Wiesenthal Institute Director Defends U.S.’ Deals With Nazi War Criminals

Dr. Efraim Zuroff says expulsion from United States was better than no punishment at all, but admits the compromise was flawed.

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Martin Hartmann reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 to return to Germany when it was found out he was a Nazi SS guard in World War II. Credit: AP

The director of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute in Jerusalem has rejected criticism of the deals the United States made to get Nazi war criminals to leave America in recent decades, saying that forcing them to leave their lives and families was a better punishment than nothing.

According to an Associated Press report Monday, dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals and SS guards collected millions of dollars in U.S. social security benefits after being forced out of the United States. The report said the payments flowed through a legal loophole that gave the U.S. Justice Department leverage to persuade Nazi suspects to leave the United States; if they agreed to go, or fled before being deported, they could keep their social security benefits.

Though the arrangements were widely criticized in response to the report, Dr. Efraim Zuroff from the Simon Wiesenthal Institute seemed more accepting of them.

“The Americans were determined to expel as many Nazis as possible from America, because the U.S. legal system didn’t allow them to be tried,” he said. “For some of them, the harshest punishment was the fact that they’d been exposed as Nazi collaborators and were cut off from their families. It may not have been enough, but one can’t say that no action was taken against them.”

He described America’s conduct in this case as an “Al Capone compromise,” referring to the infamous Chicago gangster who was ultimately imprisoned for tax evasion. “This type of justice is better than nothing,” Zuroff said.

Zuroff was critical of the United States regarding a different point. “The Americans had to know that the countries to which the Nazi criminals would be expelled would not put them on trial. Thus, the process was flawed and constituted a compromise on top of a compromise.”

According to Zuroff, of the 66 Nazis who were expelled or who left the United States over the past several decades, only 10 were ever tried. And of those, only one was actually punished – Fyodor Fedorenko, who had served as a guard in Treblinka, and was executed in the Soviet Union in 1987.

Zuroff argued that although the fact the Nazi criminals continued to live a relatively comfortable life from social security payments was “shocking,” he added, “We have to remember that this money was not stolen from Jews, but money given them for their work in the United States. Not everything here is black and white.”