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Estonia Hasn't Come to Grips with Its Nazi Past

Anna Badkhen, in the SF Chronicle (Feb. 15, 2004):

When the United States stripped Michael Gorshkow of his American citizenship and forced him to leave his Florida home 18 months ago, a federal judge said there was no doubt Gorshkow had helped slaughter at least 3,000 Jewish men, women and children during the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe.

But now, surrounded by the quaint medieval steeples and tranquil snow-swept farmland of his native Estonia, Gorshkow, 80, is a free man, and his case has barely stirred the interest of prosecutors in this tiny Baltic nation.

International Jewish groups say at least 17 unpunished Nazi war criminals may be living in Estonia, but investigators have not brought charges against a single one.

Experts say the reluctance to prosecute accused Nazi war criminals such as Gorshkow reflects Estonia's lingering ambivalence about the 1941-44 Nazi occupation.

Many Estonians continue to regard the occupation as an attempt to liberate their country from the rule of the reviled Soviet Union, which annexed the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940.

"Estonia is one of the countries that are in deep denial," said Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which hunts down Nazi war criminals. "They think they have nothing to do with this, that the Holocaust didn't happen there, that they have nothing to regret and nothing to apologize for."

Experts say Estonia's lack of political will to prosecute war criminals undermines its attempt to portray itself as a nation that shares Western values. Estonia is scheduled to join the European Union on May 1 and to become a NATO member in the summer.

But Anatol Lieven, an expert on the Baltic states at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., said Estonia's reluctance to address its role in the Holocaust "raises the question of how far the whole adoption of the Western persona (is) genuine and deep-rooted" or whether it could "evaporate again after they join the EU and NATO."

Having experienced the terror of the Soviet occupation, when thousands were deported to Siberia, many Estonians welcomed the arrival of German troops in 1941.

They voluntarily joined Nazi police and army units and helped exterminate not only Estonia's tiny Jewish community but tens of thousands of Jews brought here from other Eastern European countries to be slaughtered or interned in camps such as Vaivara, Klooga and Lagedi.