Tales of a Nazi Hunter (Extract)

By NETTY C. GROSS
January 18, 2009 15:32

 
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Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Efraim Zuroff believes it would be a final insult to the Six Million to allow elderly Nazi war criminals to go free Dinko Sakic, in his early 20s, arrived at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, in April 1944, riding a white horse, wearing polished black boots and carrying a whip and a submachine gun. During his 7-month tour of duty at Jasenovac, known by Holocaust historians as "the Auschwitz of the Balkans," he was responsible for the horrendous deaths of many thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats, including two inmates that he shot for smiling at him. At the end of the war, Sakic fled Croatia and lived peacefully for 45 years in Argentina, where he owned a textile factory. But one man, American-Israeli Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, would neither forget nor forgive. "This is not about revenge but the pursuit of justice," he declares. Sakic's whereabouts had not been a secret. He was openly interviewed in the Croatian media. In 1998, Zuroff arranged for an Argentinian journalist named Jorge Camarasa to interview survivors in Belgrade about Sakic's cruelty; afterwards, Camarasa knocked on Sakic's door in Argentina and confronted him with those testimonies. The entire interaction was filmed. "He was exposed on the air," recalls Zuroff, who then pressured Israeli and American politicians to press Croatia to demand his extradition. Zuroff also lobbied Argentina for extradition and Sakic was finally extradited to Croatia in 1998 to face war crime charges. Convicted in 1999, he was sentenced to 20 years. Last July, less than halfway through his term, he died in a Zagreb hospital at the age of 86. Zuroff says that news of Sakic's death left him with mixed feelings. While he felt "tremendous satisfaction" knowing that Sakic died in prison, he was "furious" that Sakic's private funeral turned into a sympathetic rally for the Ustashe, the Croatian fascists. A local priest praised Sakic, and the convicted war criminal was laid to rest in his Croatian fascist military uniform. "They didn't learn the lesson of the trial. It was horrendous for me," says Zuroff. Zuroff, 60, is director of the Israel branch of the Los Angeles Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). Although the center is named for Wiesenthal, the engineer and former concentration camp inmate who became a Nazi hunter after the war and established the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna to track down war criminals, the SWC is dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice. Zuroff is the only one of its officials engaged in searching for Nazi war criminals. With Wiesenthal's death in Vienna, in 2005 at age 96, and with the retirement of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, the Parisian husband and wife activist-Nazi hunters, Zuroff is currently the world's only non-governmental Nazi war criminal investigator. (Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Authority, does not have a Nazi hunting unit, says spokeswoman Estee Ya'ari.) "No one can bring back a single Jew but bringing the killers to justice defeats some of the evil of those horrible events," he declares. A tall, gregarious, cheerful married father of four, with four grandchildren ("so far," he notes), Zuroff lives with his wife, Elisheva, in the suburban West Bank settlement of Efrat. The interview takes place in an airy office located in an apartment in the Rehavia section of Jerusalem. Wearing a suit, tie and sweater, Zuroff notes in a straighforward manner, laced with frequent Brooklyn-esque expressions, that his personal history does not explain his choice of career as a Nazi hunter. "I had no such dreams," he chuckles, adding that his youthful fantasy was to play professional basketball. Born in Manhattan and reared in Brooklyn, Zuroff's home was, he says, "devoted to Jewish peoplehood and continuity, especially in the aftermath of the June 1967 war in Israel" - and not to the Holocaust. His parents, Abraham, a rabbi, and Esther, now retired and living in Jerusalem, were professional educators. They are not survivors, he recalls, and, with the exception of a maternal great-uncle, the family has no known Holocaust victims or survivors within its ranks. "If my parents were survivors," he says, "I could not pursue this kind of work. I would be too personally involved, too pained and burdened." The Eichmann trial provided Zuroff with his first awareness of the Holocaust. "I was 12 years old and gripped." Until then, he had been unaware of survivors living in his Brooklyn and had never noticed Auschwitz tattoos on people's arms. Zuroff's mother "sat me down in front of the television and said, 'You have to watch this. Israel caught this man and is putting him on trial.' I was mesmerized." Yet it was Israel's military triumph in the 1967 Six Day War and the images of strong, triumphant Jews filling the airwaves that determined his identity. Zuroff explains that he, like other Jews, was scouting around for a "serious way" to respond as a Jew to the ethos of the 60s flower children, "to object to the war in Vietnam and change the world." Israel's military victory, tapped into "all that anti-establishment energy" and strengthened the "peoplehood dimension of being Jewish." Zuroff became passionate about both Zionism and the Holocaust. "On the eve of the 1967 war, when I was sitting in my living room and reading the newspaper, and I saw how outnumbered and vulnerable Israel seemed, I feared there was going to be another Holocaust." Fear of annihilation, he says, is "part of every Jewish person's DNA." Yet Nazi hunting came his way by chance, after stumbling into a series of jobs that involved Holocaust research assignments. After completing an undergraduate degree in history at Yeshiva University, Zuroff moved to Israel in 1970 and found part-time work at Yad Vashem. He began to wonder about the response of American Jews, that of the Orthodox, in particular, to the Holocaust. "I was fighting for Soviet Jews. I questioned what American Jews had done for Europeans Jews in WWII?" he says explaining how he became drawn to Holocaust studies. He obtained a master's degree in the subject at the Hebrew University. In 1997, he complete his PhD, and his research investigated the response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust and the activities of the Vaad Hahatzala, an Orthodox group of religious leaders, initially founded to save rabbis and yeshiva students. He returned to the United States in 1978 to become the first academic director of the SWC in Los Angeles, where he met the late Wiesenthal. The meeting was inspirational but not decisive for Zuroff and Nazi hunting, he says, "more or less crept up on me." Two years later, Zuroff was hired by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to be their only researcher in Israel. Thus his career as a Nazi-hunter was born. "I was an idealist and activist, who wanted to emulate my family's contribution to Jewish service. I was searching for something challenging." The OSI, established in 1979, prosecutes U.S. citizens or residents who participated in Nazi persecution and seeks court orders to strip them of citizenship and deport them. During his six years as a contract researcher, Zuroff helped prepare cases against Nazi war criminals living in the United States and unearthed information on the postwar escape of hundreds of Nazi war criminals to Australia, Canada, Great Britain and other countries. He hit upon a unique strategy to find fugitive Nazis by using the data bank of the International Tracing Service (ITS), established by the British Red Cross in 1943 in London and subsequently moved to Germany to trace and register missing persons. Zuroff discovered that the extensive ITS files, a copy of which are located at Yad Vashem, also contained information on escaped and missing Nazis. By 1986 he was back at the SWC in Israel working to locate Nazi war criminals and promote legislation in Canada, Australia and Great Britain to facilitate their prosecution. In 2000, he published his book, "The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of the Vaad Hahatzala Rescue Committee 1939-1945" (Ktav and Yeshiva University Press). Zuroff praises aspects of Orthodoxy's - primarily ultra-Orthodoxy's - rescue efforts of European Jews during WWII but criticizes them for diverting crucial resources to help rabbis and yeshiva students who had escaped from Europe and whose lives were no longer in danger rather than help Jews still stuck in Europe. His argument triggered furious criticism by ultra-Orthodox scholars and leaders, embroiling Zuroff in an ongoing disagreement, which, he says, is "painfully ironic since I am a Nazi hunter." Zuroff says he has been vilified by ultra-Orthodox apologists because he raises difficult questions concerning "leadership, accountability, and responsibility." Occasionally he faces hostility from pro-Nazi groups. After Sakic was apprehended, a fascist Croatian group threatened his life; he is routinely condemned on anti-Semitic websites; and he has been particularly castigated in Lithuania and Latvia for his Nazi hunting. But the ongoing battles with ultra-Orthodox Jews, fallout from his book, "really drive me crazy." Despite his likable demeanor, Zuroff is highly emotional about his work and can burst into angry expletives when investigations or prosecutions of war criminals are called off. In early January, Zuroff let out a string of unprintable curses when he heard that a German court decided not to proceed (on medical grounds) with the prosecution of Dutch SS executioner Heinrich Boere, who had been indicted last year for his role in the murder of three civilians in the Netherlands during World War II. A member of the SS Silbertanne commando, Boere was convicted and sentenced to death in The Hague in 1949, but he escaped to Germany, where he lived unprosecuted for decades. Zuroff says that the case illustrated the failure of German justice to hold Nazi war criminals accountable. "Had this case been given the priority it deserved, Boere would have been in jail long before he was able to escape justice on medical grounds." But when there is success, as with Sakic, "I feel tremendous, wonderful, full of energy to step on the gas and continue my work." The fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991 brought both new opportunities and new challenges to Nazi hunting. Local archives were opened; however, countries, such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and other post-Communist countries, which suffered under occupation by both the Soviets and the Germans and collaborated with the Nazis as a way to resist Soviet domination, were reluctant to confront the complicity of some of their countrymen with Nazis in the Second World War. Trials against World War II war crimes don't occur often enough, laments Zuroff, and "dozens" of Nazi war criminals are still alive today all over the world. The number of legal convictions isn't higher, he contends, because most countries "lack the political will" to convict elderly culprits, who claim to be nationalists from what seems like a bygone era. The Ukraine has never investigated a war crime, he says. In the Baltic, there have been investigations, trials and even convictions, but the convicted have not served jail time. Latvia and Estonia did not investigate any war criminals in 2007-8 and in the post-Communist period Lithuania has failed to punish the three nationals that it prosecuted and convicted. Zuroff says it is "reprehensible" that countries such as Sweden, where he suspects that many Baltic Nazi war criminals found refuge, has a statute of limitation of 25 years on investigating murder charges, which include genocide. Norway also had a similar policy which it canceled last year but the amendment to the penal code does not allow for the prosecution of those cases, which had been under the statute of limitations when the law was changed. Zuroff points out that Scandinavian fascists, including Norwegians, belonged to the SS Division Wiking (Viking) formed in 1940, the first international division of the Waffen-SS. His criticism is not limited to Europe. Zuroff produces an annual report, which ranks the performance of some 18 countries in investigating and prosecuting Nazi war criminals. He singles out the United States for bringing legal action against Nazi war criminals. He praises Canada for the February 2008 extradition to Italy of convicted Nazi war criminal Michael Seifert, an ethnic German who served at the Bolzano concentration camp, was convicted in absentia by a military court in Verona 2006 and given a life sentence for nine counts of murder and cruel treatment of inmates. But Zuroff is otherwise sharply critical of Canada, noting that it has not deported any of the eight Nazi war criminals whom it has denaturalized. This is because, he accuses, Canada is home to a large Eastern European émigré population and only a small Jewish community. Australia, says Zuroff, is the only major Western country, which has admitted several hundred Nazi war criminals and collaborators and "failed to take successful action against a single one." Australia and Britain initiated legal action against criminals living in their countries, but neither has prosecuted Nazi war criminals in recent years and both have disbanded their special investigatory Nazi war crimes units. Zuroff calls the closing of the Australian unit in 1992 "a disaster," especially since this occurred at the same time as the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of East European archives with their information on the whereabouts of collaborators. Despite Australia's sizable Jewish community, which includes many survivors, "the Australians don't fight as hard as they could," Zuroff observes, noting that while the Jewish community has protested against Australia's policy, survivors often tend to be "less bold" and are often fearful "of making waves." Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

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