The ongoing hunt for Nazi war criminals made news last week when evidence emerged that Aribert Heim, the wartime “Dr. Death” in Mauthausen who conducted experiments on prisoners, was given haven in Egypt and presumably died there. Efraim Zuroff has been searching for information about Heim throughout his two decades as director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office.
More than 60 years after the end of World War II, Zuroff’s job is to find accused Nazi war criminals, document the cases against them, make sure they are brought to justice and keep the issue in the public’s consciousness. A native New Yorker and one-time researcher for the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, his work, which uncovered the post-war escape of hundreds of war criminals to several countries, has influenced the passage of legislation in Canada, Australia and Great Britain. CNN will profile Zuroff this spring, and a new autobiography is to be issued by Palgrave/Macmillan in the fall.
Q:Hitler, before the Final Solution, asked rhetorically, who still speaks about the Genocide of the Armenians. Why, six decades after the end of World War II, are people still talking about the Holocaust, and why are old Nazis still front-page news?
A: People are still speaking about the Holocaust because of the phenomenal success of the scholars and educators (Jews and non-Jews) who during the past half-century have made a determined effort to educate the world about the significance of the Holocaust.
Old Nazis are not always front-page news, but those who do get a lot of attention are usually the ones who committed the most shocking and heinous crimes. Thus everyone has been reading about “Dr. Death,” but few people know about Sandor Kepiro, Milivoj Asner and others who were involved in the murders of more people than Aribert Heim but did so in less dramatic fashion.
Heim seems to present a Hollywood-made bad guy, a Nazi who turns up in the anti-Israel Arab world. Are all your cases so straightforward evil?
Most are not. Most are far less shocking and far less dramatic, and consequently unfortunately do not receive much public attention.
Are foreign governments, post-Communism, more willing to cooperate in finding and prosecuting accused war criminals?
We have been having severe problems in post-communist Eastern Europe, where there is a distinct lack of political will to prosecute their own nationals. Given the high-level of local complicity in mass murder in those countries, this is particularly problematic.
What happens to the historical memory of the Holocaust when the last war criminal — not to mention the last survivor — dies? Will the Holocaust deniers have the field to themselves?
Not at all. The proofs to combat denial have been collected for the past 60 years or so and we have all the tools to fight them effectively. In that respect, denial has basically failed since it has hereto never penetrated mainstream Western society.
Simon Wiesenthal was sometimes called the Jewish James Bond, although he maintained that most of his work consisted of archival research. Is being a Nazi hunter glamorous?
Glamorous is hardly a description of the work, which these days is basically one-third detective, one-third historian and one-third political lobbyist. In that respect, you have to remember that someone like me who was born after World War II never had an opportunity to catch the most prominent Nazi war criminals.