Efraim Zuroff has an unusual calling: he tracks down Nazi war criminals.
The 68-year-old finds those who have evaded justice for the past seven decades, builds a case against them, and sees them put behind bars. If he’s lucky. In reality, he faces countless barriers in his hunt for the men and women who carried out unspeakable atrocities at death camps during World War II. Bureaucracy, mistaken tips, uncooperative governments and – most crucially – time. Zuroff describes Nazi hunting not as not a job or a profession but a “lifelong mission”. Speaking to us from Israel, he explains the method behind his search for Nazi war criminals – and why he has absolutely no sympathy for them.
How to hunt a Nazi war criminal
Zuroff moved to Jerusalem from New York and took a degree in holocaust studies in the early 1970s, before returning to the US to work for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human rights organisation, in Los Angeles. In the following years he worked with the US Justice department, German police departments and countless other organisations around the world. He insists that it’s all about patiently waiting for an accurate tip.
“I know that it conjures up stakeouts in South American jungles, which is no longer the case. “We have to work based on tips – primarily, not exclusively – on people who may or may not be alive today, healthy enough to be brought to trial, who may or may not be Nazi war criminals. “If we were to go case by case, crime by crime, we would be very focused, but instead we’re living off tips of who may or may not be Nazi war criminals. In many cases it simply turns out that the tips are either not valuable, or it’s mistaken.”
Tracking down crimes from over 70 years ago is as challenging as it sounds, he admits. “We have an enormous obstacle in that we can’t work like the police – the police start with the crime, then they try to solve the identity of the perpetrator. “Since 99 per cent of the perpetrators and the prison camp guards of WWII and the Holocaust are dead already, we can’t work that way. “We had Operation Last Chance, where we got hundreds of names sent to us and out of over 700 names, only eight cases evolved. It’s like a one per cent chance, it’s not an ideal way to run things.”
A legal game-changer: ‘all I need now is a document’
Until recently, in order to prosecute a war criminal, proof of the suspect committing a specific crime against a specific victim was required. However, in 2008, a law was passed in Germany determining that as long as there was proof that suspects had served at one of the concentration camps with apparatus for mass murder – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka – they could be convicted. “That basically changed the whole playing field. All I need now is a document rather than a live witness.”
While the law has assisted Zuroff, tracking down Nazis is not getting any easier. Asked if governments and police forces are cooperative, Zuroff says, with obvious exasperation: “Not at all!” “All they want to do is get information from us, they never want to get information for us,” he continues. “Except for the very rare cases when we work closely.” One of those rare occasions was in 2009, when Zuroff and the German police teamed up to track down the war criminal known as Dr. Death. “There was one case of a very famous Nazi war criminal, Aribert Heim, who was a doctor at Mauthausen and a notorious sadist. We worked very closely with the German police for this particular case. “They sought us out and asked for our cooperation and [it] was really wonderful working with them, but it was a single case.”
‘These are the last people on earth who deserve sympathy’
It transpired that Aribert Haim had died in Egypt several years before the joint investigation. Asked how he feels when a war criminal dies before they can be punished, Zuroff is unequivocal: “Ugh, terrible, the most frustrating thing imaginable. “I’m the only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of Nazi war criminals.”
Most of the men and women that Zuroff is trying to track down are more than 90 years old, but he believes there should be no sympathy. “Sympathy for them would be what I call misplaced sympathy syndrome. These are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy. “They had absolutely no sympathy for their victims. Some of them were older than they are today. There were people over 100 years old pushed into gas chambers at Auschwitz. “Passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers – we owe it to the victims. “It also sends a powerful message that if you commit such terrible crimes, even years later there will be someone looking for you trying to bring you to justice.”p
A trip to hell’
For most of his career Zuroff has been able to keep a firm line between his personal life and his mission as a Nazi hunter, but in 2015 his quest for justice did affect him. “I set off on a mission of discovery in Lithuania as part of a book that I published there. “My mother’s family are all from Lithuania. One of my grandfather’s brothers was murdered in the Holocaust. “We went to 35 places of mass murder and in Lithuania there are 227 mass graves of Jews murdered during the Holocaust, in many cases by their neighbours, and this was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. “It was like a trip to hell.” “It haunts me. It’s the first time that the line was really crossed. For 40 years I didn’t let that happen.”
What now for the Nazi hunter?
Due to the ever decreasing number of people he is hunting, Zuroff is now looking to take on those who deny and distort the Holocaust. “My job is evolving into something a little different – as it gets harder and harder to catch these Nazis, what I’m finding myself doing is fighting over historical narrative. “In Eastern Europe today there are systematic attempts to hide the role played by locals. “They are saying that the Holocaust is when the Germans and Austrians came to our country and murdered our Jews.” Despite this shift in strategy, Zuroff hasn’t ruled out bringing more of those directly responsible for war crimes to justice. “We are now looking for witnesses who survived Stutthof to help German authorities with their investigations. “Also, we found some Danish SS volunteers who served in a camp, and who were involved in the murder of innocent civilians, in Bobruisk in Belarus. “We submitted a lot of information to Danish authorities. We’re waiting for an answer to whether or not these people will be put on trial.” Zuroff is clearly not giving up the hunt any time soon.