Dying Business

Old Nazis May Be Dying Off But Nazi Hunting Continues to Thrive

Their quarry is all but extinct, but some of those who stalk Nazis for a living are still hunting war criminals—and headlines. By Guy Walters.

Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty

It’s proving to be a bad year for old Nazis. This weekend, one of the most notorious war criminals, László Csizsik-Csatáry, died at the age of 98. Csatáry was a particularly repugnant individual, who, as an officer in the Hungarian gendarmerie, ran a brutal camp for some 12,000 Jews in the Slovak city of Kosice. In May and June 1944, Csatáry oversaw the deportation of nearly 16,000 Jews to Auschwitz, in packed trains in which he personally ordered there to be no ventilation holes.

Just two days before Csatáry’s death, Germany’s Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes announced that it would be opening new cases on six female concentration camp guards from Auschwitz. “We are carrying out investigations on the grounds of aiding and abetting murder for those who were exercising the duty of a guard,” said one of the Office’s investigators.

Even those old Nazis who have been brought to justice have recently found themselves under attack. On July 29, there were protests in Rome to mark the 100th birthday of former SS and Gestapo officer Erich Priebke, who is serving a life sentence under house arrest for his role in the massacre in 1944 of 335 Italians in the Ardeatine Caves.

July also saw the launch of a campaign by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in which posters were displayed in some 2,000 locations around Germany, offering a reward up to the equivalent of $33,000 for “valuable information” that leads to the imprisonment of any “Holocaust perpetrators.” The poster is suitably evocative, and features a stark black-and-white photograph of the entrance to Auschwitz and the words, “Late, but not too late.”

Somewhat paradoxically, the campaign is called Operation Last Chance II, and it is the brainchild of the Wiesenthal Center’s Dr. Efraim Zuroff, who has been hunting Nazis for many years. “Prosecuting individual war criminals shows Holocaust victims that justice is still there and will be an unforgettable lesson to the future generation,” Zuroff says. “The misdeed is not reduced even if the criminal is old. But this is really it. We have two or three years maximum, that is all.”

In many ways, it is hard to disagree with Zuroff. Why should old men and women sleep easy in their beds if there is enough evidence to convict them of terrible, genocidal crimes? Some critics say that such actions are vindictive, but there is no compelling reason why Nazi war criminals should be afforded some sort of protection against their crimes, especially as in most countries, including Germany, “ordinary” murderers cannot hide behind a statute of limitations.

However, there is a problem with the campaign, and indeed with the methods adopted by Zuroff. Like the man after whom his Center is named, Zuroff has an undoubted ability to garner publicity and to play the media deftly, but, to paraphrase the words of a former Israeli ambassador concerning Wiesenthal himself, he is perhaps more of a Nazi hunter than a Nazi catcher.

The problem lies in that desire for attention. This failing was memorably crystallized in July 2008, when Zuroff flew to South America in order to hunt Dr. Aribert Heim, an SS doctor at Mauthausen. I recall the events well, not least because the media lapped it up (it was even the second lead item on British television news).

Zuroff’s journey was just what the public wanted, and it evoked a meme established by years of movies and books such as The Boys from Brazil, The Odessa File, and Marathon Man, in which a lone Nazi hunter travels to South America in search of a hidden evil doctor, no doubt living deep in the jungle in a house draped with swastikas and playing Wagner on an old gramophone.

On his trip, Zuroff gave press conferences and was followed by packs of journalists. He was even accompanied by a TV documentary crew. One of the most telling images from the documentary was when Zuroff’s car was surrounded by the media when he attempted to visit Heim’s daughter. Zuroff appeared genuinely angry at their presence, and he highhandedly dismissed the whole farcical episode as a “media stunt.” This was a curious assertion, as it was the policy of Zuroff himself to embrace the media in South America.

Tracking fugitives, as any good detective will tell you, requires discretion and stealth, neither of which are qualities that one might associate with Zuroff’s methods. Had Heim actually been in Chile or Argentina, then Zuroff’s noisy arrival would have given the old Nazi plenty of time to have gone further into hiding.

As it happened, Heim had been long dead, and the most priceless moment in the documentary was when Zuroff was shown the news story in the New York Times in February 2009 that convincingly revealed that Heim had died in Egypt in 1992. Of course, Zuroff was not inclined to believe the story, and stated, somewhat repetitively, that “there’s no body, no corpse, no DNA, no grave.” Even today, over four years later, Zuroff will still not admit that he was chasing a wild goose, and his most recent annual report (PDF) still questions Heim’s demise.

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It is hard to see what playing to the gallery actually achieves, other than fueling the public’s romantic desire to have a real-life Nazi hunter tramping the globe on a noble crusade to unearth evil old men and women in Patagonian hideouts.

In truth, Nazi hunting, if it is to be done properly, is a boring business. It requires months—years, even—of archival research and humdrum detective work. There is little glamour, and a really effective Nazi hunter is more likely to be found surrounded by box files than lurking in the jungles of South America. Furthermore, his or her quarries are not diabolical types as played by Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil, but are more likely to be shuffling old men in urine-stained trousers following ordinary lives in dreary suburbs.

It is telling that most readers will not have heard of the world’s most successful Nazi hunter, despite the fact that he and his organization have more than one hundred Nazi “scalps”—which is considerably more than the combined total of Simon Wiesenthal and every other Nazi hunter.

His name is Eli M. Rosenbaum, a 58-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School, who, for many years ran the Office of Special Investigations, the unit of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division that took legal action against those who took part in Nazi atrocities. The unit may now be called the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, but part of its job is still—to put it at its crudest—to hunt Nazis.

Even though Rosenbaum has found scores of war criminals in the United States, one of the biggest problems he faces is getting European governments to accept those who should be deported from American soil. As a result, many of these ‘quiet neighbors’ continue to live among us, even though they have been shown to have committed the most horrific crimes.

If we really want to bring Nazis to justice, then discreet lobbying rather than bombastic hunting might be a better way to go about it. That might make this last last chance actually bear some fruit.

Guy Walters is a British historian and journalist. He is the author of Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice