When you’re the world’s last active Nazi hunter, retirement isn’t a concept to be taken lightly. Retirement means closing the door on justice, like God at the end of Yom Kippur. It’s knowing that all the justice that has been served for Holocaust crimes is all the justice that will ever be served.
More than the Nazis’ defeat in 1945, more than the death of the last survivor, one could argue that the retirement of the last Nazi hunter will signal the actual end of the Holocaust — when the dark years between 1933 and 1945 become the sole province of the historians.
It is for that reason that retirement is not something that Efraim Zuroff is even considering. At 64, when most folks his age are likely counting down the days until their pension kicks in, retirement is somewhat of a dirty word to Zuroff.
“It [will be] a sad day for me,” he says from his small office in central Jerusalem.
Yet, he may not have a choice. The world’s former Nazis, and the thousands of collaborators who facilitated the Shoah, will likely all be dead within the next 15 years, if not sooner. Still, he says, there is no giving up.
When news broke this summer of the exposure of Lzalso Csatary, a notorious ghetto commandant who saw thousands of Jews to their deaths, it marked a revival, or some might say last gasp, of Nazi hunting. In many ways the case typified Zuroff’s battle: 70 years after the Nuremberg trials, 40 years after Eichmann was hanged, there is not a lot of interest in world capitals when it comes to punishing old men for crimes, however terrible, committed in their youth.
Zuroff knew where Csatary was hiding out in Budapest and wrote as much in his 2011 assessment of work being done to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice. Nobody seemed to notice or care until a couple of reporters for the British tabloid The Sun knocked on Csatary’s door and took pictures of the man in his underwear. Splashed across the front page of one of the world’s most widely read publications, the story quickly made major headlines around the world and soon enough the Hungarian prosecutor announced he would charge Csatary and put him under house arrest.
There are former Nazis everywhere. The trick, according to Zuroff, is to get people to notice. The hunt for Nazis, it seems, goes along with a hunt for the hearts and minds of the world.
‘I pray for Nazis’ health’
The first Nazi hunters, people like Simon Wiesenthal, Tuviah Friedman and Elliot Welles, had survived the camps themselves and, at least in the case of Wiesenthal — probably the most well-known of the Nazi hunters — were driven by a sense of personal justice. They were not necessarily backed by large foundations. Legend has it that when Wiesenthal, a former architect, explained his motives, he said that when he got to heaven, he wanted to have an answer when those who perished asked him what he did with his new lease on life: “I will say, ‘I did not forget you.’ ”
Zuroff is a historian by trade who accepted the mantle from Wiesenthal after his death in 2005. In the 1970s, a book (and later a movie) called “The Boys from Brazil” portrayed the fanciful adventure of Viennese Nazi hunter Yaakov Lieberman chasing down Mengele and his Adolf Hitler clones. About the only true thing in the tale was the portrayal of Lieberman, modeled on Wiesenthal, as impoverished, disheveled, ignored and yet unstoppable.
The unstoppable part of that description would certainly fit Zuroff, less so the other adjectives. Sitting in his office, in a converted apartment in the leafy Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh, the man every former commandant, guard, official or plainclothes collaborator should be afraid of cuts an imperious figure, yet has a disarming smile and laugh.
Wiesenthal famously drifted in and out of retirement, stopping and restarting his enterprise several times, his last retirement coming in 2003 at age 94. “I found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them,” he told the Austrian newspaper Format at the time. “If there’s a few I didn’t look for, they are now too old and fragile to stand trial.”
Almost 10 years later, Zuroff seems driven to prove that Wiesenthal was wrong. And while he says retirement is not for him, even if he does hang up his hat, don’t expect to read about it in the paper.
“I’ve got news for you, I’m certainly not going to make that announcement, because the moment I make that announcement there are going to be too many happy Nazis in the world,” he says. “So even if it happens, you’ll never be invited to a press conference to be informed of that fact.”
For the time being, there is still work to be done, he says, despite the advanced age and the diminishing supply of people he is hunting.
“I say this as a joke, but it’s only half-facetious,” he says: “I’m the only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of Nazis.”
Zuroff’s office is filled with Holocaust history books in a plethora of languages (he speaks English and Hebrew and a smattering of Yiddish, French and German) and he spends his time in archives and speaking to witnesses and others who may have information. Much of his work is reliant on tips and, he says, they still come in. He shows me a sheet of paper with a list of 26 handwritten names. It’s the list of actionable leads he’s received in the last eight months.
“These are people with a name, an address and some reason to believe they might have done something. Only one of them so far has panned out,” he says.
Eli Rosenbaum, who heads the Office of Special Investigation in the US Department of Justice, which deals with rooting out former Nazis living in the United States — like John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-American convicted of war crimes for acting as a guard in the Sobibor death camp — says there’s necessarily been a decline in the amount of Nazi hunting left to be done.
“There is no long-term future in the work. In the short-to-intermediate future, it will necessarily come to an end, because of what Simon Wiesenthal used to call the biological solution,” he said in a phone interview. “There is a far smaller docket to work on. [Yet] we still devote enormous energy.”
As if to prove him correct, in September Germany launched a war crimes investigation of an 87-year-old Philadelphia man it accuses of serving as an SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp, the Associated Press reported.
Pushing the world to action
To an outsider looking in, finding the Nazis would seem to be the hardest part, and convicting them after that a snap. But between Zuroff and his small cadre of Nazi hunters (who are often renegades working alone), victories are few and far between.
For Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, who run the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France and are the only other people in Zuroff’s line of work still alive, making sure Nazis and collaborators did not ride off into the sunset peacefully was justice enough.
“Their most intense and fervent wish is that none of these Nazis should die in their own beds in comfort, never having been brought to justice,” said Peter Hellman, an American journalist who has covered the Klarsfelds since the 1960s. (Several attempts to speak to the Klarsfelds were unsuccessful.) “If you ask them what they are, they are militants of memory. Their first real concern is to restore the memory of the victims. Their second real concern is to get punishment for the criminals.”
In the 1970s, Serge Klarsfeld put a gun in the face of Gestapo chief Kurt Lischka in Germany. “Lischka’s eyes bulged out, and Serge laughed and went back to Paris,” Hellman recalled, adding that for them the most powerful thing was showing the Nazis that they could kill them if they wanted to. (The husband-and-wife team later unsuccessfully tried to kidnap Lischka and deport him to France, a move that landed them in jail. “We were unprofessional, we were not the Mossad,” Beate Klarsfeld said afterwards. Lischka was eventually convicted and sent to jail for nine years.)
The Klarsfelds have had a few successes, including seeing a trio of Cologne Nazis sent to jail for five years, and waging a 10-year campaign for Klaus Barbie to be deported to France, where he was convicted of murder, sentenced to life in prison, and died four years later in 1993. But those have faded away, as has their activism in the cause.
Zuroff says he receives about two tips a month and has received over 4,000 in the 10 years since he launched Operation Last Chance, which offered money for a conviction of a Nazi war criminal. Those 4,000 tips produced 600 names, leading to seven official government investigations. These in turn yielded one trial, one arrest and imprisonment, four indictments, and three extradition requests.
Zuroff, however, believes that success can be more than just seeing Nazi war criminals behind bars, pointing out that publicly exposing somebody is itself a form of victory, even if the court eventually gives them reprieve. He points to his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize by Serbia’s president as proof that his efforts are about much more than numbers.
And even if Operation Last Chance was not a resounding success, Zuroff has himself been involved in the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals in the past, most notably Jasenovac concentration camp head Dinko Sakic, who was convicted of war crimes by Croatia in the late 1990s, thanks chiefly to Zuroff’s efforts.
Like Zuroff and others, the Klarsfelds — who only operated against Nazis accused of crimes against French Jews — found that governments and judges were often unwilling to dredge up ghosts from the past, which forced the activists to engage in extrajudicial defamation campaigns. In 1991, Beate Klarsfeld was arrested in Syria after traveling there to protest the harboring of Eichmann lackey Alois Brunner.
“When we act, it is in the lion’s den, so to speak, and not, like some who pretend to be active, in comfortable conference rooms facing friendly audiences, giving polite speeches. Our ‘friendly audiences’ have been Assad, Hezbollah, extreme right-wing governments in South America, Muslim fundamentalists, Hussein, and brutal German police,” the two wrote on their website, in what could be seen as a dig at Zuroff, although Zuroff has traveled all over the world in his quest, often encountering deep hostility from local anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists, especially in Eastern Europe.
The problem of world indifference is perhaps no sharper anywhere than in Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltics, where deep public hostility toward Communism — which is often seen as a Jewish phenomenon, or at least a force Jews collaborated with — still stands in the way of seeing many Nazi war criminals brought to justice.
In Poland, historian Jan Gross came under extreme fire for his book “Neighbors” on the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, in which villagers burned 1,600 Jewish landsmen in a barn for what they said was Communist collaboration. Gross posited that it was pure anti-Semitism that drove the pogrom (which was so severe that local Jews actually went to the Nazis for help), and not anti-Communism.
In Lithuania, prosecutors went as far as opening an investigation against Yitzhak Arad, the former head of Yad Vashem, and other Jews who had been partisans and fought Lithuanian collaborators during the Holocaust.
The country has embraced the publication of the 2009 book “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder, which paints the Holocaust as just one part of a decade of death which also saw Stalin’s forces and starvation fell millions of innocent people. By comparing Communism to Nazism, Vilnius and other Baltic capitals can posit that locals who collaborated with the Nazis against Communists should be seen as heroes and not people to be thrown in jail in their golden years.
Zuroff has taken up the fight to “correct the historical narrative,” in his terms, which he sees as a natural extension of his work in prosecuting Nazis. According to Dovid Katz, a Yiddish expert who was fired from his professorship in Vilnius for protesting the government’s moves toward equating Nazism with Communism, including support of the Prague Declaration — which equated Communism with Nazism — and now runs DefendingHistory.com, distorting the historical narrative can have far-reaching consequences for pursuing justice in the places where just 70 years ago Jews were slaughtered indiscriminately.
“Historic truth and justice are not unrelated,” Katz said via email. “The current attempts to downgrade and obfuscate the Holocaust via the ‘Double Genocide Theory’ of the 2008 Prague Declaration provide a perfect template for future cover-ups and obfuscations of genocides and massive crimes against humanity by setting a miserable example of a bogus ‘equality of evils’ that will be invoked time and again by those who wish to mitigate mass murder and genocide.”
Katz added that the Baltic countries, though small players on the world stage, hold the key to making sure the Holocaust is remembered as a unique event in the history of the world.
“Even small and relatively poor countries can have a potentially big impact on the accepted narrative of history when they decide to invest part of their budgets in the enterprise, at a time when Western countries, Israel and Jewish communities worldwide are focused on other issues, and the survivor communities dwindle rapidly,” he said. “The Baltic states, the right-wing government in Hungary and other East European states and state bodies have invested a lot in getting the West to accept the ‘Double Genocide’ model of history that essentially writes the Holocaust out of history without denying a single death. Jan Gross is an intellectual hero of our times for standing up and saying the simple truth. Timothy Snyder, by contrast, is a highly gifted historian who has sold out to East European governments eager to bestow honors on any historians who help them shift the narrative of history.”
In the same vein, Zuroff goes so far as to accuse the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem of selling out the Jewish Holocaust narrative in its attempt to gain allies in Europe, with Yad Vashem as an arm of the government following suit by partnering with Vilnius on Holocaust education.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry told The Times of Israel earlier this year that Israel was able to entertain fruitful diplomatic relations even with countries that have a troubled history.
Robert Rozett, who heads Yad Vashem’s libraries, said his institution, while being against the Prague Declaration, was not seeking to cut off dialogue when it comes to educating about the Holocaust.
“We’re very clear in our stance and we are on the same side as Efraim. Yad Vashem has contacts with many countries around the world in terms of education. We may disagree strongly with somebody, but we want to continue dialogue where we can,” he said.
The closing window
Zuroff has a favorite Hebrew saying, mitzva goreret mitzva: a good deed brings in its wake more good deeds. For each Nazi he is able to bring into the news, or better yet bring to justice, more may be caught and more people may become aware of former criminals lurking in their midst.
It’s a view adopted by Rozett, who says that even if the courts have pretty much failed to put any criminals responsible for the Shoah behind bars for years, the very outing of such criminals is a form of bringing justice.
“I think that the fact that the Nazi hunters occasionally have had successes in bringing convictions is important. I think that when a suspected war criminal is in the news, for the most part that keeps the issue alive,” he said. “I think that we as people who are interested in education have to make efforts to make sure that these issues continue to be on people’s minds, because in many places across Europe we have tried to contend with the past — but more needs to be done in most places. Bringing to trial a war criminal isn’t the only way to do this, but it has been a tool.”
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which funds Zuroff’s activities to the tune of $250,000 annually, similarly says it is committed to continuing the fight as long as Zuroff is.
“So long as there are Nazi war criminals alive that can be brought to justice, the Simon Wiesenthal Center will continue to fund the outstanding work that Dr. Efraim Zuroff is doing,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, who directs the center, said in a statement.
Though Zuroff’s small office is currently the center’s only outpost in Israel, it will soon have the large Museum of Tolerance in the capital, a sign of its shifting focus toward education. It seems clear that, without Zuroff, the center would no longer pursue Nazi-hunting activities, despite that being Simon Wiesenthal’s main legacy.
For Zuroff, getting the public involved now means telling them that the last suspected war criminal caught could be the last suspected war criminal caught ever. Just as the window to act on Iran must constantly be seen as closing in order to keep the issue on the table, so must the window for putting the men who perpetrated the Holocaust behind bars.
It is a message heard clearly in the name of 2002′s Operation Last Chance and his recently launched (and somewhat oxymoronically named) Operation Last Chance 2, which seeks tips on anybody who served in a death camp or was part of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), whom Zuroff believes will be easier to prosecute in the wake of Demjanjuk’s conviction by Germany.
“Operation Last Chance” was also the name of Zuroff’s 2009 autobiography, which has been translated into several languages, though, notably, not Hebrew.
“The use of the term ‘Last Chance’ has always been serious and sincere,” he said when asked about the need to keep people believing that time is running low. “It’s just that we always seem to be getting more chances than we ever anticipated. When I launched Operation Last Chance in 2002, I really thought that it was the last chance. The Demjanjuk conviction in Germany in May 2011 gave us a new horizon for the prosecution of pure death-camp personnel and those who served in the Einsatzgruppen, but for these cases as well, it is our last chance. To me, the choice of the term seems quite obvious and natural.”
With each passing day, though, his chances for success do actually grow slimmer. For a man who has achieved relatively few convictions to be considered the world’s foremost Nazi hunter is something of a coup, and it speaks to his drive to never give an inch when it comes to correcting a tiny bit of the greatest wrong humanity has ever known.
“I have my own legacy. I did what I tried to do,” he said. “Whenever I am saddened by judicial results or verdicts, I found that the best way to recover my sense of perspective and retain my determination to continue is to think of the fate of the victims of the Shoah. Believe me, whatever I am going through, and I have had some really tough moments… is nothing, nothing, compared to the suffering of the Nazis’ victims. That is always in my mind.”
And when there are no more Nazis to hunt, there will be history to defend. For the world’s last Nazi hunter, the Holocaust is created anew every day, and it must be fought with the same determination each time the sun rises. There are Nazis out there, and even if they escape justice a thousand times, there is always the thousand-and-first.