In the 1970s, Elliot Welles, a Holocaust survivor who had become a successful restaurant owner in Manhattan, scheduled an appointment with two executives of the Anti-Defamation League. He wanted to propose that the ADL establish a unit to hunt down fugitive Nazis.
It was an easy sell, said Abraham Foxman, who met with Welles that day. Foxman, a fellow survivor who has served as the ADL’s national director for two decades, said Mr. Welles, who died here on Nov. 28 at 79, showed that finding people accused of complicity in Nazi crimes was consistent with the organization’s mandate of fighting anti-Semitism.
"If you fight anti-Semitism, you have an obligation to make sure that those who escaped are brought to justice," Foxman said Mr. Welles told him. "If you fight anti-Semitism, you have to make sure there are consequences for anti-Semitism.
"We could not afford to say no," Mr. Foxman recalled this week.
Mr. Welles, a native of Vienna who had been deported to Latvia and imprisoned in the Riga ghetto, headed the ADL’s task force on Nazi war criminals until his retirement in 2003.
He took a low-key approach, avoiding headlines, working in archives to document the case against Nazis and Nazi accomplices, but "after [Simon] Wiesenthal, was the most credible" member of the small group of Nazi-hunters, Foxman said.
Wiesenthal, who stayed in Vienna after World War II and died last year, was probably the world’s most famous Nazi-hunter.
"Elliot was unique," Foxman said. "He was very focused, very determined, very angry, very loving. What motivated him was the death of Six Million. His goal was to bring to justice as many Nazis who survived the war as possible."
Born Kurt Sauerquell in Vienna, he was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp in northern Poland from the Riga ghetto, and escaped a death march to a camp in Germany near the end of the war. After liberation, he returned to Vienna, married survivor Ceil Chaiken, and moved in 1949 to the United States, where he changed his name to one that sounded more American.
Mr. Welles is survived by his wife; a son, Mark; a daughter, Suzanne Vik; and three grandchildren.
Saving money in a series of jobs, Mr. Welles became part owner of the Lorelei restaurant in Manhattan’s heavily German Yorkville neighborhood, and established the German contacts he would use at the ADL.
Working with the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), he discovered the identity of the SS officer who had ordered the murder of Mr. Welles’ mother, who had been part of a group of Jews shot in the woods near Riga. The SS officer was tried and convicted.
Mr. Welles’ success gave him incentive to track down more former Nazis. He was best known for his role in the case of Latvian collaborator Boleslav Maikovskis, sentenced to death in absentia by a Soviet court in 1965 and living quietly in Minneola, L.I. Maikovskis fled to Germany in 1987, where he was tried in 1990 for the execution of 200 Latvians. The trial was suspended in 1994 because Maikovskis was in poor health, and he died in 1996.
"I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear someone employ the word ‘tenacious’ or ‘tenacity’ without thinking of Elliot," said Eli Rosenbaum, OSI director. "More important, I’m sure that his European government interlocutors, most of whom wanted the whole matter of unpunished Nazi criminals to be swept under the rug, came to feel the same way."
"He was a thorn in the side of Germany for years," Foxman recalled. Mr. Welles would urge German officials to release documents, find war criminals and put them on trial. "He was always in their face. The same thing with Austria."
Foxman said Mr. Welles specialized in convincing Jewish Holocaust survivors, still traumatized by their wartime experiences years later, to testify against their persecutors. "Elliot became the witness catcher. He would convince them how important it is for them to make their contribution."
Mr. Welles sought to ensure that people who had taken part in Nazi war crimes "would never have a sleepless night again," Mr. Foxman said. "As long as we were there, they could afford to relax. It was a small measure of justice for the murderers."