Photo by Dinu Mendrea (photomendrea.com)
Dr. Efraim Zuroff oversees Operation: Last Chance, an organization that tracks down the remaining geriatric dickheads who were responsible for the Holocaust. He is after the true dregs of humanity, bona fide war criminals such as Dr. Aribert Heim, whose contributions to the world of medicine included injecting phenol, aka carbolic acid, into hundreds of beating hearts as a means of execution, and Adolf Eichmann protégé Alois Brunner, who is personally guilty of deporting over 120,000 Jews to death camps.
Now, you’d like to think that these kind of people would go to great pains to secure a safe hiding spot, but locating them is usually the easy part. Extradition and prosecution are where things start to get dicey. Many Nazis reside comfortably in asshole sanctuaries like Syria, Hungary, and Estonia, nations that, for ideological or legal reasons, refuse to take action against the old Nazis living inside their borders.
Zuroff grew up in Brooklyn, attended Yeshiva University, then spent his twenties bouncing back and forth between the US and Israel racking up history degrees before making the Middle East his permanent hunting grounds. Since then, he’s made certain that hundreds of guilty old Nazis on the lam were brought to justice and died behind bars. How long is it before Spielberg makes a tearjerker epic about this guy?
Vice: How does one get involved in the Nazi-hunting business?
Dr. Efraim Zuroff: After finishing my master’s in Israel, I came back to the US for my PhD. It just happened that the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization founded by the greatest Nazi hunter of all time, was looking for an academic director. They offered me the job. The American government had just started prosecuting Nazi war criminals and the Office of Special Investigations, which still exists to this day, solicited our help in encouraging Holocaust survivors to testify. Six years later, I was working on an investigation regarding Josef Mengele and discovered a research technique that ultimately allowed me to track down close to 3,000 Holocaust perpetrators.
How hard is it to get old Nazis to trial?
The problem is the difference between a Nazi war criminal and a serial killer. If a serial killer is on the loose, the government and police will do anything to find him. The case has a sense of urgency because you’re assuming he will strike again. The problem with Nazis is that they don’t have that immediacy, because no one thinks for a minute that they’re still going around killing people. In many countries it’s unpopular to press for the prosecution of local Nazi collaborators.
Why, the country doesn’t want to lose face for haboring Nazis? That sounds like “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
That’s part of it, no question. It’s also that nations protect their own. They think, “He’s one of us. There must be some reason why he did it. Maybe his wife had a migraine that day so he went out and killed a couple of Jews.” One of the most important things we do is fight against what I call “Holocaust distortion”—skewing the history of the Holocaust by deflecting the blame onto other people. This is particularly true in post-communist countries. In a place like Lithuania, you get the feeling they want all the blame to be placed on Germany and Austria.
Historically, what’s most misunderstood about the Holocaust?
Who’s responsible and who bears the blame in terms of countries facing the reality of their own complicity. This is especially true in Eastern Europe. People collaborated with the Nazis everywhere, but outside of Eastern Europe that relationship usually ended at the train station. The French police rounded up their Jews, the Dutch rounded up theirs; the Norwegians, Greeks, and Belgians all did the same. In their minds, they didn’t kill their Jews—they just put them on trains. But in Eastern Europe, local cooperation usually had the added dimension of active collaboration. For 40 years after the war these countries were communist and couldn’t really deal with their pasts. When they made the transition to democracy, they were desperate to get into NATO and the European Union. They thought it would be very important for them to mend fences because everyone knows how influential Jews are in Washington.
Do any of the Nazis ever own up to their crimes?
No. In one case not long ago, I met the children of one of the people we were accusing of war crimes. He was living in Perth, Australia. They said their father couldn’t have done it—it was impossible, he’s a good dad. I explained to them that we weren’t trying him for his role as a father.
But no, in all my years of dealing with this business, I’ve never once had a single case of a Nazi who expressed any contrition.
Do they offer excuses?
Some people say, “I was there, but I didn’t do anything.” Right now we have a very important case in Hungary involving Sándor Képíró. His situation is that he was actually prosecuted for his crimes but never punished. He ran away to South America and later came back to Hungary. When we discovered him, he said, “I was there. It was terrible what happened, but I didn’t do anything.”
Who’s the biggest Nazi you’ve helped catch?
The worst criminal that I have helped convict was Dinko Šakic´. He was the commandant of the largest concentration camp in Croatia. We discovered him in Argentina and helped engineer his extradition. He was prosecuted in Zagreb and sentenced to 20 years. He’s still in prison, rotting away.
How would you respond to claims that you’re a vigilante targeting dottering old men?
First of all, I don’t think for a minute that what I’m doing is the most important thing in the world. There are many other issues that are more important. But this is not revenge. We’re involved in a search for justice. In other words, I know where these people live and, at least in theory, I could go and kill them. We’re giving them a chance—a day in court. It’s far more than they gave their victims.
The passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers. If we set an artificial limit on prosecution for genocide, we’re basically saying you can get away with it if you’re lucky enough, smart enough, rich enough, and if you can live long enough. That’s morally outrageous. Let’s say someone murdered your grandmother 40 years ago and then, out of nowhere, you find the killer. It wouldn’t very much matter to you if the guy was 100 years old. He murdered your grandmother and you’d want him to be punished! Every one of these victims was somebody’s grandmother, grandfather, father, mother, son, daughter, niece, or nephew.
So how long before they’re all dead and you can hang up your spurs?
Within the next five years.
For more information about nazi busting, go to www.operationlastchance.org.