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Postscript : Digging Into the Past : Recanted testimony about a child's execution in WWII Ukraine causes a furor and reopens controversy over Soviet-era evidence.

October 18, 1994|MARY MYCIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LISETS, Ukraine — There are no Jews left in Lisets.

An abandoned cemetery of tumbling gravestones engraved in Hebrew is the only visible reminder of the 40 Jewish families that lived in this western Ukrainian village before the Nazis deported them in the first phase of Adolf Hitler's Final Solution.

Somewhere within the cemetery's chain-link fence lies the tiny grave of Monica Singer, the town doctor's 4-year-old daughter, who escaped the roundup only to be exposed as a Jew and executed outside the Nazi-run police station.

For years, the people of Lisets forgot about Monica. But a renewed quest to punish her accused killer is forcing some of them to re-examine the past, and the results are casting new light on one of the few areas of American-Soviet cooperation during the Cold War: the hunt for Nazi war criminals.

Hanna Snigur remembers that autumn evening in 1943, when she was driving the family cows home from pasture and saw a uniformed man carrying the Singer girl out of the police station.

"The child was crying: 'Mama, he's going to kill me and I want to live!' " recalled Snigur, 64, in her parlor hung with colorful embroideries and a poster of the Pope.

Nearly four decades after the Soviets replaced the occupying Nazis, Snigur told her story to five Soviet officials and Kathleen Coleman, a lawyer from the U.S. Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations.

*

In the videotaped interview, Snigur accused Bohdan Koziy, a Ukrainian American then running a hotel in Florida, of being the policeman who killed Monica. Although Snigur testified that she only heard the gunshots, three of her neighbors said they saw Koziy shoot Monica and also fingered him as the murderer of other Lisets Jews.

Based on those videotaped depositions, in 1984, a Florida court stripped Koziy of his U.S. citizenship for concealing his wartime past from immigration officials. Koziy maintained he was innocent.

Facing deportation to the Soviet Union to stand trial for war crimes, Koziy fled to Costa Rica. He had been living there in relative obscurity from 1985 until June, when the World Jewish Congress launched a campaign to have Koziy, 84, expelled.

"Costa Rica is disgraced before the world community for continuing to harbor this mass murderer," said Elan Steinberg, the congress's executive director, by telephone from New York.

Despite demands for Koziy's expulsion by U.S. lawmakers, including the sole Holocaust survivor in Congress, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), Costa Rica has refused to oust him without an extradition request.

The most logical country to request extradition would be the now-independent Ukraine, the scene of Koziy's alleged crimes. But when news of the campaign reached Lisets, Hanna Snigur decided that it was time to clear her conscience.

"I was a false witness," she admitted, "and I don't want to sin before God for making an innocent suffer."

While Snigur did see someone carry Monica out of the police station, she now maintains that it was not Koziy and that she never heard any gunshots.

Snigur said it had never even occurred to her that Koziy was the killer until the KGB, which led Soviet war crimes investigations, began questioning her about Koziy in the mid-1970s.

"I kept telling them I didn't see anything," she insisted.

But when a Lisets policeman who was also a witness in the case threatened to send her "to see the polar bears in Siberia" during a 1976 KGB interrogation in nearby Ivano-Frankivsk, Snigur said, "I was afraid and I understood that I had to say that I saw Koziy carrying that child."

She was also afraid when the Americans videotaped her. The KGB agents who interrogated her in 1976 warned her not to change her story and "they were all there, in the room," she said.

As the first witness in a Nazi war criminal case to publicly charge that she was forced to lie under threats from Soviet authorities, Snigur has reopened the old controversy over the Office of Special Investigations' use of what critics called "Soviet evidence."

In a rare show of Cold War cooperation, the Soviets actively helped the OSI hunt for Nazi collaborators by providing lists of suspects in the United States, most of them emigres from East Bloc countries and what were then the Baltic and Ukrainian Soviet republics. The Soviets also provided copies of documents and witnesses--such as Snigur--to prove the guilt of suspects.

"Snigur shows that Soviet evidence was unreliable and the OSI was either duped or deliberately defrauded the U.S. courts in using it," charged New York lawyer Askold Lozynskyj, who was a member of Koziy's defense team.

But Steinberg, the World Jewish Congress executive, dismisses anything that Snigur says outside of a courtroom, contending that her change of heart has less to do with Soviet arm-twisting than with a new political climate in Ukraine.

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