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.