JERUSALEM — A second witness said Monday that he believes Austrian President-elect Kurt Waldheim was the officer in charge of a German army unit that rounded up Jews and confiscated their valuables before they were deported to Auschwitz from a Greek village in 1944.
The witness, Marco Matza, now an Israeli citizen, said he was one of nearly 2,000 Greek Jews who were seized by German troops in Yanina, in northwestern Greece, on March 24-25, 1944, and sent to another town in central Greece before being deported the following month.
Another Yanina witness, Moshe Mayuni of Ramat Gan, Israel, told The Times in an interview on Sunday that he can positively identify the officer in charge of that operation as Waldheim, then a lieutenant in the German army.
Matza, reached by The Times in Tel Aviv where he now lives, said that he, like Mayuni, recognized Waldheim from the World War II photographs of him shown recently on Israeli television. But he added he could not be certain beyond all doubt that the officer was Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary general who was elected president of Austria on Sunday.
"When I saw his picture from 1943 on television, the electricity went through my body and I knew that I knew this man, that he was the commander there," Matza said. "But it was so long ago and my memory is not so good. If I had to testify in court, I could say only that I'm 90% sure he (Waldheim) was the one," Matza added.
Waldheim has repeatedly denied allegations that he knew of and may have participated in Nazi war crimes while serving as a German officer during World War II.
Israel, which is conducting its own investigation of the allegations, on Monday called its ambassador to Austria home for indefinite consultations after expressing its "deep regret and disappointment" at Waldheim's election.
Foreign Ministry sources said they believe the envoy, Michael Elitzur, will not go back to Austria until after Waldheim's inauguration July 8, if he returns at all.
While stressing no decision has yet been made, the sources said that downgrading relations to the charge d'affaires level is one of "several options" being considered.
The issue is a delicate one for Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who is coming under pressure from rightist politicians and from others victimized by the Holocaust to sever diplomatic relations with Austria. Peres, however, is understood to be against such a move in view of the pivotal role Austria has played in helping to arrange Arab-Israeli prisoner exchanges and in facilitating the transit of Soviet Jews emigrating to Israel.
Both Matza and Mayuni gave similar accounts to The Times of how they were rounded up, stripped of their valuables and sent to a detention center in Larisa, in central Greece, before being shipped off to Nazi labor camps.