Hunting Nazi Criminals; Operation: Last Chance
An Interview with Efraim Zuroff
- In 2002, the Simon Wiesenthal Center Israel (SWC) and the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami, Florida launched Operation: Last Chance to help facilitate the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, primarily in post-Communist Europe. So far it has been initiated in nine countries and has yielded the names of approximately 380 suspects; 79 of which have been submitted to local prosecutors.
- Operation: Last Chance is not only an attempt to help achieve justice, but also part of the struggle for historical truth, and was designed to help promote Holocaust education and combat anti-Semitism. Its educational dimensions were designed to sensitize people to the history of the Holocaust and help them focus on the key historical issues relating to local complicity in Holocaust crimes and the implications thereof.
- The SWC seeks to cooperate on this project with local Jewish communities and/or other local partners. In several countries, various aspects of the project aroused major opposition and intense controversy.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in Israel, is widely known as the last Nazi hunter. He has spent much of his professional life searching for Nazi war criminals and the evidence needed to convict them, as well as lobbying often-recalcitrant governments to undertake their prosecution. In 2002, the SWC launched Operation: Last Chance, which seeks to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, primarily in post-Communist Europe.
Zuroff stresses that the project is not only part of the fight for justice, but also an important component of the struggle for historical truth. In addition, he thinks it will help foster Holocaust education and combat anti-Semitism. "The battle for historical accuracy and historical truth is currently taking place primarily in post-Communist Europe. These countries, where significant sectors of the local population assisted the Nazis, have become independent and mostly democratic in the last fifteen years. Now for the first time, they can honestly confront the complicity of their own populations in the Shoah. They are currently writing their textbooks anew and establishing a new national narrative."
"It is very important that the issue of local complicity be dealt with and that the truth be widely disseminated. Operation: Last Chance attempts to put this issue at the top of the national agenda." The educational aspects of the program were designed to sensitize people to the history of the Holocaust and focus public attention on the questions that people in these countries should be asking themselves.
"The battle against anti-Semitism also looms large in Operation: Last Chance. This has problematic aspects as in the short run our campaign has increased anti-Semitism." In a recently published essay by Zuroff, he focused on some of the many attempts that are being made throughout Eastern Europe to distort and negate Holocaust history.1
Zuroff adds: "While the campaign has led to expressions of anti-Semitism in various countries, there is no doubt in my mind that in the long run the trials of Holocaust perpetrators - if indeed held and properly conducted - will be an extremely effective educational, social, and moral tool in the fight against anti-Semitism."
The Project's Background
Zuroff notes that while he coordinates and implements the project, the originator of the idea behind Operation: Last Chance is Aryeh Rubin, founder and president of Targum Shlishi, a philanthropic foundation based in Miami, Florida. "Rubin over the years has shown a very active interest in our attempts to bring Nazis to justice and has accompanied me to places such as Iceland, Costa Rica, and Croatia out of a desire to assist and support our efforts.
"It was Rubin's idea to offer a financial reward for information that would facilitate prosecution and punishment. His foundation partnered with the SWC in Operation: Last Chance by donating a large part of the operating costs and funding possible rewards. So far we have only paid one-half of such a reward in Croatia."
Starting in the Baltics
Zuroff mentions that time limitations are a major constraint. "We are looking for murderers. Thus we limit ourselves to countries where the local population actively participated in the killing of Jews.
"The project was initiated in the Baltics because we believed that the potential to find informants there was especially high. It was expanded a year later to Poland, Romania, and Austria and subsequently to Croatia (2004), Hungary (2004), and Germany (2005).
"We knew that in the Baltic states the Soviet authorities had prosecuted many perpetrators after the Second World War. Almost all of those sentenced to prison terms or exile had long since been pardoned, most of them in the 1955 amnesty granted by Khrushchev. Many had long ago returned to these countries.
"We assumed that some of these individuals would, in return for money, be willing to tell the truth. Having already served time, they had no reason to fear prosecution. While this would have presented us with a moral dilemma because these are the last people we would want to give money to, the fact remains that they are also the only persons able to provide evidence regarding many of the worst crimes committed."
Zuroff remarks that this assumption proved false. "Not a single person who had been involved in the crimes came forward openly to give information. In fact, in Lithuania, the most reliable information we received came from anonymous sources who identified two suspected perpetrators, one from Eisiskis and one in Kaunas. Both are currently under investigation by the Lithuanian prosecutors. The informants did not want the reward otherwise they would have given their names."
"In the post-Soviet and post-Communist countries, the original prosecution of war criminals was carried out almost entirely by the Soviets, a fact that makes these trials problematic in the eyes of the locals. In the 1990s, several countries illegally rehabilitated many of those convicted and gave them financial compensation.
"Lithuania passed such a rehabilitation law in 1990. It stated specifically that those who participated in genocide were ineligible for rehabilitation, yet at least dozens of Holocaust perpetrators were nonetheless pardoned. The SWC challenged this process and helped force the establishment of a joint Israeli-Lithuanian commission of inquiry.
"To date, the Lithuanian authorities have canceled 172 rehabilitations, yet have failed to publicize the names of the persons to whom they were granted. Nor have they been required to return the money they received. We have been responsible for two canceled rehabilitations in Latvia but have not succeeded anywhere else. The most recent of these cases have been in Romania, where legal problems have hereto blocked the cancellation of the pardons granted to convicted Holocaust perpetrators."
By summer 2005, 0peration: Last Chance had been launched in nine countries: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Germany. Says Zuroff: "As a general rule the SWC has sought the cooperation of the local Jewish community. We have in every case made them aware of the project and its aims and asked for their assistance.
"The response has varied from excellent cooperation in places like Lithuania and Romania to opposition and criticism in Latvia and Estonia. Elsewhere the reaction has often been apathetic."
The project began on 8 July 2002 in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, with a press conference attended by Shimon Alperovich, chairman of the Jewish community. "He had previously written to me expressing his concern that the project might fuel anti-Semitism. Yet he openly supported it and provided the technical assistance needed. Alperovich, whose family was murdered in Lithuania, said that it was the community's obligation to help us."
Zuroff contrasts this attitude with that of Arkady Suharenko, chairman of the Latvian Jewish community: "He is originally from Belarus and thus his relatives were not murdered in the country he now lives in. Initially he promised to help but then was openly critical, probably because of a lack of both experience and personal courage.
"We then obtained the cooperation in Latvia of a private Jewish group under the leadership of Rabbi Aryeh Bekker." Zuroff adds: "Even in Germany, the leaders of the Jewish community, which now numbers over one hundred thousand Jews, have declined to cooperate. It is thus not a question of size but of leadership.
"In Austria we work together with the Documentation Center for the Austrian Resistance. In Croatia we have the help of the Civic Committee for Human Rights, a local NGO. In Hungary we initially were assisted by the leader of a local Jewish association for Holocaust commemoration."
The Worst Experience: Estonia
The SWC's worst experience was in Estonia. "The project there was a failure. Those in the Jewish community who were in charge of handling the technical side lost all the information, i.e., thirteen messages. I don't think it was incompetence or lack of professional expertise. It was probably the result of political considerations and one cannot even exclude the possibility of intentional sabotage. We received the names of six suspects, but none appear to be serious leads.
"Estonia had the least potential to begin with. The Jewish community before the Shoah numbered about 4,500. Some 3,500 escaped to the Soviet Union before the Nazis reached the country. The remaining one thousand Jews were murdered by Estonians and Germans. Among the murderers was Evald Mikson, the former goalkeeper of the Estonian national soccer team, who subsequently escaped to Iceland.
"The best-known Estonian war criminal is a multimillionaire living in Venezuela. We do not possess evidence that he personally committed murder but he arrested numerous civilians who were murdered. We tried to get him extradited from Venezuela, and also presented a file on him to Mart Laar, the prime minister of Estonia in August 2001. The investigation is supposedly still going on. It will go nowhere because the Estonians have a vested interest in its failure. There is no political will in Tallinn to prosecute Estonian Nazi war criminals, let alone the richest and most famous Estonian in the world today.
"Mikhail Gorschkow holds an Estonian passport. Under pressure from the Americans, the Estonians initiated a murder investigation against him. My understanding from the Americans is that they presented very solid documentation regarding his actual participation in murder. He worked originally as an interpreter for the Gestapo in Slutzk. There are indications that he actively participated in crimes. The investigation, however, is going nowhere. The authorities will probably wait until he is too old or sick and prosecution is no longer practical. This is customary in the Baltic countries."
Zuroff explains the methodology of how Operation: Last Chance was launched in the various countries. "We began with press conferences in each capital at which we presented our plan and announced the financial reward. In some cases, the 'hotline' was in the office of the Jewish community, for example, in Lithuania.
"At the initial press conference, as well as at all subsequent related events, such as the submission to the prosecutor of the names of potential suspects, we publicized the phone number. Our next step was to publish ads in the local media. In some places we encountered serious opposition. In Estonia, for example, we had to change the text of the ads three times until the media finally agreed to publish them. Some newspapers refused to publish the photograph we had chosen which was from the concentration camp at Klooga (Estonia). The camp was run by Germans with assistance from Estonians. Thousands of Jews were murdered there, including some who were burnt alive. Most of those murdered were from Lithuania."
Reactions to Advertisements
"In the Liepaja area in Latvia, the local paper refused to publish our ad. The photograph we selected showed a Latvian civilian, not a member of the security forces but rather of a local gang of Latvians that assisted in the murders and whose members wore white armbands, taking Jewish women to be murdered in the city. Perhaps up to a thousand Jews were murdered there.
"In Lithuania where we anticipated the strongest reaction, our ads were published both in the national and local press with no opposition. We even managed to publish an ad in a Lithuanian émigré newspaper in Canada. While the ads in Lithuania generated a lot of information, in Canada we did not receive the name of a single Lithuanian suspect.
"In Romania our advertising campaign was extremely successful. A major local PR firm named Tempo Advertising undertook the campaign on a pro bono basis and was able to convince many of its business partners to contribute advertising space and even time on a cable television station. Among other things, we were able to display specially-designed ads on 250 billboards in all the major cities of Romania. The people we were working with, mainly non-Jews, were very enthusiastic. They really did a wonderful job and our campaign even won a silver medal at the annual awards dinner of the Romanian advertising industry."
Local Reactions from Governments
"Much of the project's success depends on whether there is a local constituency that supports the project. When Operation: Last Chance started in Germany in January 2005, we received about thirty calls in the first three days. Information also came in by email.
"We held our initial press conference in the Bundestag - the parliament - where we were hosted by Professor Gert Weisskirchen, the SPD spokesperson on foreign affairs. He spoke impressively at the press conference. Many others also supported us.
"In Austria as well, there was support from some sections of the press. Profil, Austria's leading weekly, published several excellent articles, among them a cover story and one on Milivoj Ašner, a Croatian Nazi war criminal who escaped to Austria. There were questions in parliament directed to the Austrian justice minister after our submission of lists of suspected perpetrators.
"In Croatia as well, there were people who supported the project because many Croatians had fought against the Nazis as partisans, even if there were also many who collaborated with their Ustasha allies.
"In the Baltics, however, there is no natural constituency to support such projects. The only people who might be supportive are some individuals ahead of their time. They understand that the problem concerns their countries."
The Debate in Poland
"In Poland, the announcement of the hotline set off a national debate on whether there were any Polish perpetrators. People openly expressed the concern that Poland's image as a country of victims might be damaged by such revelations.
"This issue started with Jan Gross's book on the central role of the Poles in the murder of Jews in Jedwabne, in northeastern Poland near Bialystok. This town became the symbol of the murder of Jews by Poles, but it wasn't the only place where this happened.
"There were many Poles who collaborated with the Gestapo. Some turned Jews over to them. Others hid Jews and later murdered them for their valuables. In Operation: Last Chance, we are looking for cases unknown to the authorities. Yet we still have problems in Poland and have not even published the ads.
"In several countries attempts were made to enlist Jews to oppose the project. This was particularly true in Poland, where the former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, whose father was a rabbi killed at Auschwitz, said that he was disgusted by the idea. Also Adam Michnik, a converted Jew who publishes the Gazete Wyborcza daily came out against it, saying the Communists always used informers and paid rewards. He distorted the facts as if the two approaches were comparable."
Byproduct: Important Historical Information
Zuroff says that Operation: Last Chance has also yielded previously unknown information on the murder of the Jews. The best example was from Panemunelis, a Lithuanian village where about one hundred Jews had lived before the Shoah. It was assumed that they had been killed in Rokiskis.
"A person - who began his letter by stating that he did not want any reward - wrote that in the summer of 1941 when he was about sixteen years old, he had been standing with his brother on the road from Panemunelis to Rokiskis and saw a wagon drive by with four armed Lithuanians and ten local Jews, five from the Olkin family and five from the Jaffe family. One of the Olkins was a pharmacist. The boy knew them and either he or his brother asked one of the girls, 'Where are you going? Where are they taking you?' They answered: 'We think they're taking us to Rokiskis.'
"Half an hour later they heard shots from the nearby Karoliskis forest. Later the same wagon returned with the four Lithuanians, a pile of clothes, and no Jews. Our informant gave us the names of the four Lithuanians, two of whom, he wrote, were already dead. We found out that the other two, one of whom had emigrated overseas, were also dead. The Lithuanian prosecutors claim they found no evidence of any such crime. My guess is that this information is valid and very reliable."
Reactions from the Public
The quality of information received has varied from country to country. Zuroff mentions that almost all those who have contacted the call centers have been non-Jews. He breaks the calls down into categories. "The first group consists of people with concrete information. The second category is of those with pieces of information difficult to assess, but that rarely lead to anything serious. The third category consists of people who just want to talk about the Holocaust.
"The fourth group is made up of anti-Semitic callers. They were particularly numerous in Austria. My estimate is that of the more than one hundred calls we received in Austria, 90 to 95 percent were anti-Semitic. We received comments such as 'The real war criminals are Bush and Sharon, so send us the reward.' Often these people made no attempt to hide their identity; they left us their names, addresses, and phone numbers."
"There were some legal challenges as well. In Hungary, they were never formally raised, but the director of data security Attila Peterfalvi claimed that we were in violation of Hungarian data protection laws. Thereupon our local partner Ivan Beer, who had originally agreed to receive our incoming calls, resigned.
"The Hungarian government never informed us of any possible violation and under those circumstances, I see no reason to stop or alter the project. If the government indicates that there is a problem, we will find a way to solve it.
"In Poland on the other hand, the people working for us were summoned for questioning at the Data Protection Bureau in Warsaw. We claim however, that no Polish law has been violated."
Zuroff thinks that in view of the very limited resources invested in Operation: Last Chance, the results achieved have been relatively significant. He hopes that at least several war criminals will be brought to trial.
"One good prospect is Ašner. He is a Croatian police chief from Požega who lived for many years in Austria, and came back to Croatia during the Tudjman presidency. Three years ago, he established a new right-wing extremist political party that wasn't particularly successful. He is now ninety-two years old. We exposed him on 30 June 2004; shortly thereafter he fled to Austria. If he's healthy enough to run away, he's certainly well enough to be brought to justice. According to the story in Profil he is in relatively good health."
The Zentai Case
"In Hungary there is also an excellent opportunity for a conviction. Karoly (Charles) Zentai was a Hungarian army officer who participated in the murder of an eighteen-year-old Jewish boy whom he kidnapped off a tram in Budapest on 8 November 1944. He apparently knew him as a Jew from his neighborhood and brought him to the army barracks at Arenautca 51, where he and two other Hungarian army officers beat the boy to death and Zentai later dumped his body into the Danube. His two accomplices were tried after the war. One was given the death sentence, the other received life imprisonment. These were later changed to shorter sentences, which they served.
"The Hungarian authorities wanted to put Zentai on trial at that time, but he had already escaped to the American zone of Germany, from which he later emigrated to Australia. We found him living in Perth and submitted the pertinent documentation to the Hungarian and Australian governments. Both have initiated criminal investigations against him and the Hungarians recently requested his extradition from Australia to stand trial in Budapest.
"Zentai is eighty-three years old and apparently in reasonably good health. He claims he left Hungary the day before the murder took place and initially stated that he was willing to go to Hungary to clear his name, but more recently indicated that he plans to fight the extradition request.
"In this case the information was submitted by the brother of the victim, who did not want any reward."
Zuroff says that during the past three years he has gained important insights into the role Jewish communities play in the countries in which the project has been launched: "One upsetting observation is that at the ceremonies to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz no one mentioned the necessity of continuing to prosecute the perpetrators. No one said, for example, 'This is the last moment to bring those responsible to justice.' In the minds of the speakers the subject has already been relegated to history or to memory.
"Yet in the last four years there have been more than thirty convictions of Nazi war criminals all over the world. It is true that most of them were for immigration and naturalization violations, but several convictions on criminal charges have been obtained in Germany, Poland, France (in absentia), and Lithuania (where the person convicted was considered unfit to be punished).
"I am certain that there can still be additional convictions and that it is extremely worthwhile to make the effort to bring such criminals to justice, yet for the most part these opportunities have been overlooked and this is a shame. I saw what happened in Croatia during the trial of Dinko Sakic, the former commandant of the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp. It had a very important impact on public opinion there and positively influenced the content of public debate on the events of the Holocaust and on Holocaust crimes."
It is unclear whether Operation: Last Chance will be launched in any additional countries. Zuroff says: "We have conducted discussions with leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community about starting the project there. They have suggested launching it in Belarus and Moldavia as well. Whether this will take place is essentially a financial question. I would very much like to bring the project to Argentina, where hundreds of Nazi murderers fled after the war.
"There are two European countries where we cannot investigate or prosecute Nazi criminals. In Norway and Sweden there is a statute of limitations on murder of twenty-five years. Even if Heinrich Muller, the head of the Gestapo, were to surface in one of these countries, we would not be able to do anything about it."
Zuroff sums up the achievements of Operation: Last Chance: "At this point, one criminal has already been indicted and at least another should be charged in the very near future. Seventy-nine names have been submitted to prosecutors and dozens of additional names, received primarily from Germany, are currently under investigation. Ultimately, however, the project will not be judged solely by the number of criminals prosecuted, but by its broader impact all over the world."
Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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1. Efraim Zuroff, "Eastern Europe: Anti-Semitism in the Wake of Holocaust-Related Issues," Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2005, Vol. 17, Nos. 1 & 2, p. 74.
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Dr. Efraim Zuroff is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and coordinator of Nazi war crimes research for the Center worldwide. He is the author of Occupation: Nazi-Hunter: The Continuing Search for the Perpetrators of the Holocaust (1994), and has written extensively about the efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice throughout the world. His most recent book is The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of the Vaad ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee 1939-1945 (2000). Since 2001, he has published the Wiesenthal Center's Annual Status Report on the Worldwide Investigation and Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals.
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