A BIZZARE ‘shop-thy-neighbour’ campaign has been launched in Austria in the run-up to Christmas in a bid to get Austrians to turn in elderly neighbours they suspect of being Nazi war criminals.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC), which has its headquarters in Los Angeles, has spent thousands of pounds on the double page adverts in Austrian papers in what it claims is a last-ditch attempt to track down Nazi criminals who have gone unpunished.
But while Austrian politicians and key figures have publicly praised the scheme, in caf houses and beer gardens across the country it has been treated as either a joke and an insult.
In the main shopping street, Christina Hanke said: "Everyone is getting fed up with hearing about this sort of thing; when’s it going to end? What happened was terrible, but I had nothing to do with it, and neither did my parents. There has to be a time to put it behind us - it can’t go on forever."
Further down the street businessman Wolfgang Ritter said: "I can’t take the adverts seriously. What is the chance that someone is going to see them and think, ‘What a good idea, I’ll give them a call and tell them to arrest old Fritz next door.’ It isn’t going to happen."
Even in the Jewish community there are voices of disquiet about how still seeking to right the wrongs of the past could be causing problems for the future.
One Rabbi, who asked not to be named, admitted: "People ask me how we in the Jewish community can loudly demand the wrongs of the Holocaust be addressed yet keep silent on other more recent incidents like the genocide in Rwanda. I have to say they have a point."
The adverts have the express aim of bringing to justice "concentration camp guards, Gestapo henchmen and mass murderers" before it is "too late".
Headlined ‘The murderers are among us’ the black and white advert is illustrated with a photo of a Nazi execution. Beneath the picture is the caption: "Most Nazi murderers remain unchallenged - also in Austria."
The organisation has also offered a 7,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of former Nazis.
Dr Efraim Zuroff, director of the SWC’s office in Jerusalem, rejected the criticism. He said: "This really is the last chance for Austria, which has not convicted a Nazi war criminal in more than a quarter of a century, to finally take legal action against Austrian Nazi murderers while justice can still be done."
Austrian minister for justice, Dieter Boehmdorfer from the far-Right Freedom Party, also backed the campaign but said he did not expect any results from Operation: Last Chance before the middle of next year.
Boehmdorfer was presented with a list containing the names of at least 47 suspected Nazi war criminals by Dr Zuroff in September and two police battalions have been drafted in to look at the matter.
However, in a further farcical twist, officials admitted they did not even known whether all 47 people were still alive or even living in Austria.
The campaign backers said a similar campaign further east in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had led to the names of around 253 suspected Nazis being submitted. But no prosecutions have yet resulted.
Zuroff said Boehmdorfer had been very co-operative and had "said the right things" when they met to discuss the operation. But he added that it was "easy to say what is right", and that Austria would now be measured by its deeds.
Zuroff added that Austria was one of the only countries that had not set up its own authority to hunt down Nazi criminals, and was something that should be done.