The last Nazi hunter

The last Nazi hunter

14th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Efraim Zuroff has devoted his life to finding Nazi war criminals. His work is demanding but he vows never to give up

"I pray for the health of Nazis everyday," says Efraim Zuroff, and then adds, "But only for those I can bring to justice."

The American-born Israeli spends his days looking for, or building cases against aging war criminals who think they got away with it.

Zuroff, 59, heads the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and as part of his job, collects tip-offs, verifies leads and then meets with politicians, prosecutors and witnesses in an effort to bring suspects to trial.

Since the death of Simon Wiesenthal two years ago at the age of 96, he is perhaps the last Nazi hunter.

Wiesenthal, the Austrian Holocaust survivor who founded the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna, ferreted out more than 1,000 Nazi war criminals.

Among them was Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo Jewish Department chief who oversaw the implementation the Nazi genocide against the Jews and who was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960.

Zuroff, who came to Israel in 1970 from New York, has been doing the job for 28 years. However, more than six decades after World War II it is not getting any easier.

He says, if anyone had asked him in 1945 whether he could imagine someone hunting Nazis 63 years after the end of the war, he would have said: "It's nuts, it's absolutely crazy."

Unhelpful governments

In some countries - Zuroff singles out Austria which he says has failed to convict a single Nazi war criminal during the past three decades - he encounters what he calls a lack of political will to prosecute elderly suspects, especially those who were not top Nazis.

"It's obviously much harder to convince governments to take measures against people who were middle-rank, or even lower," explains Zuroff.

The father of four, who this year is for the first time one of 197 candidates nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has had some great successes nonetheless.

He says he has exposed suspects in 22 countries, some of them as part of the "Operation Last Chance," a project which offers financial rewards for information about Nazis and their collaborators, many of whom were previously unknown.


But he has also had to swallow some bitter disappointments.

A recent one involved Aribert Heim, the number two on the Wiesenthal Centre's list of "most wanted Nazi war criminals."

"Dr. Death", as prisoners called the the SS-physician, allegedly killed hundreds of inmates at Austria's Mauthausen concentration camp by directly injecting the poison phenol into their hearts.

The Wiesenthal Centre and the German government donated more than 130,000 euros each toward a cash reward for information about the Austrian. Austria contributed 50,000 euros.

The result was a flood of information and late last year, Zuroff received what he believed was a golden tip-off. A man who fitted Heim's age and relatively unusual height lived in a remote town in Chile, and was seen with his daughter.

"We went there with great expectations. It turns out it wasn't him. It just wasn't him. It's a terrible feeling."

The number 1 on the list, Alois Brunner, a key accomplice of Eichmann who deported more than 128,000 Jews to Nazi death camps from across Europe, is believed to have been living in Damascus for years.

He was convicted in absentia in France, and six countries have issued arrest warrants against him. However, Syria has refused to extradite him for what Zuroff says are ideological reasons.

The Nazi hunter has given up hope to nab his prime target, because of his advanced age - Brunner would be 96 - and his whereabouts.

Zuroff knows well that his chances of also catching other Nazi war criminals are running out. "The youngest are over 80. It's going to be over soon. It's not forever."

But he says he will stay on until the end.

Despite having a frustrating and often fruitless job, Zuroff doesn't lack motivation.

Zuroff explains by telling the story of Dinko Sakic, the commander of Jasenovac, the largest death camp in Croatia, dubbed the "Auschwitz of the Balkans."

More than 90,000 people - most of them ethnic Serbs, but also Jews, Gypsies and Croat dissidents - died in the camp of the pro-Nazi Croation Usta¨e regime.

Zuroff's centre had found Sakic in Argentina. During the subsequent trial in Croatia, witnesses recounted how Sakic once rounded up all the camp inmates on the parade ground.

He randomly began selecting victims for hanging, in retaliation for an escape attempt by two young Jews. A doctor from Montenegro by the name of Milo Boskowic tried to save himself by saying his code of honour did not allow him to be hung. Sakic took out his revolver and shot him in the head.

In 1999, the Jasenovac commander was sentenced to 20 years prison, the maximum punishment.

"I was walking out of the courtroom," Zuroff recalls, "when a tall, very well-dressed gentleman stopped me and says: 'Listen, I'm the brother of Milo Boskowic and I just want to say two words to you, thank you'." DPA


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