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On Their Trail

His targets may be pushing 90, but Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff is still looking

Adam Kirsch
December 01, 2009
At a 2005 Budapest press conference, Efraim Zuroff encouraged those with information about alleged Hungarian war criminal Charles Zentai to dial a hotline.(Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)
At a 2005 Budapest press conference, Efraim Zuroff encouraged those with information about alleged Hungarian war criminal Charles Zentai to dial a hotline.(Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)

When Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat chiefly responsible for organizing the Holocaust, was put on trial in Israel in 1961, Efraim Zuroff was a 12-year-old growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. In his new book, Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, Zuroff remembers his mother ordering him to watch the trial on television and being profoundly impressed by the dramatic story of Eichmann’s capture. He did not yet know anything about Eichmann’s crimes, or much abut the Holocaust in general, but he remembers that “the idea of Jews catching one the big criminals and putting him on trial in Jerusalem sounded very exciting…. [T]he story made a strong impression on me, and it was the first time that the Holocaust penetrated my consciousness. Little did I realize what a profound impact it would have.” Years later, after training as a historian and making aliyah, Zuroff would devote his life to tracking down escaped Nazi war criminals.

Inspired by Simon Wiesenthal, whom he met while working at the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Zuroff became a contract researcher for the Office of Special Investigations, a branch of the Justice Department dedicated to finding war criminals who had slipped into the U.S. after World War II. In 1986, he was named director of the Israel office of the Wiesenthal Center, and ever since he has campaigned around the world to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

Reading Operation Last Chance, however, it is striking how very different Zuroff’s work has been from the famous case that inspired him. The capture, trial, and execution of Eichmann was a dramatic triumph of historical redress—a moment when newly empowered Jews sat in judgment over their onetime persecutor, tried him thoroughly and carefully, and meted out justice. But when Eichmann was tried, just 15 years had passed since the end of the Holocaust. Witnesses and survivors were still available to testify against him; no less crucially, the criminal himself was still recognizably the same man who had committed the crimes.

As the title of Zuroff’s book suggests, things are very different today. Zuroff launched the Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance, a major campaign to track down the last living perpetrators, in 2002, almost 60 years after the end of World War II. The sheer passage of time means that none of the men most responsible for the Holocaust are still around to be punished. Those who were not tried at Nuremberg, or at any of the later trials in Germany or Israel, have long since died natural deaths. The criminals still at large are low-level policemen or paramilitary officers, the foot soldiers of the Holocaust, whose crimes are correspondingly hard to document. And they committed those crimes when they were in their 20s or 30s; now they are old men (and a few women), approaching 90 or even past it, who have spent long lives as civilians, working at ordinary jobs and raising families.

Nor is the Wiesenthal Center empowered, like a government, to apprehend and try suspects. The most Zuroff can do is identify war criminals and bring legal and public pressure to bear on the governments that had sheltered them, wittingly or unwittingly, for so long. Operation Last Chance itself depended on offering a $10,000 reward to anyone with information “that could lead to the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment of a Nazi war criminal.” Turning in a great-grandfather for the reward money is a far cry from the Mossad’s intrepid capture of Eichmann, and it is natural to wonder if this last-ditch campaign is worth the effort. Hasn’t a war criminal who lives to the age of 90 effectively gotten away with it?

Zuroff offers three convincing arguments why, even at the last possible minute, it is still worthwhile to bring such men to justice. The first is that, as he writes, “the practical implication of a chronological limit of prosecution is that if a person is rich enough, lucky enough, and/or smart enough to escape justice until they reach that age, they will never be held accountable for their crimes, which is a terrible travesty of justice.” It makes no sense to reward a criminal for successfully concealing his crime, especially when the crime is as unspeakably evil as the ones Zuroff writes about.

This is the book’s second, largely implicit argument: that the crimes of the Holocaust, unlike ordinary felonies or even murders, are so monstrous that they cannot be canceled by a statute of limitations. Aribert Heim, “the butcher of Mauthausen,” conducted Mengele-like experiments on Jewish prisoners: “He removed organs one after the other to see how long the victims survived. He injected their hearts with phenol (gasoline), and recorded the time it took them to die.” Dinko Sakic was the commandant of the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, where 90,000 civilians were killed; when confronted by a journalist about his past, he replied, “I regret that we didn’t do all that is imputed to us, for had we done that, then today Croatia wouldn’t have problems, there wouldn’t be people to write lies!” Erna Wallisch, a guard at Majdanek, was remembered for beating prisoners to death, including children, even while she herself was visibly pregnant. Crimes like these cry out to heaven for punishment, and it seems like a kind of blasphemy to ignore them simply because they happened too long ago.

The third, most pragmatic argument for trying elderly criminals, Zuroff suggests, is that the prosecutions are important educational tools, forcing countries that have largely ignored their roles in the Holocaust to acknowledge their history. Most of the cases he writes about involve Nazi collaborators from Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic states. While Germany itself has spent many decades wrestling with the Nazi period, these countries—which emerged from Soviet rule only after 1989—are far more used to considering themselves victims of the Communists than as helpers of the Nazis.

In Latvia, for instance, Zuroff dealt with the case of Herberts Cukurs, a pioneering aviator who was a national hero in the 1930s. During the war, Cukurs was deputy commander of the Arajs Kommando, a paramilitary group that assisted the Nazis in liqudating the 70,000 Jews of Latvia. Postwar testimony by various Jewish witnesses recorded Cukurs’s crimes, which included raping young girls, beating people to death with a pistol, and burning people alive. In 1965, Mossad agents assassinated Cukurs in Uruguay—which would be gratifying to learn, except that, as Zuroff notes, the failure to try him in a court of law “ultimately enabled his family and Latvian nationalists to launch their effort to restore him to his former glory.” In 2004, a right-wing Latvian party began campaigning to have Cukurs declared innocent of war crimes. When the country’s Jewish community protested, a leading politician “warned the Jews of Latvia ‘not to repeat the mistakes of 1940 and openly cooperate with the enemies of the Latvian people,’ a reference to an accusation popular in nationalist circles that Jews ‘welcomed’ the Soviet enemy.”

As this example shows, it is not just prosecuting criminals that concerns Zuroff, but challenging popular myths and establishing historical truth. That is why his strategies, as he describes them, are often highly confrontational, more like street theater than the ordinary process of law. He writes op-ed pieces, ambushes suspects on television, and takes out newspaper ads with shocking Holocaust images. The tip that led to the discovery of Erna Wallisch, for instance, came in response to an ad in an Austrian daily that read “The Murderers are Among Us,” printed against the colors of the Austrian flag.

Zuroff acknowledges that such tactics might appear counterproductive, but he still defends them: “we knowingly ran the risk of causing a small amount of anti-Semitism to help thoroughly defeat the local anti-Semites by delegitimizing them in the eyes of their compatriots.” At any rate, Zuroff must hope that he is having some educational effect, because the actual legal successes of Operation Last Chance are meager. The Austrian investigation of Erna Wallisch had barely begun when she died, age 85, in a Vienna hospital; Aribert Heim has never been found, and if he is still alive he would now be 95 years old. A more introspective man might have written a deeper memoir than Operation Last Chance, which has little to say about the moral complexity and psychological toll of Zuroff’s calling. But a Nazi-hunter who questioned himself, or his cause, too often might not be able to persist against such discouraging odds. “I have never allowed the Nazis I was chasing to ruin my life,” Zuroff writes near the end of the book. “They have never interested me as individuals, and I have never dreamed of them at night.”

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.