Efraim Zuroff is director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, where he continues the center namesake’s mission of hunting down Nazis and Nazi collaborators to bring them to justice. He was born in New York in 1948, he earned a B.A. in history at Yeshiva University and an M.A. and Ph.D in Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is the author of three books and more than 380 articles on Nazi-hunting, Holocaust history, and contemporary Jewish life and identity. Zuroff was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. He will speak in Bangor and Orono next week.
He recently answered questions from the Bangor Daily News editorial page via email from Jerusalem.
Surviving Nazis are in their late 80s and 90s. Why is it still important that they be found and prosecuted?
The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers, and old age should not afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes. Every victim of the Nazis deserves that an effort be made to bring to justice those who turned innocent men, women and children into victims. The continued search for the perpetrators of the Holocaust sends an important message that if you commit such terrible crimes, the efforts to bring you to trial will continue even for decades if necessary.
The motivation to hunt Nazis comes from the desire to achieve at least a measure of justice for the victims, whose lives cannot be salvaged. In this respect, bringing the perpetrators to justice is, in my opinion, the most important response to crimes like those of the Holocaust, since punishing those responsible not only helps prevent or minimize the recurrence of such atrocities, but also is an effective means of teaching the history of that tragic period.
The trials of Nazi war criminals continue to be of importance in the fight against Holocaust denial and distortion. The latter phenomenon is currently of grave concern in post-Communist Eastern Europe, where there is a systematic attempt to rewrite the accepted narrative of World War II and the Holocaust to hide the crimes of local collaborators and promote the canard of equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes, a subject which is the topic of one of my presentations in Bangor.
John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who worked in the auto industry in the U.S. before being convicted for war crimes for his guard duties a Nazi extermination camp in German-occupied Poland, was brought into a courtroom on a stretcher as he was suffering from disease. This prompted some to suggest forgiveness and redemption for these old men rather than prosecution. You call this “misplaced sympathy.” Can you please explain what you mean?
These persons are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy, since they had none whatsoever for their innocent victims, some of whom were even older than they are today. So when you look at such individuals, it is important to remember that they are being tried for crimes they committed not as frail and sickly 90 year olds, but as young men and women who, when they were at the peak of their physical strength, devoted all their energies to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children.
You say you’ve never met a Nazi who showed remorse. What do they say instead? Do they show any emotions?
It obviously varies from case to case, but what I find amazingly horrible is that none of the criminals I have dealt with have ever expressed any regret or remorse. On the contrary, quite a few were either proud of what they did — like Jasenovac commandant Dinko Sakic, who said that the problem with his concentration camp, where at least 100,000 innocent people were murdered, was that he wasn’t able “to finish the job” — or hid behind the claim that they were “only doing their duty.”
You also say they were essentially normal men, who didn’t kill before or after the Holocaust. How does this happen?
That is a major part of the tragedy of the Holocaust, that normal people were willing to commit the most heinous crimes imaginable, under the conditions created by the Nazis in the Third Reich and its allies.
The Wiesenthal Center offers financial rewards for information about the whereabouts of high-ranking Nazis who are still alive. Does this put the taint of bounty hunting on your work?
Why is that any different than the rewards offered by the U.S. government for information that could assist in the capture of Osama bin Laden? Offering rewards is an acceptable tactic in such efforts and in some cases makes the difference between catching an important criminal and that criminal escaping justice.
We are seeing a rise of anti-Semitism, especially in Eastern Europe, and there are continued denials of the Holocaust. What is fueling this? What can and should be done about it?
The major contemporary problem regarding anti-Semitism is in Western Europe, where it takes the form of anti-Zionism and is primarily promoted by Muslim immigrants or their children from the Middle East and the Maghreb [Northwest Africa]. Holocaust denial, on the other hand, is actually in decline, but what we are seeing instead in Eastern Europe is Holocaust distortion. The key to the solution is education and political determination to show zero tolerance for racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
Is there a danger that the horrors of the Holocaust will dim as survivors pass away? How do we keep the reality of the Holocaust alive?
The memory of the Holocaust is actually in far better shape today than it was 40 years ago, because there has been an enormous increase in Holocaust education, but also in the number of books, movies, plays, etc. dealing with the subject, as well as initiatives like the 2005 United Nations declaration designating Jan. 27 as an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust and the establishment of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which promotes Holocaust education, commemoration and research in dozens of countries.
Zuroff is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m., Sept. 17 at Congregation Beth Abraham, 145 York St., Bangor, to be followed by a reception. His talk is titled: “Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die? The Polemic Over Rescue Efforts by American Orthodox Rabbis During the Holocaust.” For more information, call 947-0876.
On Sept. 18, from 12:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. he will present “My Life as a Nazi Hunter” in the Bangor Room, Memorial Union, University of Maine, Orono. This talk is co-sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, UMaine Division of Student Affairs, Marxist-Socialist Interdisciplinary Minor. For information, call Doug Allen at 581-3860.
At 7 p.m. on Sept. 18, the first public American screening of the movie about Dr. Zuroff’s efforts in Hungary and the Netherlands will be at Congregation Beth El, 183 French St. in Bangor. Call 945-4578 for more information.