“What keeps me going is the sense of obligation to the victims—the need to try to bring their murderers to justice”
As director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, American-born Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff coordinates the center’s worldwide effort to locate Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. In a career spanning 28 years he has not only tracked down those who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, but also convinced often-hesitant governments to prosecute them.
In 2002 Zuroff helped launch Operation Last Chance, which offers financial rewards in exchange for information leading to the identification and prosecution of war criminals living—often openly—in Europe, the Balkans, and South America. He also writes the center’s annual status report, which lists the most wanted Nazis still at large and grades individual nations on their willingness and determination to prosecute identified war criminals.
It has been 63 years since the end of World War II—why is it still important to pursue Nazi war criminals?
Four basic principles guide our activities. The first is that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators. The second is that we don’t think people deserve a medal for reaching an old age. The third is that if we set a chronological limit on the prosecution of people who committed genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, the practical implication would be that if they elude justice until a certain age, they’re off the hook. And the fourth principle is that we feel we have an obligation to every victim of the Nazis to try to hold accountable the persons who made them victims.
What led you to this work, and what keeps you motivated?
I got into it mainly because I was the right person in the right place at the right time. I’d always been interested in trying to understand how something like the Holocaust could have taken place, and began graduate work to help me in that understanding. I then met Simon Wiesenthal, and that further focused my attention on the issue. In terms of persevering, what keeps me going is the sense of obligation to the victims—the need to try to bring their murderers to justice.
Who is the single most important war criminal captured through your efforts or those of your coworkers?
I would have to say Dinko Sakic, the commandant of Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia—90,000 to 100,000 civilians were murdered there by the Ustashe, the Croatian fascists. We discovered him in Argentina and helped facilitate his extradition to Zagreb. Sakic’s trial was probably the most important to date of a Nazi-era war criminal in post-Communist Europe, because it exposed Croatians to the nature and scope of the crimes committed by the Ustashe. Because the trial was conducted in a Croatian courtroom, by a Croatian judge, no one could say that it was Serb or Communist propaganda—indeed, some observers called the trial a watershed in the history of democratic and independent Croatia.
And who would you say is the most important World War II war criminal still at large?
Alois Bruner—one of Adolf Eichmann’s chief lieutenants. If he’s alive he’s 96 and living in Syria, but there’s some doubt as to whether he’s still alive. If Bruner is dead, the “most wanted” would be Aribert Heim, a doctor in the camps at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and Mauthausen. He murdered hundreds of inmates by injecting a form of gasoline into their hearts. Our assumption is that he’s currently in South America.
Tell us about your annual status report.
The report chronicles the progress, or lack thereof, on the investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals worldwide. We provide statistics on the number of convictions each year, the number of ongoing investigations, and the number of new investigations. And we give grades to each country. While we document the progress made each year, we also want to influence and encourage countries to do as much as they can with regard to this issue.
Which nation has been the most helpful in bringing war criminals to justice?
The report has been issued for the past seven years, and it has become clear that the country that has done more than any other to take legal action against Nazi war criminals is the United States. It has done so with unique success, and has already won cases against 107 war criminals and collaborators who entered the United States under false pretenses.
Which nations do you consider to be the worst at bringing Nazi war criminals to justice?
There are three categories, the first of which is the leading perpetrators—Germany and Austria. Germany has a mixed record, whereas Austria over the last 30 years has an abominable record; it’s an absolute paradise for Nazi war criminals. The next category is the countries of post-Communist Eastern Europe. There I would say the Baltic countries, especially Lithuania, have terrible records. In terms of the “big four” countries where Nazi war criminals found refuge—the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia—the worst record undoubtedly belongs to Australia. It is the only one of the four that has hereto failed to take successful legal action against a single Nazi war criminal.
Tell us about Operation Last Chance.
It’s a joint project between the SWC and the Targum Shlishi Foundation, and it offers financial rewards for evidence and information that can facilitate the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals. We launched it in 2002 in the Baltic countries; it has since expanded to include Austria, Romania, Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. We’ve received the names of more than 500 suspects of whom we were unaware. We’ve submitted the names of about 99 to local prosecutors after determining that the people were valid suspects. The process has yielded three arrest warrants, two extradition requests, and dozens of ongoing murder investigations.
Do you have any regrets about a life spent hunting Nazis?
I’m sometimes jealous of Mr. Wiesenthal, who had the opportunity to go after the main criminals of the Holocaust—by the time I started, many of the major war criminals were no longer alive. But even though the people I’ve pursued were not of the highest rank, they certainly bear criminal responsibility and deserve to be brought to justice. I regret that this subject has not been given its due, for a variety of political reasons. The sad conclusion is that far too many people got away with it, and in that respect, I think the successes we’ve had in the past decade are of particular importance because they show that even many years after the crimes were committed, these people can still be brought to justice; there are people out there who are doing whatever they can to bring them to justice. And I think people should remember this: while prosecution of Nazi war criminals is important, the real challenge is to help those countries that participated, and whose nationals participated, face the truth about their World War II crimes, and find a way to confront them both honestly and courageously, so that we can make a better world.