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The Real Nazi Hunters

People like Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and prosecutor John Loftus don’t get credit on TV, but it’s their work that exposed the U.S. government’s shielding of Nazi war criminals

Scott Lerner
April 22, 2020
Original photos: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images; YouTube
Original photos: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images; YouTube
Original photos: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images; YouTube
Original photos: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images; YouTube

Though she’s barely mentioned in the new television show Hunters, Elizabeth Holtzman was a central figure in the real-life drama that inspired the Amazon series about American investigators working in the 1970s to track down Nazi war criminals who settled in the United States. Holtzman was a 31-year-old Harvard Law alumna and lawyer from Brooklyn when she ran for Congress in 1972 and won a surprise, long-shot victory. The youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and one of 16 then serving on Capitol Hill, she was the third Jewish woman ever to serve in the legislative body.

Holtzman did not play the role of a quiet freshman in Congress. She used her new office to ask “unpopular questions” of those in power, probing the legality of military action in Cambodia ordered by President Richard Nixon and criticizing his deflective use of executive privilege. Sitting on the Judiciary Committee, she played a significant, public role in Nixon’s impeachment. After his resignation, Holtzman confronted Gerald Ford in a public hearing about her “very dark suspicions” that pardoning his predecessor hinted that the two had struck a shady deal. The suggestion caused “older lawmakers” to look “askance at Holtzman’s temerity … but she did not shy away from a fight,” investigative journalist Eric Lichtblau writes in his book The Nazis Next Door. The Times called her Ford’s “toughest questioner.”

One day in 1973, a “mid-level bureaucrat” from Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) contacted Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman to tell her that “the U.S. government has a list of Nazi war criminals living in United States.” Not sure what to make of the allegations, Holtzman took the meeting and learned from the source that not only did the Immigration Service have such a list, it was “doing nothing” about it. Holtzman struggled with how to proceed until later in the year, when two New York Times articles corroborated what the whistleblower had told her.

In April, 1974, with the INS commissioner sitting before Congress for a routine annual oversight hearing, Holtzman took the opportunity to ask whether there was “a list of Nazi war criminals living in the United States.” When the commissioner responded in the affirmative, Holtzman almost “fell off [her] chair.” Further prodding was met with a “bureaucratic smokescreen, and the commissioner’s refusal to provide a straight answer.” But when she asked to see the list and all associated files, to Holtzman’s surprise, INS agreed.

A week later, Holtzman traveled to the INS office in New York, where she was given access to around 50 files. Each presented a similar scenario. There’d be a name, some alleged war crimes, and an investigation by an INS official who displayed no real attempt to determine the truth of the allegations. This inspired “an anger so intense, Holtzman promised to devote herself to getting as many Nazi criminals as she could deported, [and] hopefully to stand trial for war crimes,” Richard Rashke writes in his book about the trial of John Demjanjuk, Useful Enemies: America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals.

In May of 1974 she held a press conference to detail her findings. She accused INS of “an appalling laxness and superficiality” that had created “a safe haven for alleged Nazi war criminals.” She called for the creation of a War Crimes Strike Force to begin the work INS had neglected for decades. This “ugly blot on our country,” as she called it, could not stand.

It was a stirring call but little action followed. Between 1974 and 1978, Nazis remained safely in the U.S.; they were not pursued or investigated. There was the standard bureaucratic inertia, sure, standing in the way. But news reports began to suggest a more disturbing possibility: Multiple agencies within the United States government, some of which had actively recruited Nazis into sensitive positions, were now deliberately shielding Nazis from prosecution.

At Holtzman’s insistence, the proposed (and hampered) strike force morphed into what was intended to be a more powerful Special Litigation Unit (SLU), in 1978. She also introduced and secured the passing of what has become known as the Holtzman Amendment, which would address a major legal challenge the unit faced. The law expanded deportation criteria to include anyone “in association with the Nazi government of Germany [who] ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion.”

Holtzman’s efforts closed a loophole that previously prevented Nazi war criminals from being asked whether they’d “committed crimes” during the war. The amendment also made “ex-Nazis ineligible for visas, and eliminated the attorney general’s ability to admit them as temporary nonimmigrants.”

Even with these new guidelines, the work was slow, expensive, and challenging. Nazis were dying, for one. Obtaining reliable, credible information about their pasts also proved to be a significant barrier, as government agencies were still uninterested in cooperating in any meaningful way. Sometimes their efforts even subverted the SLU.

Holtzman did not relent. She hoped that moving the SLU out of INS and into the Department of Justice would further amplify the unit’s reach and prosecutorial strength. The new unit, housed in the DOJ, was called the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), and would soon become known as the “Nazi-hunting unit.”

With a larger budget and revised laws, prosecutors there—Eli Rosenbaum and John Loftus are two notable examples—began in earnest to locate and, at the very least, denaturalize Nazis living in the U.S. Many appeared to be “model citizens,” such as the Ford engine mechanic John Demjanjuk, who is also the subject of a recent Netflix documentary, The Devil Next Door.

From its start until the present, the Office of Special Investigations has secured about a hundred denaturalizations or removals from the U.S in more than 30 years of work. “No other country has more rigorously pursued Nazi war criminals in the past three decades than the United States,” investigative journalist Debbie Cenziper writes in her book Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America. As these men aged, questions arose as to the constitutionality and ethicality of trials and deportations, which can be costly, stressful, and disorienting. A recent example is the case of Jakiw Palij, who in 2018 was deported from Queens, New York, to Germany at the age of 95. In early March, the OSI’s new office, the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, helped secure the deportation of a 94-year-old Neuengamme subcamp guard, Friedrich Karl Berger. “Mr. Berger was deportable under the 1978 Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act,” The New York Times reported.

Holtzman’s push for government accountability—that oft short-lived ethos of the junior politician—created a groundswell of governmental, journalistic, and public interest in the extent to which the U.S. government had not only ignored the presence of Nazis in its agencies but had actively recruited them through the CIA and other means, and then shielded them from prosecution.

In 1984, OSI was on the heels of Arthur Rudolph, the rocket scientist who “designed the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon in 1969.” Rather than face OSI’s “irrefutable evidence of Rudolph’s complicity in the abuse and persecution of concentration camp inmates” at the Mittelbau concentration camp, Rudolph renounced his citizenship and left the country.

The question arose, naturally, as to how someone with Rudolph’s high profile and conspicuous pedigree had found his way safely into the highest levels of the American NASA space program. In 1985, journalist Linda Hunt published a groundbreaking article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that was later picked up by the Times. Drawing on years of research and information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Hunt wrote that “formerly classified documents show that government officials concealed information about many specialists [like Rudolph and Wernher von Braun] in order to secure their legal U.S. immigration status.” In fact, officials simply changed immigration reports in order to ensure that German talent brought to the U.S. did not end up working for rival communist programs in the Soviet Union.

The program, called Operation Paperclip, brought over 100 Nazi rocket scientists to the U.S. These were the scientists in charge of designing the V-2 rocket that brought terror to the civilian landscapes of London and Antwerp in the waning days of the war; these were the rockets built by slaves in an underground facility so inhospitable to life that there needed to be a constant supply of prisoners to replace those who died.

Even with these public reports, the CIA resisted opening their files for historians or reports to study. In 1998, Holtzman testified to the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight about the crucial importance of passing the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, which would require declassification of “secret files on Nazi war criminals.”

Holtzman’s insistence was successful, and in the years following the passage of the act, claims like those made by former OSI prosecutor John Loftus about the CIA’s complicity in bringing Nazis to the United States were proved largely true. In the early 1980s, while working as an investigator for OSI, Loftus discovered files (among many others) that “disclosed that the U.S. State Department had provided visas for former Nazis to work on intelligence matters here for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Loftus’ own bosses at OSI ordered that he “stay out of the vaults,” and he had to rely on informants, some from the CIA, to expose the American intelligence service’s postwar embrace of Nazi war criminals.

Loftus remains a controversial figure, often maligned by government officials, not surprisingly. (He writes about this with a tone of grievance in the introduction to America’s Nazi Secret, published in 2010.) But documents declassified after 1998 (an uphill battle, naturally, that extended into the 2000s), as reporter Annie Jacobsen writes in her book, Operation Paperclip, do in fact reveal a large-scale government policy to recruit Nazi scientists, doctors, and bureaucrats to join U.S. ranks.

The records show that after 1945, thousands of Nazis settled in the U.S. Some slipped through the cracks during the chaotic postwar period. Others learned that lying on immigration forms could be a successful way to gain admittance into the country. Those recruited by the government found agencies willing to rewrite history for their new employees. In almost all cases, these people were left alone by the U.S. government.

Perhaps most discomfiting is how the CIA secretly hired former Nazis to be spies and informants. According to Lichtblau, the United States employed “at least a thousand Nazi spies [who did] everything from monitoring Soviet rail lines in Eastern Europe to giving briefings to top CIA officials in Washington.” While it might be hard to stomach the notion of employing scientists who designed destructive rockets and doctors who used Jewish bodies for painful, often deadly experiments, such was the Cold War obsession of being in the “pole position,” as Jacobsen calls it. But these spies were not only former Nazis; they were often ineffective and paid with taxpayer dollars for their bad and sometimes misleading work. And the government didn’t just secure precious immigration visas for Nazis; they did so while denying entrance to Jewish refugees lingering in concentration camps that had simply been renamed displaced person camps.

Scott Lerner is a writer and teacher from Claremont, Calif.