60 Years after Auschwitz The Twilight of the Nazi Hunter
Efraim Zuroff has been hunting Nazis for 25 years. This week he is in Germany to launch what he believes will be the last major investigation of Nazi war crimes in the country. With most senior Nazis already dead, this time he's going after the lower-level criminals -- the men who pulled the trigger on their commanders' orders. It's a difficult task and a battle against the clock even Zuroff admits he may not win.
The last of the Nazi hunters: Efraim Zuroff has been on the trail of Holocaust war criminals for 25 years.
When the judge read out Dinko Sakic's conviction and 20-year prison sentence in a Zagreb courtroom in 1999, it was the happiest moment of Efraim Zuroff's professional life. For years, he had been on the trail of Sakic, the last known living commander of a Nazi death camp. In war-time Croatia, he was also personally responsible for the slaughter of 2,000 people. In the court room, a victim's brother approached Zuroff and thanked him for the detective work that helped lead to Sakic's conviction and justice for the Holocaust victims.
"It was the proudest moment of my career," Zuroff recalls. His exuberance makes him seem younger than his 56 years.
With the help of journalists in Argentina, Zuroff tracked Sakic down and successfully pushed for his extradiction to Croatia. The Jasenovac camp was a "penal colony," Sakic confided in the journalists, and the only problem was "that they didn't let us finish the job." The reality, not surprisingly, looks different; to historians, Jasenovac is known as the "Auschwitz of the Balkans," and at least 85,000 people perished behind its gates. The Argentinian government was sufficiently outraged by an interview with Sakic broadcast on televesion that it extradited him for a war crimes trial in Croatia in 1999. The rest is history. "Now he's rotting in prison and thank God!" Zuroff says.
For more than a quarter century, Efraim Zuroff has been chasing Nazis to the most far-flung corners of the planet. Working for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, his mission has taken him all across Europe and from Australia to Iceland, where he has followed leads to track down Nazis who managed to escape the Nuremburg Trials or other prosecutions in Germany. With his encyclopedic knowledge on the ways to best stalk war criminals, he is a rare find. As such, the Rwandan government even asked him for advice when they started hunting the men responsible for the 1994 massacre there -- one of the worst post-World War II genocides worldwide.
On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Zuroff spoke to SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL from his art nouveau hotel in Berlin's Charlottenburg neighborhood as he prepared to launch the Wiesenthal Center's last major offensive against surviving Nazis, "Operation Last Chance." Since its inception in 2002, the project has referred 74 names of suspected Nazi war criminals to authorities in Eastern and Western Europe for prosecution. The final leg of the operation will take place in Germany. Since the 1950s, 6,500 Nazi war criminals have been prosecuted in Germany, but Zuroff estimates there are tens of thousands more who have never been investigated.
Most of the senior Nazi officers -- in their 30s and 40s during World War II -- are already dead and even younger soldiers and police officers are now in their eighties. But it is now exactly these lower level officers and policemen that Zuroff is aiming at -- he wants the ones who pulled the triggers at many of the crime scenes. When most of Western Germany's war crimes investigations took place after the war, lower-level soldiers and police were overlooked as the country sought to prosecute the officers responsible for the planning of Hitler's Final Solution and the later liquidation of the Jews. "But there were tens of thousands of people who were never investigated who were guilty of active participation in the crimes of the Holocaust," he explains. "We believe that some of these people can be brought to trial and we believe it is possible we will gain knowledge of their whereabouts and crimes."
Going after the Nazi foot soldiers
The Wiesenthal Center is now offering 10,000 bounties for tips that lead to prosecutions of these boy-next-door Nazis. "We're talking about people in units that carried out some of the worst murders of World War II," he explains. "There's no reason why someone who's been out there day after day shooting civilians shouldn't be held accountable. For the family or friends or relatives of the Jews killed, the fact that the guy was a corporal is irrelevant and does not provide him with a justifiable excuse for the crime he committed."
However, the bounty offered by the Wiesenthal Center has drawn criticism from at least one major Holocaust organization in Germany. "It's a superfluous action that won't bring any further enlightenment (about the Holocaust crimes) because it appeals to the lowest common denominator of instinct and monetary greed rather than moral responsibility," says Micha Brumlik, director of the Frankfurt-based Fritz Bauer Institute for the Study of the History and Impact of the Holocaust. "It appears the organizers believe that without offering a bounty, they won't get any results."
Of course the crimes need to be solved, Brumlik explains, but "the culprits they're now looking for are getting on in years and, one would suspect, are neither capable of interrogation nor standing trial. Of course their crimes should be brought up for discussion and be investigated. But the path the Simon Wiesenthal Center is taking is the wrong one."
Even Zuroff concedes it would be difficult to raise the attention of journalists and the public if it weren't for the cash prize, which has been put up by wealthy Miami Jewish businessman Aryeh Rubin. Big bounties, after all, are usually good for at least a few headlines. Zuroff also admits that the effort to catch the remaining living Nazis is a race against the clock that he and the Simon Wiesenthal Center may not win. He has but one investigator working for him in Germany and estimates that only five to six years remain to bring the last Nazis to justice.
Undoing the evil, one conviction at a time
"It's very simple," he says, earnestly, "We're determined to bring these bastards to trial. These people don't deserve any sympathy -- they killed Jews, gypsies, gays, Jehovah's witnesses and many other people just for being who they were."
But finding them is the hardest part. Even in the digital age of the Internet, e-mail and mass media, tracking war criminals is still arduous work -- and the hurdles are everywhere. "We're up against some serious obstacles in countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Austria where there is a complete lack of political will to prosecute Nazi war criminals," he says, noting that Vienna hasn't sentenced anyone for Holocaust war crimes in three decades. Do you think it's because there are no war criminals there, he asks, rhetorically. "Hardly," he answers himself. "There are many there. But Austria has shown no interest or serious activity to bring them to justice."
Besides, many of the war criminals have strong support networks around them -- families who have supported them financially or countries like Argentina or Brazil that merely shrugged their shoulders in the late 1940s as wave after wave of Germans immigrated into their countries.
It's an injustice Zuroff has spent two and a half decades pursuing. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Zuroff first got involved in tracking down war criminals after working at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles while completing his doctoral thesis on the Holocaust for Hebrew University in Israel. After finishing his degree, he immigrated permanently to Israel, where he worked for a special foreign office of the US Justice Department investigating Nazi war crimes. Eventually, he took up full time work as the Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi hunter. "It's ironic, since I was born after the war, but I've been running after these bastards for 25 years," he says.
Nor is he ready to give up anytime soon. "Project Final Chance" has a last gasp feel to it, but Zuroff still seems to have plenty of steam in him for a good chase.
"I feel like I'm doing something that is helping to undo some of the evil caused by the Holocaust," he explains. "You can't bring back any of the victims, but you can destroy some of the evil in a small way -- but the only way to do that is by prosecuting the guilty. We're sending a message here that if anyone harms Jews, there will be other Jews who, even 50 years later, will see to it that these people pay a price."
With additional reporting by Jule Lutteroth.