Review: Operation Last chance

Simon Wiesenthal’s successor shows himself to be cut from the same cloth - energetic, resourceful and determined.

By Ben Barkow, January 28, 2010
Efraim Zuroff:  taking on Wiesenthal’s mantle

Efraim Zuroff: taking on Wiesenthal’s mantle

By Efraim Zuroff
Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99

This remarkably self-conscious book is about one man’s strivings to become the new Simon Wiesenthal. It is also a painful record of just how difficult it is to bring war criminals to justice. Again and again, Efraim Zuroff is forced to admit that the Nazis he went after got away with their crimes on account of the complexities of legal jurisdiction and the unwillingness of so many governments to act.

Zuroff, whose energy, intellect — and ego — shine from every page, is certainly able to record successes, the Nazis who were stripped of their American citizenship, for example. But such victories sometimes involve moral compromise, the perpetrators being prosecuted chiefly for lies told when they emigrated and not for their crimes.

The dramatic and emotional heart of the story is the passing of the mantle from Wiesenthal to Zuroff and to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, of which Zuroff was the founding director before extending his operations to Jerusalem. The intention appears to be to represent the symbolic passing of moral authority on questions of the Holocaust from old, corrupt Europe to America.

Wiesenthal, tired from a lifetime of Nazi-hunting, is portrayed as initially testy on meeting Zuroff because the latter cannot speak German properly. But, invited to Los Angeles and feted there, Wiesenthal becomes lachrymose and grateful and recognises the legitimacy of his heir. It is a moment of kitsch, and yet it encapsulates how Zuroff really is like Wiesenthal: an effective self-publicist, a myth-maker, an astute politician, a man who relishes confrontation with intransigent authority, and a lover of the limelight.

Various studies show Wiesenthal to have been a complex and ambivalent figure, not above manufacturing facts to suit his purpose. Yet, despite this, his was the essential voice of conscience during the 1950s and ’60s, keeping the memory of Nazi crimes alive when so many wanted to bury it.

As we approach the last opportunities to confront Nazi criminals directly, Efraim Zuroff’s voice, too, is an essential one, for he has focused on those eastern European collaborators and murderers who, even after the end of the Cold War, have largely been ignored.

Operation Last Chance demonstrates how long are the shadows of genocide — nations such as Rwanda and Bosnia should take note. Zuroff cites his mentor: “those who ignore the murderers of the past pave the way for the murderers of the future”.

This is a truth to set before anyone who questions the need for continued engagement with the subject of the Holocaust.

Ben Barkow is Director of the Wiener Library

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011