THE GATHERING here of thousands who survived Hitler's holocaust brings into focus what may be our government's most ironic predicament: that it's ready to deport a number of mass murderers from the Nazi era, but doesn't have anywhere to send them.

In their drive eastward -- into Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, the Ukraine and Russia itself -- the Nazis recruited local citizens to help them kill Jews and other civilians. Some worked in concentration camps, others in fascist militias, still others as municipal officials who organized mass executions.

Many of the collaborators found their way to our shores, swearing falsely to immigration officials that they had not persecuted civilians under Nazi rule. For four years the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) has been tracking them down, hoping to deport them on grounds of illegal entry.

The first such deportation is about to take place. Hans Lipschis, a Lithuanian living in Chicago, was charged with wartime work as a guard at Auschwitz and Birkenau, where he was a member of the SS Death's Head Battalion. Lipschis, now 63, agreed not to contest the charge and was ordered to leave by April 23.

Lipschis asked to go to West Germany, which had to take him because he had been granted German citizenship during his SS tour. But the OSI's other cases, numbering some two dozen, are not so simple.

Only two of the remaining defendants are German citizens, and therefore likely to be accepted by West Germany. The others, West Germany has declared, are not its responsibility -- despite Chancellor Kohl's recent statement, on the 50th anniversary of Hitler's accession to power, that "we cannot and will not shirk our responsibility for the past."

Where, then, are we to send them should they be found deportable? Where, for example, could we send John Damjanjuk, a Ukrainian factory worker living in Cleveland, who was found by a federal judge to have served not only as an SS guard at the Sobibor death camp, but also as a gas chamber operator at Treblinka?

Where could we send 60-year-old Bohdan Koziy, a Ukrainian living in Florida, who is appealing a court finding that he murdered unarmed civilians? Or Karl Linnas, a 64-year- old Estonian who, before moving to Long Island, was found by a court to have worked as a concentration camp guard and been involved in atrocities against men, women and children? Or the many others who collaborated in the extermination of Jews, gypsies and others whom the Nazis had declared unfit to live?

If no country will take them, they can stay here in perfect freedom and comfort; our courts have no jurisdiction to try them in this country for the war crimes themselves.

Clearly, the most just solution would be to return these persons to the scenes of their crimes. Those places are, in most cases, now part of the Soviet Union. That fact gives us more reason, not less, to send our deportees there.

For one thing, it would still the persistent Soviet criticism that we harbor Nazi war criminals -- criticism that has gained credence with recent revelations that U.S. officials probably shielded Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyons," in the years after World War II.

Also, it would still the criticism that we have failed to honor the Moscow Declaration, signed by President Roosevelt during the war, that committed us to return those who carried out "atrocities, massacres and executions" to the places in which they had carried them out -- including, specifically, the Soviet Union.

While the declaration, which referred to Germans, made no mention of Nazi collaborators from other nations, the Soviets have insisted that we agreed to return such collaborators as well. So far, we have returned members of neither group.

But deporting our Nazi collaborators to the scenes of their crimes makes sense for reasons other than any obligation we may have to make up for what we should or shouldn't have done in the past.

Such a policy, after all, would constitute a return to the spirit of the only endeavor to which we and the Soviets were ever jointly and genuinely committed: the life-and-death struggle against the Nazis.

Some might object that sending our Nazi collaborators back to the places where they committed their crimes would seal their fates; in those places, such collaborators have been put on trial, and some have been executed. But it must be remembered that persons we would deport would be those about whom there is evidence of persecutions and killings that U.S. courts have found to be clear, unequivocal and convincing.

Moreover, the Soviets might even agree that, for any deportees we send them, there would be no death penalty. This would at least ease the doubts of those who distrust Soviet legal procedures or who reject capital punishment for even the most heinous crimes.

Besides, one defendant -- Feodor Fedorenko, a Ukrainian whom the U.S. Supreme Court found to have served as an armed guard at the Treblinka death camp -- actually indicated that he preferred to be sent to the Soviet Union should the U. S. deport him, and even visited that country in recent years.

In the end, not vengeance but justice should guide our judgment. Not one of the 6 million Jews or the millions of others whose lives were consumed in the Nazi's vicious assault upon humanity will be brought back by the deportations. But at least some honor can be recovered from that time of deepest dishonor, honor not only for those who were killed but also for those who, like us, failed -- and sometimes refused -- to hear their cries.

And, too, by taking up with the Soviets where we left off at the end of World War II -- by redeeming the one agenda to which our two countries have been vitally committed -- we may rediscover a path of cooperation that could lead to other joint and vital commitments -- commitments to goals aimed at redeeming not the honor of the past but the very existence of the future.