This morning, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that an American, Mark Gould, went “undercover” in Germany to expose a previously unknown Nazi war criminal—a 97-year-old man named Bernhard Frank, a former SS officer and assistant to Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler who had allegedly processed Himmler’s orders to SS field commanders concerning the extermination of Jewish residents of the Ukraine as early as 1941.
At a press conference this morning at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, Gould appeared with an Israeli lawyer, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, and the writer Burton Bernstein—brother of composer Leonard—to show clips of Gould’s video interviews with Frank, in which Gould discussed his work for Himmler, and to announce the filing of a federal civil complaint (PDF) demanding damages from Frank on behalf of relatives murdered in the village of Korets as a result of the orders he had signed. “He is the source,” said Gould, a boyish 43-year-old with a curtain of shoulder-length brown hair and an air of outrage. “He didn’t go to Argentina. He was in the phonebook.” Gould’s claims were backed up by Stephen Smith, the executive director of the Shoah Institute at University of Southern California, who said in a phone interview that he had reviewed Gould’s research, and felt it was significant. “The focus until now has been on the people at the scene of the crime or people who gave the orders,” Smith explained. “He sits at the intersection.”
Then things got complicated.
First, the Associated Press ran an interview in which Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top Nazi hunter, dismissed Gould’s claims as wildly exaggerated. “He’s attributed with far more responsibility and criminal guilt than he actually deserves,” Zuroff said. “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.” Furthermore, the AP noted that Frank, rather than living in willful obscurity, is known in Germany as the SS officer who arrested Hermann Goering for treason, on Hitler’s orders.
Then the New York Times—which Gould’s publicist, Larry Winokur, earlier claimed to me had been too scared to run the story—weighed in with a story by Michael Slackman, in Berlin:
Mr. Gould prefers this description: A 43-year-old college drop-out from Los Angeles who says he made a lot of money in finance, became interested in Nazi memorabilia and ended up on an undercover odyssey where he befriended a former Waffen SS officer and recorded many of their conversations with the plan to someday expose the man’s role in the Third Reich.
But an alternative description might read like this: A man on a self-appointed mission to expose an aging Nazi — one who has published an autobiography and has never been accused of war crimes — and hoping, in the process, to publish a book and land a movie deal.
Anyone who has put in the effort Gould appears to have would be little self-promoting (look what it did for Wiesenthal!). But it proved difficult to pin the Gould team down on a straightforward question—whether or not Gould is Jewish. Described in Yediot as “a young 43-year-old American Jew,” Gould was called “of Jewish immersion” in a press release put out by Winokur; it turns out, as Winokur finally explained and the Times got right, that Gould is not himself Jewish, but was adopted as a boy and raised by his Jewish stepfather. So it’s only natural to wonder about the reliability of the rest of what they’re offering.
Anyway, according to Gould and Burton’s lawyer, Darshan-Leitner, the most important thing about the case wasn’t whether one more aging genocidaire was brought to some kind of justice, but that it might open up a whole new avenue of damages claims for the relatives of Holocaust victims, and potentially for class-action suits. “We see that governments are dragging their feet when it comes to criminal prosecutions,” explained Darshan-Leitner, most of whose work has focused on pursuing similar claims in U.S. courts on behalf of the families of people killed in terrorist attacks in Israel. “He’s 97. We were afraid he would die. But this way, even if he dies, his estate is responsible for what he did.”