Closing the Books

Should the world's "last Nazi hunter" give up the chase?

Photo: Jonathan Bloom
Photo: Jonathan Bloom
Photo: Jonathan Bloom

On a Saturday in August 2013, a 98-year-old man named László Csatáry died in a hospital in Budapest, Hungary. The cause was pneumonia, his lawyer later confirmed. At the time of his death, Csatáry was facing charges that nearly 70 years ago he "intentionally assisted the unlawful executions and tortures committed against Jewish people" in the Holocaust.

On a Saturday in August 2013, a 98-year-old man named László Csatáry died in a hospital in Budapest, Hungary. The cause was pneumonia, his lawyer later confirmed. At the time of his death, Csatáry was facing charges that nearly 70 years ago he "intentionally assisted the unlawful executions and tortures committed against Jewish people" in the Holocaust.

In 1944, Csatáry — a police officer from a village near Budapest — was serving in the northeastern city of Kassa as commandant of an internment camp where, with the help of Hungarian police, the German Gestapo was rounding up thousands of Jews for deportation. According to prosecutors, Csatáry was particularly zealous in this task. His indictment alleged that he "regularly beat the interned Jews with his bare hands and whipped them with a dog whip." When a freight train bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp stopped in Kassa to collect Jews, Csatáry is said to have "prohibited cutting windows" into the train’s stifling wagons.

After the war, Csatáry disappeared. Tried in absentia and sentenced to death by a Czechoslovak court in 1948, he managed to avoid authorities and live quietly as an art dealer in Canada for nearly 50 years. When Canadian authorities identified him in 1997, he fled again and faded from public sight — until he was found, finally, in Hungary more than a decade later.

Media outlets the world over carried news of Csatáry’s death. He was "one of the last remaining Holocaust war crimes suspects," the BBC reported. His name "figured prominently on an authoritative list of suspected Nazi war criminals," underscored the New York Times.

Two days later, Efraim Zuroff — author of that "authoritative list" and the man largely responsible for tracking down Csatáry — sat in his modest office in Jerusalem, feeling spent. "This Csatáry death just totally exhausted me," Zuroff sighed over the phone. He had spent the morning fielding calls from reporters and people claiming to have information about other Nazis on the lam.

Zuroff is the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a Los Angeles-based, multimillion-dollar Jewish human rights organization. More often, though, Zuroff goes by something flashier: "chief Nazi hunter" or "last Nazi hunter." For some three decades, Zuroff, 65, has solicited and cataloged information on alleged Nazis living freely around the world. He has then helped find them and campaigned for their prosecution.

Zuroff’s hunt for Csatáry began in September 2011, when he received an email from an anonymous source in Hungary offering information in exchange for money. The two agreed on a price, and the source handed over Csatáry’s Budapest address. (Zuroff will not identify his source or how much the SWC paid him.)

Weeks later, Zuroff met with a Hungarian prosecutor and turned over the information: "We said, ‘Listen, we are almost sure this is him.… So confirm it and let us know and bring him to justice.’" After authorities told him that Csatáry had indeed been found, Zuroff hurried to prepare a list of potential witnesses: Holocaust survivors who had spent time in Kassa (now called Kosice and located in present-day Slovakia). Then, in April 2012, Zuroff put Csatáry at the top of his annual, much-cited "Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals" list — giving the suspected war criminal more notoriety than ever and putting the heat on Hungarian prosecutors to act.

When authorities still did not move as quickly as Zuroff wanted, he turned to the Sun, a British tabloid (famed for its buxom "Page 3" girls) with an average daily circulation of just over 2 million. Zuroff had worked with Sun investigators before, sending them information about flailing cases and hoping the paper would kick up some dust.

The Sun sent a team to track Csatáry. One day, Zuroff explained with a chuckle, "they knocked on his door, and he came to the door in his underwear, and they photographed him." The pictures, showing a thin, wrinkled Csatáry, were published in the Sun in July 2012. They spurred widespread calls for Csatáry’s prosecution, but they also roused indignation from critics who argued that it would be too difficult, so many decades after the war, to present reliable evidence of Csatáry’s alleged crimes — or that the moribund man should just be allowed to die. "He is 97 after all.… What Zuroff is doing is simply a circus act," Tibor Zinner, a legal historian who had helped the Hungarians research Csatáry’s case, told the media.

When authorities finally placed Csatáry under house arrest, Zuroff was careful to address any pity that the Sun‘s images might have engendered. He diligently repeated what he had said many times before: "The passage of time should not afford protection for Holocaust perpetrators."

FEW WOULD DISAGREE that Zuroff has pulled the storied enterprise of Nazi hunting into the 21st century. Unlike the hunters of postwar fiction, Zuroff’s days are not spent combing the bucolic hills of Argentina, chasing mustachioed Nazis. Rather, Zuroff publishes his "Most Wanted" lists and speaks passionately at news conferences. Sturdily built and typically clad in a suit, rimless glasses, and a kippah, Zuroff is a salaried employee and a grandfather of nine.

As other hunters have retired or died, Zuroff has emerged as the last man standing. More often than not, when an alleged Nazi is unearthed in some far-flung Polish backwater or humdrum American suburb, journalists interview "Effie," as his friends call him, and quote him authoritatively in the next day’s news. The typical depiction of Zuroff is one of a swashbuckling bounty hunter: a guarantor of justice and a historical avenger.

But increasingly, Zuroff and his work are up against more than bad guys or the realities of nature, which dictate that efforts to find Nazi criminals will soon end. He is also contending with critics — including retired hunters, several prominent Holocaust historians, and even some Jewish community leaders — who view him as an irritant or a zealot. They believe that he should bow out of the fight, admit that enough is enough, and stop dragging wizened old men into courtrooms, no matter how ghastly their past deeds. "Almost everyone in the Nazi-hunting business, including the vast majority of historians, politicians, and I dare say most Holocaust survivors, [has] realized there [are] better ways to commemorate the Holocaust," László Karsai, who has served as director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum’s Holocaust Center, told the BBC after Csatáry died.

Zuroff, however, dismisses calls to move on. Similarly, senior historians at both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum told Foreign Policy there is "no statute of limitations" on genocide. Speaking of Nazi trials, David Silberklang of Yad Vashem adds, "It’s finally after all these years letting what should have been done decades ago to be done."

In 2013, Zuroff began a new public relations offensive to solicit money from German companies to use as rewards for information about Nazis at large. Also, in July, he launched an "unprecedented poster campaign" in Germany, littering Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne with posters reading "SPÄT, ABER NICHT ZU SPÄT" ("Late, but not too late") and pointing people to a toll-free tip hotline. The campaign comes on the heels of German judicial authorities announcing a belated push to bring former death camp guards to trial.

Zuroff has given his latest effort the oxymoronic title "Operation Last Chance II." It’s a nod to an earlier project — and also in keeping with media reports, which for years have carried headlines proclaiming this or that legal proceeding "the last Nazi trial."

"This is really the last chance," Zuroff protests, "for real this time."

IN AUGUST 1944, the old story goes, a group of high-level Nazis held a secret conference at the Maison Rouge hotel in Strasbourg, France, to prepare for the Third Reich’s imminent demise (Hitler never knew). On the agenda: a plan to transfer vast sums of money abroad to support their soon-to-be fallen fraternity. Eventually, the Nazis formalized their efforts as the Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen (Organization of Former SS Members, or ODESSA).

Many historians have since contested ODESSA’s existence. Yet as scholar Gerald Steinacher has written, the story of ODESSA "garnered serious attention" from the likes of the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps, which undertook "dogged research" on the fabled group. It also fueled the rise of Nazi hunters: a small clique committed to the steadfast pursuit of Third Reich war criminals.

Among the most famous Nazi hunters are Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, a married couple. The Klarsfelds are best known for helping to locate former SS Capt. Klaus Barbie in Bolivia. Yet their no-holds-barred approach to hunting, which often involved skirting the law, was controversial. In 1974, Serge threatened former Gestapo chief Kurt Lischka with a gun in Cologne, and both Klarsfelds were charged with attempted kidnapping. (Lischka was eventually tried and sentenced for war crimes.)

Another early Nazi hunter, Tuviah Friedman, was a Holocaust survivor who roamed Poland as part of a vigilante militia; when he found Nazis, he was known to whip them mercilessly. A later, improbable addition to the club was Ian Sayer, a Brit who started his career in the parcel-delivery business. In 1974, after reading an entry in The Guinness Book of World Records about a 1945 robbery in which a cache of gold was stolen from the Reichsbank, Sayer began chasing Nazi assets. Along the way, he found a real live Nazi: former SS Gen. Wilhelm Mohnke.

But no Nazi hunter’s profile approaches that of Simon Wiesenthal. Born on the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908, Wiesenthal, a Jew, spent the Holocaust in a string of camps. After the war, he started a Nazi-hunting operation, famously working out of a small apartment in Vienna. Among other criminals, he found Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank and her family.

In his lifetime, Wiesenthal became a media darling, a celebrity worthy of an HBO biopic and a letter from actress Elizabeth Taylor professing, "I love you." He also helped shape the popular figure of the Nazi hunter: a punisher presiding over a global dragnet of shadowy informants. This archetype pervaded popular culture, including novels like The Boys from Brazil, whose Viennese protagonist was a Wiesenthal rip-off.

For his part, Zuroff says he "never had any dreams of being a Nazi hunter." Instead, he fantasized about being "the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA."

Zuroff, whose grandparents left Ukraine and Lithuania in the early 20th century, grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a middle-class neighborhood of immigrants. His father, Abraham, was a rabbi and school principal. His maternal grandfather was a founder of Yeshiva University.

Zuroff recalls that his "first encounter" with the Holocaust took place in 1961, shortly before his bar mitzvah, when his mother sat him down to watch Adolf Eichmann’s trial on television. Later, as an undergraduate at Yeshiva (where he played basketball), Zuroff decided to study history. He moved to Jerusalem for graduate school in 1970 and began work on a dissertation titled The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust. Three years later, he took a job as an assistant editor of an academic journal published by Yad Vashem.

Then, shortly before his 30th birthday, Zuroff received a call from Rabbi Marvin Hier, who had opened a Holocaust education center in Los Angeles and named it after Simon Wiesenthal. (Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, did not work directly with the organization, but it did provide him with a stipend.) Hier was looking for a historian to serve as the center’s director and help build its museum and archives. His doctorate still incomplete, Zuroff accepted Hier’s offer and moved his family to California.

Despite its name, the SWC initially made no claims to Nazi-hunting expertise. In the 1970s, however, a high-profile case revealed that Nazis had immigrated to the United States after the war. The ensuing outrage spurred Congress to pass the 1978 Holtzman Amendment, which authorized the denaturalization and deportation of former Nazis. Soon after, the Department of Justice (DOJ) established an Office of Special Investigations (OSI) with the explicit task of searching for Nazis in America. OSI approached Zuroff because of his ties to Holocaust survivors, who, investigators had found, were suspicious of government questioning and sometimes too traumatized to talk about the past. The DOJ hoped someone like Zuroff could help find and prepare witnesses. "I was dying to," Zuroff would later write in a memoir. In 1980, Zuroff took a full-time job as an OSI researcher.

He returned to the SWC in 1986. This time, however, with the OSI experience under his belt, his mandate was to gather data on Nazi criminals from historical records, news reports, and informants, and then induce governments to prosecute the culprits he tracked down. In other words, he became a Nazi hunter.

In 1987, Zuroff began what would become his most recognized project: public lists of alleged Nazis yet to be arrested or charged. Zuroff reasoned that lists would attract media eyes, and journalists took his bait. An early list included Austrian Josef Schwammberger, a former camp commandant. The day after the list’s release, Schwammberger’s photograph appeared in newspapers across Argentina, where he was rumored to be living. He was soon found, arrested, and convicted in Germany. A few years later, Zuroff tracked down Dinko Šakic, former commandant of a concentration camp in Croatia. Šakic was found guilty of crimes against humanity in 1999.

As time went on, Zuroff grew more aggressive, publishing bullish press releases and staging indignant news conferences to convince authorities to bring former Nazis to justice. In 2002, he began publishing his best-known list, the world’s "Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals." Its ranking scheme takes into account "the scope of the crimes, the degree of responsibility, and the details of one’s specific role," Zuroff says. But he also factors in probability of legal action: The more likely a Nazi is to be snagged by authorities — because his whereabouts are known, for instance — the more likely he is to be listed. "[Csatáry] wasn’t hiding under a false name," Zuroff has stressed. With Csatáry’s name at the top of a list, Zuroff hoped authorities might be cajoled into arresting him. When that happened, his ranking would be on the record and ready for headlines.

Also in 2002, Zuroff launched Operation Last Chance, a campaign to solicit and pay for information on Nazi war criminals. At the time, Micha Brumlik, then the director of Germany’s Fritz Bauer Institute, which researches the Holocaust, expressed dismay at the offer of financial rewards. "This is not really an act of enlightenment," Brumlik says today. "To give money for this … that means to appeal to the lowest instincts of people."

Zuroff worried too — but only that he would get tips from former perpetrators and thus be in the position "of having to pay someone who had himself murdered Jews." So far, he says, that hasn’t happened.

By Zuroff’s estimates, he has helped locate more than 3,000 Nazis. But his career "can at times be extremely tedious and boring," Zuroff claims in Occupation: Nazi-Hunter, one of two memoirs filled with descriptions of archival searches and microfilm scans.

Far from boring, Zuroff speaks with the fervor of a politician, in bullet points and numbered lists. He is difficult to interrupt, but interrupts himself often: "Listen!" "You have to understand!" His accent is a brash hybrid of Brooklyn and Jerusalem.

Colleagues describe him as tireless, if not always easy to get along with. "He’s a no-nonsense guy," grants Rabbi Hier. "At times he can fly off the handle.… But, you know, he’s dealing with Nazi war criminals."

ALTHOUGH NAZI HUNTERS emerged from a shared postwar imperative, they have not always seen eye to eye. "One thing about Nazi hunting," says Guy Walters, a British historian, journalist, and author of the book Hunting Evil, "is that it’s a small and bitchy world." This was never more evident than in 1960, when Adolf Eichmann was found in Argentina and everyone took credit. Wiesenthal is widely believed to have provided the key tip-off. Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, claimed glory. Friedman said he did most of the sleuthing and that, upon Eichmann’s capture, the former SS official said, "Where’s Friedman?"

Today, Zuroff is a new focal point of internecine tension. In a faxed response to questions, Serge Klarsfeld accepted that Zuroff’s methods "are efficient," but he also made a pointed jibe: "We campaigned in Germany, South American states ruled by dictators.… We did not act by press conferences."

There is also a recurring dispute among hunters about scope: whether the Nazis still living, who were likely young and in junior positions during the war, are even worth prosecuting. Shortly before his death, Wiesenthal said, "I have found the mass murderers I was looking for, and I have outlived all of them." In a more recent interview with Agence France-Presse, Klarsfeld scoffed that "30 years ago, [Csatáry] would have been 3,500th on [Zuroff’s] list."

Zuroff shrugs this off as an ego game: "You will almost never hear a Nazi hunter … who will say a good word about another Nazi hunter." It’s clear, however, that ideological chasms have opened in recent years among hunters and others with an interest or stake in the search for Nazis, revealing discordant notions about long-delayed justice. While Zuroff pushes ahead with his agenda, critics charge that the trials he wants have lost cathartic value, didactic utility, and symbolic resonance. They also worry about public fatigue, legal anachronism, and the need to use investigative resources elsewhere.

Some critics have emerged in Jewish communities where Zuroff campaigns for prosecutions. In part, the Nazi hunter says, this is because they worry his work will spur anti-Semitism. Zuroff recalls a news conference in Latvia that he held with Jewish community leader Arkady Suharenko when launching Operation Last Chance: "In the middle, under pressure from Latvian journalists, Suharenko changed his position and criticized [Operation Last Chance]." In 2005, the Central Council of Jews in Germany also refused to partner with Zuroff. (The Central Council declined to answer questions for this article, citing a busy schedule, but its leaders have reportedly been supportive of Zuroff’s new poster campaign. Suharenko said in an email that he doesn’t currently have a relationship with Zuroff but would "unequivocally support prosecution and punishment" of Nazi criminals.)

Some historians, meanwhile, fret that Nazi trials are increasingly problematic. Walters is concerned they are being used to write a particular story of the past in which virtually any person who worked for Hitler’s regime, regardless of individual context or agency, is guilty of war crimes. "Part of the problem of hunting war criminals is that it becomes a very bipolar moral universe," he says. Meanwhile, Michael Marrus, professor emeritus of the University of Toronto and the author of several books on the Holocaust, worries that today’s trials are billed as ways to "close the chapter" on history — a lofty objective that courtrooms are not meant to achieve. "I’m not a great champion of these proceedings," he says.

Then there are other legal details. Zuroff often pits himself against politicians and prosecutors with insufficient will to get their jobs done, but he skims over issues like statutes of limitations and the integrity of 70-year-old witness statements. He doesn’t entertain concerns about the age of trial defendants, such as those of historian László Karsai, who, in response to questions for this article, said "watching old, crippled persons who are unable to stand up, do not remember, or do not want to remember is useless, counterproductive." Instead, Zuroff points out that Nazis often targeted the elderly. In 2011, when the 97-year-old Sándor Képíró, a police officer during the war, arrived at his trial looking frail, Zuroff called out from the crowd: "This is a show, Sándor!" (Képíró had previously sued Zuroff for libel and lost.)

The wrangling over Zuroff’s work also hits close to home. Publicly, the SWC’s chieftains are wholly behind the organization’s Nazi hunter. But the SWC is at a crossroads, torn between addressing past wrongs and dealing with present-day demands. It’s also contending with new criticisms of Simon Wiesenthal that assert he grossly exaggerated his influence and deliberately misrepresented ODESSA in order "to keep alive public anxiety," says historian Gerald Steinacher.

Around the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2001, according to Zuroff, Nazi hunting became less of a priority for the SWC. "There was a fear," says Zuroff, cautiously, "that focusing primarily on the Nazi war crimes issue will have … [the SWC] pegged in the minds of the public as an organization with no future." One SWC director who asked to remain anonymous agrees that the center "does not pay enough interest to what [Zuroff] is doing."

These days, Zuroff has taken to securing outside funds when the SWC doesn’t foot the bill; Operation Last Chance, carried out under SWC auspices, was backed by $100,000 from Jewish investor Aryeh Rubin. "If not for that money," Zuroff says, "it never would have happened."

"The Simon Wiesenthal Center has an obligation to the 6 million Jews that were murdered," Rabbi Hier says. "Having made that clear … almost all the work the SWC does today is devoted to the subject of the worldwide resurgence of anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel.… If you think the SWC today devotes all its energies to the hunt for Nazis, that would be a big mistake."

CRITICS OF NAZI TRIALS often cite the case of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian, as proof of why proceedings must end. In the 1980s, survivors identified Demjanjuk as a notorious death camp guard known as "Ivan the Terrible." In 1988, he was convicted of crimes against humanity in Israel — but the verdict was overturned when judges determined, based on new evidence, that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible after all.

Demjanjuk continued to live under suspicion, and in 2011, he was tried again in Germany. This time, however, he was not accused of a specific act. Instead, Demjanjuk — who was disease-riddled and appeared lying on a stretcher during his trial — was found guilty of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder by sheer virtue of the fact that he had served as a camp guard. The key piece of evidence was a single identity card.

The conviction was the first of its kind in Germany. Since Demjanjuk died during the appeals process, his case is not strictly a legal precedent, but prosecutors say it nonetheless reinterprets the country’s criminal law. "Simply being where the killing took place would be enough for a conviction," Kurt Schrimm of Germany’s Central Office told the BBC in April 2013, as authorities announced they were investigating another, similar case.

This new legal approach is widely debated. D.W. de Mildt, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and editor of Nazi Crimes on Trial, an encyclopedia of trials in Germany, questions the assumption that "being part of a complex makes one automatically guilty." He also wonders about the German government’s interest in targeting death camp guards: "Why didn’t they do anything before? Why now, all of a sudden?"

But Zuroff, who was not involved in the Demjanjuk trial, sees no dilemma: "It’s definitely the right thing to do."

After launching Operation Last Chance II, Zuroff started receiving 30 to 40 calls a day on his hotline. He says these calls have yielded 111 suspects in 19 countries and that he has turned over four tips to prosecutors for investigation. But he has spoken to many callers who don’t have tips. About 70, he says, have asked for copies of the campaign poster, which displays an image of snow-covered train tracks leading into Auschwitz-Birkenau. A few dozen more have just wanted to yell at him. Some, Zuroff says, are anti-Semites. But the rest just deplore his campaign.

The backlash doesn’t seem to faze him. Instead, Zuroff is focused on sorting out the wheat from the chaff among the tips he has received. He is also looking ahead to the day, imminent now, when his hunt will be forced to end. "It will be a sad moment," he reflects. "I have devoted most of my life to a mission, and that mission is over. And the success was very partial. In other words, so many people got away with it."

But Zuroff tries not to reflect too much on his inevitable curtain call. "Every day," he laughs, "I pray for the good health of the Nazis."

Katie Engelhart is the London-based correspondent for the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's.

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