Photo Credit: Courtesy The Simon Wiesenthal Center
Photo of Dr. Efraim Zuroff with Simon Wiesenthal at Wiesenthal Center in L.A.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, an American Israeli historian and Nazi hunter at The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), has been tracking down thousands of Nazi war criminals hiding out in all corners of the world since 1978. In a phone call from Jerusalem, where he currently resides, he told The Jewish Press, “I’m the only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of the Nazis, of course only the ones who can be brought to justice.”

Zuroff was instrumental in getting laws passed in Canada, Australia and Great Britain that enabled the prosecution of Nazi war criminals who came to those countries under false pretenses. He’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in Serbia and granted honorary citizenship of the Serbian city, Novi Sad, for exposing a Hungarian police officer who rounded up thousands of Serbian civilians and was accused of taking part in executing them. He has also been honored with the Order of Duke Trpimir for his work combating Holocaust revisionism in Croatia, and received the Gold Medal for Merit in Serbia for exposing the truth about the suffering of World War II victims.


Born in 1948 in Brooklyn to an Orthodox family, Zuroff’s yeshiva upbringing was extremely important to him. He explained, “I’m from a family of people who devoted their lives to Yeshiva University.” Zuroff received his Ph.D. in the History of the Holocaust at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem after graduating from YU with honors in history. The focus of his dissertation was the Vaad Ha-Hatzalah committee that rescued Orthodox rabbis and yeshiva students from the Holocaust, about which he later wrote a book titled, Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States: The Activities of the Vaad Ha-Hatzalah Rescue Committee, 1939-1945.

In 2002, he helped launch the SWC’s Operation Last Chance, which offered payment to people who provided information about Nazis that lead to prosecutions. It began in the Baltic countries and later extended throughout Eastern Europe, South America and Norway. It was renewed in Germany in 2013, when new laws made it easier to prosecute Nazis.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff at a protest in Riga against the march honoring the veterans of the Latvian SS on March 15, 2015.

Seven years later, he wrote Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi War Criminals to Justice, which tells the stories behind some of the most notorious war criminals he investigated. One of the SWC’s most wanted Nazis in 2008 was 95-year-old Milivoj Ašner, former chief of the Ustasha (Croatian fascist) police, who was accused of deporting hundreds of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and communists to concentration camps in Croatia, where most of them were murdered.

Zuroff found documents that revealed Ašner had passed himself off as a victim of the Holocaust to escape being discovered. He feigned innocence, even welcoming reporters into his home. He described himself to an Israeli reporter as “the Croatian Schindler.”

When Ašner realized Zuroff had discovered his whereabouts in Croatia, he fled to an antisemitic province of Austria, a country notorious for not bringing Nazis to justice. Authorities determined that he was not “medically fit” to be prosecuted.

Zuroff was named after his great uncle, who was considered a brilliant Talmud scholar and who was murdered in the Holocaust. He carries with him recorded information provided by a rabbi who had known his great uncle. Zuroff relayed how on July 13, 1941, the 18th of Tammuz, “there were gangs of Lithuanian vigilantes roaming the streets of Vilnius looking for Jews with beards that they wanted to kill, and he was one of them. They arrested him, took him to a prison and from there they took him to Punary. He was one of the first Jews murdered in Punary.” Zuroff knows that his great uncle’s wife and two children were also killed, but the circumstances are unclear.

Three years ago, Zuroff co-wrote Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust, with Rūta Vanagaitė, a well-known journalist who discovered that her relatives were complicit in the murder of Jews. He and Vanagaitė traveled for 40 days to countless desolate murder sites in Eastern Europe. Zuroff recalled, “In every place, we said Kaddish, in every place, we said El moleh rachamim.”

He continued, “When I started as a graduate student, I realized that if I want to remain sane, I have to sort of make up a barrier between the Shoah and me, and not let it affect my personal life, and I was able to do that until I went to Lithuania and that barrier sort of crumbled. I just think of all these Jews who had to suffer this horrible fate. So many of these people got away with it, and it breaks your heart.”


JP: When did you meet Simon Wiesenthal? Can you tell us something memorable about the impression he made on you?

Ceremony on January 15, 2010, where Dr. Efraim Zuroff was awarded the Order of Duke Trpimir by Croatian President Stjepan Mesić.

Zuroff: I met Simon Wiesenthal in 1978, before I went to L.A. to be the academic director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He often was asked by survivors why he didn’t return to his profession as an architect, because he was quite successful and he’s quite talented. He said, ‘I’m not a particularly religious person but I believe in the World to Come, and I believe that when survivors go to heaven and meet the victims of the Holocaust, the first question they’ll be asked by the victims is, “You survived. You are the lucky ones. What do you do with your lives?”

One will say, “I smuggled American cigarettes; another one will say, “I’m a lawyer.” The bottom line was, Wiesenthal said, “I’ll tell them I didn’t forget them.”

What would you consider to be your most monumental or significant case?

The most important case for me was the case of a man named Dinko Šakić, one of five commandants of a horrible camp in Croatia called Jasenovac, a camp established by the Croatian fascists (Ustaše). The inmates were Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croatians. They murdered tens of thousands of people, mostly Serbs, but about 20,000 Jews, 14,000 Roma and anti-fascist Croatians – in other words, their own people who were against them. And they did it in the most cruel way imaginable…the horrible executions they carried out.

Šakić was responsible for the murder of thousands of people. He ran away to Argentina. We found him there with the help of a local journalist. We confronted him, and they interviewed him on television, and he said he wasn’t sorry for anything. If he had a chance, he said, he would do it again. He said that the problem with Jasenovac was that they didn’t let him finish the job. If he finished the job, there wouldn’t be people telling all sorts of lies about the crimes in Jasenovac. He was convicted and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He died in prison.

Have you ever met or heard of a Nazi who expressed remorse? What about the co-conspirators, like the propagandists?

I have never, ever encountered a case in which a Nazi admitted anything or expressed any regret or remorse. Not one.

Would you characterize these people as psychopaths since they are able to do mass murder of innocent people and feel no remorse?

Ceremony granting honorary citizenship of Novi Sad, Serbia to Dr. Efraim Zuroff on January 19, 2009.

They’re definitely not psychopaths. They were true believers. They were people who adopted an ideology. They were mostly nationalistic, chauvinistic, fascist – those are the people who volunteered to help the Nazis, or were Nazis themselves, because many of the people that I dealt with were not Germans or Austrians – they were Lithuanians, Latvians, Hungarians, Romanians, Croatians, etc. They thought they were doing the patriotic thing, getting rid of the Jews, getting rid of the communists, and they remained in a time warp, in a sense, thinking until the end that what they did was the right thing, and their enemies ultimately won the war. That’s why they had to be on the defensive.

Which country in Europe has the most stringent laws in terms of prosecuting Nazis?

There’s no question, it’s Germany.

What are the laws like in the United States for convicting Nazi war criminals?

In the United States, the government can’t prosecute Nazis for the crimes because the crimes were committed outside the U.S. and the victims were not Americans. In order to change that, they would have had to get the approval of two-thirds of the 50 states, and they were afraid that it would take many years to get that approval. So they opted for what I call “The Al Capone compromise,” the same way that Al Capone was tried for tax evasion – to try these people for immigration and naturalization violations. It’s a lighter sentence, [but] it’s also easier to win the case.

Did any of these Nazis get the death penalty if they were prosecuted in Europe, where the war crimes took place?

In Europe, almost no countries have the death penalty anymore. I was just happy that they were able to put them in prison. The majority of these people were not put on trial, but at least we had a government investigation and the most damning and most hard thing for them was when they were exposed publicly. That’s the most painful thing for these people. I ruined the lives of thousands of Nazis.

Some of the stories in your book, Operation Last Chance, are harrowing. You describe how Erna Wallisch, a prison guard at Majdanek who was known as “the she-devil of the women’s camp,” allegedly killed Jewish children with her bare hands while she was pregnant. Finally, you catch her and she dies five days before her trial. How do you psychologically cope with the devastation?

It’s very frustrating. I’ve lost cases, people die in the middle of investigations. I’ve had my share of disappointments, but the only way that I deal with this is that all I have to think of is the suffering of the victims and the survivors. Whatever they went through is 100 times worse than my frustration that criminal X or criminal Y died before the trial.

Why aren’t European governments more proactive about prosecuting Nazis?

Award ceremony on February 16, 2017, where Dr. Efraim Zuroff was awarded a gold medal by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic.

The governments are just not interested in trying to find these people and bring them to justice. These people are not important people. They’re not of any stature. The governments will spare themselves the embarrassment, the expense. If a serial killer is on the loose, the police will be out there trying to do everything to put this person in jail. What’s the chance of a ninety-year-old Nazi killing someone?

In your book, Operation Last Chance, you describe Austria as “one of Europe’s best paradises for Nazi war criminals.” What other areas of the world have most Nazi war criminals been found? Are they usually living in enclaves with other Nazis?

They were all over the world – in Austria, they were in Germany, they were in the Anglo-Saxon democracies Canada, Australia, the UK, the United States, New Zealand, Australia. As a rule, I would say most of them are not living with their compatriots or anything like that.

You mentioned having received death threats. Do you have bodyguards for protection?

I live in Israel, I live in a society which is very supportive of what I’m doing. If I were working out of an office in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia or Ukraine, I would need protection.

Who is the oldest Nazi war criminal you’ve ever brought to justice and what happened?

The oldest one was a man named Josef Schütz who was a guard in Sachsenhausen, who was sentenced to five years in prison last year, and he appealed the sentence.

In Germany, you don’t go to jail until the appeal is over, and unfortunately he died in the middle of the appeal (in April – he was 102). I found the witnesses, some of them anyway.

Can you talk about any of the Nazis you’re actively looking for now?

One more trial is going to take place in a few months in Germany against another guard of Sachsenhausen. These people are being prosecuted for service alone – for serving in a camp with a high mortality rate.

What is your present focus?

We’re devoting most of our time now to fighting against Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe, first of all by promoting the book (Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust), which exposes the lies of the government.


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