Interview: Efraim Zuroff
He has taken over from Simon Wiesenthal as the man war criminals fear most. And at 61, he has no intention of giving up the chase just yet .
Efraim Zuroff is hoping to bring at least five Nazis to trial before they die off. “That would be fantastic,” he says
Efraim Zuroff is running out of time. Zuroff is a Nazi-hunter — in fact, since Simon Wiesenthal’s death in 2005, he has become the world’s most prominent hunter of Nazi war criminals. However, the number of those who perpetrated the Holocaust has been reduced by the passage of time. Those who remain alive are in their late 80s and 90s. Despite this, Zuroff has vowed to give them no respite.
The American-born activist, a physically imposing figure with a New York accent unaffected by many decades of life in Israel, claims that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unprosecuted Nazi war criminals living out their years peacefully. “The question for us,” he says, “is how to find the evidence. Even now, we examine one or two new aspects every month.”
His final push to round up those guilty of the Holocaust started seven years ago with the launch of Operation Last Chance by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, for whom he works. The campaign has yielded results. “We had over 3,000 calls. Those calls yielded the names of 540 suspects that we did not know about. Any name that we are given has to pass three tests. First of all there is credibility. It’s possible that someone has had a row with their 85-year-old neighbour who has a German accent. Then, he has to be alive and able to stand trial and not have been before the courts already. There were over 100 cases we uncovered, including six very serious ones.”
Sixty-one-year-old Zuroff is a quarter of a century younger than the youngest suspects he is chasing. Could it be that hunting and prosecuting elderly people is actually counterproductive? Zuroff is adamant that the hunt will go on to the bitter end. “I have never encountered a single case of a Nazi war criminal who expressed any remorse — not one.”
He accepts that the public do not necessarily share his views. “Look at John Demjanjuk [the Ukrainian currently on trial in Germany for war crimes]. People see a frail old gentleman. War criminals might be old now but in the prime of their lives they put all of their energy into murdering innocent people. I call it misplaced sympathy syndrome. These people had no mercy for their victims.”
Zuroff is used to being asked to justify the continued hunt for war criminals. He maintains that the passage of time does not diminish guilt; that old age should not afford protection for people who committed such horrendous crimes. “It’s important to send out a message that if you commit crimes like these there will always be someone trying to find you and bring you to justice,” he says. Zuroff’’s career is detailed in a new book, also entitled Operation Last Chance. There remain some big targets, among them Milivoj Asner and Aribert Heim. Asner, a Croatian, is in rude health despite his 95 years. Zuroff had obtained agreement from Croatian president Stjepan Mesic to help arrest Asner, but he concedes that he underestimated his foe. “No one dreamed that a man of 91 was going to try to escape. But he did. We didn’t think it through.” Asner now lives in Austria, whose government refuses to extradite him.
Heim, a doctor who experimented on his patients in a grotesque manner similar to Dr Josef Mengele, was reported dead in Egypt in 1992. Zuroff is not prepared to accept this until more evidence is provided. “There is no proof. There is a death certificate but you can buy one of those for five shekels in the Cairo shuk. There’s no body so you can’t verify anything.”
BORN: New York, August 5, 1948
EARLY LIFE: Brought up in Brighton Beach and Brooklyn. His parents were Abraham, a rabbi, and Esther, director of student services at Yeshiva University in New York.
EDUCATION: Read history at Yeshiva University before moving to Israel where he completed an MA in Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University.
CAREER: In 1978 became the first director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. On returning to Israel in 1980 served as a researcher for the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, preparing cases against Nazi war criminals living in the United States. In 1986 rejoined the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. His research uncovered the postwar escape of hundreds of Nazi war criminals to Australia, Canada, Britain and other countries.
FAMILY: Lives in the West Bank town of Efrat with his wife, Elisheva. They have four children and six grandchildren.
Zuroff claims some important victories. “One is the case of Dinko Sakic [the former commandant of the Croatian concentration camp Jasenovac] who was imprisoned by the Croatians. I also exposed the rehabilitation of people in Lithuania who had committed genocide, and I helped to educate the world that the Holocaust was not just perpetrated by Germany and Austria but by people from many other European countries. I also exposed the issue of war criminals living in the UK.”
Zuroff’s book is dedicated to the memory of legendary Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose reputation has recently come under fierce attack in the book Hunting Evil, by ex-Sunday Times journalist Guy Walters. Walters alleged that Wiesenthal was a fantasist who caught few Nazis and was more interested in self-glorification. So what is Zuroff’s opinion of Wiesenthal?
“He was very smart and very sharp. He had a healthy dose of cynicism and good sense of humour. He was also the personification of an issue and that’s where it gets a little problematic. In 2005 he was quoted as saying that he had caught every Nazi who was worth catching. It was not true of course, but the guy was 95 and he was thinking: ‘I’m the Nazi-hunter and without me there’s no Nazi-hunting.’
“His greatest achievement was in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive when no one else was interested in it. He had some important successes.”
But Zuroff is scathing of Walters. “There may have been some inconsistencies in what Wiesenthal said but much of what Walters wrote was ridiculous. Certainly what he wrote about me was ridiculous. On top of that it’s a boring book.”
Zuroff is happy that Holocaust awareness and education is at unprecedented levels. But he is concerned about the effect of the Prague Declaration issued in 2008 and signed by 40 leading European intellectuals including former Czech president Vaclav Havel.
“It says that Europe will never truly be reunited until it recognises the common legacy of Nazism and Communism. It talks about designating August 23 as a joint commemoration for the victims of Nazism and Communism. There is something insidious about this. If Communism equals Nazism, it means Communism equals genocide, which means Jews committed genocide because there were many Jewish Communists. It also helps to deflect the guilt of European countries in terms of their complicity in the Holocaust. Suddenly they are the victims rather than the perpetrators. I’ve been talking to people in the UK about fighting the declaration, including potential ministers in the next government assuming the Conservatives win.”
He concedes that his campaign against Nazi war criminals has, at most, a few years to run. So what does he hope to achieve? “I’d like a few prosecutions. If we get five people into court that will be fantastic. The victims deserve that an effort be made to find their killers.”
‘Operation Last Chance’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan, at £16.99