The Scales of Justice and the Angel of Death

“Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice,” Efraim Zuroff (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 238.
February 1, 2010

“Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice,” Efraim Zuroff (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 238.

The spiritual heir of Simon Wiesenthal, Efraim Zuroff, and Eli Rosenbaum of the Office of Special Investigation (OSI) of the U.S. Department of Justice are the last two Nazi hunters on earth. But Rosenbaum’s domain is limited to the United States, and because he cannot prosecute Nazi war criminals for their crimes abroad, he merely can take them to court for denaturalization and deportation. Zuroff, on the other hand, has a global reach and global aspirations.

For the past two decades, I have been asking Zuroff the same question: “How long? How long can you keep it up, hunting Nazi war criminals?” The Angel of Death has tipped the scales of justice. Twenty-year-olds who committed war crimes are now 85, and those who were in their 30s are now well into their 90s, if they are still alive, if they can be found, if they can be brought to justice? If…

As the years go by, the opportunity to find and bring to justice a Nazi war criminal diminishes day by day.

Born the same year the State of Israel was established, Zuroff should outlive his targets, all of whom are at least two decades his senior. But as he so clearly demonstrates in “Operation Last Chance,” he is ready to pursue them to the gates of hell, until their very last breath. One must be grateful that there is such a man among us, even if we do not envy him his task and its frustrations.

Zuroff has accurately described his job as one-third detective, one-third historian and one-third political lobbyist. Trained at the Hebrew University, he was a student of Yehuda Bauer and the author of a fascinating study of Orthodox attempts at rescue — the work of Vaad Ha’hatzalah — yet his major research has not been on the rescuers but on the killers. He pioneered the use of Bad Arolsen records to identify not only the crimes that were committed but also the location of former Nazi war criminals who has resettled elsewhere. He has pressured Yad Vashem not only to document what happened to the Jews — Jewish history — but also the history of the perpetrators, the Germans and their many collaborators. Like his mentor, Zuroff believes in bringing these Nazis to justice, and like his mentor, he is sorely disappointed in the slow and frustrating pace of justice.

As a detective with a worldwide network of informants, he is able to track down Nazi war criminals to some of the most remote parts of the world, and as a political lobbyist he appreciates the backing of the media-savvy Simon Wiesenthal Center and the skills of Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper for garnering attention and pressuring foreign governments to take action against these aging killers. Zuroff won’t say it, but he does the heavy lifting, and they come in for the media kill.

Zuroff is quite aware of what it takes to pressure governmental leaders and quite skillful at locating and using the pressure points.

He became a Nazi hunter quite by accident. In the late 1970s, the Wiesenthal Center was looking for an Orthodox Jew with academic training in the Holocaust who could become director of a tiny Museum of a then-fledgling institution. It hired Zuroff, who came to Los Angeles for two years. He learned the power of Hollywood and how to use the media; he learned from masters Hier and Cooper how to use the media to one’s own — and the Jewish people’s – advantage; and then he went back to Israel under temporary contract to OSI as a researcher. He later proposed to Rabbi Hier that he head their Jerusalem office and serve as the Wiesenthal Center’s Nazi hunter from Israel. Hier wisely understood that Zuroff would allow the Wiesenthal Center to complete the mandate of the aging Simon Wiesenthal.

Zuroff takes the reader on a tour of the Western World, most especially Great Britain, Canada and Australia, and then through Eastern Europe, country by country as Zuroff pursues “Operation Last Chance,” the final opportunity to bring to justice the criminals who made the “Final Solution” operational. Assisted by the generosity of his college friend Aryeh Rubin, Zuroff is able to offer a significant reward for the information that he received. Leads poured in and, inevitably, disappointment followed disappointment. A less dedicated man would howl in disgust; not so Zuroff.

With the fall of Communism a new opportunity arose in Eastern Europe. A new generation of leaders came to the fore and for some of them — some, but not all — confronting the past became indispensable to transforming the future.

Each of these countries had the same task with respect to the Holocaust, a six-step program for rehabilitation:

* Acknowledgement of guilt and apology for crimes
* Commemoration of victims
* Documentation
* Education
* Restitution
* Prosecution of perpetrators

The first four steps require dedication and commitment, but they are not insurmountable challenges. They remain controversial. The state visit by an Eastern European leader to Israel presents a perfect opportunity to speak of national guilt and to offer an apology. Such a statement is well received by one’s host but is usually quite burdensome at home, at least among ultranationalists. Again and again, Zuroff uses these state visits as an opportunity to pressure foreign leaders, presidents and prime ministers, foreign ministers and ministers of justice, to prosecute the perpetrators. A strategically placed op-ed in the Jerusalem Post or in the leader’s domestic paper that is suddenly interested in Israel and Jews or an interview with Israeli television and with domestic television raises the issue to the forefront.

It must be said that Israel has other priorities, issues of state and national interests, and has not pursued the issue of bringing the killers to justice as one of those priorities; so Zuroff often embarrasses his own government by his insistence.

Under Communism, commemoration of Holocaust victims often occurred without using the word “Jew.” Today in many of these countries, there is an unwillingness to recognize the singular evil that befell the Jewish people. There is almost victim envy, linking native victimization with the status that accrues to Holocaust victimization.

Documentation is the least problematic, and education can often be subject to dispute as to the role that the murder of the Jews plays in national history. But the two most difficult issues to resolve are restitution, which underscores the benefits countries have enjoyed and continue to enjoy from the confiscation of Jewish property and businesses, and the prosecution of the perpetrators, which often wounds the pride of nationalists throughout Eastern Europe since they must admit — at least in part — the depth of collaboration and participation.

Zuroff takes us through the major cases that are pending, portraying the major criminals still alive and often thriving well into their 90s, and his Herculean efforts to catch them before they die.

Read this book and weep at the opportunities that have been lost, the chances missed. Weep further as you learn of the brazenness of the killers and how they have eluded justice — divine and human. Yet the more we read, the more grateful we become that at least some Nazi war criminals must look over their shoulder as they turn the corner and wonder, “How long until they come for me?”

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.


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