The first speaker our students had the privilege of hearing at the opening session of the Research Forum for the spring semester was Dr. Efraim Zuroff, who is currently the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. For the past 36 years Zuroff has been involved in the efforts to track down and help bring Nazi war criminals to justice, initially (1980-1986) as sole researcher in Israel for the Office of Special Investigations of the United States Justice Department, and for the past 26 years (1986-2016) as the chief Nazi-hunter of the Wiesenthal Center.
Zuroff began his talk by discussing the latest book he co-authored with Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite that was published last month. The book, Musiskiai; Kelione Su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), is currently number one on the Lithuanian bestseller list. It sold 2,000 copies in the first 48 hours and is in its 4th printing. Vanagaite reached out to Zuroff to co-author a book on Holocaust complicity on the part of Lithuanians after she discovered that her grandfather and her aunt’s husband collaborated with the Nazis to murder Jews. The first part of the book is historical research on the collaboration of Lithuanians with the Nazis across multiple segments of society. The second part of the book details Zuroff and Vanagaite’s joint visit to 35 sites of mass murder in Lithuania and Belarus where the Nazis and their local collaborators shot Jews during the Holocaust. The pair searched for and interviewed eyewitnesses who reported that local Lithuanians carried out the murders.
Zuroff likened the book to Jan Gross’ Neighbors because it has succeeded in opening up discussion on Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis in the mass murdered of over 90% of the country’s Jewish community. Lithuanian society, like that of other Eastern European countries, has suffered from a history of Holocaust distortion. Lithuanians have denied the widespread local collaboration in the mass murder of Jews and advocated a double genocide theory, which holds that there were two equal genocides – the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis ad the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Zuroff said he has worked in Lithuania for 25 years but everything he said went in one ear and out the other. It took a book co-authored by a respected Lithuanian who acknowledged her own family’s role in the Holocaust to get the message across.
After speaking to our students about these recent developments in Lithuania Zuroff turned to his work tracking down and getting countries to prosecute former Nazis. He spoke about the complexities of bringing these cases to trial and why it is so important to do so. Zuroff explained that after WWII the legal system couldn’t deal with prosecuting all former members of the regime and so the decision was made to go after the main leaders and officers only. There was also eagerness on the part of German society to move on and be done with the Nazi past. This allowed many Nazis to escape the justice system. While many Nazis used the so called rat lines to escape to South America some found refuge in western democracies like the US or Britain by either being knowingly admitted in order to help with Cold War scientific or espionage efforts or the vast majority by lying on their immigration and naturalization forms. As these former Nazis were identified the trouble was that they couldn’t be prosecuted in the US for crimes committed outside the country. Instead, they were prosecuted for lying on the immigration and or naturalization forms. The trouble with what Zuroff termed the Capone compromise is that the sentence was light and not commensurate with the crime.
Zuroff argued that we shouldn’t stop prosecuting former Nazis. He believes their continued trials are of the utmost importance for justice, education, and the prevention of Holocaust denial and distortion. Zuroff said the passage of time doesn’t diminish the crime, age shouldn’t protect someone from prosecution, we owe it to the victims to prosecute former Nazis, and continued prosecution sends an important message about justice. Zuroff stated that so many Nazis got away with their crimes that it is not obvious there will be a consequence for crimes against humanity, which is one reason why “never again” has not been fulfilled. Zuroff’s talk was passionate and interesting and our students enjoyed the opportunity to hear from the only Nazi hunter.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/