Perhaps one of the world’s most recognized Nazi hunters is coming to Atlanta Nov. 5-6 to discuss his latest book and findings. After all this time, Dr. Efraim Zuroff is still on the hunt. He shares with the AJT his accomplishments and challenges in the effort to bring Nazis to justice.
Although born in New York, Zuroff moved to Israel after obtaining a degree in history at Yeshiva University. He went on to earn a master’s in Holocaust studies as well as a doctorate based on his chronicle of the United States’ response to the Holocaust through the lens of Orthodox Jewry. After serving as an editor of scholarly publications at Yad Vashem, his interests in Nazi-hunting intensified when he became the first director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
If you ask Dr. Zuroff though, perhaps there’s a more mystical component in his job selection. He was named for a family member who was murdered with his wife and two children at the hands of Nazis in Lithuania. The Nazi hunter visited the country many times before writing his most recent book, the purpose of which was to tell the truth about the massive role of Lithuanians in the murder of Jews, which the Lithuanians were trying to hide.
The book title is in Lithuanian, “Mūsiškiai; Kelionė Su Priešu,” which translates to Our People; Journey with an Enemy.
Among Zuroff’s greatest accomplishments was Operation Last Chance, a project developed in 2002 with Aryeh Rubin, founder of the Targum Shlishi Foundation.
The program offered financial rewards for information that would enable the conviction and punishment of Nazi war criminals. So far 14 countries are participating, revealing the names of more than 1,000 suspects. The project also led to Operation: Last Chance II, which focuses on the capture of death camp guards and those who served in mobile killing units.
Zuroff attributes much of his success in bringing these Nazis to justice to the changing of Germany’s policy on the prosecution of these war criminals about 10 years ago. “Now you don’t have to prove that a person committed a specific crime against a specific person, and that’s been very helpful for us,” Zuroff said.
“Even if we find them, we can’t prosecute these people in America because it didn’t happen here. Two attorneys in Germany realized that since the death camps were made to kill, anyone who worked there should be prosecuted as an accessory to murder. Yes, these people are likely in their 90s, but many have been living well in Germany and Austria where the medical care is good, and there’s an increased life expectancy. They’re old, but they’re still out there.”
Although there has been much to celebrate in Zuroff’s work, he has also seen failure. Quite frustrating for Zuroff was the case of notorious sadist Aribert Heim, known as “Doctor Death.” Serving as a doctor in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, Heim was infamous for his torturous and barbaric treatment of inmates. It turned out he had been dead for many years in Egypt, but he and German police were convinced that he was alive in South America. A judge also threw out evidence against a Hungarian gendarmerie officer, Sandor Kepiro, who Zuroff found living in Budapest after he had lived in Argentina for decades.
Doctor Death may have slipped through his fingers, but Zuroff played a key role in the capture and prosecution of countless Nazi war criminals. Take the exposure, arrest and prosecution of Dinko Šakić the former commander of Croatian concentration camp, Jasenovac. Having lived more than 50 years in Argentina after the war, Zuroff was instrumental in Sakic’s capture in 1999. He was given 20 years, the max sentence, and he eventually died in prison.
“And there’s more. I’m finding more people all the time,” Zuroff said. “Just this week a new trove of documents was found that demonstrate how Argentina was offering asylum to these criminals on the run. Even next month, on Nov. 6, a now 94-year-old former SS guard from the Stutthof concentration camp will face a trial for complicity in the murders of several hundred camp prisoners between 1942 and 1945. Twenty still living survivors, most living in Israel, were a great help in his case.”
The subject of much of Zuroff’s latest work has been Lithuania, examining Lithuanian complicity in many Holocaust crimes. His fourth book, Mūsiškiai; Kelionė Su Priešu, was published in 2016 and written with Lithuanian author Rūta Vanagaitė. It had Zuroff and Vanagaitė travelling through the country educating readers about many of their grandparents’ blatant complicity. “Ninety percent of Lithuanian Jews were murdered in their homes, many by neighbors,” he said. “My co-author discovered her own relatives’ history with their involvement and felt that she needed to atone. It was very difficult, and I’m maybe the most hated Jew in Lithuania, but the book needed to come out.”
Zuroff will discuss his book and his experience bringing Nazi war criminals to justice at several events: Chabad Intown at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5, and the Chabad of North Fulton at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6.
He’s also making plans to speak at a Jewish high school in the area. “Speaking is important, but speaking to kids is vital,” he said. “I want to work to strengthen Jewish identity and the diaspora around the country any way I can.”