(photo credit: AP)
People generally speak about the Holocaust and the Nazis as if they are only part of the past. Movies such as Quentin Tarantino's recently released Inglourious Basterds have even changed the history of the Holocaust, with Hitler dying at the hands of an American-led Jewish special unit, making the events of that era seem even more distant. But while museums such as Yad Vashem bring tears to our eyes regarding the fate of millions, they also obscure the very tragic truth: Living today within numerous Western democracies are actual Nazis, not those pictured in black and white in some book, but walking around tending gardens and even going to soccer games in Europe.
The fact that so many mass murderers remained free is not merely because of a lack of investigative effort on behalf of the Allied powers after World War II or due to a lack of effort by local police forces. In fact their resilience is part and parcel of legal systems in the West that have been clumsy, ignorant and at best slow in dealing with the problem of Nazis who successfully fled Europe. Once safely in the West, where they arrived sometimes by posing as refugees, they eked out quiet lives.
Bringing them to justice has been a quest of the late Simon Wiesenthal and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, established in his honor in 1977. Wiesenthal claimed in 2003 that "if there were any [Nazis] left, they'd be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done." But according to Efraim Zuroff, the first director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and a longtime researcher on the Holocaust, there are numerous surviving Nazis who deserve to be put on trial for their crimes.
In Operation Last Chance, Zuroff narrates how he came to work as a Nazi hunter and the way in which numerous countries' legal systems have shielded war criminals from deportation and prosecution. Zuroff's main interest throughout his years of work was to find a useful database that would help track down Eastern European collaborators who had aided the Nazis. His research had shown that while many Germans had been imprisoned for their crimes, most of the killers from the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) and places such as Croatia, which had been allied to the Nazi regime, had walked free after the war, and under the guise of being refugees from communism had found homes in Anglo-Saxon countries.
Zuroff helped compile lists of these suspected criminals and provide them to local authorities so that they could be deported since most legal systems did not allow for them to be prosecuted for crimes committed outside the country. However, immigration documents provided cause for deportation and once back in their home country they might face prosecution.
The cases were tedious and time consuming. Consider Karlis Ozols: A member of the Latvian Arajs Kommando, he commanded a unit that murdered thousands of Jews in Belarus in 1943. Living the high life in Australia as a chess champion, he was brought to the attention of the Australian authorities who, after a brief investigation that included eyewitness testimony, closed his case file. He died in 2001, never facing justice.
In 1987 Zuroff travelled to England to encourage the government to look into Nazis living there. England, which now threatens to prosecute Israelis for supposed crimes in Gaza, said that "the only question that [it] was ready to investigate was whether any of the suspects had violated local immigration law" because "prosecution was limited to crimes committed in Great Britain."
The Times of London condemned the efforts, noting that "Britain is a Christian country... [whose] laws enshrine principles of justice tempered with mercy not vengeance... it is wise and humane to let matters rest." The Telegraph used the term "alleged" to describe the Holocaust and said that "Nazi hunting has become a new and frankly distasteful blood sport."
Zuroff's accessible book is an extraordinary read, providing a wealth of information about the role of collaborationist regimes in helping the Nazis and the degree to which most of the leaders of those units tasked with mass-murder went free in the West. Zuroff also shows how some of these men have even remained heroes in their home countries because they are perceived as having fought communism, rather than having been vicious Nazis. The problem in these countries is that history is more complicated. Evald Mikson, who murdered Jews, was also a "freedom fighter" resisting the Soviets according to Estonian history.
Zuroff concludes that the US has the best record in investigating and deporting criminals, while the Baltic states have done little to recognize their past, and other Anglo-Saxon democracies have shown little interest in bringing war criminals to justice.
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.