What are estimates of the number of remaining living Nazis and what is the process of finding and prosecuting them?
First of all, no one has any idea how many Nazi war criminals are still alive. And I would add that I would not be the least bit surprised if, during the course of this conversation, let alone in time until this article appears in the Harvard International Review, some of them will go to ‘the great beyond,’ or, I should say, ‘hell.’
The process of finding them is very problematic. The normal way that you look for criminals is you start with a crime and try to determine who committed the crime. But our problem is that 98 percent or 99 percent perhaps of the people who committed crimes in the Holocaust are no longer alive. So if we to work by the crime we would end up wasting most of our time and resources. So what happens is that we start with a suspect who is alive and healthy enough to stand try and we try to corroborate the allegations against that person. So that’s a very awful way to work, to be perfectly honest.
During the past year and half, there was a difference in our mode of operations because of a very significant change in German prosecution policy starting with the Demjanjuk trial, which began in 2009. The 50 years leading up to the Demjanjuk trial, if a German prosecutor wanted to prosecute a suspected Nazi war criminal they would have to prove that that person had committed a specific crime against a specific person. Needless to say that was very often very difficult to prove because for instance if you take the death camps (pure death camps—those without adjacent labor camps), there are almost no survivors left from those camps, and the ability to be able to identify someone and present credible evidence was very minimal. But in the Demjanjuk case, prosecutors worked on the basis of the following premise: that anyone who served in a place like Sobibor whose sole purpose was the mass murder of innocent, in this case mostly Jews, was guilty by service along with, at least, accessory to murder. And the punishment for that was 5 years. And Demjanjuk was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison but he died before his appeal could be heard.
But in any event, based on that conviction, the German prosecutors began looking for two categories of Nazi war criminals. One was anyone who had served in any death camp (and by death camp, I’m referring to a concentration camp with the apparatus for industrialized mass murder; there were six, the largest of them being Auschwitz-Birkenau). The second category was einsatzgruppen, special mobile killing units A, B, C, and D, which operated in the areas that had been part of the Soviet Union. So this is an example of doing the opposite of what I’ve been describing to you: starting with a crime and seeking out those people who’ve committed the crime.
A number of people think that those categories are approximately 15,000 people all together. Less than 3,000 men and women served in the einsatzgruppen and the rest served in the death camps, mostly in Auschwitz, which was the largest of the death camps. So even if 2 percent of those people are alive, that is 300 people, and even if half of them are not medically fit to stand trial (because that is the issue, not their date of birth; in other words are they mentally and physically capable of understanding the proceedings and trial) that leaves us with 150 people who were actively day in and day out involved in mass murder.
Someone might ask how is it possible that so many people who served in the worst places imaginable were not prosecuted. But a significant part of this issue was that when West Germany took over responsibility for the judicial system in 1949 after the Allied occupation, West Germany faced an impossible problem, which was that if they wanted to prosecute everyone who had committed war crimes, they would have had to prosecute maybe 1 percent of the population, which was obviously impossible. So they had to prioritize and the decision was made to focus on officers, those with command responsibility. And of course there’s a certain logic to this decision but the practical implications basically ensured that many people who had been murdering people day in and day out would never be brought to justice. So this is a really a monumental change in German prosecution policy, very late obviously and far too late, but one that gives us a last opportunity to bring to justice some people who should have been brought to justice long ago.
How did you get involved in this work? What has been your greatest triumph and what’s the case that got away?
Very often I meet people who will come to me and say to me ‘you have my dream job.’ It’s very often children or grandchildren of survivors and that’s a very understandable response. That was not my fantasy. My fantasy was to be the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA. I wasn’t good enough to play in the NBA and certainly at that time, it would’ve been practically impossible to be a true Orthodox Jew and play in the NBA.
My initial track was the academic track and I was very interested in Jewish history and especially in the Holocaust. As an undergraduate I was very involved in political causes. You could basically say that I adapted the optimism of the Woodstock generation but applied it to Jewish causes. The focus was primarily on two issues: one was Jews in distress, primarily those in the Soviet Union, and the other cause was the defense of the state of Israel.
My parents were born in America. I’m not a child of survivors. Growing up in Brooklyn, even though I had the benefit of the best Jewish day schools, there was virtually nothing said or taught about the Shoah (the Holocaust). So where was this coming from? But the amazing thing is that it not only happened to me in my living room in Flatbush; it happened to Jews all over the world. When Israel won the Six Day War in such brilliant fashion, in other words the relief that Israel was not only spared annihilation but was able to return to Judea and Samaria, return to the Jordanian part of Jerusalem. For the first time in many years, it reintroduced the national component of Judaism to Jews all over the world, primarily in America. This victory of the Six Day War changed a lot for American Jews and three issues all of a sudden became central to Jewish identity. Two of the ones I told you about: the defense of Israel and the fight for Jews in distress. And the third was the memory of the Shoah, interest in the Holocaust. This is one of the things I think that sent me to study the Holocaust in Hebrew University as a graduate student.
I had no interest in Nazi war criminals necessarily, I didn’t read Wiesenthal’s books; it wasn’t on my radar screen at all.
Then along came Rabbi Marvin Hier of the newly reestablished Simon Wiesenthal Center and was looking for someone to be the academic director of the new center. He offered me a job and I agreed and we went to Los Angeles for two years. And in the course of those two years a couple things happened. One was that I met Simon Wiesenthal personally. But what really gave me a push was that the Americans started to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in America. In the mid 70s they had discovered that Nazi war criminals were among the many tens of thousands of refugees admitted to the United States and in 1977 they set up a unit in the INS and then they set up the Office of Special Investigations (OSI).
This guy Bill Crane, investigator for the OSI, asked for my help in convincing survivors to testify to the OSI investigators because many were vary of government. And I thought to myself this guy is coming from nowhere, he learned about the Holocaust on the job and I spent already seven years studying the Holocaust and there must be some way I can help him. I came up with this idea of setting up a database of all the survivors in North America to help the OSI find witnesses. The project was a total failure but, as a result, I had contacts with the OSI and I convinced them that they needed a researcher in Israel and they hired me. I worked there for six years but towards the end I made a discovery that you could say turned me from a researcher to a Nazi hunter.
I decided to go to Rabbi Hier who created the Wiesenthal Center and say we have an opportunity now to convince Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand that they too should do what the Americans did and set up a special office and start prosecuting. And in return for that information that I was going to provide, Rabbi Hier would open an office in Jerusalem, which he didn’t have yet, which I would be the head of. And that’s what happened. So to make a long story short, the Canadians in 1987, the Australians in 1989 and the Brits in 1991 passed special laws to enable prosecution of Nazi war criminals on criminal charges. So all of a sudden I become a Nazi hunter.
My greatest success was helping to bring Dinko Šaki?, commander of the Jasenovac concentration camp to justice. 600,000 people were murdered, probably more than that. The victims were Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croatians. Totally unrepentant mass murderer and he was sentenced in Zagreb; the country split between pro-Croatian fascist Ustasha and Tito’s Partisans and this trial was super important for Croatia, for Croatia’s attitude towards these issues. And the greatest failure was that we didn’t find Aribert Heim, the doctor from Mauthausen, who had died in Egypt many years previously.
What lessons do you think you’ve learned that would be useful is prosecuting perpetrators of other genocides?
First of all, my advice for the people in Rwanda is to get to the survivors as quickly as possible; to record their testimonies with an emphasis on the identities of their killers. In Israel, there were tons of testimonials of survivors in which no one asked them about the criminals or they hardly referred to the criminals. And time is of the essence.
Two is the importance of historical research. Not all of tragedies are documented but the Holocaust was the most documented of all the genocides and war tragedies and that was of tremendous help in bringing people to justice.
The absolute necessity of political will to achieve justice. This is an absolute requirement. And it’s in very short supply. Almost no countries in the world want to prosecute Nazi war criminals because they know that all they have to do is wait it out and then they’ll die. People ask me ‘what’s your job?’ So I say 1/3 detective, 1/3 historian, 1/3 lobbyist. 1/3 detective to find them, 1/3 historian to find the evidence, 1/3 lobbyist to try and create the political will if it doesn’t exist and very often that’s the hardest part.
We’ve seen the rise of neo-Nazi parties in Europe in recent years. How concerned about you about the rise of anti-Semitism?
I just spent a month and I went to four neo-Nazi marches—two in Lithuania, one in Estonia, one in Latvia. And it was really shocking to see. This time for example, we were accosted by people who ranted and raved in some of the most disgusting anti-Semitic tropes and lies. And at the end I asked a guy ‘so tell me something, are you sorry you didn’t join the Arajs Kommando (Latvian mass murder squad)?’ So he said ‘yes, I would have joined them.’
The possibility of another Holocaust is far greater today because of technical and scientific advances. And there is the danger of terror, nuclear devices or weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists. And of course because it’s already happened, it makes it easier to happen again in my opinion. And the fact that, in the Arab world, there is government sponsored Holocaust denial. The Holocaust education in Western Europe serves as an inoculation against certain types of anti-Semitism. One is the traditional anti-Semitism, against the Jew because he is a different religion and has different customs etc., which is really politically not correct now because of the Holocaust. That traditional anti-Semitism has morphed into anti-Zionism. In the Arab world it’s government sponsored Holocaust denial, which is the worst possible thing because it comes with the authority and resources of government.
This year commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. How do you go about responding to those who say that the Holocaust is now so far in the past that it isn’t worth continuing the search for Nazis?
That’s Nazi hunting 101. One: the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. Had they been brought to justice forty years ago there would not have been this skepticism. Two: old age should not protect people who committed such heinous crimes. Three: a point always stressed by Simon Wiesenthal, we owe it to the victims to bring their killers—the people who turned innocent men, women, and children into victims simply because they were categorized as enemies of the Reich—to justice. Four: the fact that we are still looking for these people sends a very powerful message about the importance of these crimes, and that even seventy years later there is still a search to try and achieve justice. Five: these trials serve a useful purpose in the fight against Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion. Holocaust distortion is a new phenomenon. In a post-communist Europe, Holocaust distortion is an attempt to promote the canard of equivalency between communism and Nazism. One in genocide and the other one is a terrible tragedy, but not genocide. Six: these are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy because they had no sympathy for their victims. Seven: since Nuremberg, the concept of national law has created the concept of individual criminal responsibility (it has rejected the superior orders defense).
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
This job has to be one of the most frustrating jobs imaginable, particularly during the years that I’ve done it because of the mortality of the people we’re trying to bring to justice. Many times we’ve lost suspects we were sure would be convicted because of their death or incapacitation due to medical reasons. In that respect, it’s a very heavy toll in terms of frustration.
On the other hand, the wonderful thing about this job is that I’ve been able to meet many many very concerned caring and concerned people who offer their assistance very often without any compensation because they realize this is the right thing to do.
As I get older, I think that it gets harder and harder emotionally. One of the things that I’ve found is I have to do is make sure that it never becomes personal. Never turn a case against a Nazi war criminal into Efraim Zuroff against X or Y. I also think that if I were the child of survivors, I wouldn’t be able to do this job. It’s far too late emotionally to do if your own parents suffered through the horrors of the Shoah.
What are estimates of the number of remaining living Nazis and what is the process of finding and prosecuting them?