Ellenville, N.Y., is a little village in the Catskills, population 4,200, located 90 miles northwest of New York City. It’s the heart of what used to be the Borscht Belt, before Jews discovered Aspen and Antigua. Times have changed, but Ellenville still boasts a couple of grand kosher resort hotels and a brace of tiny bungalow colonies catering to Jewish families fleeing New York’s summer heat.
Now it turns out that the owner of one of Ellenville’s most popular bungalow colonies is a suspected Nazi war criminal. Federal prosecutors charged last month that Mykola Wasylyk, 76, had served as an armed guard in two SS slave-labor camps in his native Poland during World War II, after receiving training at the notorious Trawniki SS training camp. The U.S. Department of Justice asked a federal court on Nov. 18 to revoke Wasylyk’s U.S. citizenship, saying he lied about his war crimes when he came here in 1949.
It sounds like a scene out of some drugstore thriller, but for attorney Eli Rosenbaum it’s just another day’s work. Rosenbaum, 46, heads up the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI). That’s the unit in charge of hunting down former Nazi war criminals and getting them sent back where they came from.
This is a strange moment in Nazi-hunting. On one hand, there’s more work than ever. Researchers are still digesting evidence newly available from Soviet archives post-Cold War. Huge battles loom with Germany, which is resisting taking back deported Nazis, and with Japan, which hasn’t begun to acknowledge its war crimes and help prosecutors.
At the same time, there’s growing cooperation between Nazi-hunters and the new crop of international war-crimes prosecutors. Much of the expertise at the Bosnian and Rwandan war crimes tribunals comes from government Nazi-hunters.
Last month the Senate voted to expand the OSI’s mandate and put it in charge of chasing down modern-day war criminals, including Serbs and Rwandans. If the House agrees, the OSI will be in business for a long time to come.
And yet, Nazi hunters say, it seems lately the world can’t get its attention away from Nazi gold, Nazi art, Nazi bank and insurance looting and other assorted Nazi plunder. Folks forget that people like Eli Rosenbaum are still out there hunting real Nazis.
Rosenbaum joined the OSI as a Harvard law student intern when the agency was first set up in 1979. He’s been there almost continuously ever since.
He now heads a staff of 33, including 11 lawyers and eight professional historians who comb archives for evidence.
The job has brought Rosenbaum into contact with some pretty awful characters. They shot and clubbed Jews, herded them into gas chambers, worked them to death, or supervised others who did the dirty work. A few were senior Nazi officials, but most were concentration camp guards and Nazi police goons. They came from Germany and Austria, Lithuania, Poland, Croatia, Ukraine. The OSI found them living new lives in Cleveland and Chicago, Tampa, St. Louis and Brooklyn, not to mention Ellenville.
They’re all frail old men now. Inside a courtroom they tend to look tiny and lost. But they fight back like tigers. One died after a shootout with police outside his Kansas City home in 1997, just after the OSI filed charges. Another pulled a gun once on Rosenbaum. Two committed suicide when charges were filed. Many beat deportation by dying of old age first. “Our major opponent now is Father Time,” says Rosenbaum.
Technically, the OSI doesn’t prosecute anyone for war crimes. It can only take civil action to strip someone’s U.S. citizenship after proving that they committed war crimes and lied about it to immigration. Then they’re sent home, hopefully to face prosecution, though few have. Some return to heroes’ welcomes and live out their lives in peace. They even get their monthly Social Security checks uninterrupted, if they leave before being deported.
Still, OSI is the most successful Nazi-hunting organization in the world, bar none. Over the years it’s investigated 1,500 persons and taken action against about 110. Sixty-three have had their citizenship revoked and 52 have been kicked out of the country. Eighteen cases are now in court, and 260 people are under investigation. Four new cases have been filed since August alone.
And at a time when nearly every federal government operation is under budgetary siege, Congress recently raised the OSI’s $3.7 million annual budget to $5.5 million so it could speed up its work.
By contrast, Great Britain dissolved its war-crimes investigation unit this fall after bringing three cases and winning just one. Australia dissolved its war-crimes unit in 1994, having failed to convict or deport a single war criminal. Canada’s war-crimes unit is mired in local controversy and hasn’t filed a case in several years. Austria hasn’t prosecuted a war criminal since the 1970s. Germany is about to convert its war-crimes investigation office into a research archive.
“We’re speeding up while Europe is shutting down,” says Rosenbaum. “Europe has basically abdicated its moral and legal responsibility.”
The record isn’t perfect. OSI’s biggest foul-up to date was John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland steelworker identified as the notorious Treblinka guard “Ivan the Terrible.” He was deported in 1986 to Israel, where he was publicly tried, convicted and sentenced to die. But Israel’s Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1993, saying he wasn’t the camp guard named in the indictment.
The mix-up prompted a sharp rebuke by a federal judge, who claimed outside influences — apparently Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League — were improperly influencing OSI decisions. OSI got the allegation withdrawn, and last spring it refiled Demjanjuk’s case. But the black eye hurt.
OSI’s critics — there are many, particularly in the Ukrainian-American and Baltic-American communities — say hunting Nazi war criminals has become a pointless vendetta. They often depict the OSI’s suspects as patriots who cooperated with Germany to fight off Russia. More often they simply claim it’s time to lay the past to rest.
Rosenbaum doesn’t buy it. “We need to send a message to would-be perpetrators of crimes against humanity that if they dare to act on their pernicious fantasies, there is a real chance that the civilized world will pursue them, if necessary to the farthest corners of the earth, if necessary for the rest of their lives,” he says.
Yes, even to the Catskills.
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for the Jewish Journal.