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Operation Last Chance
One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice
By Efraim Zuroff
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2008 Michel Lafon Publishing S.A.
All rights reserved.
MILIVOJ ANER, A SUSPECTED NAZI AT EURO 2008
June 2008: The European soccer championship organized in Switzerland and Austria was in full swing. Some of the fans there were thrilled, others unhappy or totally dejected, depending on how their favorite team was doing. This man was one of the cheerful ones. Arm in arm with his wife, Edeltraut, he strolled through the streets of his city, Klagenfurt, in Carinthia, a province in southern Austria, where the Croatian national team was staying. Despite having lived in Austria for almost half a century, he remained a dedicated supporter of Croatia, his native country. At the age of 95, he walked with a lively step, although he never let go of Edeltraut's arm.
Sitting at a table outside a café like ordinary folk, the pair was enjoying themselves, joking with waiters before going off to do some shopping.
Hidden from view, a photographer from the Sun, the famous British tabloid, captured every moment of this charming scene. The next day, the two lovebirds' little stroll was on the newspaper's front page under the title "We find wanted Nazi at Euro 2008!"
This man, dressed in a black sweater, white shirt, and canvas trousers, was not just any retired soccer fan. This elderly, respectable-looking gentleman ranked fourth on our list of the world's ten most wanted Nazis.
Surname: Aner. First name: Milivoj. In Austria he went by the name of Georg Aschner. Year of birth: 1913. Service record: former chief of the Ustasha (Croatian fascist) police in the city of Pozega, he was accused of having organized the deportation of hundreds of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and Communists to Croatian concentration camps, where most were murdered. Under his command, Pozega's great synagogue was burned down, and a concentration camp built in its stead. On the night of August 26, 1941, 300 prisoners were executed for attempting to escape. The mass deportation of Jews then began on December 25, 1941. The men were sent to the Jasenovac camp, the women and children to the camp of Djakovo. Jews had been forced to bring large sums of money and all their valuables to his office. Yet he was smiling broadly as he welcomed the Sun's reporters to his home and claimed that he was not a war criminal. "I didn't have anything to do with it. I was just an officer with the justice department—a lawyer. I never did anything bad against anybody."
There have been countries in which our appeals for informants and witnesses to come forward in response to our promise of rewards for information that would facilitate the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals did not elicit any immediate results. This was not the case in Croatia, where even before we officially launched Operation Last Chance on June 30, 2004, one very important target was already in our sights. At the time, he went by the name of Milivoj Aner. In late May 2004, I had received a report on him in Israel, sent to me by a 27- year-old man, Alen Budaj, a native of Pozega, the city where Aner was chief of police and the scene of his heinous acts.
Budaj lived in Zagreb, where he was fighting to keep memory alive— especially that of his Jewish grandparents, buried in a now-ruined Jewish cemetery that had been abandoned and repeatedly desecrated. In the course of his research for a book on the history of Pozega and its Jewish community, Budaj had met an old resistance fighter who had told him that the former local chief of police, a certain Milivoj Aner, had returned to Croatia in 1991, after having spent a long time in Austria, where he had gone into hiding after the war. For several years, Budaj had been doing research at the Croatian National Archives in Zagreb almost daily. Among the countless documents filed away there over the last 60 years, he found deportation orders and decrees signed by Aner.
The report I received from Budaj was a condensation of his meticulous work: a summary of the case and copies of the original documents proving Aner's guilt, 60 pages that connected the overwhelming facts. The temptation to move immediately to the next stage and make a public accusation was great. But I had to take certain precautions. I contacted Miriam Aviezer, a friend who was a specialist in the history of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia and who had worked at Yad Vashem, Israel's national memorial and research center dedicated to the victims of the Shoa, and asked her to translate and evaluate the documents. She confirmed their authenticity, and once I was able to read them, it became clear to me that the material sent by Budaj was definitely credible. At the same time, I also got in touch with my good friend Igor Alborghetti, the editor ofGlobus, the leading Croatian weekly newsmagazine, who in mid- June called me to confirm that Aner was still alive.
The facts of the case were now clear and confirmed, and we could proceed. A lawyer by training, Aner had served as the Ustasha chief of police of Slavonska Pozega. In that capacity, he had written and signed numerous anti-Jewish and anti-Serb decrees that had resulted in the deportation and deaths of at least several hundred people. I was now ready to launch the Croatian chapter of Operation Last Chance and immediately contacted Budaj to arrange a meeting; I wanted to know whom I was dealing with.
On June 29, 2004, I landed in Zagreb in the early afternoon and shortly thereafter met Alen Budaj at the Dubrovnik Hotel. He came with his cousin Salomon (Shlomo) Jazbec, who appeared to be fairly knowledgeable in Jewish affairs and even spoke a little Hebrew. But none of my friends in the Zagreb Jewish community, whom I had called after receiving the dossier, knew either one of them, which naturally aroused my suspicions. I therefore was somewhat hesitant and Budaj himself appeared very cagey—he seemed worried that I might appropriate his work, which was a bit strange considering that it was he who had approached me and asked for my assistance. Clearly these two men were in possession of information of the first order, but they needed me, my networks, my historical knowledge, my experience, and my media skills, and I needed them, because they had brought me the Aner file. But by the end of our meeting I had, thank G-d, convinced them that I was just as determined as them to see Aner prosecuted and that I had no intention of stealing the credit for their research. I informed them of my plan to launch Operation Last Chance the next day and we agreed to work together to achieve our mutual goal.
The following day, June 30, I held a press conference. I knew that what I was preparing to do might be a little dangerous, but I did not think at that point that the risk of Aner's escape was very serious: I therefore revealed Aner's identity and laid out the charges of which he was accused. I stated that I had his address and telephone number. I also showed two documents from the Ustasha police, dating from October 1941, signed by Aner. The first was the order of expulsion—in reality, the deportation—from Pozega of 26 Jewish and Serbian families. The second was an order of confiscation of all the goods of one Valerija Moskowitz, whose husband, according to the document, was held in a concentration camp for expressing opposition to the Ustasha.
I also showed that Milivoj Aner, who was a Croatian citizen, had fled at the end of the war to Austria, where he had never been brought to justice, and had returned to live in Croatia in 1991. Aner had fled in 1946 because the Yugoslav State Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes had documented in detail the events that had occurred in Poega during the war. Among the charges described were "prisoners tortured by being hung upside down, their toenails torn out." The investigators specified that "Aner, as chief of police, took the decisions concerning arrests, expulsions and deportations."
I ended the press conference by reminding the journalists that Aner had relatively recently established a political party, the Original Croatian Peasant Party, that had run in the Croatian national elections, so he obviously was in reasonable health regardless of his age, and stated my intention to hand these documents over shortly to attorney general Mladen Bajic. Finally, I announced that, as in all the countries we had previously targeted, an advertisement promising a reward of US$10,000 for information leading to the prosecution and punishment of any Nazi war criminal would be published, in this case free of charge, in Globus.
Following the press conference, I rushed off to meet with Croatian president Stjepan Mesic, who in a wonderful show of support for our efforts had agreed to meet me on the very day we launched Operation Last Chance in Zagreb. In his office, I asked President Mesic to do everything in his power to help me get Aner arrested quickly since he was already over 90 years old. He was as determined as I was. It was clear that we were dealing with an important war criminal and a cunning man, and in this respect, Aner's case was unique. In fact, his name appeared on a list, drawn up in Croatia in 1985, of the names of "all the victims of fascism in Zagreb"—clearly Aner had passed himself off as a Holocaust victim at the end of the war. Mesic assured me of his determination to help; he called the attorney general, Mladen Bajic, and asked him to see me immediately. Bajic agreed, and that afternoon I gave him the complete file on the Aner case.
The press conference proved a veritable bombshell. Journalists rushed to Aner's hometown of Daruvar, to his two-story house with its white walls where he had lived since 1991. His reaction was similar to that of the other alleged war criminals: denial and feigned incomprehension. Hearing the news of the hunt, the contemporary Croatian fascists and neo-Ustasha sprang into action. Now, under the title of the "Anti-Jewish Movement," they were trying to intimidate me and those who wanted to help us in this case.
An anonymous letter was delivered to the Civic Committee for Human Rights in Zagreb, addressed to my friend Zoran Pusic, who was the director. At the bottom of the page was the movement's logo: an enormous U for Ustasha.
"You Jews really are a peculiar nation! You yourselves are looking for a sword that will cut off your heads. What you are looking for is what you Jewboy Zuroff will receive! Leave the Croats in peace. If any Croat will be put into jail because of your sick Jew ideas, we warn you: We'll start murdering your fellow countrymen in Croatia. We know your names and addresses. You decide for yourselves."
They offered rewards for the murder of Minister of Justice Vesna tare-Ozbolt (US$75,000), of Dr. Zoran Pusic (US$50,000), and of myself (US$25,000) and threatened many other anti-fascist Croatians. Perhaps because I am not a Croat my life was worth less to them than that of the other two.
While I was not scared by these intimidation tactics, they did influence other people such as the former Serbian resistance fighter who explained that he was afraid to tell his story openly 60 years after the events because everyone knows him and Aner still has his men around Pozega. It was Aner who gave the orders to arrest him on April 12, 1941. He didn't come and do it personally, but the policeman who came for him showed him the warrant with his signature.
The information gathered by Budaj, the confirmation of its authenticity, Mesic's support, Aner's apparent good health—it all seemed too easy. I should have been on my guard. Instead, I had done something imprudent, which soon proved to be a huge mistake. I had not seriously considered the possibility that Milivoj Aner might disappear. Going on the run at his age seemed unthinkable: one does not venture to an unknown country to make a new life under a false identity at the age of 91. But that was to ignore the support network the man could draw on; Aner, whose son lived in Austria, had a landing place, a safe refuge. Knowing that I had the support of President Mesic and the attorney general and that, if he stayed in Croatia, Aner would certainly face trial, almost certainly prompted his flight. I would have to go to Austria to hunt him down.
It did not take long for Budaj and Jazbec to find out where Aner was living: Paulitischgastrasse 8, Klagenfurt, Carinthia, his previous residence in Austria. Doubtless he thought he was safe there, aware that Austria was notorious for its consistent failure to prosecute suspected Nazi war criminals and for its policy against the extradition of its citizens. In fact, he could not have chosen a safer haven.
An international warrant was issued for Aner's arrest, and Interpol put out a wanted notice, Ref. 2005/29623, along with a photograph of the fugitive, smiling and wearing a striped blazer, dated December 13, 2001. It was to no avail.
I was up against a wall, a wall of silence on the part of the Austrian judiciary and authorities. Meanwhile, Aner, never short on cynicism, lived in total tranquility, even declaring to an Israeli journalist, "I'm the Croatian Schindler," tainting the name of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who had saved more than 1,000 Jews during World War II. He gave several interviews, stating he had never done any harm, that everything I claimed was false, and that he had never had anything to do with the political police. He repeated endlessly that I simply wanted to harass good Croatian patriots. He also gave an interview to the Austrian news weekly Profil entitled "Ach, dieser Jude, ein Lump" (Ah, that Jew, what a rascal) in which he attacked Alen Budaj, who he described as: "Ah, that Jew! A hobo on welfare, a bum paid by Jewish organizations to tell fabricated stories!"
Realizing that the Croatian authorities could not help me further, I turned to the Serbs. Many of their compatriots had been among Aner's victims, and an extradition request from that quarter would be more than justified. However, Austria was no more cooperative with Serbia than it had been with Croatia.
In July 2005, I returned to Zagreb, where I met President Mesic, who remained as determined as ever: "We shouldn't look at Aner as an ordinary old man," he said to me. "Old or not, it doesn't matter. We have no reason to protect men like him, fascists who used fascist methods." Shortly thereafter, in September 2005, there was finally some progress on the legal front, as Croatia submitted an official request to Austria for Aner's extradition to stand trial for his crimes in Pozega.
I made numerous trips to Vienna to try to get things moving. In late January 2006, I traveled there to meet with the Austrian minister of justice, Karin Gastinger. Her predecessor, Dieter Boehmdoerfer, had been the personal lawyer of the extreme right leader Jörg Haider, ex-president of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) from 1986 to 2000, known for his populist and xenophobic policies, and accused several times of anti-Semitism. Karin Gastinger had begun her career in the FPÖ, so I was not at all optimistic about her position on this issue.
As expected, the meeting did not go well. Gastinger informed me that as far as Aner was concerned it could not accede to the Croatian extradition request since Austria did not extradite its citizens. I argued that since Aner had obviously lied in his application for Austrian citizenship and concealed the fact that he was a wanted man in Yugoslavia, his citizenship should be revoked. Gastinger rejected my suggestion and also dismissed the possibility of Asner being prosecuted in Austria, since according to the Austrian prosecutors, Aner's alleged crimes came under the existing statute of limitations. When I pointed out to her that he had signed orders to deport people to their death, Gastinger admitted that the Austrian statutory limitation law was unsatisfactory from a moral standpoint and promised to try and reinvestigate Aner's Austrian citizenship.
Used to unfulfilled promises by Austrian ministers and officials and therefore unconvinced by her statements, I called a press conference the next day in which I declared: "Austria is a paradise for Nazi criminals." This phrase made the headlines of Der Standard,Die Presse, and the Krone Zeitung and apparently led the Carinthian minister of the interior to announce that Aner had in fact lost his Austrian citizenship in 1992, when he requested Croatian citizenship without getting prior permission to do so from the Austrian authorities.
Despite this progress, the former police chief in Pozega was still not extradited to Zagreb, this time on the grounds that Aner was not medically fit to be prosecuted. And thus Aner was comfortably settled in the center of Klagenfurt, where he still lives today. This city of 90,000 inhabitants—famous for its Lake Wörthersee, mountains, many parks, and 23 castles in the surrounding area, and a favorite among tourists—is the capital of the province of Carinthia, which at the time was governed by the right-winger Jörg Haider.
At the end of 2006, I was back in Zagreb for another meeting with the attorney general. He confirmed that his talks with Vienna did not seem to be leading to anything promising. It seemed inevitable that Aner would die peacefully at home in Austria.
It was under these adverse circumstances that the case again came before the court in Klagenfurt. Every few months, a hearing was called in order to determine whether Aner was fit to be questioned about his past and possibly extradited. In 2007 came the unsurprising ruling: the Klagenfurt court cited two psychiatric reports stating that Aner's health was too poor for him to be questioned and stand trial. Too old and weak, he was even said to be suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's.
Excerpted from Operation Last Chance by Efraim Zuroff. Copyright © 2008 Michel Lafon Publishing S.A.. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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