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Nazi hunting. Sounds like a glamorous job, but judging from Operation Last Chance, a new book by Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, catching Nazis is more grit than glamour.
In the book, published by Palgrave MacMillan, Zuroff recounts his recent painstaking efforts in finding aging Nazis and their collaborators around the world and convincing often reluctant local governments to extradite and prosecute them.
Zuroff, who heads the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, has been helping catch and punish Nazi war criminals since 1980. Brought up in Brooklyn and a graduate of Yeshiva University, Zuroff later received his doctorate from Hebrew University and today lives in Efrat.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with him.
The Jewish Press: Some of the war criminals the Simon Wiesenthal Center hunts are over 90 years old. Why chase people for crimes committed over 60 years ago?
Zuroff: The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. We don’t think people deserve a medal simply because they reach an old age.
To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a country in the civilized world (save Sweden) that limits prosecution for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity based on age. The issue is not the person’s age; it’s whether or not he or she is mentally and physically capable of standing trial.
I have a case now in Budapest of someone whose date of birth is 1914, which makes him 95 years old. But he’s in very good health. He lives by himself, takes care of all his needs, he’s busy suing me for libel, running around giving interviews, and fighting against us in every single way possible. There’s no reason to ignore him just because his date of birth is 1914.
If we were to set a limit based on age it would mean that if you were lucky enough and/or rich enough and/or smart enough to elude justice until you reach that age, you’re off the hook. That would obviously be a travesty.
We also feel that the victims of the Shoah deserve that their persecutors be held accountable for their crimes. How would it look if we stopped and then a person asked us, “What about this person who murdered my grandmother during the Shoah?”
You write in the book that some Jewish communities around the world do not appreciate your Nazi-hunting activities. Why?
Some communities [especially in Eastern Europe] feel vulnerable to anti-Semitism and they’re afraid that [cooperating with us] will increase anti-Semitism.
In Eastern Europe anti-Semitism is of the traditional sort. It doesn’t have to do with the Middle East like in Western Europe. It’s the usual things, like “The Jews killed Jesus.” In other words, typical anti-Semitic themes based on economic, religious, nationalistic and ethnic reasons.
Remember, in these countries we’re running after local Nazi war criminals. We’re pressing local governments to put their own people – Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, and Croatians – on trial in their own countries for collaborating with the Nazis.
Which countries have been the most cooperative in prosecuting Nazis and their collaborators, and which have been the least cooperative?
The country with the best record in the world is undoubtedly the United States. However, it’s easier to win Nazi war crimes cases in the United States because the people are not being prosecuted on criminal charges but rather for immigration and naturalization violations. In the States all you have to prove is that someone lied on his immigration or citizenship application. Many people claimed they were students, farmers, or officials, masking the fact that they had been members of security police units, guards in concentration camps and the like.
Elsewhere in the world, with the exception of Canada, which does the same thing as America, you have to prove that someone actually committed a crime or was an accessory to a crime.
How about the least cooperative country?
I would place the least cooperative countries in two different categories. There are countries like the Ukraine, which has refused to do anything. In other words, they have never even investigated a local Ukrainian Nazi war criminal since they’ve become independent.
And then there are countries that carry out investigations – and, in some cases, even trials – but they’re just going through the motions while doing everything possible to prevent the criminals from being punished.
The classic examples in that regard are Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. But you also have countries like Austria, which has not successfully prosecuted a Nazi war criminal in more than 30 years – and it’s not because there are no Nazi war criminals in Austria.
Why are these countries so uncooperative?
Because it’s politically incorrect and difficult to punish local Nazi war criminals. They don’t want to draw attention to the serious extent of their own collaboration with the Nazis.
You also see this in the recent and very dangerous attempts by post-Communist Eastern European countries to equate the crimes of Communism with the crimes of Nazism. This is really an attack on the Jewish narrative of the Holocaust. The leaders in this regard are the Baltic countries, and for good reason. In Eastern Europe Jews are very much identified with Communism, so if they can gain recognition that Communism equals Nazism, that means the Jews are as bad as the Nazis. This would then deflect blame from their collaboration with the Nazis during World War II and their failure to bring their own Nazi war criminals to justice.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement?
I think one of my greatest achievements was my role in facilitating the prosecution of Dinko Sakic, who was the commandment of the Jasenovac concentration camp, one of the worst concentration camps in Europe, in which at least 90,000 civilians – mostly Serbs, but also 18,000 Jews, gypsies and anti-Fascist Croatians – were murdered. Sakic was one of the commanders of the camp, and we exposed him in Argentina and saw to it that he was extradited to stand trial in Croatia. He got the maximum sentence of 20 years and died in prison.
How about your biggest failure or disappointment?
The biggest disappointment was that we didn’t find Dr. Albert Heim, the infamous “Doctor Death” from the Mauthausen concentration camp. I went all over the world to search for him. I was in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay trying to find him, but we were not successful.
[The New York Times recently reported] that he died in Cairo in 1992, but it’s impossible to verify that contention because there’s no body. Had we found him it would have been a fantastic coup, and it would’ve been a trial of great importance. But, listen, what could I say? It’s a tremendous job, but it doesn’t always end nicely or with success.
How many new Nazis or Nazi collaborators have you discovered since you launched Operation Last Chance in 2002?
We started Operation Last Chance in 13 different countries, and we received the names of 536 suspects, which passed three tests. Test number one was that the information was credible. In other words, if someone said to me, “I have a very nasty neighbor who’s 87 years old and has a German accent; he must be a Nazi,” that’s obviously not credible. That’s meaningless. But if he said, “I have a neighbor who I know was in a Lithuanian security police battalion that was sent to Belarus,” that’s serious because there was such a Lithuanian battalion involved in mass murder.
Test number two was a person’s health. He had to be alive and healthy enough to stand trial. The third was that he or she – and there were in fact women guards in concentration camps, some of them notorious for their cruelty – had not been previously prosecuted for the crime because if they were we can’t prosecute them again.
How many Nazis and Nazi collaborators in total are still alive around the world?
No one knows the answer to that, but every year we establish an annual report on what’s going on all over the world. And our latest report shows that as of April 1, 2009, there were 706 ongoing cases of Nazi war criminals throughout the world.
What’s the biggest impediment today to catching war criminals?
Lack of political will. Contrary to common perception, in many cases it’s not that hard to find the Nazis or the evidence. But if the government responsible for putting this person on trial or extraditing him won’t do it, we’re in trouble. So I say my job is one- third detective, one-third historian, and one-third political activist.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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