,” said Zadjenwergier, 83. (Photo credit should read Arthur Sadvoski/AFP via Getty Images)

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