I N T E R V I E W
Efraim Zuroff is interviewed in Belgrade by Aleksandar Roknić. Translation from Danas, 28 December 2013, by Vesna Milosevic.
Efraim Zuroff: World War II History is Being Rewritten
Even if I were Superman I wouldn’t be able to bring to justice all remaining Nazis. Of course not. It is impossible. Nobody can do it. But if you ask me what is better — a bit of justice or injustice, I would always say — a bit of justice. You know, to me it is clear that even when the last Nazi dies, a battle is not over, because it begins over and over again.
And it is a battle with history which is more important than people may think and understand. Facing the history with sincerity is the best way to build a better future, says Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, while answering a question on whether he thinks that he would be able to bring to justice all remaining Nazis.
Zuroff was in Belgrade in order to promote the “Operation Last Chance” project launched by his Center. That operation started a long time ago, in 2002, in three European countries simultaneously — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which were followed in 2003 by Poland, Romania, and Austria and by Hungary and Croatia in 2004 and in 2005 by Germany.
The purpose and the idea behind Operation Last Chance is to reveal the Nazis we never knew about. We offered a reward. At first, this sum was $10,000, and later it grew to $25,000. What we needed was “live information.” If you understand the way we operate, you can figure out why the results were not excellent. Let’s say, if the police were to detect a crime, their job would be to find out who the perpetrators are. We do not work that way, because 98% of the people who perpetrated crimes during World War II are dead now. It means that our work is based on information gathered from persons suspecting other people who are alive and healthy enough to be prosecuted of being Nazi war criminals.
How many people were reported so far?
From 2002 until 2011 we received the names of 635 suspects. They were reported not only in the countries where we launched the campaign. There were calls from Latin America.What is important is that based on those calls we managed to hand over 103 cases to local prosecution agencies. There were eight very serious cases. It is only a little more than 1%, but it is reality. But some of those cases are very important, the Csatary case, the Képíró case or the Ašner case.
What happened in Germany in 2011 was a breakthrough. For the last more than 50 years, every case of a Nazi war criminal had to present evidence to the court that the suspect had committed a specific crime. Before that, in the previous fifty years, German prosecutors didn’t present the cases before courts, unless they were able to prove that the German or Austrian war criminals had committed the said crimes. Today, after the Demjanjuk case, the situation is different. Anyone who served in death camps or mobile killing units can be prosecuted, if there is evidence of service in those camps or special units. I do not need a witness. I do not need the testimony of a Jew who saw him shooting.
The Last Chance campaign motto is “It is late, but not too late.” Is that true?
For many years, we tried to raise money for the Last Chance campaign, but our efforts were not so successful. Less than a year ago, however, we made contact with a German PR company which suggested that we try to raise money from German companies. We made a special presentation and received help from four companies, one of which, Wall AG, offered us free advertising space for 2-3 weeks on 2,000 to make billboards in Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne. The response was unbelievable. Hundreds of calls, mails, faxes…285 people called in with information about people they suspected to be war criminals. These 285 phone calls led us to 111 suspects. Some people even didn’t know the names of persons they were talking about. A typical phone call of this sort would go something like this: “When I was in Peru in 1960, I went to the jungle and I saw an old German who was living there alone. People thought he was hiding because he was involved in war crimes,” but the informant did not even know his name, so obviously he wasn’t a suspect. Until last month, we researched 65 out of the 111 names. Four of the cases were turned over to the prosecution. Unfortunately, a second phase of the campaign, which we launched in seven other cities did not yield very much valuable information so far.
Do you know where one of the most wanted Nazis, Dr. Aribert Heim (AKA Dr. Death) is hiding and whether he is alive?!
At this moment we presume that Dr. Heim died in Egypt in 1992. In 2009, his son finally said that he was with him when he died. The problem is, that there is no body to prove his death. When Heim fled, he first went to North Africa, where he stayed for a while and then he moved to Egypt. In 1979 Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, and Heim converted to Islam, fearing that Egypt might turn him over to Israel. Completely unbelievably, Heim died after the Olympic Games, because he suffered from cancer. This is what his son told us. But the problem is as follows: Heim was a doctor and wanted after his death to donate his body to science, but Islam forbids such a thing. He was adopted by a Muslim family which upon hearing of his plans, kidnapped his body, stealing it from the morgue. Since they stole his corpse, they were not able to provide a legal funeral for him, so they simply dumped the body in a mass grave! In Cairo today, there are many mass graves of people who couldn’t afford a decent and regular funeral. So it was up to us. Go find the body! This is absolutely impossible! That is the end of the story. Especially if you don’t want to know that someone is really dead.
What about Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s assistant, who was charged for deportation of more than 100,000 Jews from Austria, Greece, France and Slovakia to the death camps?
Four years ago, we received information from a person who had worked with the German secret service that Brunner had died in Syria. We were told he died and was buried in Damascus. Of course we are unable to prove that information, but keep in mind that next June Brunner would be 102 years old. Heim would be 100.years old.
Do you think it is possible?
No, of course not, but there is a very small chance.
Could you provide a psychological profile of those mass murderers?
No, absolutely not, and I’ll tell you why. Those mass murderers came from all walks of life, from different religions, with different levels of education… What they have in common are the crimes they all have committed.
Didn’t they have conscience?
No. I think that it is fascinating but scary that 99% of them were normal, ordinary people. In other words, they were not psychopaths, they hadn’t committed murder before the Holocaust, before the beginning of World War II.
For that reason I keep asking myself a question: How it was possible for those normal people to commit such heinous crimes?
My answer is, and I am a historian, that geo-political circumstances of the Third Reich, across the occupied territories, created a situation where it was more normal to kill Jews than to save them. I have worked a lot in Eastern Europe, where the local collaborators actively participated in the murders, while in France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Greece, and Italy the Nazi collaborators did not participate directly in these mass murders, although they did put the Jews on trains, sending them to be killed elsewhere. The only explanation is that in those countries, they had had centuries of Christian antisemitism, plus antisemitism based on nationalism and economic factors and together with the rise of fascism. In Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, expectations that the Germans would restore their independence, which they (Germans) never intended to do, was an additional factor.
How do you explain the fact that today in Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and so forth, you have growing nationalism which rehabilitates the forces defeated in World War II?
Take a look at Croatia. You see the case of a football player Simunic. Whenever you have economic problems, people look for a scapegoat. In such cases, it is normal to choose minorities as scapegoats. None of those Eastern European countries has a long democratic tradition. They have had a fascist dictatorship during the thirties, and it is easy to draw a line from that time to the nationalist right wing movements of today. Unfortunately, the economic recession is not the only problem. The problem is the EU and globalization which caused a fear of the loss of national identity. People facing these challenges often go back to their roots, and the root cause of everything is nationalism. Not all of them have intelligence or sophistication. People are searching for simple solutions, and that is: You have the enemy, kill it!
Where does such behavior and attitude lead?
To big problems. It leads, for example to violence against Roma people in Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, their main target area today. We, the Jews, come second. The EU and Brussels are sound asleep. I can say that they did very little, to very little effect. The whole thing is a sort of a time bomb, threatening to explode.
Can such a situation lead to the vindication of war crimes, or into saying that killing is OK?!
This is actually what is happening right now! In Eastern Europe, World War II history is being changed and rewritten. They do not say that the Holocaust never happened, but they say they didn’t do it. In other words, people of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine, hide their part in the crimes. In Lithuania, 96.4% of the Jewish population was killed. You can’t grasp what happened there, without knowing that thousands of Lithuanians committed the killings. And now they are hiding and do not want to talk about it. They mention the Holocaust and say: Austrians and Germans came into the country and they killed the Jews. Is that exactly what happened?! They do not mention their own crimes or they mention them occasionally, but it is horrible that they make heroes out of people who were fighting against the Communists, but who had been killing Jews!
How to handle the situation where there is an intention to forget killers from the past, opening the door for the killers in the future?
I think we do pretty good work. In many schools in the world pupils are taught about the Holocaust. It is also a part of Wiesenthal’s heritage. He was very smart and understood that justice is not only about determining whether a criminal is guilty, it is also about education and about history. From the start, he understood that justice is not only punishment of Nazi criminals, it is about immunizing the society against neo-Nazism, fascism, and other similar phenomena.
How is the cooperation with Germany and Austria in finding Nazis?
There is a political will in Germany to bring Nazis to justice and they do that. Three months ago, the Germans announced the fact that 38 Auschwitz guards are still alive. They are men and women from 86 to 97 years of age, and it is believed that 31 of them live in Germany while the others are in Croatia, Austria. On the other hand there is no political will for this in Austria, at all. There has not been a successful trial of a Nazi war criminal in Austria for the last 30 years.
Because they either do not have enough compassion, empathy, or do not have enough courage to face the fact that they were collaborating with the Nazis.
Former Austrian Chancellor Guzenbauer has refused to deliver to you an Ustasha, Milivoj Asner. Today he is a Serbian government consultant. What is your comment on that?
Asner was very smart and never was put on trial because he found refuge in Austria. Unfortunately, I made a serious mistake in this case. It was quite foolish of me to reveal what we had on him, thinking that if a person is 91 years old, he will not try to run away. But he did, and he fled to Austria, to his son. And that’s the result. He escaped justice and I feel bad about it.
Is reconciliation possible in the Balkans, after all those crimes during World War II and after the wars in the nineties?
It is a very tough question. The Talmud says: These days, prophecy is given only to fools. I don’t like being called a fool, but I think that a lot depends on the economic situation. Even better, if there is more hope, it will be more possible to reconcile, and reconciliation is only possible if one is honest about what happened in the Balkans. You can’t build conciliation on lies and fake measures.
I will give you an example: when the Soviet Union fell apart, Jews in the world were thinking how to handle the situation about these new European countries. All these countries and their people were accomplices in killing of the Jews during World War II. During the time of the Soviet Union, they didn’t have a chance to face their past, since the Communists were making decisions about everything, what will be written in the text books, history. The Communists did their own manipulation of what happened during the Second World War. It was the great patriotic war, they never recognized the Jews as the Nazis’ principal victims, saying that Jews were killed by bourgeois-fascists, nationalists… A big bunch of lies.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Jewish organizations around the world had different ideas on how to handle the issue, and created three main approaches to these new countries. One was: if they throw an A-bomb on Lithuania, it won’t be enough. The second approach was not to judge them automatically, but to make decide based on how they act, waiting to see whether they will admit what their predecessors did, will they teach their children about the Holocaust, while working on reconciliation. The third approach was that we (the Jews) should not expect anything from them and that we have to help them if we want them to progress. In the beginning, when Lithuania became an independent country, her aim was to become a member of the EU and NATO, in order to become protected from Russia. Instinctively, they believed that the road to Brussels and NATO goes through Israel and assumed that in order to make peace with the Jews, they had to make peace with all the Jewish organizations. But it didn’t take them long to understand that not all of them have the same approaches, not all were demanding that they honestly confront their bloody Holocaust past in return for reconciliation. Here is what happened: The moment they entered the EU and NATO they began “editing” their history, providing a pack of lies now, bigger and more serious ones than ten years ago. Then, beforehand, they didn’t dare say it, because they were not yet members of the EU and NATO. And this really is a big problem. Conciliation based on lies and cover-ups will never work.
That would be a new crime.
Yes, you are absolutely right. That would be a different but completely new crime.
Efraim Zuroff was born in the USA on August 5th, 1948. At the age of 22 he moved to Israel where he obtained a PhD in History of the Holocaust and dedicated himself to finding the remaining Nazis and their accomplices. Thanks to his efforts, war criminal Dinko Sakic, the Commander of Jasenovac concentration camp was found and brought before the Croatian Court of Justice. Zuroff is the author of The Nazi Hunter and Operation Last Chance.