If Not Now, When?

There's not much time left to bring to justice war criminals who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, says Efraim Zuroff. But he's having trouble finding people who want to listen.

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Operation Last Chance: One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, by Efraim Zuroff, Palgrave Macmillan; 238 pages; $25

In May 1962, Adolf Eichmann, the German responsible for orchestrating the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, was finally put to death, in Israel. The execution came two years after Eichmann?s abduction by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires, and 17 years after his disappearance at the end of World War II. The hanging of the man who at the time of his capture had been the world?s most wanted Nazi war criminal was the culmination of years of searching, a daring and heralded extra-judicial arrest, and a trial that kept the Jewish world and millions of others rapt with attention.

One of those people watching the drama unfold was 12-year-old Efraim Zuroff, in Brooklyn, New York. By most accounts, Zuroff would go on to inherit the mantle of the world's foremost Nazi hunter from Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who dedicated his post-war life to chasing down and bringing to trial war criminals.

But in the years subsequent to both Eichmann's capture and execution, and the creation of the organization that named itself for Wiesenthal and took on the task of carrying on his work, the approach of bringing in those responsible for the Holocaust underwent changes.

Nazi hunting today is more about long hours sifting through archives, locating witnesses, contending with paperwork, and lobbying politicians and prosecutors than actually tracking down perpetrators and tying a proverbial noose around their neck. The word "hunting" is used here in the most liberal of senses. The more modest goal, perhaps, is to prevent the alleged criminals from being able to hide behind the legal system than about seeing actual justice done, and the daring raid to bring Eichmann to Israel was actually the exception rather than the rule.

But the paucity of fast-paced action doesn't detract from "Operation Last Chance," since the book is not intended to be a thriller, but an effort to highlight some of the troubles the Nazi-chasing business has encountered and to spur people to action.

For further reading:

Another take on the Eichmann Trial
Holocaust Studies / A picture worth six million names
Holocaust / No job for innocents

Hence the book's basic structure, which reads like a laundry list of which nations (mostly Eastern European ) are standing in Zuroff's way as he tries to bring the last surviving fugitive perpetrators and their co-conspirators to account. As in Zuroff's previous book on the subject, "Occupation: Nazi Hunter" (1994 ), he recounts his journey from Yeshiva University student and contractor for the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations to his current role as director of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office. Once he recounts his personal story and evolution as a Nazi hunter, he zeroes in on what it takes to actually track down and have alleged criminals prosecuted.

At times the description, like the work itself, can be tedious, but at least we can be assured that we are receiving a realistic, albeit humdrum, picture of what Nazi hunting is actually like. And this time around, there is an added urgency to Zuroff's writing. The author named the book after his latest drive to capture those surviving fugitives who have still not stood in the dock for the crimes they committed during the Holocaust. "Operation Last Chance" is an apt title: Both the perpetrators and the surviving victims are aging and dying off, as the latest trial of John (Ivan ) Demjanjuk, which got under way in Germany in November, illustrates all too well.

The very fact that Demjanjuk is now in a courtroom in Munich, albeit on a stretcher, is a rare victory in a field that has seen its fair share of defeats. The process that brought him there involved 32 years of stops and starts, as the man accused of being a concentration/death camp guard and overseeing the murder of up to 27,900 prisoners in Sobibor if not Treblinka as well, used every legal defense he could muster to delay proceedings.

Passing away peacefully

Zuroff knows that time is running out and that more and more of those responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews are living out their golden years and passing away peacefully in the lands of their birth or adopted homelands in the West. The Demjanjuk case merits nearly no mention in Zuroff's book, probably because he has been pursued by the United States, one of the few countries in the world that Zuroff says doesn't need goading to prosecute its war-criminal citizens. However, nearly every other country harboring war criminals, from Canada to Croatia, gets taken to task for its inability, reluctance or downright refusal to bring the alleged perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice, mostly because of nationalist sympathies.

In this latest effort, Zuroff's hunt has focused mostly on local collaborators in such countries as Latvia, Lithuania and Austria, rather than swastika-wearing Germans (many of whom were prosecuted with much greater efficiency immediately following the war ). Trying the local collaborators has proven a difficult task, as their actions 65 years ago are often much less well documented than crimes carried out in the concentration and death camp system. In fact, at times the hunters find that their prey are highly regarded in their home countries often because they were not only Nazi sympathizers but also anti-Communists, and today, in the post-Communist era, are viewed as heroes and hence protected by authorities or the public there.

Such is the case of Estonian Evald Mikson, who was goalie of the Estonian national soccer team and a "freedom fighter" during Soviet occupation, before assisting the German occupiers who followed in carrying out the liquidation of that country's Jewish community, which had numbered 4,500 before World War II. After the war, he made his way to Iceland, where he achieved celebrity status as the man who brought basketball to the island state. Despite overwhelming evidence that he had played a part in the murder of many of Estonia's Jews as deputy chief of the national police, and as an investigator at the Tartu concentration camp and head of a nationalist vigilante squad -- evidence that Zuroff dug out of declassified Soviet archives after he started going after Mikson in the early 1990s -- it still took a massive public campaign by organized world Jewry to convince Icelandic authorities to even begin their own investigation of Mikson.

The Mikson case was surprising because of the fact that the suspect had a government and a public in Iceland behind him that would go so far to avoid seeing him brought before a judge as to deny the Holocaust had ever reached Estonia. But perhaps what is most shocking is how frequently this happens. Zuroff's book is filled with page after page documenting how authorities in a host of different countries defended suspected war criminals living in their midst or dragged their feet before doing anything about it.

Mikson died in Iceland in 1993 in his 80s, before any charges could be brought against him. Such an outcome is another of the book's ongoing themes.

Time is running out, Zuroff writes again and again, part of his unspoken drive to spur the reader to join his fight in exposing war criminals living in their midst. Zuroff repeatedly succeeds in getting authorities to go after Nazis, only to have them slip from his grip into death's hands. And even if they are still alive when they are dragged, or wheeled, into the courtroom, they usually appear so old and decrepit as to elicit sympathy from the courts and the public, no matter how sprightly they may actually be. Zuroff writes that he had "observed to what degree war criminals who had been hale and hearty weeks before their trial were often subsequent victims of a sudden weakening that was likely to move a judge or minister."

In the end, there are many more failures than successes for Zuroff. In a perfect world, he seems to be saying, he would find the war criminals and not face tremendous pushback from countries trying to protect them for nationalistic reasons. Justice would be served without delay. But instead, daring raids like the one on Eichmann have had to take a backseat to molasses-like advocacy campaigns, archive research and paper pushing. Zuroff has been forced into a role where he must act as a lawyer and lobbyist. As a consequence, the book, while well-written, reads like a collection of case studies written by a lawyer or lobbyist, almost a guide on how to hunt Nazis when they are able to hide behind legal systems that are seemingly sympathetic to them.

Even in the most prominent case featured in "Operation Last Chance" -- Zuroff's personal pursuit of "Dr. Death" in South America in 2008 -- it turns out he was chasing a ghost, at least according to a media report declaring that the Austrian Nazi whom Zuroff was after had died more than a decade earlier. An investigation by The New York Times and German TV station ZDF concluded that Aribert Heim, who was alleged to have performed experiments on Jews in concentration camps, including chopping off their limbs and injecting them with poison, died in Cairo in 1992. Zuroff has publicly challenged the report, saying several things in the case do not add up, like Heim's children leaving money in his bank account after he is supposed to have died. Nonetheless, the news report effectively put an end to what was Zuroff's most high-profile case at the time.

So after all these failures, all this opposition from the families of the accused and even some of the public, who would rather he leave these "old men" alone, why does Zuroff continue to pursue Nazis? Surely it would be easier to just let the criminals die off, as they will all do soon enough.

The book gives a sense that the answer is the same reason that my grandmothers, both of whom survived Auschwitz, still talk about the numbers on their arms and the families that were wiped out long ago. The same reason my grandfather will tell anybody willing to sit down with him for two minutes about his time as a partisan and in the camps. And, as recounted in "Operation Last Chance," it's the same reason Simon Wiesenthal gave Zuroff when asked why he took up Nazi hunting instead of returnign to his prewar profession, architecture: When I get to heaven and the victims of the Holocaust ask me what I did with my gift of life, Wiesenthal said, "I want to be able to give them just one answer: I did not forget you."

Joshua Davidovich is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.

Haaretz Books, January 2010, haaretzbooks@gmail.com



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