Last week, suspected Estonian Nazi war criminal Harry Mannil died unprosecuted in San Jose, Costa Rica at the age of 89.
Mannil, who served for the first year of the Nazi
occupation in the Estonian Political Police in Tallinn - which was
responsible for the arrest and murder of numerous Jews and communists -
was ranked No. 10 on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's most recent "Most
His case came to my attention in the early 1990s as a
byproduct of the investigation of his superior, Evald Mikson, a
notorious murderer and rapist, whom I exposed living in Iceland and who
died suddenly after the local authorities opened up a murder
investigation against him.
Mannil escaped after the war to Venezuela, where he
became a multimillionaire. This is the story of our efforts to bring
him to justice.
The Evald Mikson case was not our only
investigation that related to Nazi war crimes in Estonia, but it is of
special significance for two reasons.
The first is that it clearly reflected the ambivalent attitude
of the Estonian government to the issue of local Nazi collaborators. On
the one hand, I was granted access to the KGB files, where I found
extremely incriminating testimony against Mikson. On the other hand, if
I recall correctly, the Estonian Foreign Ministry issued an official
statement that asserted that Mikson was not guilty of any crimes, and
least of all against the Jewish people, a total distortion of the
A second reason for the case's significance is that it led me
to two additional suspects who had worked under Mikson in the Estonian
political police - Martin Jensen, who had immigrated to Toronto,
Canada, and Harry Mannil, who had escaped to Caracas, Venezuela.
Jensen died on August 8, 1992, not long after I had notified
the Canadian War Crimes Unit of his presence in Toronto. Mannil was
still alive, and his case proved to be one of the most difficult I ever
In theory, everyone is supposed to be equal in the eyes of the
law, but being one of the richest Estonians in the world and a generous
donor to Estonian cultural institutions apparently can help protect a
suspected Nazi collaborator from prosecution in Estonia. Thus, all our
efforts to facilitate the prosecution of Mannil for his alleged role in
the arrests and interrogations of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis
and their Estonian collaborators were unsuccessful.
Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that we were never
able to prove that Mannil personally committed murder. While there was
testimony recorded by the Sandler Commission (which investigated the
Baltic refugees who escaped to Sweden) that Mannil had killed as many
as 100 Jews, we were unable to corroborate this accusation.
Still, over the years, we were able to record several victories
against him. For example, I made sure that he was put on the American
watch-list of individuals barred from entering the United States
because of their purported Nazi past. Mannil was actually kicked out of
the country upon arrival at a Florida airport at least once. (The list
is secret and he had no idea that he was on it.)
Another victory was the resignation of Henry Kissinger from the
board of the Baltic Institute for Strategic and International Studies,
which Mannil established in Tallinn. After I brought Mannil's past to
the attention of the former secretary of state, he resigned from the
board on January 24, 1994, and thanked me for informing him of the
matter and bringing the relevant documentation to his attention.
A third such victory, which was unfortunately shortlived, was
Mannil's expulsion on February 4, 2003, from Costa Rica, where he had
business interests and often visited, because according to the
immigration director Marco Badilla, "His presence could compromise
national security, public order, or way of life."
Nine months and three days later, however, Badilla secretly
rescinded his original order, allowing Mannil to reenter the country.
In early 2001, I decided that our best bet to bring Mannil to
trial was to try to convince the Estonians to do so. That summer, I met
with the Estonian prime minister Mart Laar in Tallinn to discuss the
possibility that the Estonians would open an official investigation
against Mannil and to persuade him to seek the assistance of the OSI
(the US Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations), which I
understood had obtained new documentation in the case.
The investigation was eventually opened, but the visit, my
first to Estonia in almost a decade, was marred by several ugly run-ins
with the local media. In the course of an interview with the Estonian
daily Eesti Paevaleht, I was asked whether any Estonian
civilians had murdered Jews during the Holocaust. I answered in the
affirmative, noting the murders carried out by the Omakaitse during the
initial weeks following the Nazi invasion.
Imagine my consternation the next morning when someone
translated the headline of the interview. It read, "Nazi-hunter Accuses
Estonian Nation of Murders" - precisely the type of assertion that,
besides being patently false, was certain to infuriate Estonian public
opinion and increase its opposition to the prosecution of Harry Mannil
and any other suspected local Nazi war criminals.
Another manifestation of the deep-seated local resistance to my
efforts to hold Estonian murderers of Jews accountable was the most
offensive caricature of me ever published anywhere, which appeared in
the August 23, 2001, issue of Eesti Ekspress, Estonia's most popular weekly newsmagazine.
It portrayed me as the devil, complete with horns, and holding a
pitchfork upon which were impaled several discs with swastikas on them.
In my other hand, I was holding a cup emblazoned with the inscription
"Wiesenthal Keskus" (Center), into which prime minister Laar was seen
pouring Harry Mannil's blood. The caption read, "Kutsumata Kulaline"
A year later I clashed with the Security Police Board, the
agency responsible for the investigation of Estonian Nazi war
criminals. In 1998, Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors, had established
an International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against
Humanity, which was mandated to examine all crimes committed under the
Communist (1940-1941; 1944-1991) and Nazi (1941-1944) occupations of
One of the surprising initial findings of the commission, which
was published in 2001, was that on August 7, 1942, the 36th Estonian
Security Police Battalion participated in the mass murder of the Jews
of Nowogrudok, Belarus.
Several months later, based on this information, I submitted to
Juri Pihl, the director-general of the board, a list of 16 members of
the unit who had been awarded the Iron Cross second class by the Nazis
in December 1942 on the assumption that those decorated might have
excelled in the murder of Jews.
Less than two weeks later, the board informed the media that
they had no information regarding the participation of the 36th
Battalion in the murder of the Jews of Nowogrudok, a direct
contradiction of the findings of the Estonian international historical
I used this example in an op-ed piece I published in Eesti Paevaleht on
August 7, 2002, the 60th anniversary of the murders, to demonstrate how
Estonia was not facing its Holocaust past, and urged the government to
designate a day to commemorate the annihilation of European Jewry.
A date was decided on that same day, but the date chosen was
January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, which, considering
the fact that no Estonian Jews had been deported to that camp, only
strengthened the opinion of many Estonians that there was no connection
between their country and the Holocaust. An opinion poll held right
after the decision confirmed the problem. Ninety-three percent of those
polled opposed a Holocaust memorial day in Estonia.
In the conclusions of the International Commission, there was
an unequivocally negative evaluation of the activities of Evald Mikson,
who was "particularly singled out," along with six other Estonian Nazi
collaborators, as being "actively involved in the arrest and killing of
He and three others - Ain-Ervin Mere, Julius Ennok, and Ervin
Viks - were named as the ones who "signed numerous death warrants." Not
that these findings in any way convinced his children that their father
had done anything wrong during the war.
As far as Mannil is concerned, as could be expected, the
investigation was finally closed by the Security Police Board on
December 30, 2005, after several years of investigation, with no
charges brought against him.
What made this decision particularly infuriating was that the
Estonian investigation confirmed not only that Mannil had worked for
the dreaded Estonian political police, but that at least seven persons
(all named) whom he had arrested and interrogated had been executed by
Estonian Nazi collaborators. This confirmed an important component of
our original accusations, albeit with the exact opposite conclusion.
In other words, those findings would have almost certainly been
sufficient to have Mannil prosecuted in any country that treats
Holocaust crimes seriously, but clearly Estonia is not such a country.
Excerpted and adapted by Efraim Zuroff from his book
Operation Last Chance. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by
permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers
Limited. All rights reserved.