Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Plain Dealer

  Wiesenthal Center relentlessly hunting aging war criminals
John Caniglia

European Nazi chasers, fighting the passage of time, are making one last push to bring old men to justice.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has created Operation: Last Chance to track down the men and women who tortured Jews during World War II. They are investigating hundreds of suspected Nazis around the world and badgering foreign prosecutors to take the cases.

Operation: Last Chance has offered $10,000 for information on suspected war criminals, a fortune for those living on $100 a month in countries such as Lithuania. Jewish organizations, including the Wiesenthal Center, provide the reward money.

"There are a lot of issues of the Holocaust - commemoration, education, restitution - but the only issue that is time-limited is prosecution," said Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center, the world's chief Nazi hunter. "You have to find these people right now. You can't prosecute their kids."

The center, named after Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who tracked Nazis for decades, is the world's largest Jewish civil rights organization. Zuroff works in the center's Jerusalem office.

In previous years, Zuroff prodded Poland to prosecute John Demjanjuk of Seven Hills and castigated Lithuania for failing to go after Algimantas Dailide, a former Cleveland real estate agent.

After years of Zuroff's pressure, Lithuania plans to take Dailide to trial this spring.

"Without the pressure, nothing would have happened," Zuroff said.

Critics say Zuroff and the Wiesenthal Center are overzealous, particularly in Operation: Last Chance. They say that charging men in their late 80s and 90s who have limited resources is hardly justice, that the charges come decades after the suspected crimes, and that paying for information in poor nations is wrong.

"There are people in those countries who would give up their own brother for $10,000," said Dailide's former attorney, Joseph McGinness. "They would give up their brother for a third of that. It's tragic. People could say anything."

Even those who want to charge suspected Nazis face trouble finding the evidence to take the cases to judges and juries. For instance, Poland claims it lacks the witnesses to ever try Demjanjuk.

Demjanjuk's family has dealt with Zuroff before. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Zuroff claimed that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible, a dreaded camp guard who pummeled Jews headed to the gas chambers.

The Israeli Supreme Court threw out those charges, and Demjanjuk returned home, only to be accused again by U.S. Justice Department Nazi hunters of being a guard at other concentration camps. A U.S. immigrations judge in December ordered Demjanjuk deported to Ukraine, a ruling Demjanjuk has appealed.

In Eastern Europe and the Baltics, Zuroff has been threatened with death, lampooned in cartoons and villified by public officials.

"He puts pressure on these countries," McGinness said. "He's responsible for Al Dailide going to trial. No one else. He just pressures these countries so much."

Zuroff waves away his critics. Justice demands that former Nazis pay for their crimes, regardless of their age or infirmities, he says.

Operation: Last Chance is working, Zuroff says. One of the most loathed doctors of the concentration camps, Aribert Heim, at 91, is on the run, presumably hiding in Spain, and Zuroff is after him.

He is offering $155,000 as a reward for information on Heim. Zuroff has crisscrossed Europe in hopes of finding the man who tortured children 65 years ago at the Mauthausen prison in Austria.

In early February, Zuroff ripped Austrian officials for their lack of effort in prosecuting a sadistic female camp guard. Austrian prosecutors have said they have had trouble finding evidence and handling some old cases.

"It's a paradise for Nazi war criminals," Zuroff barked in an interview with The Plain Dealer. "Think about it. The country has turned its back. They don't care about this anymore."

For Zuroff, only time can end the chase.

The Plain Dealer, 26.02.06