Hunting War Criminals

May 17, 2011

Alumnus Mike MacQueen (’80, M.A. ’83) helped unearth evidence connecting notorious SS guard John Demjanjuk with the death of thousands in Nazi concentration camps. MacQueen’s evidence eventually stripped Demjanjuk of his U.S. citizenship and landed him in Munich, where he has recently been found guilty of assisting in mass murder as a guard at Sobibor death camp in Poland. You can read the story of the Demjanjuk case, which ran in LSA Magazine, by clicking here. But MacQueen’s work didn’t stop there. He also forced another mass murderer, Aleksandras Lileikis, to face the legal system. In this Q&A, MacQueen tells us how:

[Q] In the early 1990s, you were in and out of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, going through the state archives and looking for evidence connecting Aleksandras Lileikis with the murder of Jews in concentration camps. Specifically you wanted something Lileikis had signed. Why was a signature so critical as compared to, say, a typed order sending Jews to their deaths?

I knew that we had to find documents with his signature on them so that we could establish his personal role in the consignment of prisoners to their deaths. Plus, with our access to some of the best forensic labs in the world, we could prove, using known samples of Lileikis' signature and handwriting (we ended up using his application for German citizenship, which he completed while living in exile in Germany in 1940), that a) he had made the signatures himself, that they were genuine; and b) that the documents were in fact created in 1941 and 1942, as their dates indicated, and that they were not postwar fabrications made up by, say, the KGB. The latter we could accomplish by performing forensic testing of the ink and paper.

[Q] Lileikis was actually Lithuanian, but worked on behalf of the German Nazis, and he wound up becoming a top commander. How common was it for a non-German to collaborate with the Nazis and rise through the ranks?

In the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, in particular those which had fallen to the Soviets only as the result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, western Belarus, and western Ukraine) in 1939-1940, the Germans very skillfully played upon the anti-Soviet energies of the pre-existing elites in order to create cadres on whom they could count for the implementation of occupation policies, including racial policies. In Lithuania, virtually the entire pre-war structure of the Lithuanian Security Police ("Saugumas") was taken over as a core component of the German police structure, modified by the addition of a special section to deal with Communists and Jews.

Lileikis was one of several leading functionaries of the Lithuanian Security Police who entered Lithuania with the German invasion force and was quickly installed as head of the Saugumas in Vilnius. The Saugumas and the Gestapo in Vilnius shared a headquarters building, and the Germans relied heavily on their Lithuanian collaborators in all of occupied Lithuania to realize their policy goals.

[Q] Is it true that as you pored over files in Vilnius, you actually taught yourself Lithuanian?

From the beginning of my work in Lithuania I had to work consistently to improve my knowledge of Lithuanian. In the course of the 1990s, I spent about 18 months there, in chunks of two or three weeks at a time. I had to learn the language since working through an interpreter is slow and clumsy, plus my knowledge of Lithuanian proved to be very useful in dealing with officials. Doing my archival work would have been impossible without knowledge of the language. I also used two of the other languages I studied at Michigan, Polish and Russian, in the course of my work. Without Russian I could not have used the post-war KGB investigative records, which proved to be a very good source of information in a number of cases.

[Q] One of the ways you unearthed evidence connecting Lileikis directly with war crimes was by turning your research on its head. Instead of looking at officers’ files, you started looking at prisoner files. And there you found signature after signature by Lileikis sending Jews to their deaths. What prompted the idea to think about the files differently?

Actually, it was not a question of looking at the officers’ files as much as it was a problem of penetrating the manner in which the Saugumas worked. The Saugumas burned most of its records in early July 1944, and very few of its operational records survived, though, fortunately, the prisoner files survived remarkably intact. By reconfiguring my research to start with hundreds and hundreds of the files of Jewish, Polish, and other prisoners, I was able to piece together important information on the Sagumas operations by linking together the little bits of Saugumas documentation, which had been preserved in certain prisoner files.

This process of restructuring my research was dictated by the simple fact that it was not possible to study the Saugumas or the Gestapo from the top down, as it were, and I was forced by the patterns of document destruction to piece things together from the bottom up. This is a methodology I have carried forward into other areas of inquiry.

[Q] Lileikis was living in Boston and was well into his 80s when he went to court and faced the evidence that would strip him of his citizenship. In May 1996, U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns ruled that Lileikis was, in fact, guilty of war crimes. Was it a bittersweet moment for you when you heard Stearns’ ruling? Did it strike you as ironic that you finally got him, but that he’d lived such a long life after murdering so many?

Was it bittersweet? No, it was all good. Lileikis believed that he'd never be brought to account, that we'd never have anything that would stand up in court. Once we started to show our hand, he had to have been crushed. And I can say that I'm glad that he lived long enough to be brought to account, at least in the United States. One of the most important aspects of doing this work is to hammer home the point that the United States will not be a safe haven for the Lileikises of the world. It may take many years—fortunately, we have gotten much better at keeping such persons out of the country—but we will, given the resources, catch up with them.

[Q] Lileikis fled the United States voluntarily before he could be deported. Eventually he faced a criminal trial in Lithuania, but died before the trial concluded. How did you feel when you heard the news of his death? Were you frustrated, or did you experience a renewed determination to catch as many war criminals as possible? Perhaps a little of both?

By the time Lileikis finally died, I had come to the belief—and this is my personal opinion—that the Lithuanians were not serious about giving him a full and open trial, in the course of which his deadly and despicable actions would have been revealed. Much of the publicity in Lithuania, which followed upon his return to his homeland, was disinformation of the worst type. I had several unpleasant confrontations with some of the Lithuanian historians I had to come to know over the years who had gotten co-opted into this effort. There were a few brave voices who told portions of the true story, but they were drowned out by the malicious propaganda.

I can say that the U.S. administration, up to the White House, continually pressed the Lithuanians to do the right thing. I have the feeling that there was a powerful domestic constituency in Lithuania that just could not face the confrontation with the truth. As it is now, most of these persons have passed from the political scene. As for me, my determination to carry on with my work remained undiminished.

[Q] What cases are you working on now?

I left the Department of Justice in 2008 and moved over to the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In fact, I had been working with ICE a great deal since 2006, on loan. At ICE I am a member of a small unit, the Balkans team, which focuses solely on the perpetrators of human rights violators from the 1991-1999 wars in the former Yugoslavia who have entered the United States as "refugees." My caseload includes Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Kosovars, you name it.

We have had some very satisfying successes. The work is extremely engaging. I spend quite a bit of time traveling, both in the former Yugoslavia and in the United States. Given the freshness of these cases, in comparison to the Holocaust work I did before, we have a fair number of law enforcement tools available to which we did not have access in the Nazi cases. In addition, we have developed cooperative relationships, in particular with the Bosnian authorities and the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, which have enhanced our access to documentary evidence and eyewitnesses. I have worked hard to add Serbo-Croatian to my languages. This work is not without its own set of stresses, but I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing professionally.

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