(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
NEW YORK — An American Jew who says he posed as a neo-Nazi sympathizer to document a 97-year-old German man's part in the Nazi genocide of millions has filed a civil lawsuit in US court against the former SS officer.
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Mark Gould, a data broker turned historical investigator, said Tuesday that he went undercover for eight years and filmed hundreds of hours of interviews with Bernhard Frank, who he said was an aide to SS leader Heinrich Himmler.
In a video shown at a Manhattan news conference Tuesday and subtitled in English, Frank appeared to acknowledge his signature was on a document ordering the killing of Jews in newly captured Soviet territories — a precursor to the wholesale killing to come.
But the Simon Wiesenthal Center's top Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, warned Tuesday the report might be overblown. He said there is evidence that Frank was a devoted Nazi, but that he has seen nothing to indicate he was involved in ordering that Jews be killed.
"He's attributed with far more responsibility and criminal guilt than he actually deserves," Zuroff said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "That's not to say he isn't a Nazi — even a zealous Nazi who still today identifies with the National Socialist movement — but there's a big difference between that and portraying him as one of the key operatives of the Nazi Holocaust."
Until now, only those accused of committing the murders or directly giving orders have been prosecuted for genocide, said professor Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation Institute. By targeting a Nazi whose role was similar to that of a communications director, Gould is seeking to establish a "precedent for culpability," said Smith, who reviewed much of Gould's research.
Smith argues such an approach makes sense since Frank "sat at the intersection between the ideology of National Socialism and the policy of genocide. ... Culpability lay with the ideology itself."
A linguist on Himmler's personal staff, Frank was not executing the orders he signed, but rather checking them "for correctness" and signing off on them. But he was more than a proofreader, Smith said: He ensured that the wording conformed to the ideology of the Nazi government and wielded the power to stop one of Himmler's orders if he so desired. From August to November of 1941, he was responsible for purging Himmler's war records of damning information about the killings of Jews and others, Smith said.
Frank "had full knowledge that his actions would result in genocide," Smith said. "He was not an architect but more a draftsman."
But Zuroff said that verifying that an order's language conformed with ideology was not the same as ordering deaths.
"There seems to be a very deliberate inflation of the criminal aspect of his activities," Zuroff said of Frank, who attained a rank that was the SS equivalent of a lieutenant colonel.
Frank has been best known as the SS officer who, in the final days of the war, arrested top Nazi Hermann Goering on Hitler's orders on accusations of treason. He has written two books in German on his experiences.
A call to a phone number listed under Frank's name went unanswered.
At the news conference, Gould explained that he came across Frank's name while researching Goering's capture by an American Jew and then befriended the older man. He interviewed him repeatedly, sometimes on video, and persuaded Frank to give him many of his papers.
Gould, who used money he had earned as an information data broker to finance his effort, said he used the ink and locations mentioned in Frank's love letters to his wife to help confirm where he was at times during the war and whether he signed off on certain orders.
The deception culminated in a confrontation at Frank's home last week, when Gould revealed his agenda and presented the aging man with a copy of the American lawsuit, which was then filed in federal court in Washington on Monday evening. The lawsuit accuses Frank of genocide, torture, kidnapping and crimes against humanity and demands unspecified damages. Gould is a plaintiff, as is Burton Bernstein, a former writer for The New Yorker
magazine who says his family also died as a result of Frank's actions.
Germany will not extradite one of its own citizens, but the lawsuit can continue without Frank's presence. Any finding against him could potentially lead to the freezing of his assets.
Gould plans to detail his experience undercover in a book to be
published next year. He says he presented his findings to the German
government to no avail. Few legal criminal options are available in
Germany because of the statute of limitations.
Thomas Will, the deputy head of the special German prosecutors office
that investigates Nazi-era crimes, said there has never been any
evidence of a crime for which Frank could be prosecuted.
"There is no known concrete accusation against Mr. Frank," he said in a telephone interview from Ludwigsburg, Germany.
He added, however, that his office would be "very interested" if there was new evidence.